- Born: c. June 11, 1572, Westminster, England
- Died: c. August 16, 1637 (aged 65), London, England
- Notable Works: Every Man in His Humour, Volpone, or The Fox, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair
(Benjamin) Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 — c. 16 August 1637) was an English playwright and poet, best known for his satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox (c. 1606), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614), as well as his lyrical poetry.
Jonson was writing at the same time as William Shakespeare and certainly knew him, but whether they were friends or not is unclear. Jonson is generally considered to be the second most important English dramatist, after Shakespeare.
Throughout his life, Jonson often had trouble with the English authorities and was sent to prison on a few different occasions. He lived in London and made a living through his writing, even being named the “first poet laureate”. Towards the end of his life, Jonson suffered several strokes which left him bedridden, and he died in 1637.
Benjamin Jonson – Early Life and Education
Benjamin Jonson was born around June 11, 1572, in Westminster, England, shortly after the death of his father. His father had been a minister who claimed descent from the Scottish gentry, and had been imprisoned and suffered forfeiture under Queen Mary. Two years after his birth, Jonson’s mother married a bricklayer, and Jonson went to school in St Martin’s Lane.
Despite the fact that the family was poor, Jonson received a good education after a family friend paid for his studies at Westminster school. Following this, Jonson was going to attend the University of Cambridge, but unwillingly had to leave to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer.
Following his work as a bricklayer, Jonson travelled to the Netherlands and volunteered to soldier with the English regiments of Francis Vere (1560–1609) in Flanders. A story has been told that Jonson fought and killed an enemy soldier in single combat, and took for trophies the weapons of the vanquished soldier.
Acting and Writing Career
On returning home to England, Jonson turned his hand to playwriting and acting. As an actor, Jonson was the protagonist “Hieronimo” (Geronimo) in the play The Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1586), by Thomas Kyd (1558–94), the first revenge tragedy in English literature.
In 1597, he was working playwright employed by Philip Henslowe, the leading producer for the English public theatre, where the production of Every Man in His Humour (1598) established Jonson’s reputation as a dramatist. He had a fixed position in the Admiral’s Men, performing under Henslowe’s management at The Rose.
Despite being employed as an actor, it is reported that Jonson was not a successful actor, and his talents were much better used as a writer. None of his early tragedies survive, however. An undated comedy, The Case is Altered, may be his earliest surviving play.
Also in 1597, Henslowe employed Jonson to finish Thomas Nashe’s satire The Isle of Dogs (now lost), but the play was suppressed for alleged seditious content and Jonson was jailed for a short time in Marshalsea Prison and charged with “Leude and mutynous behaviour”. Two of the actors, Gabriel Spenser and Robert Shaw, were also imprisoned.
A year later, Jonson was again briefly imprisoned, this time in Newgate Prison, for killing Gabriel Spenser in a duel on 22 September 1598 in Hogsden Field. He narrowly escaped the gallows by claiming benefit of clergy (meaning he was shown leniency for proving that he was literate and educated). While he was incarcerated, Jonson converted to Catholicism.
After being released from prison, Every Man in His Humour (1598) was produced, with William Shakespeare being among the first actors to be cast. Jonson followed this in 1599 with Every Man out of His Humour, a pedantic attempt to imitate Aristophanes.
Shortly after this, Jonson became embroiled in a public feud with playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker when he was wiring for the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre in 1600. This became known as the “War of the Theatres”. Cynthia’s Revels, which satirises both Marston and Dekker, was followed by Poetaster (1601). Dekker responded with Satiromastix. Despite this, Jonson later reconciled with with Marston, and collaborated with him and George Chapman in writing Eastward Ho! (1605). However, the play’s anti-Scottish sentiment briefly landed both Jonson and Chapman in jail, and Jonson had further trouble with the English authorities because of his work.
Masques and Royal Patronage
Following his release from prison and the English reign of James VI and I in 1603, Jonson entered a period of good fortune and productivity. He welcomed the King and James I valued his learning highly, leading to him being asked to write his popular, elegant masques. He also enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Sir Philip Sidney) and Lady Mary Wroth.
Two of his most well-known masques were written during this time — The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605). The Masque of Blackness was praised by Algernon Charles Swinburne as the consummate example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing and spectacle. Jonson’s masques were performed at Apethorpe Palace when the King was in residence. Jonson often collaborated with designer Inigo Jones on his masques.
During this period, Jonson also produced his most successful comedies, beginning in 1606 with Volpone and following with The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fayre (1614) and The Devil Is an Ass (1616). The Alchemist and Volpone were immediately successful. Jonson’s remaining tragedies, Sejanus His Fall (1603) and Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), were not well received due to their rigid imitation of classical tragic forms and their pedantic tone. In 1611, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theatres for a decade, possibly because of his success with masques.
In 1616, Jonson published his Workes, becoming the first English writer to dignify his dramas by terming them “works”. For this, he was ridiculed. However, in the same year, he received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England’s first Poet Laureate.
On 8 July 1618, Jonson set out from Bishopsgate in London and walked to Edinburgh, arriving in Scotland’s capital on 17 September. Here, he initially stayed with John Stuart, a cousin of King James, in Leith, and was made an honorary burgess of Edinburgh at a dinner laid on by the city on 26 September. Jonson stayed in Scotland until late January 1619.
Return To England and Decline
On his return to England, Jonson was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University. He continued to write masques, until his productivity began to decline in the 1620s.
He resumed writing regular plays in the 1620s, but these are not considered among his best, and a fire destroyed his library in 1623. When James I died in 1625, Jonson lost much of his influence at the court and, with the accession of King Charles I, he felt neglected by the new court. However, he was named City Chronologer in 1628 and Charles increased Jonson’s annual pension to £100 and included a tierce of wine and beer.
Later that year, he suffered the first of several strokes which left him bedridden, but he continued to write. Jonson produced four plays during the reign of Charles I, but none of these plays were successful.
Jonson died on or around August 6, 1637 and his funeral was held the next day. Upon his death, two unfinished plays were discovered among his mass of papers and manuscripts. One was The Sad Shepherd, and, although only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: a move into pastoral drama.
Jonson was buried in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey. A monument to Jonson was erected in about 1723 by the Earl of Oxford and is in the eastern aisle of Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
Marriage and Children
In 1594, Jonson married Anne Lewis. They married at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge. While the marriage was unhappy, the couple had several children. St. Martin’s Church registers indicate that Mary Jonson, their eldest daughter, died in November 1593, at six months of age. Then a decade later, in 1603, Benjamin Jonson, their eldest son, died of Bubonic plague when he was seven years old. 32 years later, a second son, also named Benjamin Jonson, died in 1635. In that period, Ann Lewis and Ben Jonson lived separate lives for five years.
Works, Influence and Style
Jonson’s work for theatres was in comedy, aside from two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences. All of Jonson’s plays vary slightly, with his earlier plays presenting looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies.
In many of his early plays, plot is secondary to comedic events, and many of them are hypocritical and ill-tempered. Plays that were written in the middle of his career are more city comedies, usually with a London setting, themes of trickery and money, and a distinct moral ambiguity.
Despite this, his plays all follow a similar style, and he wanted to write pieces that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory. However, he did often abstain from distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots and other staples of Elizabethan comedy, focusing instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy and setting his plays in contemporary settings. His plays also had darker motives, such as greed and jealousy, and his characters were more recognisable.
Jonson has been called a pioneer in cavalier poetry and he is remembered for his revival of classical forms and themes, his subtle melodies, and his disciplined use of wit. His work is clearly influenced by his classical learning, with some of his better-known poems being close translations of Greek or Roman models and showing careful attention to form and style.
In his poetry, Jonson accepted both rhyme and stress to mimic classical qualities, while his writing was satirical and largely in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences.
Jonson’s relationship with Shakespeare has been speculated upon for many years. The two men knew each other; Shakespeare’s company produced a number of Jonson’s plays, at least two of which (Every Man in His Humour and Sejanus His Fall) Shakespeare certainly acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had and whether they were friends.
It is thought that Jonson’s poem “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us” exemplifies the contrast which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and sceptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote.
After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II, Jonson’s work, along with Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory. It was not until after 1710 that Shakespeare’s plays (ordinarily in heavily revised forms) were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the 18th century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists.
Jonson is and was, even in his day, influential to the writers that came after him, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies, as well as for literary figures in more modern times. Unfortunately, in the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, and thus his statical comedies were not as popular.
In the 20th century, Jonson’s body of work has been subject to a more varied set of analyses, broadly consistent with the interests and programmes of modern literary criticism. Studying Elizabethan themes, it can be seen how Jonson’s work was shaped by the expectations of his time.
Jonson’s works, particularly his masques, offer significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, and he is seen as an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass media.
Jonson has also been called the “first poet laureate” and, while his plays have been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early 20th century, been linked to that of John Donne. Jonson has often been called the “father” of cavalier poets and many of the cavalier poets described themselves as his “sons” or his “tribe”. He may also be regarded as among the most important figures in the prehistory of English neoclassicism.
List of Works
- A Tale of a Tub, comedy (c. 1596 revised performed 1633; printed 1640)
- The Isle of Dogs, comedy (1597, with Thomas Nashe; lost)
- The Case is Altered, comedy (c. 1597–98; printed 1609), possibly with Henry Porter and Anthony Munday
- Every Man in His Humour, comedy (performed 1598; printed 1601)
- Every Man out of His Humour, comedy (performed 1599; printed 1600)
- Cynthia’s Revels (performed 1600; printed 1601)
- The Poetaster, comedy (performed 1601; printed 1602)
- Sejanus His Fall, tragedy (performed 1603; printed 1605)
- Eastward Ho, comedy (performed and printed 1605), a collaboration with John Marston and George Chapman
- Volpone, comedy (c. 1605–06; printed 1607)
- Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, comedy (performed 1609; printed 1616)
- The Alchemist, comedy (performed 1610; printed 1612)
- Catiline His Conspiracy, tragedy (performed and printed 1611)
- Bartholomew Fair, comedy (performed 31 October 1614; printed 1631)
- The Devil is an Ass, comedy (performed 1616; printed 1631)
- The Staple of News, comedy (completed by Feb. 1626; printed 1631)
- The New Inn, or The Light Heart, comedy (licensed 19 January 1629; printed 1631)
- The Magnetic Lady, or Humours Reconciled, comedy (licensed 12 October 1632; printed 1641)
- The Sad Shepherd, pastoral (c. 1637, printed 1641), unfinished
- Mortimer His Fall, history (printed 1641), a fragment
- The Coronation Triumph, or The King’s Entertainment (performed 15 March 1604; printed 1604); with Thomas Dekker
- A Private Entertainment of the King and Queen on May-Day (The Penates) (1 May 1604; printed 1616)
- The Entertainment of the Queen and Prince Henry at Althorp (The Satyr) (25 June 1603; printed 1604)
- The Masque of Blackness (6 January 1605; printed 1608)
- Hymenaei (5 January 1606; printed 1606)
- The Entertainment of the Kings of Great Britain and Denmark (The Hours) (24 July 1606; printed 1616)
- The Masque of Beauty (10 January 1608; printed 1608)
- The Masque of Queens (2 February 1609; printed 1609)
- The Hue and Cry After Cupid, or The Masque at Lord Haddington’s Marriage (9 February 1608; printed c. 1608)
- The Entertainment at Britain’s Burse (11 April 1609; lost, rediscovered 1997)
- The Speeches at Prince Henry’s Barriers, or The Lady of the Lake (6 January 1610; printed 1616)
- Oberon, the Faery Prince (1 January 1611; printed 1616)
- Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly (3 February 1611; printed 1616)
- Love Restored (6 January 1612; printed 1616)
- A Challenge at Tilt, at a Marriage (27 December 1613/1 January 1614; printed 1616)
- The Irish Masque at Court (29 December 1613; printed 1616)
- Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists (6 January 1615; printed 1616)
- The Golden Age Restored (1 January 1616; printed 1616)
- Christmas, His Masque (Christmas 1616; printed 1641)
- The Vision of Delight (6 January 1617; printed 1641)
- Lovers Made Men, or The Masque of Lethe, or The Masque at Lord Hay’s (22 February 1617; printed 1617)
- Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (6 January 1618; printed 1641) The masque was a failure, so Jonson revised it by placing the anti-masque first, turning it into:
- For the Honour of Wales (17 February 1618; printed 1641)
- News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (7 January 1620: printed 1641)
- The Entertainment at Blackfriars, or The Newcastle Entertainment (May 1620?; MS)
- Pan’s Anniversary, or The Shepherd’s Holy-Day (19 June 1620; printed 1641)
- The Gypsies Metamorphosed (3 and 5 August 1621; printed 1640)
- The Masque of Augurs (6 January 1622; printed 1622)
- Time Vindicated to Himself and to His Honours (19 January 1623; printed 1623)
- Neptune’s Triumph for the Return of Albion (26 January 1624; printed 1624)
- The Masque of Owls at Kenilworth (19 August 1624; printed 1641)
- The Fortunate Isles and Their Union (9 January 1625; printed 1625)
- Love’s Triumph Through Callipolis (9 January 1631; printed 1631)
- Chloridia: Rites to Chloris and Her Nymphs (22 February 1631; printed 1631)
- The King’s Entertainment at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire (21 May 1633; printed 1641)
- Love’s Welcome at Bolsover ( 30 July 1634; printed 1641)
- Epigrams (1612)
- The Forest (1616), including To Penshurst
- On My First Sonne (1616), elegy
- A Discourse of Love (1618)
- Barclay’s Argenis, translated by Jonson (1623)
- The Execration against Vulcan (1640)
- Horace’s Art of Poetry, translated by Jonson (1640), with a commendatory verse by Edward Herbert
- Underwood (1640)
- English Grammar (1640)
- Timber, or Discoveries made upon men and matter, as they have flowed out of his daily readings, or had their reflux to his peculiar notion of the times, a commonplace book
- To Celia (Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes), poem
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