Ben Jonson

From New World Encyclopedia

Ben Jonson by Abraham Blyenberch, c. 1617.

Benjamin Jonson (c. June 11, 1572 – August 6, 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet, and actor. Ben Jonson lived during the age of William Shakespeare and proved to be his greatest literary rival. As opposed to Shakespeare and to a number of other poets and dramatists of the day, Jonson was devotedly classical in his approach to literature, preferring to treat his characters as abstract types derived from Greek and Roman models rather than as complex, living personalities. For this, Jonson has fallen out of favor with most contemporary students of literature. On the other hand, Jonson was ahead of his time in choosing to write plays about ordinary people rather than re-invent legends from bygone eras. In this regard, some regard him as a pioneer of the bourgeois sensibility that would prevail in literature of the next three centuries.

Jonson was undoubtedly one of the most well-read men in the England of his day. He was famous for criticizing even Shakespeare of having learned "Little Latin and less Greek," and his knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics, as evidenced by copious allusions and quotations scattered throughout all his works, was extensive. He is one of the very last poets (with the possible exception of John Milton) to take the Greek and Latin classics as serious models of high art. Although generations of writers would continue to study the classics after Jonson's death, the vast majority would view the classical writers as noble dinosaurs, who achieved what they could in their ancient times, but who were nonetheless inapplicable to the artistic concerns of the rapidly modernizing world.

As the most popular and well-respected poets of his day, Jonson is considered informally to be the first Poet Laureate of England. In that position of influence, Jonson promoted a number of poets who were less admired but nonetheless have proven to be some of the brightest minds in all of English literature. Jonson lived in a world of literary giants: John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, John Lyly, and of course William Shakespeare. Although he may have disagreed with some of these luminaries on points of style, he was nonetheless conversant with their works.


Early life

Although he was born in Westminster, London, Jonson claimed his family was of Scottish Border country descent. His father died a month before Ben's birth, and his mother remarried two years later, to a master bricklayer. Jonson attended school in Saint Martin's Lane, and was later sent to Westminster School, where one of his teachers was William Camden. On leaving, Jonson is said to have gone on to the University of Cambridge. Jonson himself said that he did not go to university, but was put to a trade immediately. He soon had enough of the trade, probably bricklaying, and spent some time in the Low Countries as a soldier.

Ben Jonson married some time before 1592. The registers of Saint Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Mary died in November 1593, when she was only six months old. His eldest son, Benjamin, died of the plague ten years later (Jonson's epigram On My First Sonne was written shortly after), and a second Benjamin died in 1635. Jonson's poem, eulogizing the deaths of his eponymous sons, is one of his most moving lyrics:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy
Seven yeeres thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I loose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the state he should envie?
To have so soone scap'd worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lye
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.
For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.


By the summer of 1597, Jonson had a fixed engagement in the Lord Admiral's acting company, then performing under Philip Henslowe's management at The Rose theater.

By this time, Jonson had begun to write original plays for the Lord Admiral's Men; and in 1598, he was mentioned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia as one of "the best for tragedy." None of his early tragedies survive, however. An undated comedy, The Case is Altered, may be his earliest surviving play.

In 1597, he was imprisoned for his collaboration with Thomas Nashe in writing the play Isle of Dogs. Copies of the play were destroyed, so the exact nature of the offense is unknown. However there is evidence that he satirized Henry Brooke, eleventh Baron Cobham, a wealthy and fickle patron. It was the first of several run-ins with the authorities.

In 1598, Jonson produced his first great success, Every Man in his Humour, capitalizing on the vogue for humor plays that had been begun by George Chapman with An Humorous Day's Mirth. William Shakespeare was in the first cast. This play was followed the next year by Every Man Out of His Humour, a pedantic attempt to imitate Aristophanes. It is not known whether this was a success on stage, but when published it proved popular and went through several editions.

Before the year 1598 was out, Jonson found himself back in prison and in danger of hanging. In a duel, on September 22, in Hogsden Fields, he had killed an actor of Henslowe's company named Gabriel Spenser. In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest, and the result was his conversion to Catholicism, to which he adhered for twelve years. He escaped hanging by pleading benefit of the clergy, thus forfeiting his property and being branded on his left thumb. Neither the affair nor his Catholic conversion seem to have negatively affected Jonson's reputation, as he was back again at work for Henslowe within months.

In 1601, Jonson was employed by Henslowe to revise Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy—hackwork which suggests his financial difficulties during this period.


At the beginning of the reign of James I of England in 1603, Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the reign of the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques—plays modeled on classical themes that incorporated dance, music, and traditional playacting and that were performed before the king with members of the royal court often taking up roles in the cast—and other royal entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort, Anne of Denmark.

His trouble with English authorities continued. In 1603, he was questioned by the Privy Council about Sejanus, a politically-themed play about corruption in the Roman Empire. In 1605, he was imprisoned, along with John Marston and George Chapman, for poking fun at the King's Scottish countrymen in Eastward Ho!

With the success of his plays and masques, such as The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605) Jonson wrote less material for the public theatres and more for the court. From 1606, he was, along with Inigo Jones, officially responsible for "painting and carpentry" for the court of the King.

Ben Jonson's ascendance

His powers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reign of James I; and by the year 1616, he had produced nearly all the plays for which he is famous. These include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone, (acted 1605 and printed in 1607), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and The Devil is an Ass (1616). This last was a failure at the time though in modern times it has achieved a certain degree of recognition, and Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theaters for a decade. During this same period he produced several masques, usually in connection with Inigo Jones.

1616 also saw a pension of 100 marks a year conferred upon him, leading to his having been identified as the first Poet Laureate. This sign of royal favor may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616).

In 1618, Ben Jonson set out for his ancestral Scotland on foot. He spent over a year there, and the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the Scottish poet, Drummond of Hawthornden. Drummond undertook to record as much of Jonson's conversation as he could in his diary, and thus preserved aspects of Jonson's personality that would otherwise have been lost. Jonson delivers his opinions, terse as they are, in an expansive mood either of praise or of blame. In the postscript added by Drummond, he is described as "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others."

While in Scotland, he was made an honorary citizen of Edinburgh, and on returning to England he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University.

Decline and death

Jonson returned to writing regular plays in the 1620s, but these are not considered among his best. They are of significant interest for the study of the culture of Charles I's England. The Staple of News, for example, offers a remarkable look at the earliest stage of English journalism.

The burning of his library, in 1623, was a severe blow, as his Execration upon Vulcan shows. In 1628, he became city chronologer of London; he accepted the salary but did little work for the office. He had suffered a debilitating stroke that year and this position eventually became a sinecure. In his last years, he relied heavily for an income on his great friend and patron, William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle.

Jonson was nothing if not versatile, and went out of favor only with the accession of King Charles I in 1625. At his death in 1637, he seems to have been working on another play, The Sad Shepherd. Though only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: A move into pastoral drama.

Jonson was buried in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription, "O Rare Ben Jonson," laid in the slab over his grave. It has been suggested that this could be read "Orare Ben Jonson" (pray for Ben Jonson), which would indicate a deathbed return to Catholicism.

Work and legacy

Every Man in His Humour

Perhaps Jonson's most important play, Every Man in His Humour is most certainly the work which rocketed the then-young poet to enduring popularity and fame. The play is a comedy, in the classical style, and as a result seems more dated than the epic tragedies and histories of Shakespeare. Jonson's control of pentameter, moreover, is hackneyed in comparison with that of his great rival. Nonetheless, the play is of great importance because of the numerous classical ideas (most notably, Theophrastus' theory of humors) which the play aided in reintroducing to the literary public of England. Though less dramatic than one a contemporary reader might hope for, the play is nonetheless a masterpiece of classical structure, and remains a testament to Jonson's profound mastery of the ancient tradition.

Plot and style

In general outline, this play follows Latin models quite closely. In the main plot, a gentleman named Kno'well attempts to spy on his son, concerned for his moral development. However, his espionage is continually subverted by the servant, Brainworm, whom he employs for this purpose. These types are clearly slightly Anglicized versions of new comedy's Senex, son, and slave. In the subplot, a merchant named Kitely suffers intense jealousy, fearing that his wife is sleeping with Wellbred, a squire who is visiting in their home. The characters of these two plots are surrounded by various "humorous" characters, all in familiar English types: the irascible soldier, country gull, pretentious pot-poets, surly water-bearer, and avuncular judge all make an appearance. The play works through a series of complications which culminate when the justice, Clement, hears and decides all of the characters' various grievances, exposing each of them as based in humor, misperception, or deceit.

The details of the plot, are, however, less important than the style of the play. Jonson's purpose is delineated in the prologue he wrote for the folio version. These lines, which have justly been taken as applying to Jonson's comic theory in general, are especially appropriate to this play. He promises to present "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 play follows out this implicit rejection of the romantic comedy of his peers. It sticks quite carefully to the Aristotelian unities; the plot is a tightly woven mesh of act and reaction; the scenes a genial collection of depictions of everyday life in a large Renaissance city.

The drama of ordinary life

Unlike many other dramatists and poets of the era, Jonson chose to write a play about ordinary people rather than re-invent legends from bygone eras. This may seem counter-intuitive considering Jonson's devotion to classical tradition, until one recalls that, in accordance with Aristotle, classical drama was explicitly meant to focus on the lives of but a few characters, in a single setting, in a single day. The ordinariness, then, of this play can be taken as Jonson's commitment to the classical ideal.

At the same time, the sensibility of the Elizabethan Age was moving English culture towards a bourgeois sensibility that gave precedence to the lives of ordinary people. In the religious sphere, the triumph of the English Reformation brought with it a Protestant appreciation for the sovereignty of the individual; it was the death-knell of the medieval mind that subsumed the individual under kings and authorities. This dove-tailed with the spirit of classical Hellenism, birthplace of the first democracy. Thus in the final analysis, Jonson's bow to the classical tradition was not reactionary, but of a piece with the contemporary development of bourgeois consciousness.


Critics of the nineteenth century tended to credit Jonson with the introduction of "humour" comedy into English literature. It is now well known that George Chapman's An Humorous Day's Mirth preceded Jonson's play by a year or more, and that Jonson himself was not especially intrigued by the trope of "humors." Since only Kitely is dominated by a "humor" as Jonson defined it in Every Man Out of His Humour, it seems more likely that Jonson was using a contemporary taste aroused by Chapman to draw interest to his play, which became his first indisputable hit.

The play was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1598. A theater legend first recorded in 1709, has it that Shakespeare advocated production of the play at a point when the company was about to reject it. While this legend is unverifiable, it is all but certain, based on the playlist published in the folio, that Shakespeare played the part of Kno'well.

Jonson revised the play for the 1616 folio, where it was the first play presented. The most significant change was in the location. The 1598 edition was set in a vaguely identified Florence. Even in the original version, the background details were English; the revision formalizes this fact by giving the characters English names and replacing the vaguely English details with specific references to London places.

Jonson's works


  • The Case is Altered (date unknown)
  • Every Man in His Humour (1598)
  • Every Man out of His Humour (1598)
  • Cynthia's Revels (1600)
  • Poetaster (1601)
  • Sejanus (1603)
  • Volpone (1606)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609)
  • The Alchemist (1610)
  • Catiline his Conspiracy (1611)
  • Bartholomew Fair (1614)
  • The Devil is an Ass (1616)
  • News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (1620)
  • The Staple of News (1626)
  • The New Inn (1629)
  • The Magnetic Lady (1632)
  • A Tale of a Tub (1633)


  • The Entertainment of the Queen and Prince at Althorp (1603)
  • The Coronation Triumph (1604)
  • The Masque of Blackness (1605)
  • Hymenaei (1606)
  • Hue and Cry after Cupid (1608)
  • The Masque of Beauty (1608)
  • The Masque of Queens (1609)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, Ltd., November 1986. ISBN 0710208383.
  • Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Craft and Art. Routledge, 1990. ISBN 0415055784.

External links

All links retrieved September 27, 2023.


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