Ben Jonson Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201560-Jonson.jpg Ben Jonson (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Of humble Scottish origins, Jonson was fortunate in receiving a sponsorship to the Westminster School, one of England’s best. After apprenticing to a bricklayer, he joined the English army. Later, he entered what proved to be an equally dangerous profession by becoming an actor at the Rose Theatre. At that time, actors were continually under suspicion for personal immorality, slander, and political subversion.

Shifting from acting to writing, Jonson helped Thomas Nashe complete a play, The Isle of the Dogs, which the Privy Council decided was lewd in 1597. Its authors and lead actors were ordered arrested. Jonson spent over two months in prison before it was decided that no major offense had taken place. By...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Tradition has it that Benjamin Jonson was born in 1572; literary historians put his birth in 1573, probably on June 11. His father, an Anglican minister, died about a month before Jonson was born. His mother married a master bricklayer in 1574; the family lived in Westminster. While growing up, Jonson attended Westminster School and became a student of William Camden, who was perhaps the greatest classicist and antiquarian of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages. Jonson’s interest in classical literature, his care in constructing what he wrote, and his respect for learning all have their origins in the teachings of Camden. Techniques for writing that Jonson used throughout his life were first learned from Camden, including the...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Benjamin Jonson’s father, a minister, died a month before his son’s birth. Ben’s mother remarried, apparently fairly soon thereafter, the stepfather being a master bricklayer of Westminster. A friend enrolled Jonson at Westminster School, but (as he told William Drummond) he was taken from school at about the age of sixteen and put to a “Craft,” presumably bricklaying. Unable to endure this occupation, Jonson escaped briefly into the wars with the Netherlands. The next few years (roughly, his early twenties) are the most obscure of Jonson’s life. At some point during this time, he married and began having children, although practically nothing is known about his wife or family.

Jonson reappears in the late...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Benjamin Jonson, posthumous son of a minister, was born in or near London, England, on June 11, 1573. He received an excellent foundation in classical letters at Westminster School under headmaster William Camden, a famous scholar. Although unable to continue his education at a university, he was an avid reader and on his own became a serious student of classical language and literature. For a time, Jonson followed his stepfather’s bricklaying trade, but in 1591 he went to the Low Countries to fight in the army. According to his own account, he bravely killed a foe in view of both the English and enemy camps.

Jonson returned to London in 1592, and two years later married Anne Lewis. In the next year or two, he began...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

For forty years, Ben Jonson was the preeminent literary force in England. He was the leading comic dramatist of Jacobean England, the most highly esteemed creator of masques, a celebrated poet, a cultivator of new literary talent, and an arbiter of his day’s literary taste.

Centuries after Jonson’s death, his dramatic and poetic legacy remains significant. Such plays as The Alchemist and Volpone are still being produced. Moreover, Jonson’s more ambitious poems are, along with his lyrics, now viewed as the products of an inspired genius. Among English authors, there are few whose works have weathered the passage of time as successfully as have those of Jonson.

(The entire section is 110 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most colorful personalities and the leading man of letters of his age, Benjamin Jonson left a vigorous impression on his time. Jonson was born in or around London on June 11, 1573. His father, a minister, died a month before Ben was born, and his widowed mother married a bricklayer. By 1580 Jonson was studying with William Camden, one of the finest scholars of his day, at Westminster School. From Camden, Jonson drew his delight and his competence in classical languages and literatures, and learned much of his own country’s history and literature. The Westminster boys also did three plays a year in English and Latin, experiences that constituted Jonson’s apprenticeship for the stage.

After leaving...

(The entire section is 1089 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Poetry for Students)
Ben Jonson Published by Gale Cengage

Ben Jonson was born in London during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, sometime between May 1572 and January 1573. His father, a clergyman, died...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Ben Jonson Biography

(Drama for Students)

Jonson was born in about 1572. The date is uncertain, since Elizabethans were very casual about the recording of exact dates. He was a...

(The entire section is 521 words.)