Jonson, Ben 1572–1637 English Poet and Playwright

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Jonson, Ben 1572–1637 English poet and playwright

Ben Jonson, one of Elizabethan England's greatest writers, led a life filled with social, political, and religious reversals. Jonson was the close and friendly rival of playwright William Shakespeare, a friend of the English poet John Donne, and the unofficial national poet of England. He was also an accomplished writer and one of the finest Greek scholars of his day. Many people of his own time considered him to be as good a writer as Shakespeare or better.

Early Life and Works. Jonson was probably born in or near London. As an adult, Jonson reported that his father, a Protestant minister, had died just a month before Ben was born. Young Ben went to a small private school before attending Westminster School. He probably did not go on to a university, although some rumors hold that he briefly stayed at St. John's College at Cambridge University. After completing his schooling, he worked with his stepfather as a bricklayer, an occupation he hated. Around 1591 he enlisted as a soldier in the Netherlands, where the English were fighting the Spanish.

After returning to England, Jonson began working as a writer and an actor. By 1594 he had married, and in 1597 he joined the acting company Pembroke's Men. His earliest surviving play, The Case Is Altered, was first performed the same year. Like many Renaissance writers, Jonson based his play on classical* examples—in this case, ancient Roman comedy. Pembroke's Men also produced Jonson's satire* Isle of Dogs in 1597. It painted an unflattering portrait of recent events at the royal palace. The queen's advisers found the play so offensive that they shut down all of London's theaters. They also jailed its main actors, including Jonson.

Jonson scored his first major success as a playwright in 1598, with Every Man in His Humor. This urban comedy—a popular dramatic form of the time that focused on city life—featured exaggerated character types. Although Jonson originally set the play in Florence, he later shifted the setting to London. Shakespeare and his company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, performed the play at the Curtain Theater.

At the same time, Jonson found himself in serious trouble. In 1598, while Every Man in His Humor was still in performance, Jonson killed a fellow actor. He was arrested and tried for manslaughter. During his time in prison, Jonson became a Catholic. In some of the poems that he wrote during this period, he spoke directly to other Catholics and discussed his newfound faith. Jonson narrowly escaped the death penalty, but the court had him branded on the thumb with a hot iron as a convicted criminal.

Jonson's career thrived in spite of his personal difficulties. In 1599, Lord Chamberlain's Men presented Jonson's Every Man out of His Humor, another comedy that featured broad character types. Some of his other comedies of this time satirized the royal court, politics, and popular poetry. Jonson's words stung—one of the writers he targeted later wrote a play portraying him as hostile, rude, and disrespectful.

Jonson in the Royal Court. In 1603, Jonson welcomed the reign of the new king, James I, with flattering writings. He made a name for himself at court with his masques—elaborate dramatic entertainments that marked important events. During the following years Jonson served as the court's semi-official poet.

Despite his position as the court's favored writer, Jonson continued to experience trouble with the law. As a Catholic in James's Protestant court, he attracted suspicion. In 1604, after the production of his tragedy Sejanus, officials charged Jonson with "popery" (that is, practicing Catholicism, which was illegal at the time) and treason. The printed versions of Sejanus do not support these charges. However, Jonson admitted that the version of the play that the actors had performed on stage differed from these printed versions.

Eastward Ho!, a play that Jonson cowrote, landed him in jail again. The printed version of the play made gentle fun of King James's favoritism toward his fellow Scots. Like Sejanus, this play may have been harsher in its original version. Jonson and the other authors feared that their punishment would be severe, but powerful members of the court had them released.

Later in 1605 Jonson found himself caught up in the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot—a conspiracy* by several Catholics to blow up the houses of parliament. Shortly before authorities discovered the plot, Jonson attended a dinner party with many of the men involved. However, he also helped the authorities obtain information to stop the plot. Later, he wrote a poem to congratulate the man who discovered the conspiracy.

Mature Works. Volpone, Jonson's greatest and fiercest comedy, first appeared on stage in 1606. This dark play includes fraud, seduction, and corruption. Unlike popular comedies of the day, Volpone did not have a happy ending. Instead the play ends with two characters awaiting whipping and imprisonment as punishments for their crimes.

Jonson's next plays relied on complex plots. The surprises that unfolded in Epicene, or The Silent Woman (first performed in 1609 or early 1610) kept audiences guessing up until the play's final moments. The complicated plot of The Alchemist (1610) followed three con men claiming to be able to give people whatever they want. Jonson set the play in the same district of London where the play was first performed in 1610.

That same year, England's anti-Catholic laws became more severe. People who still refused to attend services in the Protestant Church of England faced stiff penalties and restrictions. Perhaps as a result, Jonson chose to return to the Church of England.

The year 1616 was an eventful one for Jonson. A London printer published Jonson's Workes, a collection of his literary achievements up until his middle years. Jonson supervised the book's publication carefully. TheWorkes included two large collections of poems, eight plays, and other pieces. In the same year, the king granted Jonson a pension for life—an act that made Jonson the unofficial national poet. After Shakespeare's death in April 1616, Jonson was clearly the greatest living poet in Britain.

Later Years. From 1618 to 1623, Jonson visited Scotland, received an honorary degree from the University of Oxford, and continued to write masques and royal entertainments. Some scholars also believe that he taught rhetoric* at Gresham College in London. He wrote the fullest surviving record of his life and opinions—Conversations with Drummond—during this period.

In spite of his successes, Jonson felt less welcome at court during the final years of James's reign, and even less so after Charles I took the throne in 1625. When Charles courted a Spanish princess in 1623, Jonson played almost no role in the plans for receiving the prince's intended bride. Instead that honor fell to his rival, Inigo Jones. In response, Jonson wrote "An Epistle* Answering to One That Asked to Be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben." In it, he describes his own social group—the "tribe of Ben"—as superior to the court. Jonson also addressed Charles's rise to power in his next play, The Staple of News (1626). Jonson's satire discussed sons who scheme to manage their fathers' fortunes.

The last decade of Jonson's life was filled with difficulties. In 1628, he suffered a stroke, which weakened him and kept him from working. Many of his poems from this time concerned his disabilities and his financial needs. His last comedies, which focused on rural and romantic themes, were not theatrical successes.

Ben Jonson died in 1637. He was buried at Westminster Abbey, the resting place of London's leading poets. His death attracted more attention than Shakespeare's, and most of London's nobles attended his funeral. The following year, one of Jonson's friends edited a collection of poems in his memory. A two-volume edition of Jonson's own writings appeared in 1640–1641.

(See alsoDrama; Drama, English; English Language and Literature. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* conspiracy

plotting with others to commit a crime

Uplifting Theater

Before the publication of Jonson's Workes in 1616, many people did not consider the text of a play a serious type of literary work. However, Jonson included plays in his Workes because he wanted his dramatic writing to receive the same kind of scholarly attention as classical literature. By doing this, he presented himself not as a "playwright"—a term he disliked—but as a true Renaissance scholar.

* rhetoric

art of speaking or writing effectively

* epistle

formal letter

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Jonson, Ben 1572–1637 English Poet and Playwright

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