Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3967
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 of ridicule through much of the city. Because of the stage warfare, Jonson refrained from writing comic plays for almost four years, instead doing hack work for Henslowe in a continuing struggle against poverty. He also turned in earnest to tragedy. According to his “Apologetical Dialogue,” “since the comic muse/ Hath proved so ominous to me, I will try/ If Tragedy have a more kind aspect./ Her favours in my next I will pursue.”
Sejanus His Fall (commonly known as Sejanus) was the result, and in 1603 Shakespeare’s company, now called the King’s Majesty’s Servants, presented it. Though Burbage and Shakespeare appeared in this first of Jonson’s Roman tragedies, which George Chapman helped him to write, Sejanus failed on the stage, “the people’s beastly rage” unequivocally “adjudging it to die,” probably because of the dearth of action and the great number of similar characters. In the published version (received more favorably) Jonson says in a preface that tragic drama should focus upon “truth of Argument, dignity of Persons, gravity and height of Elocution, fullnesse and frequencie of Sentences.” Whereas his comic theory may have served him well on the stage, his tragic theory mitigated against theatrical appeal. Written to edify, the play was too erudite for most of the Globe audience. (The second Roman tragedy, the 1611 Catiline His Conspiracy, also failed on the stage; among the educated, however, it was highly regarded through much of the seventeenth century.) Jonson rebounded quickly from the public rejection of Sejanus, creating the well-received Part of King James, His Royall and Magnificent Entertainment, a civic pageant honoring the new king in March of 1604. Two months later, he prepared a May Day entertainment for James and Queen Anne. Thus began Jonson’s career as a court writer, and over the years he wrote for the royal family dozens of masques (elaborately staged entertainments composed of songs, dances, and rhetorical speeches). The first of these, The Masque of Blackness, was performed at Whitehall on January 6, 1605, with the queen and her ladies in blackface as Moors amid elaborate Inigo Jones scenery. Soon after, though, Jonson again was in prison, this time for his part in writing the play Eastward Ho! (1605), largely by Marston and Chapman, in which speakers ridicule the king’s Scottish accent and his practice of selling knighthoods. Jonson’s friends at court came to his aid, however, and he was exonerated. The Gunpowder Plot led by Guy Fawkes later in the year was fortuitous for Jonson, since it gave him (a Catholic) an opportunity to demonstrate his allegiance by engaging in an undercover investigation for the government. He enjoyed life and work in the court, but the public stage continued to attract him, and in February of 1606 his comedy Volpone premiered at the Globe, followed by performances at Oxford and Cambridge. It was a great triumph. The least realistic of his plays, it marks an advance for him as a comic playwright, since instead of sporting with folly, he castigates vice, and rather than mocking eccentricity, he exposes deceit and greed. Only in the subplot does he retain unaltered the elements of his humours comedy.
Epicoene: Or, The Silent Woman (1609), Jonson’s next comedy, reached the stage about four years later, done by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Whitefriars. The play is set in London and focuses upon a young man’s efforts to get his eccentric uncle to name him heir. Subplots introduce licentious women, gulled men, and foolish courtiers: the standard mix of irrational characters for satiric comedy, and all labeled by appropriate humour names. John Dryden later praised the construction of the play.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that Jonson’s next play, The Alchemist, had one of the best plots in literature. A popular success from its initial performance, it was first acted by the King’s Men at the Globe in the spring of 1610, was done at Oxford several months later, and was revived at court in 1613. Set in Jacobean London during a visitation of the plague, The Alchemist is similar to Volpone in that its characters are people whose desire to get rich leads to their being deceived and exploited. While the play presents alchemy and the occult as sophisticated confidence games, Jonson uses them mainly as his means of satirizing people whose greed makes them easy prey for the unscrupulous.
After the success of The Alchemist came the failure in 1611 of Catiline His Conspiracy (commonly known as Catiline), and Jonson again became disaffected from the stage. As a change of pace he signed on as tutor to Sir Walter Ralegh’s dissolute son (in years past, Jonson probably had tutored young men in the classics on several occasions) and took him to the Continent, a journey (spent mainly in France) that lasted about fifteen months. Upon their return, Jonson resumed the writing of masques and turned again to the theater. The Lady Elizabeth’s Men introduced Bartholomew Fair at the new Hope Theatre on October 31, 1614, and performed it at court the next day. It was a success, and according to tradition the familiar appellation “O rare Ben Jonson” was first uttered by someone at the Hope when the opening performance ended. Most of the action of this prose play takes place at the annual summer fair, and Jonson uses the opportunity to develop a realistic panorama of Jacobean life. There is a satiric note, primarily aimed at religious hypocrisy, but the play is more determinedly lighthearted than the earlier comedies.
By any measure, 1616 was a landmark year for Jonson. First, King James gave his “well-beloved servant” a lifetime pension “in consideration of the good and acceptable service done by him,” and Jonson thereby became England’s first poet laureate. (He was lucky that the king bestowed the honor in February, for six months later Jonson’s satiric The Devil Is an Ass was done by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars. The mockery of influence peddling and other courtly abuses led the king to censure Jonson.) Second, Shakespeare died in April, which event—more so than the pension—made Jonson his country’s leading man of letters. Third, his collected works, which Jonson had given to the printer in 1613, finally came out. The folio volume included masques, satires, epigrams, epistles, and nine plays, all meticulously edited. The inclusion of the last genre (normally regarded at that time as ephemeral) in such a volume was an innovation, and it may have been the precedent that led to the publication in 1623 of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works (for which Jonson wrote the prefatory statement to the reader).
The king’s visit in 1617 to his native Scotland (the first since he had ascended the throne fourteen years earlier), may have encouraged Jonson to make his own journey in 1618 on foot to the land of his forebears. In Edinburgh the council gave him a banquet and made him an honorary burgess. Jonson also spent several weeks at the castle of William Drummond of Hawthornden, the Scottish poet, scholar, and bibliophile, whose record of their conversations is a major source of information about Jonson’s life and thought. Soon after he returned to England in 1619, Jonson traveled to Oxford, visiting the poet Richard Corbett and receiving an honorary degree. He clearly had become a celebrity, whether in Edinburgh, Oxford, or London, where he presided over a group of younger poets at the Devil Tavern. Among this “sealed tribe of Ben” were William Cartwright, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Randolph—who have come to be known as the Cavalier poets. In 1621, there was talk in London that the king had offered a knighthood to Jonson; he apparently refused, but he continued to write masques for the court and frequently turned out occasional verses as poet laureate. In November of 1623, Jonson suffered a major calamity, the burning of his library, possibly the most valuable in England at the time. Two years later, with the death of James and the accession of Charles I, Jonson’s relations with the court became strained.
When the theaters reopened in November of 1625 (after having been closed for months to mourn the old king and to slow the spread of the plague), Jonson’s The Staple of News (1626) was presented, a combination of topical satire and allegory that John Dryden later included among those plays of Jonson’s “dotage.” An unsuccessful work, it was one of his last. Still to come were two more failures, The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart (1629) and The Magnetic Lady: Or, Humours Reconciled (1632), both written after Jonson had suffered a stroke in 1628. These fiascos encouraged lesser men of letters to step up their attacks on the old man, whose illness made it hard for him to respond with his biting invective. During this period, too, he was replaced as writer of the court’s masques, and he even became estranged for a time from his protégé (and former servant) Richard Brome, whose first play was staged in 1629. Two bits of good news were that King Charles increased his poet laureate’s annual stipend, and the next year engaged Jonson to write the Christmas masque, his first for the Caroline court; but a break with Inigo Jones brought an early end to this activity, and he thus lost his last major source of income.
Weak though he was, Jonson’s will remained formidable, and during the last years of his life his fortunes improved. Whereas The Magnetic Lady was a failure, other projects fared somewhat better. In 1633, he resurrected an early play, A Tale of a Tub, and rewrote it to include an attack on Inigo Jones; it was presented at the Cockpit (without the anti-Jones parts, which the Lord Chamberlain had stricken), and it was popular enough to be done later at court with the satiric barbs reinstated, where it was “not likte.” In addition, both in 1633 and 1634, the Duke of Newcastle had Jonson write masques for visits of the king, and Charles was sufficiently pleased to order that Jonson’s London pension (withheld since 1631) be reinstated.
Ben Jonson died on August 6, 1637, in his mid-sixties. According to a contemporary account, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey on August 9, 1637, “he was accompanied to the grave with all or the greatest part of the nobility and gentry then in town.” A suitable tomb was proposed, but was not built; instead, over his burial place on the north side of the nave, a small slab of pavement has carved in it “O rare Ben Jonson.” Simple though this monument is, interment in the Abbey was an honor that in at least one singular way set him above William Shakespeare.
For forty years Jonson had been the primary literary force in England: the leading comic playwright of Jacobean England; the preeminent creator of masques; a highly regarded poet; a cultivator of new talent; and an arbiter of literary taste. Nevertheless, during the important early years—indeed, when his talent was at its peak—Jonson labored in the shadow of his more eminent contemporary. From the perspective of history, Shakespeare is the greater writer; the range of his work for the theater and the lasting successes he achieved in so many different dramatic and poetic forms are testimony to this fact. Shakespeare, however, was not the man of letters, the important critical force, that Jonson was for so long. Through quarrels, rivalries, and withdrawals, Jonson remained the person to be reckoned with, the man of letters to whom all others ultimately deferred, personality disputes notwithstanding.
Centuries after his death, Jonson’s dramatic and poetic legacy remains considerable. The Alchemist and Volpone are frequently produced, and Bartholomew Fair is attracting renewed attention; also, the more ambitious poems have taken their place alongside the lyrics as products of an inspired imagination. In the pantheon of English authors, there are few whose works have withstood the passage of centuries as successfully as have those of Jonson.
Adams, Robert M., ed. Ben Jonson’s Plays and Masques. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979. Has modernized texts of eight plays and masques and also excerpts from prose works, all with ample annotations to clarify obscure passages. Also has critical essays that provide a balanced view of critical attitudes toward Jonson’s dramatic works.
Bamborough, J. B. Ben Jonson. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1959. A forty-three-page booklet (in the Writers and Their Works series) that provides a concise, informative overview of Jonson’s life and work. Though the focus is upon the major comedies, there are lucid judgments of the tragedies, poems, and masques.
Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. An authoritative study of the full range of Jonson’s works, providing detailed analyses of his entire output. Departs from earlier critics’ view that after Bartholomew Fair, Jonson’s powers faded. Believes that the later plays “are works of substance and delight,” though The Alchemist is his greatest achievement.
Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953. A singularly readable biography. While the focus of the narrative is on Jonson’s life, there are useful summaries and analyses of key plays. Helpful, too, for Chute’s description of the social, intellectual, and political milieu of London during Jonson’s lifetime.
Jonson, Ben. Ben Jonson. Edited by C. H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-1952. The definitive edition, providing scholarly texts of the full range of Jonson’s dramatic and nondramatic works. The lengthy introduction, both biographical and critical, has served as an important source for later scholars.
Maclean, Hugh, ed. Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1974. A varied selection of Jonson’s poetry as well as poems by such heirs and followers as Carew, Corbett, Abraham Cowley, Herrick, Lovelace, James Shirley, and John Suckling. There also is representative criticism, not only of the twentieth century, but also from earlier periods, including Jonson’s own. The poetry is annotated to clarify allusions and archaic language.
Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. New York: Methuen and Co., 1986. A comprehensive and admiring treatment of Jonson’s life. Provides a wealth of details about Jonson and his environment, but no critical study of the works. Excellent for Jonson’s personal and professional relationships with his fellow playwrights.