Ben Jonson (1572- 1637), born Benjamin Jonson, was a remarkable English playwright, dramatist, poet, writer of court masques and literary critic of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While Jonson had Border descent, he was born in or near London, being the posthumous son of a clergyman. He received his education at Westminster School under William Camden. Initially, Jonson worked as a bricklayer in his stepfather’s employ, and later he served in the military in Flanders. Jonson joined a strolling company of players and took on the role of Hieronimo in “The Spanish Tragedy,” a play for which he also wrote additional scenes in 1601-2. In 1597, he began working for Philip Henslowe’s companies as both a player and playwright. However, he faced imprisonment due to his involvement in “The Isle of Dogs,” a now-lost and highly seditious satire. In 1598, Jonson was involved in a duel that resulted in the death of a fellow actor. He narrowly avoided execution by pleading benefit of clergy, instead receiving a branding on his thumb as a felon. During his imprisonment, Jonson converted to Roman Catholicism, but twelve years later, he returned to Anglicanism.
Jonson’s significant contributions to drama began with his play “Every Man in His Humour,” which was performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Company at the Curtain in 1598, featuring William Shakespeare in the cast. “Every Man out of His Humour” followed in 1599 at the Globe. “Cynthia’s Revels” (1600) and “Poetaster” (1600-1, which targeted Thomas Dekker and John Marston) were performed by the Children of the Queen’s Chapel. His first surviving tragedy, “Sejanus,” was presented at the Globe by Shakespeare’s company in 1603. In 1605, Jonson wrote his first court masque, “The Masque of Blackness,” fulfilling Queen Anne’s desire to appear as a negress on Twelfth Night. That same year, Jonson found himself imprisoned and at risk of having his nose and ears slit due to his involvement in “Eastward Ho!” He provided evidence to the Privy Council regarding the Gunpowder Plot. Following this period, Jonson wrote several of his major plays, including “Volpone” (1605-6), performed at the Globe, Oxford, and Cambridge universities; “Epicene, or The Silent Woman” (1609-10); “The Alchemist” (1610); and “Bartholomew Fair” (1614). In 1612-13, Jonson served as a tutor to Walter Raleigh’s son during their time in France, where the son supposedly wheeled Jonson around town in a wheelbarrow while drunk. In 1618-19, Jonson undertook a journey on foot to Scotland and stayed with William Drummond of Hawthornden, who recorded Jonson’s scandalous conversations about fellow authors and others.
Though Jonson was not officially appointed the first poet laureate, he assumed many of the responsibilities associated with the position in 1616 when James I granted him a pension. In the same year, Jonson published a folio edition of his Works, elevating drama to a new level of literary respectability. He received an honorary MA from Oxford University and became a rhetoric lecturer at Gresham College in London. In 1628, Jonson was elected chronologer of London. After “The Devil Is an Ass” (1616), he took a ten-year hiatus from the public stage. His subsequent plays, including “The Staple of News” (1626), “The New Inn” (1629), “The Magnetic Lady” (1631), and “A Tale of a Tub” (1633), relied relatively unsuccessfully on allegory and symbolism, leading John Dryden to refer to them as his “dotages.” From 1605 onward, Jonson consistently produced masques for the court, collaborating with Inigo Jones on scenery design. Jonson introduced the “anti-masque,” a disorderly prelude contrasting the main action, which emphasized political and social harmony. Examples of this can be seen in “The Masque of Queens” (1609), “Love Restored” (1612), “Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court” (1616), “Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue” (1618, which influenced John Milton’s “Comus”), and “Neptune’s Triumph for the Return of Albion” (1624). Jonson’s collaboration with Jones ended after “Chloridia” (1631) due to a famous quarrel centered on the priority of words over spectacle.
In addition to his dramatic works, Jonson composed non-dramatic verse, including his memorable epigrams, some of which tenderly mourned the loss of his daughter, Mary, and son, Benjamin. His “The Forest” was printed in the 1616 folio edition. “The Underwood” and a translation of Horace’s “Ars Poetica” were published in 1640. Among his notable prose works are “The English Grammar” and “Timber, or Discoveries,” printed in 1640.
During James I’s reign, Jonson held unmatched literary prestige and influence. He presided over a literary circle that gathered at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Apollo Room of the Devil and St Dunstan Tavern. The social rules of these gatherings, known as “leges convivales,” were inscribed over the mantelpiece. Jonson’s friends included Shakespeare, whom he revered without idolatry, John Donne, Francis Bacon, George Chapman, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Sir Robert Cotton, and John Selden. Among the younger writers, who called themselves the “sons” or “tribe of Ben,” were Richard Brome, Thomas Carew, William Cartwright, Sir Kenelm Digby, Viscount Falkland, Robert Herrick, Thomas Randolph, and John Suckling. The Earl of Pembroke, the Sidney family, Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle were among Jonson’s primary patrons. In 1628, Jonson suffered a stroke that potentially left him bedridden until his death in August 1637. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey under a tombstone inscribed with the words “O rare Ben Jonson.” A collection of elegies titled “Jonsonus Virbius” (1638) celebrated his life. His reputation declined significantly around 1700, while Shakespeare’s stature continued to rise. However, in the 20th century, Jonson’s reputation experienced a revival, partly due to the comprehensive edition of his works by C. H. Herford and P. and E. Simpson (11 volumes, 1925-52), including volumes i and ii, which contain a standard biography.
Ben Jonson, with his exceptional plays, poetry, and critical writings, emerged as a prominent figure in English literature. His works showcased his sharp wit, satirical genius, and keen understanding of human nature. Jonson’s influence on English drama and his neoclassical approach to writing set new standards for playwrights, inspiring generations of writers to come. His legacy as a significant contributor to the literary canon during the Renaissance period remains enduring, cementing his place as a literary luminary.