Article abstract: The comic plays Jonson wrote in the 1600’s remain landmark works of the English Renaissance, and as mentor to younger writers he influenced the course of poetry in the seventeenth century.
Between his birth in 1573 and his death in 1637, Ben Jonson was at different times a soldier, an actor, a playwright, a poet, an essayist, and a translator. His fortunes were equally varied: from branded felon to poet laureate, from lionized man of letters to impoverished pensioner. Though he was influential as a mentor to young writers (the “tribe of Ben”), Jonson is remembered primarily as a dramatist, not for his tragedies and dozens of masques but for such comedies as Volpone: Or, The Fox (1606), Epicoene: Or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614).
Benjamin Jonson was born on June 11, 1573, in or around London. His Protestant father (a descendant of Lowland Scots) had lost his property under Catholic Mary I, was imprisoned for a time, and then became a minister. The elder Johnson ( sic) died a month before his son was born. (The playwright always styled himself Ben—and gave this shortened name to three sons, all of whom died young—and also changed the spelling of his surname to make it distinctive.) The widowed Mrs. Johnson remarried, to a Westminster bricklayer who may have been named Robert Brett. Young Jonson first attended a private school in St. Martin’s Church, his stepfather’s parish, but he soon came to the attention of William Camden of the Westminster School, and by 1580 he had become a student there. Much of the substantial scholarship that is characteristic of Jonson’s works has its origin in the careful tutelage of the eminent Camden, who was to remain Jonson’s close friend and mentor until the elder man died in 1623. Years later Jonson (in “Epigram 14”) wrote: “Camden, most reverend head, to whom I owe/ All that I am in arts, all that I know. . . .” In addition to providing its boys a thorough grounding in the classics, the school also had stressed dramatics since the time when Nicholas Udall, author of the comic play Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1552), had been its headmaster. The boys did three plays a year in English and Latin, and these Westminster experiences constituted Jonson’s apprenticeship for the stage.
By 1590, when he had left the school, he may have spent some time at St. John’s College, Cambridge, but there is no firm evidence for this. It is certain, though, that on July 19, 1619 (by which time he was regarded as highly as was William Shakespeare), Oxford University conferred upon him the master of arts degree, Jonson telling his friend William Drummond of Hawthornden, “he was Master of Arts in both the universities, but by their favour, not his studie.”
After Westminster School, perhaps with an interlude at Cambridge, Jonson worked for a while as a bricklayer with his stepfather, but then he joined the English army on the Continent. During his brief military career he challenged an enemy soldier to a one-on-one fight and killed him, but decided against a military career and returned to London and his stepfather’s trade, eventually completing a seven-year apprenticeship and becoming a freeman of Brett’s company of bricklayers. Also during this period, Jonson married, on November 14, 1594. Of Anne Lewis Jonson practically nothing is known, except for her husband’s description of her (in 1618-1619) as “a shrew yet honest.” They had at least four children but lived apart from 1602 to 1607, and perhaps at other times, and by 1612 Mrs. Jonson may have died.
What led Jonson to turn to the theater for a career is not known, but he began as an actor, perhaps as early as 1594, and played the leading role—of the mad Hieronimo—in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1585-1589), probably for touring companies as a journeyman player but also with the Earl of Pembroke’s Men at the Swan Theatre. Jonson’s physical appearance was such that he could not reasonably aspire to a wide range of major roles, for his tanned, moon-shaped face was badly pockmarked. Further, though he was very thin, almost skeletal, as a young man, later in life he was, by his own testimony, “fat and old, laden with belly.”
Even though the stage was a relative newcomer on the English cultural scene, it already had become a major force. Not only Shakespeare and Kyd, but also such men as Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, George Peele, and Thomas Nashe had turned out popular plays, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie (1595), which greatly influenced Jonson, provided a philosophical basis for the verse that was common in the comic as well as the tragic drama. From its earliest incarnation in Elizabethan England, the theater was caught up in political and religious controversies, as Jonson experienced early in 1597 with the production of The Isle of Dogs. Begun by Thomas Nashe, the satirical play, which no longer is extant, was completed by Jonson and probably others. The queen’s Privy Council said that it contained “very seditious and slanderous matter,” denounced it as “lewd,” and issued a warrant for the arrest of Jonson “not only an actor but a maker of part of the said play.” He spent more than two months in Marshalsea Prison for his alleged offense. In the aftermath of this affair, the queen decided to license only two companies of players: Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men and Philip Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men. Jonson joined the latter; an early reference in Henslowe’s accounts describes Jonson as a “player,” but he soon was solely a writer. Only two of his 1598 plays survive— The Case Is Altered and Every Man in His Humour—but he must have had a hand in more, for Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598) calls Jonson a leading dramatist and “among our best for tragedy.” Of the two extant Jonson plays of 1598, The Case Is Altered is a comic exercise that draws on the Roman dramatist Plautus, not unlike what the young Shakespeare did in fashioning The Comedy of Errors (1592-1594). A more distinguished Jonson product is Every Man in His Humour, first produced on September 20, 1598, not by Henslowe but by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with Shakespeare in the cast. The temporary break with Henslowe may have been caused by a conflict between Jonson and Gabriel Spencer, an actor in the company, which led to a duel on September 22, 1598, in which Jonson killed his adversary. When he went from Newgate Prison to the Old Bailey in October, Jonson admitted his guilt but pleaded benefit of clergy, a dispensation granted to the literate since the Middle Ages. In the event, his property was confiscated, and he was branded on the left thumb (identifying him as a murderer who had been spared by pleading benefit of clergy).
Every Man in His Humour has many of the plot conventions of ancient Roman comedy (for example, mistaken identity and jealous husbands) but it also is an innovative play, a realistic comedy of contemporary London life, written in accordance with Jonson’s own humors theory, which he explains in the induction to the 1599 Every Man out of His Humour:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions all to run one way,
This may be said to be a humour.
In the prologue to the first comedy, he expresses his intent to dramatize “Deeds and language such as men do use,/ And persons such as Comedy would choose,/ When she would show an image of the times,/ And sport with human follies, not with crimes.” The result is a play whose characters have dominant traits that make them comic caricatures, and their names usually highlight their personalities.
At the start of 1599, flush with the popular and critical success of Every Man in His Humour and newly converted to Catholicism, Jonson again found himself in Marshalsea Prison, this time as a debtor. He was released after paying the complainant and was reconciled with Henslowe, for whom he collaborated with Thomas Dekker and others on tragedies, while at the same time working on Every Man out of His Humour, which was performed for the queen at Christmastime, 1599. It also was one of the first plays staged at the new Globe Theatre by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, with Richard Burbage taking the lead, as he had in the earlier companion piece. The play was so popular that a printed version went through three editions in 1600.
Already a well-known and highly regarded man of the theater, Jonson now moved to broaden his reputation, by writing dedicatory verses and commendatory epistles; but as happened before, personal difficulties intruded upon career successes. For reasons that are unknown, Jonson and Dekker, his erstwhile collaborator, became adversaries, and a third playwright, John Marston, joined the fray against Jonson. The result was the “War of the Theaters,” in the course of which the men attacked one another through such plays as Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment (1600) and What You Will (1601), Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels: Or, The Fountain of Self-Love (1600-1601) and Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment (1601), and Dekker’s Satiromastix: Or, The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1601), the last of which seemed to be the final word in the conflict and made Jonson the object...
(The entire section is 3967 words.)