Ben Jonson was born around June 11, 1572, the posthumous son of a clergyman. He was educated at Westminster School by the great classical scholar William Camden and worked in his stepfather's trade, bricklaying. The trade did not please him in the least, and he joined the army, serving in Flanders. He returned to England about 1592 and married Anne Lewis on November 14, 1594.
Jonson joined the theatrical company of Philip Henslowe in London as an actor and playwright on or before 1597, when he is identified in the papers of Henslowe. In 1597 he was imprisoned in the Fleet Prison for his involvement in a satire entitled The Isle of Dogs, declared seditious by the authorities. The following year Jonson killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel in the Fields at Shoreditch and was tried at Old Bailey for murder. He escaped the gallows only by pleading benefit of clergy. During his subsequent imprisonment he converted to Roman Catholicism only to convert back to Anglicism over a decade later, in 1610. He was released forfeit of all his possessions, and with a felon's brand on his thumb.
Jonson's second known play, Every Man in His Humour, was performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe with William Shakespeare in the cast. Jonson became a celebrity, and there was a brief fashion for 'humours' comedy, a kind of topical comedy involving eccentric characters, each of whom represented a temperament, or humor, of humanity. His next play, Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), was less successful. Every Man Out of His Humour and Cynthia's Revels (1600) were satirical comedies displaying Jonson's classical learning and his interest in formal experiment.
Jonson's explosive temperament and conviction of his superior talent gave rise to "War of the Theatres". In The Poetaster (1601), he satirized other writers, chiefly the English dramatists Thomas Dekker and John Marston. Dekker and Marston retaliated by attacking Jonson in their Satiromastix (1601). The plot of Satiromastix was mainly overshadowed by its abuse of Jonson. Jonson had portrayed himself as Horace in The Poetaster, and in Satiromastix Marston and Dekker, as Demetrius and Crispinus ridicule Horace, presenting Jonson as a vain fool. Eventually, the writers patched their feuding; in 1604 Jonson collaborated with Dekker on The King's Entertainment and with Marston and George Chapman on Eastward Ho.
Jonson's next play, the classical tragedy Sejanus, His Fall (1603), based on Roman history and offering an astute view of dictatorship, again got Jonson into trouble with the authorities. Jonson was called before the Privy Council on charges of 'popery and treason'. Jonson did not, however, learn a lesson, and was again briefly imprisoned, with Marston and Chapman, for controversial views ("something against the Scots") espoused in Eastward Ho (1604). These two incidents jeopardized his emerging role as court poet to King James I. Having converted to Catholicism, Jonson was also the object of deep suspicion after the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes (1605).
In 1605, Jonson began to write masques for the entertainment of the court. The earliest of his masques, The Satyr was given at Althorpe, and Jonson seems to have been appointed Court Poet shortly after. The masques displayed his erudition, wit, and versatility and contained some of his best lyric poetry. Masque of Blacknesse (1605) was the first in a series of collaborations with Inigo Jones, noted English architect and set designer. This collaboration produced masques such as The Masque of Owles, Masque of Beauty (1608), and Masque of Queens (1609), which were performed in Inigo Jones' elaborate and exotic settings. These masques ascertained Jonson's standing as foremost writer of masques in the Jacobean era. The collaboration with Jones was finally destroyed by intense personal rivalry.
Jonson's enduring reputation rests on the comedies written between 1605 and 1614. The first of these, Volpone, or The Fox (performed in 1605-1606, first published in 1607) is often regarded as his masterpiece. The play, though set in Venice, directs its scrutiny on the rising merchant classes of Jacobean London. The following plays, Epicoene: or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are all peopled with dupes and those who deceive them. Jonson's keen sense of his own stature as author is represented by the unprecedented publication of his Works, in folio, in 1616. He was appointed as poet laureate and rewarded a substantial pension in the same year.
In 1618, when he was about forty-five years old, Jonson set out for Scotland, the home of his ancestors. He made the journey entirely by foot, in spite of dissuasion from Bacon, who "said to him he loved not to see poesy go on other feet than poetical dactyls and spondæus." Jonson's prose style is vividly sketched in the notes of William Drummond of Hawthornden, who recorded their conversations during Jonson's visit to Scotland 1618-1619. Jonson himself was sketched by Hawthornden: " He is a great lover and praiser of himself ; a contemner and scorner of others ; given rather to lose a friend than a jest ; . . . he is passionately kind and angry ; careless either to gain or keep ; vindictive, but, if he be well answered, at himself . . . ; oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason."1
After his return, Jonson received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University and lectured on rhetoric at Gresham College, London.
The comedy The Devil is an Ass (1616) had turned out to be a comparative flop. This may have discouraged Jonson, for it was nine years before his next play, The Staple of News (1625), was produced. Instead, Jonson turned his attention to writing masques. Jonson's later plays The New Inn (1629) and A Tale of a Tub (1633) were not great successes, described harshly, but perhaps justly by Dryden as his "dotages."
Despite these apparent failures, and in spite of his frequent feuds, Jonson was the dean and the leading wit of the group of writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern in the Cheapside district of London. The young poets influenced by Jonson were the self-styled 'sons' or 'tribe' of Ben, later called the Cavalier poets, a group which included, among others, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.
Jonson was appointed City Chronologer of London in 1628, the same year in which he suffered a severe stroke. His loyal friends kept him company in his final years and attended the King provided him some financial comfort. Jonson died on August 6, 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a plain slab on which was later carved the words, "O Rare Ben Jonson!" His admirers and friends contributed to the collection of memorial elegies, Jonsonus virbius, published in 1638. Jonson's last play, Sad Shepherd's Tale, was left unfinished at his death and published posthumously in 1641.
1. English Literature: An Illustrated Record. Vol II, part II.
Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, Eds.
New York: The MacMillan Company, 1904.