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Ben Jonson 1572(?)–1637

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English dramatist, poet, masque writer, and critic

The following entry contains critical essays published from 1959 through 1989. For further information on Jonson, see LC, Vol. 6.

Ben Jonson is among the best-known writers and theorists of English Renaissance literature, second in reputation only to Shakespeare. A prolific dramatist and a man of letters highly learned in the classics, he profoundly influenced the Augustan age through his emphasis on the precepts of Horace, Aristotle, and other classical Greek and Latin thinkers. While he is now remembered primarily for his satirical comedies, he also distinguished himself as a poet, preeminent writer of masques, erudite defender of his work, and the originator of English literary criticism. Jonson's professional reputation is often obscured by that of the man himself: bold, independent and aggressive. He fashioned for himself an image as the sole arbiter of taste, standing for erudition and the supremacy of classical models against what he perceived as the general populace's ignorant preference for the sensational. While his direct influence can be seen in each genre he undertook, his ultimate legacy is considered to be his literary craftsmanship, his strong sense of artistic form and control, and his role in bringing, as Alexander Pope noted, "critical learning into vogue."

Biographical Information

Jonson was born in London shortly after the death of his father, a minister who claimed descent from the Scottish gentry. Despite a poor upbringing, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned antiquary William Camden. He apparently left his schooling unwillingly to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer. He then served as a volunteer in the Low Countries in the Dutch war against Spain, and the story is told that he defeated a challenger in single combat between the opposing armies, stripping his vanquished opponent of his arms in the classical fashion. Returning to England by 1592, Jonson married Anne Lewis in 1594. Although the union was unhappy, it produced several children, all of whom Jonson outlived. In the years following his marriage, he became an actor and also wrote numerous "get-penny" entertainments—financially motivated and quickly composed plays. He also provided respected emendations and additions to Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy

(1592). By 1597 he was writing for Philip Henslowe's theatrical company. That year, 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 1598 the earliest of his extant works, Every Man in His Humour, was produced by the Lord Chamberlain's Men with William Shakespeare—who became close friends with Jonson—in the cast. That same year, Jonson fell into further trouble after killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel, narrowly escaping the gallows by claiming benefit of clergy (meaning he was shown leniency for proving that he was literate and educated). While incarcerated at Newgate prison, Jonson converted to Catholicism.

Shortly thereafter, writing for the Children of the Queen's Chapel, Jonson became embroiled in a public feud with playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker. In Cynthia's Revells and Poetaster (both 1601), Jonson portrayed himself as the impartial, well-informed judge of art and society and wrote unflattering portraits of the two dramatists. Marston and Dekker counterattacked with a satiric portrayal of Jonson in the play Satiromastix; or, The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). Interestingly, scholars speculate that the dispute, which became known as the "War of the Theatres," was mutually contrived in order to further the authors' careers. In any event, Jonson later reconciled with Marston, and...

(The entire section contains 71392 words.)

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