Johnson, Ben 1961—
Ben Johnson 1961—
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson has entered the 1990s determined to rescue his tarnished reputation. For most of the 1980s Johnson was among the most famous and best-loved athletes in Canada and his long-standing feud with American runner Carl Lewis earned him great attention in the United States as well. Once an Olympic, gold medalist and the fastest man on earth, Johnson was stripped of his honors for using anabolic steroids to enhance his performance. His downfall at the 1988 Olympic games— and his subsequent confession to years of steroid use— came as a blow to track fans worldwide. Maclean’s contributor Bob Levin wrote: “[Johnson] was a rocket, a role model, a national hero. … To Canadians, he was never Johnson, just Ben…. But when the steroid scandal burst upon the world, … Canadians, who had risen as one to applaud Johnson’s triumph, doubled over in sickened disbelief, taking Johnson’s humiliation as their own. Children wept openly. Many people clutched at faint hopes of some innocent explanation. Others branded Ben a betrayer, a cheat.”
Johnson served a two-year suspension imposed by the International Amateur Athletic Federation and was reinstated for competition in September of 1990. Having spent his days of suspension crusading against drug use in Canada’s schools and amateur athletic clubs, the young runner was able to regain some of the respect he had lost. The rest of that respect he hopes to earn back on the track. Washington Post correspondent Christine Brennan noted that the citizens of Canada “were embarrassed by [Johnson]; now they love him. Johnson is Canada’s prodigal son.” Brennan quoted Toronto Sun columnist Jim O’Leary, who called the runner “a risk taker” and “a high-wire act in a nation of couch potatoes. [Canadians] admire his flair, applaud his success and now seem determined to cushion his fall with a net of public sympathy.”
Ben Johnson, Jr., was bom in Falmouth, Jamaica, on December 30, 1961. Falmouth, a formerly prosperous seaport that has fallen upon hard times, is about 17 miles east of Montego Bay. The Johnson family was reasonably successful, with a pleasant home and a large yard. Ben, Sr., had a regular job repairing telephones for the Jamaica Telephone Company; he also raised chickens, ducks, cows, pigs, vegetables, and bees. The fifth of six
Full name, Benjamin Sinclair Johnson, jr.; born December 30, 1961, in Falmouth, Jamaica; son of Ben (a telephone repairman) and Gloria (a cook and waitress) Johnson. Education: Graduated from Yorkdale High, Ontario, Canada; attended Centennial College, Ontario.
Sprinter and relay runner, 1977-88 and 1990—. Appeared in the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, 1984, earned two bronze medals, for 100 meter race and 400 meter relay; earned four indoor world records, 1987, including a 9.83-second finish in the 100 meter in Rome; appeared in the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, 1988, earned gold medal, for 100-meter run, stripped of medal and banned from Olympic competition for two years after urine test revealed steroid use. Re-instated to Olympic eligibility, 1990.
children, Ben, Jr., grew up outdoors, running and swimming in the nearby ocean at every opportunity. “We’d take off all our clothes and swim naked all day,” Johnson told Maclean’s. “We couldn’t get our clothes all wet up or everyone would know what we’d been doing. Even in dry clothes, my parents could tell if I’d been swimming, because they could see the sea salt drying white against my black skin and I would get a beating.”
Johnson’s mother told Maclean’s that her son would never walk when he could run. “I would turn my head for a moment, and he would be far in the distance.” Johnson’s childhood heroes included famous sprinters Donald Quarrie of Jamaica and Hasely Crawford of Trinidad, but his most immediate inspiration was his older brother, Edward. While Johnson was still quite young his brother earned a spot with the Conquerors track club. Soon the youngster was tagging along to meets and earning small change in informal street races. In school Johnson was an average student who was bothered by a speech impediment; his teachers remembered him as shy and withdrawn.
In 1972 Johnson’s mother decided that her children needed a better education than rural Falmouth afforded them. She had a friend who had emigrated to Toronto, so she boarded a plane and went to look for work in Canada. Eventually she got a full-time job as a cook and moved Johnson and three of his siblings into a two-bedroom flat in suburban Toronto. “I went because Mom went,” Johnson told Sports Illustrated of his move north. “I didn’t really know where I was going.” For a short time Ben, Sr., joined the family, but eventually returned to his job with the Jamaican telephone company. Father and son remained on good terms, however, visiting on holidays and communicating by phone.
The transition to Canada’s schools proved difficult for Johnson. His Jamaican accent and stutter led to placement in remedial classes. “I didn’t like to go to school,” Johnson confessed in Sports Illustrated. He did manage to graduate from Yorkdale High, though his reading and mathematics skills were judged to be very basic. Johnson’s interests decidedly lay elsewhere. In 1977 he accompanied Edward to the Scarborough (now Mazda) Optimist Track Club, where both brothers began to train with coach Charles Francis. Francis himself had been an Olympic sprinter for Canada in the early 1970s. He was hardly impressed by the lanky young Johnson. The coach told Maclean’s: “He was small for his age and so skinny that I thought he was 12, not 14.”
When he arrived at the Scarborough Optimist Track Club Johnson could hardly run a lap around the track without collapsing from exhaustion. But after six months of Francis’s coaching the youth gained 43 pounds and six inches of height—and became a formidable runner as well. In 1978 Johnson placed fourth in the 50 meter dash at the National Indoor Track and Field Championships in Montreal. Only two years later he ran a close second in the one hundred meter event in the Canadian men’s championships. By then Coach Francis was truly excited about his young prospect and the two became fast friends.
In 1980 Johnson encountered superstar Carl Lewis for the first time when both competed in the Pan-American junior championships in Sudbury, Ontario. Lewis easily outdistanced Johnson on that occasion, as he often would over the next four years. The defeat—and Lewis’s affable, easygoing manner—galled Johnson, who became determined to run faster than his confident rival. Francis counseled patience and Johnson worked methodically to improve his times and build his upper body strength. “Ben never has to learn anything new,” Francis told Sports Illustrated. “He can perfect every exercise…. The core sprint exercises—the hips, the upper legs, the arms—are where he goes high.” At 15 Johnson weighed only ninety-three pounds; seven years later he was a 175-pound marvel who could bench press 335 pounds. He was still unable to defeat Lewis, however, who took four gold medals in the 1984 Olympics. The 1984 Games proved quite disappointing for Johnson; he was forced to settle for two bronze medals while the public fawned over Lewis.
The feud between Johnson and Lewis grew ever more heated as the two runners exchanged barbs through the press, each predicting the other’s defeat and disgrace. In 1985 Johnson finally proved that he could beat Lewis when he won the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. During most of the following two years Johnson absolutely dominated world track events. He won the one hundred meter race at Moscow’s 1986 Goodwill Games in record-breaking fashion with a 9.95-second time. The following year he was undisputed champion with four indoor world records and an absolutely stunning 9.83-second finish in the outdoor World Championships in Rome. The dazzling victory in Rome, where Johnson finished a full meter ahead of Lewis, left no room for doubt: Ben Johnson was proclaimed the fastest man on earth and was hailed as Canada’s finest athlete.
Even then Carl Lewis suggested—in a roundabout way—that Johnson was using performance-enhancing drugs. Johnson and his trainers countered that he had passed any number of urine tests after his meets. Indeed, a test run just after the Rome race yielded negative results, leaving most observers certain that Lewis’s charges were merely a matter of sour grapes. Johnson did face other problems as he reached the height of his profession, however. A hamstring injury sidelined him and he quarreled with Francis over treatment methods. His schedule became clogged with product endorsements and time-consuming business deals and the press questioned his amateur status as he spent lavishly on homes, sportscars, and art objects. Reflecting on his year in the limelight, Johnson told Maclean’s: “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. Now I’m successful, and I’m paying for it.”
Johnson entered the 1988 Olympics in Seoul as a heavy favorite for victory in the prestigious one hundred meter dash. As predicted, he won the event, shattering his own record in the process. Even the most jaded running enthusiasts expressed amazement at Johnson’s time of 9.79 seconds. The reason for his performance soon became evident, when traces of the drug stanozolol—a banned anabolic steroid—were found in his urine during a post-race test. In the worst scandal in Olympic history, Johnson was stripped of his medal—it went to Lewis, who finished second—and suspended from competition. For some time following the discovery Johnson denied any wrongdoing. Only after Francis testified to Johnson’s steroid use in court did the runner finally admit that he had been taking drugs since 1981.
The scandal held wide implications for amateur athletes throughout Canada, but the burden undoubtedly fell hardest on Johnson. Officials debated rescinding his 1987 win in Rome and a veritable fortune of product endorsement contracts were canceled or allowed to expire. Johnson faced tough times financially and personally, but through the long two-year suspension resolved to make a comeback and prove that he could win without the help of drugs. “Whatever I lost doesn’t mean a thing,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “My health is the most important thing. If I had kept taking [steroids], I could have had side effects with my liver.”
Johnson’s reinstatement to Olympic competition in 1990 was accompanied by a reinstatement from the Canadian government for appearances as a representative of the nation. Johnson hired a new coach, Loren Seagrave, and returned to work, visibly smaller and thinner than he had been in 1988. Although he turned 30 in December of 1991, Johnson predicted that he would make his way to the 1992 Olympics as a champion sprinter. Today his races are run in memory of his father, who died of a heart attack in 1989. Johnson still harbors a grudge for Carl Lewis and lists defeating the American as his number one priority. Still, the former star admits that he has a great deal to prove, both to himself and to the people of his adopted country. “People won’t forget,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but they’re going to say, ’Great. After his downfall, the guy took care of his problems and won again.’ That will be the biggest thrill of my life.”
Chicago Tribune, November 20, 1990.
Macleans, August8, 1988; September 12, 1988; October 10, 1988.
New York Times, November 19, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 13, 1991.
Sports illustrated, November 30, 1987.
Washington Post, June 17, 1989; January 10, 1990; January 13, 1991.
BORN: c. 1572, London, England
DIED: 1637, Westminster, England
GENRE: Drama, poetry
The Alchemist (1610)
Timber; or, Discoveries (1641)
Ben Jonson was a prolific Elizabethan dramatist and a man of letters who profoundly influenced the coming Augustan age through his emphasis on the principles of Horace, Aristotle, and other classical thinkers. While he is now remembered primarily for his satirical comedies, he also distinguished himself as a poet, a preeminent writer of masques, a careful defender of his work, and the originator of English literary criticism. Jonson's professional reputation is often obscured by his personal notoriety; a bold, independent, and aggressive man, 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 he influenced later writers in each genre that he undertook, his ultimate influence is considered to be a legacy of literary craftsmanship, a strong sense of artistic form and control, and his role in bringing, as poet Alexander Pope noted, “critical learning into vogue.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Anachronistic War Hero Finds Trouble with the Law Jonson was born in London shortly after the death of his father, a minister who claimed descent from Scottish gentry. Although his family was poor, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned antiquary William Camden. He apparently left school unwillingly when called to work with his stepfather as a bricklayer. He then served as a volunteer in the Low Countries in the Dutch war against Spain; reportedly, he defeated a challenger in single combat, stripping his vanquished opponent of his arms in the classical (and by that point quite anachronistic) fashion. The war Jonson fought in was a part of the bloody European wars of religion, in particular, the Eighty Years' War (1560s–1648)—in which the increasingly Calvinist (a particularly stern version of Protestantism) Netherlands fought to throw off the yoke of Catholic Spanish rule. Jonson's participation reflected the strong anti-Catholic sentiment that had prevailed in England since King Henry VIII's break with the Vatican in 1533, with the notable exception of the reign of Queen Mary I from 1553 to 1558.
Jonson returned to England by 1592 and married about three years later. It seems that the union was unhappy and 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), as well as working on 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 Jonson's close friend—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).
“War of the Theaters” Shortly thereafter, writing for the Children of Queen's Chapel, Jonson became embroiled in a public feud with playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker. In Cynthias Revels (1601) and Poetaster (1601), Jonson portrayed himself as the impartial, well-informed judge of art and society and wrote unflattering portraits of these men, who counterattacked with a satiric portrayal of Jonson in the play Satiromastix; or, The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). This brief dispute became known as the “War of the Theaters”; interestingly, scholars speculate that the dispute was mutually contrived in order to further the respective authors' careers. In any event, Jonson later reconciled with Marston and collaborated with him and George Chapman in writing Eastward Hoe (1605). A joke at the king's expense in this play landed him once again, along with his coauthors, in prison. Once freed, however, Jonson entered a period of good fortune and productivity. He had many friends at court, and James I valued learning highly—in a society where most art depended heavily on the patronage of the wealthy and powerful, this meant quite a bit. Jonson was frequently called upon to write his popular, elegant masques, such as the Masque of Blacknesse (1605). During this period, he also produced his most successful comedies, including The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fayre (1614).
Self-Proclaimed Poet Laureate In 1616 Jonson published his Workes, becoming the first English writer to dignify his dramas by terming them “works,” and for this perceived presumption he was widely ridiculed. In that year, Jonson assumed the responsibilities and
privileges of Poet Laureate, though without formal appointment. From 1616 to 1625 he primarily wrote masques for presentation at court, collaborating frequently with famed poet, architect, and stage designer Inigo Jones.
Misfortune, however, marked Jonson's later years. A fire destroyed his library in 1623, and when James I died in 1625, Jonson lost much of his influence at court, though he was named city chronologist of London in 1628. Later that year, he suffered the first of several strokes that left him bedridden. Meanwhile, Jonson's collaborative relationship with Jones grew strained as the latter's elaborate theatrical spectacles increasingly overshadowed Jonson's dialogue and songs, and in 1631 the two parted ways. Jonson produced four plays during the reign of Charles I, but none of these was successful. The rest of his life, spent in retirement, he filled primarily with study and writing; at his death, two unfinished plays were discovered among his mass of papers and manuscripts. Though Jonson left behind a financially depleted estate, he was nevertheless buried with honor in Westminster Abbey.
Works in Literary Context
Although later writers like John Dryden are often credited with innovating what we now call “literary criticism”—a critical analysis of the merits, demerits, and meanings of any piece of literature—Jonson is now seen as the first major figure to work in the genre. Indeed, in both his published works and private conversations, Jonson was willing to criticize both the poetic style and the personal lives of contemporary poets and dramatists. However, Jonson is notable because he attempted to hold himself to his own high standards, and in so doing, wrote poetry that utilized what has become known as a “plain style” of poetry. This style of poetry demonstrates Jonson's artistic control and continued to be influential on poets for several hundred years.
Jonson's Criticism Poet William Drummond became acquainted with Ben Jonson and recorded a number of Jonson's observations regarding poetry and poets of his day in his text Conversations. Drummond's notes offer many insights into Jonson's views of poetry and other poets. In one moment, Jonson memorably remarked “That Shaksperr wanted [i.e., lacked] Arte”—one of several assessments of others that helped define his own ideals. He also said that some of Drummond's poems “smelled too much of schooles”—a statement balancing the one on Shakespeare by indicating that the art Jonson prized required skill but should also seem natural and unstrained.
Timber; or, Discoveries (1641), one of Jonson's most original works, in fact, represents the first English formulation of literary principles as applied through practical critical observation. In this he directly anticipated and influenced Dryden, commonly held to be the father of English criticism.
Poetry as the Application of Principles Ben Jonson's significance as a poet is hard to overestimate. His influence helped transform English verse. His “plain style” made him a crucial figure in a central tradition, but his deceptively complex works reward close reading. Sophisticated, self-conscious, and strongly influenced by the Greek and Roman classics, his writing nonetheless rarely seems foreign or artificial. His vigorous and colloquial style exemplifies both wide reading and a deep interest in reality.
Jonson's “plain style” was neither artless nor utterly clear; instead, it avoids both sublimity and vulgarity. It was meant to communicate, to have an effect, and it gives his poetry a directness, practicality, seriousness, and force that loftier, lower, or more complicated phrasing would obscure. Its tone is often forthright, its emphasis ethical, although Jonson generally rejects priggish preaching. He mocked cant and jargon and usually avoids them himself. His poems—whether elegies, songs, celebrative verse, or short love lyrics—reflect a style of plainness and simplicity that he argued for in his criticism. Skillfully polished, such poems as “To Penshurst,” “Come, My Celia,” and “To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare” exemplify the artistic control he valued so highly.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Jonson's famous contemporaries include:
William Shakespeare (1564–1616): An English dramatist often credited as the most important writer in the history of the English language.
Robert Ayton (1570–1638): A Scottish poet notable because he was one of the first Scottish authors to write in the English language.
Guy Fawkes (1570–1606): The English would-be assassin of King James I, Fawkes has become a symbol for anarchy, notably in the graphic novel (later adapted into a film) V for Vendetta.
John Carver (1576–1621): This Pilgrim leader was also the first governor of the Plymouth Colony, which is now mostly Massachusetts.
Works in Critical Context
Jonson was recognized as one of the foremost men of letters in his own time and at his creative height rivaled
Shakespeare in popularity. Yet, his reputation soon declined; his plays in particular, though judged undeniably literate, were considered obsolete not long after their era, more exercises in scholarship than inventive entertainment. Modern-day appraisals of Jonson, however, have provoked a considerable resurgence of interest in his work.
Dismissed as “No Shakespeare” His earliest comedies derive from Roman comedy in form and structure and are noteworthy as models of the comedy of humors, in which each character represents a type dominated by some ruling obsession. Jonson's later dramas, however, were dismissed fairly early on—most famously by John Dryden, who called them mere “dotages.” It was Dryden who first undertook an extensive analysis of Jonson. While generously likening him to Virgil and calling him “the most learned and judicious writer which any thea-tre ever had,” Dryden's comments also signaled the start of a decline in Jonson's reputation, for Dryden's observations included a comparison of Jonson and Shakespeare—one that nodded admiringly toward Jonson, but bowed adoringly before Shakespeare. This comparison colored Jonson's reputation for more than two hundred years, fueled by nineteenth-century Romantic critics, who found Jonson lacking in imagination, delicacy, and passion.
A Resurgence among the Modernists T. S. Eliot, writing in 1919, praised Jonson's artistry, arguing that Jonson's reputation had been unfairly damaged by critics who, while acknowledging his erudition, ignored the power of his work. He wrote: “To be universally accepted; to be damned by the praise that quenches all desire to read the book; to be afflicted by the imputation of the virtues which excite the least pleasure; and to be read only by historians and antiquaries—this is the most perfect conspiracy of approval.” With Eliot and the other proponents of literary modernism began a revaluation of Jonson, who benefited from modernist reaction against Romantic sensibility, and who began to be appreciated on his own terms.
Workes in Contemporary Criticism The late twentieth century has seen a renewal of critical appreciation of Jonson. Approaches to his work have come from a variety of directions and have taken many different forms, with many of them focusing on the Workes. For instance, literary critic Thomas Greene suggests that “in a sense, almost everything Jonson wrote attempts in one way or another to complete the broken circle, or expose the ugliness of its incompletion.” In contradistinction, scholar Mark Bland argues that “the idea of the Workes as a self-portrait, for all its immediate appeal, is not one that ought to be imposed upon that volume. No one would wish to deny Jonson his sense of identity or his voice; the Workes, however, has an ideal ethical form (like a masque), that seeks to engage and elevate the moral consciousness of the reader through its evolving structure—a process that is separate from the character of the author or the contents of the texts as such.” Whether we take the Workes as a self-portrait pointing to its own partialness or as a programme of moral edification, we are at the very least fortunate that contemporary literary criticism has again discovered the value of all Jonson's works, collected or otherwise.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
During the “War of the Theaters,” Jonson used his drama to take digs at opposing dramatists and to characterize himself as a fantastic judge of character and art. These kinds of jabs in literature are common. Here are a few works of art that contain sharp criticism of other artists and men of letters:
Candide (1759), a novel by Voltaire. In his most famous book, Voltaire does not attack one writer specifically but an entire era of writers—writers from the Enlightenment, perhaps mostly Gottfried Leibniz—who argue that all that happens in the world will ultimately be for the best for all. Essentially, Voltaire rebukes this idea by putting his main character, Candide, through a number of trials, none of which turn out well in the end.
Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses (1895), an essay by Mark Twain. Twain argues in his characteristically wry manner that James Fenimore Cooper, in a single page of his novel Deerslayer, committed 114 of the possible 115 literary errors a writer can make. The rest of the essay is equally biting.
The Battle of the Books, and Other Short Pieces (1704), essays by Jonathan Swift. In this text, Swift pits ancient writers against contemporary writers and targets specifically a contemporary almanac writer, Partridge, and, in the process, the art of almanac writing itself for its ineffective methods of predicting, for instance, whether any given day will be rainy.
Responses to Literature
- Read Jonson's poem “Still to Be Neat.” The ideas in this poem are very similar to those in Robert Her-rick's “Delight in Disorder.” Read Herrick's text. Which author do you think handles this subject more efficiently? Point out specific techniques that each author used that affected your judgment of the texts.
- Read Jonson's poem “On My First Son.” Jonson calls his son his “best piece of poetry.” Everybody has something that they consider their best work, and few consider their “best piece of poetry” to be an actual poem. Write a poem describing your finest achievement, following the structure of rhyming couplets that Jonson uses.
- Read Jonson's Poetaster and Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses. Each of these satirizes authors who were alive and thriving when the pieces were written. In a short essay, analyze the kinds of criticism each author makes of his contemporaries. Would you say one picks on the author's personal life more than his work? How would you say these differences change the overall effect of the pieces?
- Read Jonson's “To Penshurst.” This poem exemplifies Jonson's “plain style” of writing and recalls classic literature with its epic themes combined with its earthy beauty. Choose a place you love—your house, a park, a zoo, a mall—and attempt to imitate Jonson's plain style and the progression of descriptions in a poem in which you describe this place that is so important to you.
Bamborough, J. B. Ben Jonson. London: Hutchinson, 1970.
Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Champion, Larry S. Ben Jonson's “Dotages”: A Reconsideration of the Late Plays. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.
Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: Dutton, 1953.
Ferry, Anne. All in War with Time: Love Poetry of Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Marvell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.
Gardiner, Judith K. Craftsmanship in Context: The Development of Ben Jonson's Poetry. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.
Helgerson, Richard. Self-Crowned Laureates: Spenser, Jonson, Milton, and the Literary System. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Keast, William R., ed. Seventeenth-Century English Poetry: Modern Essays in Criticism. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Leggatt, Alexander. Ben Jonson: His Vision and His Art. London: Methuen, 1981.
Wheeler, Charles Francis. Classical Mythology in the Plays, Masques, and Poems of Ben Jonson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938.
Bland, Mark. “Ben Jonson and the Legacies of the Past.” Huntington Library Quarterly 67, no. 3 (2004): 371–400.
Greene, Thomas M. “Ben Jonson and the Centered Self.” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 10, no. 2 (1970): 325–48.
Jonson, Ben (1572–1637)
JONSON, BEN (1572–1637)
JONSON, BEN (1572–1637), English playwright and poet. A highly influential dramatist of Jacobean London and the court of his day, Jonson was a colorful character of early theater history. His plays communicate much about the vicissitudes of life for those who shared the playwright's time and place. Jonson's father was a clergyman; his death a month before Jonson's birth was to affect the play-wright's early life, for Jonson's mother soon married a master bricklayer, Robert Brett. Jonson was educated at Westminster School, where the antiquary William Camden, who was the master, became his intellectual inspiration. It is not certain, however, how long Jonson remained at school. According to the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), friend and recorder of his conversations, Jonson was "taken" from Westminster and began an apprenticeship in bricklaying. He left London briefly to serve as a soldier in the Low Countries, but by 1594 he had returned. He married, and in 1595 he entered the Tylers and Bricklayers Company.
Soon after this he was writing and performing as an actor with the Earl of Pembroke's Men. In 1597 the company got into trouble for presenting The Isle of Dogs (now lost), a seditious play that Jonson finished for Thomas Nashe, and subsequently they had to disband. Jonson was constantly at odds with the authorities. In 1598, the same year that he produced his highly successful comedy, Every Man in His Humour, for Shakespeare's company, the Chamberlain's Men, he killed an actor called Gabriel Spencer in a duel. When arraigned for the offense, he successfully pleaded "benefit of clergy"—that is, he escaped a hanging due to his ability to read. While in prison for this offense, he became a Catholic, though he reverted to the Protestant faith twelve years later.
Jonson was frequently punished for the subject matter of his plays, which were often interpreted as being too satirically interested in national or court politics. In response to his tragedy Sejanus His Fall,performed at the Globe in 1603 and published in 1605, he was suspected of portraying the political crimes of Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex. He was jailed in 1605 with George Chapman (1559–1634) and possibly John Marston (c. 1575–1634), collaborators with him on the London satire, Eastward Ho!, because it alluded to King James I's acceptance of payments for knighthoods. Despite these troubles, Jonson always seemed to emerge unharmed, and ultimately he excelled within the context of court entertainment. This is borne out by the success of his many masques, written for members of the court to perform. Some of these were produced in collaboration with the designer and architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652). In 1616 he was given a royal pension that was similar, in today's terms, to being granted the post of "poet laureate" in England. Thereafter he styled himself "the King's Poet."
His principal dramatic works, other than those already mentioned, include satirical pieces like Cynthia's Revels (1600) and Poetaster (1601)—both contributing to a perceived dialogue among the playwrights, or what has been called "the war of the theaters" played out between Jonson, Marston, and Thomas Dekker. Other satires include Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), Epicene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Devil Is an Ass (1616), and the rumbustuously carnivalesque Bartholomew Fair (1614). The most famous of the playwright's works are undoubtedly Volpone, or the Fox (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), which are regularly produced on the stage to this day.
Jonson also wrote poetry including his Epigrams and a selection called The Forrest. These were published in his collected Works of 1616. Another selection of verse called Underwoods was published in a collection in 1640. This also included Timber; or Discoveries made upon Men and Matter, a prose work that comprised some personal musings on texts he had read. Jonson is best remembered for plays that, while showing his audience the world in which they lived, drew heavily on classical influences. These sources were often noted in the margins of Jonson's published works—nowhere more so than in the collection that he himself put together, the folio of 1616. Never before had there been such a publication, which included dramatic works written in English, and it was this endeavor that probably inspired the production of Shakespeare's First Folio of plays in 1623. Jonson demonstrated perceptiveness and foresight concerning the universal nature of Shakespeare's work when he wrote in a prefatory poem to his dead friend's collection that Shakespeare's plays were "not of an age, but for all time!" Jonson's plays belonged to early modern London and to England's court, and therefore to his age.
In 1623, Jonson suffered the catastrophe of seeing many of his papers burned in a fire. Although he continued to write into the Caroline period, he never regained the favor he had once won at court. In 1628 this extraordinary personality suffered a paralytic stroke, and he died in 1637 plagued by ill health and financial insecurity. He is buried in Westminster Abbey under a tombstone bearing the inscription, "O rare Ben Jonson."
See also Drama: English ; English Literature and Language ; Shakespeare, William .
Jonson, Ben. The Poetaster, or, The Arraignment; Sejanus, His Fall; The Devil Is an Ass, The New Inn, or, The Light Heart. Edited by Margaret Jane Kidnie. Oxford and New York, 2000.
——. Three Comedies: Volpone, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair. Michael Jamieson, ed. London and New York, 1966.
Kay, W. David. Ben Jonson: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, U.K., and London, 1995.
Shakespeare, William. The First Folio of Shakespeare. Prepared by Charles Hinman; 2nd ed. New York and London, 1996.
June 11, 1572
in or near London, England
August 6, 1637
"For a good poet's made as well as born."
The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson is best known for his satiric comedies (plays based on criticism through the use of humor). An immensely learned man with an irritable and domineering personality, he was, next to William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry), the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance. The Renaissance was a cultural revolution that began in Italy in the mid-1300s. It was initiated by scholars called humanists who promoted the human-centered values of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanist ideals were soon influencing the arts, literature, philosophy, science, religion, and politics in Italy. During the early fifteenth century, innovations of the Italian Renaissance began spreading into the rest of Europe and reached a peak in the sixteenth century.
Becomes successful playwright
Ben Jonson was born on June 11, 1572, in or near London, England, and received his formal education at Westminster School. He did not continue his schooling, probably because his stepfather forced him to engage in the more practical business of bricklaying. Nevertheless, Jonson studied the classics (literary works by ancient Greek and Roman writers) throughout his active life. He began his theatrical career as a strolling player in towns throughout the country. By 1597 he had returned to London and had begun writing plays. Jonson's first piece of dramatic writing, The Isle of Dogs, was judged to be a "lewd" (indecent) work containing material that was "seditious" (treasonous) and "slanderous" (damaging to a person' reputation). Jonson was imprisoned for this offense. In 1598 he was in more serious trouble. Having killed a fellow actor in a duel, he escaped hanging only by claiming right of clergy—that is, by reciting a few words of a religious nature in Latin, which was commonly known as "neck-verse."
The English dramatist and poet Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was another important figure in the English Renaissance. He was the first English playwright to make significant advances in tragic drama. He was killed at age twenty-seven, and scholars speculate that if he had lived longer he would certainly have rivaled the dramatic genius of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
Marlowe was born in Canterbury, England, in February 1564, about two months before Shakespeare. He received his early education at King's School in Canterbury and at age seventeen enrolled at Cambridge University, where he held a scholarship requiring him to study for the ministry. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1584 and a master of arts degree in 1587. Toward the end of his stay at Cambridge he evidently aroused the suspicions of university authorities, who threatened to withhold his degree. The Queen's Privy Council (chief advisers of Queen Elizabeth I) intervened, however, and assured the authorities that Marlowe "had done Her Majesty good service." The nature of this service is still a mystery, but it is likely that Marlowe was involved in a secret espionage (spying) mission abroad.
Shortly after receiving his master's degree, Marlowe went to London. He soon became known for his wild behavior and unconventional ideas. In 1589 he was imprisoned for a time in connection with the death of a certain William Bradley, who had been killed in a violent quarrel in which Marlowe played an important part. Several times Marlowe was accused of being an "atheist" (one who does not believe in God) and a "blasphemer" (one who makes insulting statements about God or the church). One of his main accusers was fellow playwright Thomas Kyd (1558–1594). These charges led to Marlowe's arrest in 1593, but he died before his case was decided.
Marlowe was killed in a tavern fight on May 30, 1593. He was dining in the town of Deptford with a man named Ingram Frizer and two other men. In the course of an argument over the tavern bill, Marlowe wounded Frizer with a dagger. Frizer then seized the same dagger and stabbed Marlowe over the right eye. According to the coroner's inquest, Marlowe died instantly. Despite the unusual wealth of detail surrounding this fatal episode, there has been much speculation about the affair. It has been suggested, for example, that the deed was politically motivated and that Frizer (who was subsequently judged to have acted in self-defense) was simply acting as an agent for a more prominent person.
Marlowe's career as a poet and dramatist spanned a mere six years. Between his graduation from Cambridge in 1587 and his death in 1593 he wrote only one major poem (Hero and Leander, unfinished at his death) and six or seven plays. One play, Dido Queen of Carthage, may have been written while he was still a student. Marlowe's best-known tragedies are Tamburlaine the Great (1590), Doctor Faustus (1604), and The Jew of Malta (1633). In each of these plays he focused on a single character who dominates the action with his extraordinary strength of will. Shakespeare later perfected this form in his famous tragedies.
In the same year Jonson's first major work, Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare taking the lead role. Called a "comedy of humors," the play features characters whose behavior is dictated by a dominating whim or affectation (pretense). It was followed by Every Man out of His Humour (c. 1599), Cynthia's Revels (1601), and Poetaster (1601). These three "comical satires" represent Jonson's contribution to the so-called war of the theaters—a short-lived feud between rival theatrical companies. Jonson then wrote one of his most important works, the tragedy Sejanus His Fall (1603), which was admired by intellectuals but considered boring by average playgoers.
By 1604, before he had written his most famous works, Jonson had become known as the foremost writer of masques in England. A masque is a type of theater that dates back to antiquity, in which actors wear masks over their faces, which both disguises their true appearance and helps amplify their voices in large theaters. He continued writing masques throughout his career, frequently in cooperation with the famous architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652), who designed the stage sets and machinery (devices used to produce effects and move scenery). Jonson's dramatic genius was fully revealed for the first time in Volpone (1606), a satiric comedy that contains the playwright's harshest and most unrelenting criticism of human vice (wrongdoing). All the principal figures are named (in Italian) after animals suggestive of their characters. For example, Volpone is the cunning fox and Voltore is the ravenous vulture (bird of prey that feeds on dead animals). The main action turns on Volpone's clever scheme to cheat those who are as greedy as he but not nearly so clever. With the help of his servant Mosca, he pretends to be deathly ill. Each of the dupes (those who are tricked) is encouraged to believe that he may be designated heir to Volpone's fortune. They try to win his favor by presenting him gifts. Volpone is too clever for his own good, however, and is finally, betrayed by Mosca and exposed to the magistrates, or judges, of Venice. The punishment imposed on him, and on the self-seeking dupes as well, is unusually severe for a comedy. In fact, there is almost nothing in Volpone which provokes laughter.
The satire of Jonson's next three comedies is less harsh. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609) features an elaborate plot built around a ridiculous character with an insane hatred of noise. In The Alchemist (1610) the characters are motivated more by vice than folly—particularly the vices of hypocrisy, or false virtue, and greed. Their punishment consists largely in their humiliating self-exposure. Bartholomew Fair (1614) has a relatively thin plot featuring a rich and varied collection of unusual characters. After Bartholomew Fair, Jonson's dramatic powers suffered a decline. Nonetheless, he remained an impressive and respected figure, especially in literary and intellectual circles. He was also idolized by a group of younger poets and playwrights who styled themselves as the "tribe of Ben."
Jonson's nondramatic writings included a grammar (rules for using language) of the English language (1640), a collection of notes and reflections titled Timber, or Discoveries (1640), and a large number of poems. After the death of King James I (1566–1625; see entry) in 1625, Jonson suffered a number of setbacks. His talents as a masque writer were not fully appreciated by the new king, so he was in less in demand and frequently short of money. After becoming paralyzed in 1628, Jonson was confined to his home in Westminster. He died nine years later and was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
For More Information
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. [Online] Available http://www.bartleby.com/100/, April 3, 2002.
"Ben Jonson." TheatreHistory.com. [Online] Available http://www.theatrehistory.com/british/jonson001.html, April 5, 2002.
Jokinen, Anniina. "Jonson, Ben." Luminarium Profile. [Online] Available http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/jonson/, April 5, 2002.
Jokinen, Anniina. "Marlowe, Christopher." Luminarium. [Online] Available http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/marlowe.htm, April 5, 2002.
"Jonson, Ben." Encyclopedia.com. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/[email protected]%20Jonson%20%20Ben, April 5, 2002.
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was once considered the fastest man on earth, and had an Olympic gold medal to prove it. However, when he was found to be using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, he was stripped of his honors and suspended from competition.
Shy and Quiet
Born in Falmouth, Jamaica, Johnson was the fifth of six children of Ben Johnson, Sr., a telephone repair worker who also had a small farm, and Gloria Johnson. Johnson grew up playing outside, swimming all day, and running whenever he could. As a child, he idolized Jamaican sprinter Donald Quarrie and Trinidadian sprinter Hasely Crawford. He also wanted to be like his older brother, Edward, who was a local running star. In school, Johnson was quiet and shy, perhaps as a result of a speech impediment; he frequently stuttered.
In 1972, Johnson's mother decided that she wanted her children to have a better life than they could have in Jamaica, and took Johnson and three of his siblings to Toronto, Canada, where she had found work as a cook. Although Johnson's father joined the family for a short time, he eventually returned to his job with the Jamaican telephone company, visiting the family on holidays and staying in touch over the phone.
Johnson's stutter had not improved, and combined with his Jamaican accent, made him self-conscious in school. Placed in remedial classes, he finally graduated from Yorkdale High School with basic reading and math skills. He briefly attended Centennial College, a community college in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, but quit to devote himself to track.
Trains with Charles Francis
In 1977 he and his brother Edward began training with coach Charles Francis at the Scarborough Optimist Track Club. Johnson was not promising when he first arrived: he could barely run one lap around the club track. However, under Francis's guidance, he gained weight and strength. In 1978, he came in fourth in the 50 meters at the Canadian National Indoor Track and Field Championships. In 1980, he came in second in the 100 meters in the Canadian men's championships.
In 1980, Johnson was beaten for the first time by American sprinter Carl Lewis . It would not be the last time Lewis beat Johnson, and Johnson became determined to beat Lewis. At the 1984 Olympics, however, Lewis won four gold medals, and Johnson had to settle for two bronze medals in the 100 meters and 400 meters.
The Fastest Man in the World
In 1985, Johnson finally beat Lewis at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For the next two years he was the top sprinter in the world, winning the 100 meters in the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow. In 1987 he set four indoor world records and won the outdoor World Championships in Rome with a world-record time of 9.83. In Rome, Johnson finished a meter ahead of Lewis, and was widely hailed as the fastest man on earth and a Canadian national hero.
Lewis told members of the press that some of the other athletes in the Rome competition must be using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. He didn't mention Johnson by name, but it was clear that he meant Johnson. Johnson, like the other athletes, was tested after his Rome victory and passed, making it seem that Lewis's charges were unfounded and based only on jealousy. In addition to Lewis's charges, Johnson struggled with a hamstring injury, numerous endorsement deals and business opportunities, and questions about his amateur status; he was making so much money from his endorsements that he hardly qualified as an amateur.
Stripped of His Gold Medal
Nevertheless, Johnson was expected to win gold in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. He did win, setting a new record with an amazing time of 9.79 seconds. But when he was tested for drugs authorities found traces of an anabolic steroid, stanozolol, in his urine. Johnson was stripped of his gold medal, which went to Lewis, who had come in second. In addition, he was suspended from competition for two years. Johnson denied having taken drugs for some time, until Francis testified in court that Johnson had been using them. Johnson finally admitted that he had been taking drugs since 1981, making all his previous achievements seem questionable.
Stripped of His World Records
Johnson lost all his endorsement contracts, and officials considered stripping him of his 1987 Rome victory. Francis testified in 1989 that Johnson had indeed taken steroids before setting his Rome world record. In 1989, the International Amateur Athletic Foundation passed a resolution stating that as of January 1, 1990, Johnson's previous world records would be declared invalid. As of that date, Carl Lewis held the record for the 100 meters with a time of 9.92, and lee McRae held the 60-meter record with a time of 6.50.
In 1990, Johnson was reinstated to Olympic competition. He began working with a new coach, Loren Sea-grave, and planned to compete in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He told Nancy Wood in Maclean's, "I'll win the gold medal for sure." However, when he went to the Olympics, he did not make it into the final competition in the 100 meters. In January of 1992, Johnson competed in a Montreal track meet, where he was tested for drugs and found to be using testosterone. As a result, the International Amateur Athletic Foundation slapped him with a lifetime ban from competition.
|1961||Born in Falmouth, Jamaica|
|1972||Moves to Canada with his mother and siblings|
|1984||Competes in Summer Olympics, wins two bronze medals|
|1987||Earns four indoor world records|
|1988||Wins gold medal in Seoul Olympics, but it is stripped when his drug use is revealed|
|1988||Banned from competition for two years|
|1990||Reinstated to Olympic eligibility|
|1990||Stripped of his world records|
|1992||Fails to make finals in Barcelona Olympic 100 meters|
|1993||Banned from competition for life after testing positive for drugs|
|1999||Appeals life ban, but is denied|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1987||Sets four indoor world records, but they are later stripped because Johnson set them while on drugs|
|1988||Wins gold in 100 meters in Seoul Olympics, but it is stripped from him when his drug use is revealed|
In Maclean's, Mary Nemeth quoted Carl Lewis's agent, Joe Douglas, who said of Johnson's career, "I think his entire life has been a make-believe world. He has talent, but his performances are chemical.… When you lose everything, I don't think anybody should be surprised that there's temptation." In 1999, Johnson appealed to be reinstated to competition, but his appeal was denied. Johnson told Charles P. Pierce in Esquire, "I cannot get my name back. Over the years, the media make me a monster, a villain. They make me a one-way figure on a two-way street."
"Ben Johnson," Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 1, Gale Research, 1992.
"Ban Again," Sports Illustrated, (March 15, 1993): 9.
Benjamin, Daniel, "Shame of the Game," Time, (October 10, 1998): 74.
"Denied," Maclean's, (August 30, 1999): 9.
Hersch, Hank, "The Erasing of Johnson," Sports Illustrated, (September 18, 1989): 17.
Moore, Kenny, "Clean and Slower," Sports Illustrated, (July 22, 1991): 26.
Moore, Kenny, "Rising From the Shadows," Sports Illustrated, (November 30, 1987): 94.
Nemeth, Mary, "Scandal: At 21, Ben Johnson Faces a Lifetime Ban from Track," Maclean's, (March 15, 1993): 18.
Noden, Merrell, "A Dirty Coach Comes Clean," Sports Illustrated, (March 13, 1989): 22.
O'Brien, Richard, "A New Start," Sports Illustrated, (January 21, 1991): 26.
Pierce, Charles P., "Ten Years Later, He Can Laugh About It," Esquire, (February, 1999): 50.
Wood, Chris, "Dash of Humility," Maclean's, (July 27, 1992): 50.
Wood, Nancy, "A Clean Break: Ben Johnson Gets Set to Compete Again," Maclean's, (August 20, 1990): 14.
Sketch by Kelly Winters
The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) is best known for his satiric comedies. An immensely learned man with an irascible and domineering personality, he was, next to Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance.
Ben Jonson was probably born in or near London, about a month after the death of his clergyman father. He received his formal education at Westminster School, where he studied under the renowned scholar William Camden. He did not continue his schooling, probably because his stepfather forced him to engage in the more practical business of bricklaying. He spent a brief period as a soldier in Flanders and sometime between 1592 and 1595 he was married.
English literature, and particularly the drama, had already entered its golden age when Ben Jonson began his career. Jonson's special contribution to this remarkably exuberant age was his strong sense of artistic form and control. Although an accomplished scholar, he had an unusual appreciation of the colloquial speech habits of the unlettered, which he used with marked effect in many of his plays.
Jonson began his theatrical career as a strolling player in the provinces. By 1597 he was in London, the center of dramatic activity, and had begun writing plays for the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe. In what is probably his first piece of dramatic writing. The Isle of Dogs, Jonson ran afoul of the law. The play (which has not survived) was judged to be a "lewd" work containing "seditious and slanderous matter," and Jonson was imprisoned. In 1598 he was in more serious trouble. Having killed a fellow actor in a duel, he escaped hanging only by claiming right of clergy—that is, by reciting a few words of Latin commonly known as "neck-verse."
In the same year Jonson's first major work, Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare taking the lead role. This play stands as a model of the "comedy of humors," in which each character's behavior is dictated by a dominating whim or affectation. It is also a very cleverly constructed play.
Jonson's next major play, Every Man out of His Humour, appeared in 1599 or early 1600, followed closely by Cynthia's Revels (1601) and Poetaster (1601). These three "comical satires" represent Jonson's contribution to the so-called war of the theaters—a short-lived feud between rival theatrical companies involving Thomas Dekker, John Marston, and perhaps other playwrights in addition to Jonson himself. After this brief but heated skirmish, Jonson turned his energies to what he clearly regarded as one of his most important works, Sejanus His Fall, which eventually appeared in 1603. This rigidly classical tragedy was admired by some of Jonson's learned contemporaries, but the great majority of playgoers considered it a pedantic bore. Jonson's only other surviving tragedy, Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), met with a similar fate.
By 1604, before he had written his most enduring works, Jonson had become known as the foremost writer of masques in England. These highly refined allegorical spectacles were designed for courtly audiences, and as a rule members of noble or royal families took part in the performances. Jonson continued writing masques throughout his career, frequently in cooperation with the famous architect Inigo Jones, who designed the stage sets and machinery.
Jonson's dramatic genius was fully revealed for the first time in Volpone, or the Fox (1606), a brilliant satiric comedy which Jonson claimed was "fully penned" in 5 weeks. It was favorably received not only by London theatergoers but by more sophisticated audiences at Oxford and Cambridge.
Volpone contains Jonson's harshest and most unremitting criticism of human vice. All the principal figures are named (in Italian) after animals suggestive of their characters: for example, Volpone, the cunning fox, and Voltore, the ravenous vulture. The main action turns on Volpone's clever scheme to cheat those who are as greedy as he but not nearly so clever. With the help of his servant Mosca, he pretends to be deathly ill; each of the dupes, encouraged to believe that he may be designated heir to Volpone's fortune, tries to win his favor by presenting him with gifts. Volpone is too clever for his own good, however, and is finally betrayed by Mosca and exposed to the magistrates of Venice. The punishment imposed on him (and on the self-seeking dupes as well) is unusually severe for a comedy; in fact, there is almost nothing in Volpone which provokes laughter.
The satire of Jonson's next three comedies is more indulgent. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609) is an elaborate intrigue built around a farcical character with an insane hatred of noise. The principal intriguer, Sir Dauphine Eugenie, tricks his noise-hating uncle Morose into marrying a woman Morose believes to be docile and quiet. She, however, turns out to be an extremely talkative person with a horde of equally talkative friends. After tormenting his uncle and in effect forcing him into a public declaration of his folly, Sir Dauphine reveals that Morose's voluble wife is actually a boy disguised as a woman.
In The Alchemist (1610) the characters are activated more by vice than folly—particularly the vices of hypocrisy and greed. Jonson's treatment of such characters, however, is less harsh than it was in Volpone, and their punishment consists largely in their humiliating self-exposure. Bartholomew Fair (1614), unlike Jonson's other comic masterpieces, does not rely on complicated intrigue and deception. Its relatively thin plot is little more than an excuse for parading an enormously rich and varied collection of unusual characters.
After Bartholomew Fair, Jonson's dramatic powers suffered a decline. His major achievements were solidified by the appearance of his Works in a carefully prepared folio volume published in 1616. Although he continued writing plays for another 15 years, most of these efforts have been dismissed as "dotages." He remained nonetheless an impressive and respected figure, especially in literary and intellectual circles. In 1619, for example, he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. He was also idolized by a group comprising younger poets and playwrights who styled themselves the "tribe of Ben."
It is from this last phase of Jonson's dramatic career that much of the information about his personal life and character comes. One major source of information is the record of conversations with Jonson kept by the Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden. In the summer of 1618 Jonson took a walking tour to Scotland, in the course of which he spent a few days with Drummond. His host concluded that Jonson was "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth; … oppressed with fancy, which hath ever mastered his reason." This somewhat unflattering portrait accords reasonably well with the personality that reveals itself indirectly in Jonson's plays.
Jonson's nondramatic writings include a grammar of English (printed in 1640), a miscellaneous collection of notes and reflections on various authors entitled Timber, or Discoveries (also printed in 1640), and a large number of poems, almost all of them written in response to particular events in the poet's experience. Most of his poetry was written in short lyric forms, which he handled with great skill. His lyric style tends to be simple and unadorned yet highly polished, as in the epigram on the death of his first daughter, which begins "Here lies to each her parents ruth,/ Mary, the daughter of their youth."
After the death of King James I in 1625, Jonson suffered a number of setbacks. His talents as a masque writer were not fully appreciated by the new king, and as a result Jonson was frequently short of money. He was paralyzed in 1628 and confined for the remainder of his life to his home in Westminster. He evidently continued his scholarly study of the classics, which had occupied him throughout his active life. He died on Aug. 6, 1637. In recognition of his stature as the foremost man of letters of his age, he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The standard biography of Jonson is C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, Ben Jonson: The Man and His Work (1925), which constitutes the first 2 volumes of an 11-volume edition of Jonson's works completed in 1952. The following works contain detailed criticism of most of Jonson's plays: Edward B. Partridge, The Broken Compass: A Study of the Major Comedies of Ben Jonson (1958); Jonas A. Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (1960); and Robert E. Knoll, Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction (1964). Useful background studies are L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937); Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert H. Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama (1943; rev. ed. 1958); Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (1954); and Muriel Clara Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (1955). □
Died: August 6, 1637
English writer, playwright, and poet
Ben Jonson was an English playwright and poet best known for his satiric comedies (types of comedies that poke fun at human weaknesses). In many peoples opinion he was, next to William Shakespeare (1564–1616), the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance (roughly the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries).
Ben Jonson was probably born in or near London, England, about a month after the death of his father, a clergyman (someone who works for the church). His father gained his position when King Henry VIII (1491–1547) ruled England, but lost it after Queen Mary (1516–1558) took the throne.
Jonson's mother then married a bricklayer. This may be why he did not continue his schooling. His stepfather made him work in the more practical business of bricklaying. Jonson also spent some time as a soldier and a traveling actor. He married sometime between 1592 and 1595.
Many people thought that English literature, and particularly drama, had already reached as high as it could when Ben Jonson began his career. But Jonson helped it gain even higher goals. Jonson's special gift was his strong sense of artistic form and control. Although an accomplished scholar, he could also write in the way everyday people spoke. It was because of this skill that he was liked by both people who were well read and by people who did not have an advanced education.
Jonson's first major play was Every Man in His Humour. It was performed by a theater group called the Lord Chamberlain's Men. William Shakespeare performed the lead role. This play is a model of what is called the "comedy of humors," in which each character's action is ruled by a whim (impulse) or affectation (artificial behavior meant to impress others). After this play Jonson wrote Every Man out of His Humour in 1599 or early 1600, followed closely by Cynthia's Revels (1601) and Poetaster (1601).
Jonson gained fame when he wrote Volpone, or the Fox in 1606. It was loved not only by the people in London but also by the scholars at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This was a major success for Jonson. After Volpone, Jonson wrote Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614).
After Bartholomew Fair, Jonson did not write very well. However, many young poets and playwrights considered him a hero and called themselves "sons of Ben" or the "tribe of Ben." He was always considered an impressive and respected figure.
Much of the information about Jonson's personal life comes to us after this last period of playwriting. He spent a lot of time with the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649) in 1618. Drummond wrote down all the conversations he had with Jonson. Drummond said that Jonson was "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner [despiser] and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest." In other words, Jonson made many jokes about other people and considered himself superior to others.
Jonson also wrote many other nondramatic writings, including a grammar of English, a miscellaneous (made of many different parts) collection of notes, and reflections on various authors entitled Timber, or Discoveries (also printed in 1640). He also wrote a large number of poems, almost all of them written in response to particular events in the poet's experience. Most of his poetry was written in short lyric (songlike) forms, which he handled with great skill. Jonson's poetic style also tends to be simple and unadorned yet highly polished, as in the epigram (a short witty poem) on the death of his first daughter, which begins "Here lies to each her parents ruth [sorrow],/Mary, the daughter of their youth."
After the death of King James I of England (1603–1625) in 1625, Jonson suffered a number of setbacks. His talents were not fully appreciated by the new king, and as a result Jonson was frequently short of money. He was paralyzed in 1628 due to illness and confined for the remainder of his life to his home in Westminster. He continued his scholarly study of the classics, which had occupied him throughout his active life.
Jonson died on August 6, 1637. Because he was considered one of the most accomplished writers of the time, he was given the special honor of being buried in Westminster Abbey, in England.
For More Information
Barish, Jonas A. Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Kay, W. David. Ben Jonson: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.