Ben Jonson

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Ben Jonson’s literary career began in the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, encompassed that of her Scottish cousin James I, and extended well into the time of Charles I. Certain contradictory aspects of his character have long been recognized. Here was a man who assaulted and killed an actor named Gabriel Spencer but whose poetic theory recommended rationality, moderation, and restraint; who admitted to such excesses as drunkenness, adultery, and raging quarrels, and was jailed on several occasions for presumably seditious passages in his plays, but who also earned a reputation as a scholarly, judicious, modest man who relished the quiet companionship of a few good friends.

In undertaking the challenge of reconciling the diverse and paradoxical elements in Jonson’s nature, David Riggs has blended the traditional methods of the social historian and the psychological approaches of the modern biographer. He understands the hazards of the quest to understand a psyche at several centuries’ remove, but he has interpreted the known facts in the light of pervasive and recurrent themes in Jonson’s writings, particularly in the plays. For several reasons these facts are somewhat more plentiful in Jonson’s case than in that of his somewhat older contemporary, William Shakespeare. Because Jonson was frequently in trouble with the law, because he took business initiatives unusual for a writer in his time, and because he served at court for a considerable portion of his mature years, Jonson’s life is better recorded than Shakespeare’s. Riggs has marshaled these facts more skillfully than any previous biographer of this complicated and fascinating man.

Riggs has also drawn on a large and varied body of scholarship on the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, the social life of the time, and its politics and literature. The nearly thirty pages of notes often cite multiple sources of information given in the text. More important, Riggs has synthesized this previous scholarly work and made a subtle and imaginative interpretation of Jonson’s character that is for the most part highly convincing.

The tensions and conflicts of Jonson’s character derived from early experiences. Jonson’s father, apparently a minister, died a month before the future poet was born, most likely on June 11, 1572. Jonson’s widowed mother married a bricklayer who seems to have provided reasonably well for his wife and stepson, but later the poet had to endure ridicule for his humble origins. It was not Robert Brett the bricklayer but a friend whose anonymity has never been pierced who supplied the funds to send young Ben to Westminster School, where he could study under a distinguished scholar, William Camden. As a day student Jonson left his working-class neighborhood and walked past the gates of the royal palace at Whitehall and past Westminster Abbey to his fashionable school and again home. Thus from childhood Jonson saw two worlds in juxtaposition: one of physical toil and limited prospects, another of prestige and power. Eventually he would gain access to the court as writer of masques—elaborate entertainments—for King James and would earn a monument in the abbey he trudged by daily, but first he pursued his stepfather’s trade and then turned actor, hardly a social step forward in the early 1590’s.

By 1597 he was writing plays, and the following year he gained his first clear success with Every Man in His Humour, which embodied a theory of comedy quite different from that of Shakespeare, who had yet to compose As You Like It (c. 1599-1600) and Twelfth Night (c. 1600-1602). Every Man in His Humour applies the classical theory of the humors—the four fluids reputed to govern bodily physique and temperament—to social behavior. According to Riggs, Jonson’s rational, dispassionate analyses of character types constituted for him personally an “adaptive mechanism” that allowed him to come to terms with his own “humors.” In this play and for more than twenty years thereafter Jonson repeats themes—adulterous triangles, aggressive quarrels, public humiliations, and various forms of incarceration—that mirror his own impulses and experiences, many of which he later acknowledged in conversations with William Drummond, who preserved them for posterity. Though seemingly aloof, Jonson’s dramatic castigation of human folly represents the artistic fruit of his struggles, often unsuccessful, to master his own lust and hostility. Jonson avoided punishment for his most serious offense, the killing of Spencer, by pleading “benefit of clergy,” a defense harkening back to a time when an educated man (usually one in holy orders) could opt to have his case tried in an ecclesiastical court. While awaiting trial, Jonson converted to Roman Catholicism, which availed him nothing, the practice of Catholicism itself being considered a crime in 1598. Jonson later prudently reconverted to Anglicanism, but his Catholicism seems to have been sincere enough. In the final year of Elizabeth’s reign, Jonson abandoned his wife and family. A dossier on Jonson up to about the age of thirty-three is hardly an edifying document.

By late 1605, however, the Jonsons had reconciled, at least temporarily, and his lawlessness had subsided. Volpone: 0,; The Fox (1606) marks both his literary and personal maturity. Instead of apportioning vices to “humorous” characters from an assumed position of moral superiority, Jonson created in the title character a rapacious “fox” who in some...

(The entire section is 2272 words.)