Benjamin Jonson (circa June 11, 1572 – August 6, 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. He is best known for his plays Volpone and The Alchemist and his lyric poems. A man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy, Jonson had an unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets.
Although he was born in Westminster, London, Jonson claimed his family was of Scottish Border country descent, and this claim may be confirmed by the fact that his coat of arms bears three spindles or rhombi, a device shared by a Borders family, the Johnstones of Annandale. His father died a month before Ben's birth, and his mother remarried two years later, to a master bricklayer. Jonson attended school in St. Martin's Lane, and was later sent to Westminster School, where one of his teachers was William Camden. Jonson remained friendly with Camden, whose broad scholarship evidently influenced his own style, until the latter's death in 1623. 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 volunteer with the regiments of Francis Vere. Jonson reports that while in the Netherlands, he killed an opponent in single combat and stripped him of his weapons. Since the war was otherwise languishing during his service, this fight appears to have been the extent of his combat experience.
Ben Jonson married some time before 1592, to a woman he described to Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest." The registers of St 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. For five years somewhere in this period, Jonson lived separate from his wife, enjoying instead the hospitality of Lord Aubigny.
By the summer of 1597, Jonson had a fixed engagement in the Admiral's Men, then performing under Philip Henslowe's management at The Rose. John Aubrey reports, on uncertain authority, that Jonson was not successful as an actor; whatever his skills as an actor, he was evidently more valuable to the company as a writer.
By this time, Jonson had begun to write original plays for the Lord Admiral's Men; 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 satirised Lord Cobham. It was the first of several run-ins with the authorities.
In 1598, Jonson produced his first great success, Every Man in his Humour, capitalising on the vogue for humour plays that had been begun by George Chapman with An Humorous Day's Mirth. William Shakespeare was among 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.
That same year, Jonson's irascibility landed him in jail. In a duel on September 22 in Hogsden Fields, he killed one of his fellow-actors, a member of the Admiral's Men 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 clergy,a legal maneuver which, by Jonson's day, meant only that he was able to gain leniency by reciting a brief bible verse in Latin. The move saved his life but he was forced to forfeit his property and was 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; the version of the play with his additions was published in quarto in 1602.
Jonson's other work for the theater in the last years of Elizabeth I's reign was, unsurprisingly, marked by fighting and controversy. Cynthia's Revels was produced by the Chapel Children in 1600. It satirized both John Marston, who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness, probably in Histrio-Mastix, and Thomas Dekker, against whom Jonson's animus is not known. Jonson attacked the same two poets again in 1601's Poetaster. Dekker responded with Satiromastix, subtitled "the untrussing of the humorous poet." The final scene of this play, while certainly not to be taken at face value as a portrait of Jonson, offers a caricature that is recognizable from Drummond's report: boasting about himself and condemning other poets, criticizing actors' performances of his plays, and calling attention to himself in any available way.
The "war" appears to have been concluded with reconciliation on all sides. Jonson collaborated with Dekker on a pageant welcoming James I to England in 1603, although Drummond reports that Jonson called Dekker a rogue. Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson, and the two collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho, a play of 1605 whose anti-Scottish sentiment landed both authors in jail for a brief time.
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. He was again in trouble for topical allusions in a play, now lost, in which he took part. After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, he appears to have been asked by the Privy Council to attempt to prevail on certain priests connected with the conspirators to cooperate with the government; whatever steps he took in this regard do not appear to have been successful (Teague, 249).
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 and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort, Anne of Denmark.
Ben Jonson's ascendance
Jonson flourished as a dramatist during the first decade or so of James's reign; by 1616, he had produced all the plays on which his reputation as a dramatist depends. These include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only limited success, and the comedies 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). The Alchemist and Volpone appear to have been successful at once. Of Epicoene, Jonson told Drummond of a satirical verse which reported that the play's subtitle was appropriate, since its audience had refused to applaud the play (i.e., remained silent). Yet Epicoene, along with Bartholomew Fair and (to a lesser extent) The Devil is an Ass have in modern times achieved a certain degree of recognition.
At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career as a writer of masques for James's court. The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605) are but two of the some two dozen masques Jonson wrote for James or for Queen Anne; the latter was praised by Swinburne as the consummate example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing, and spectacle. On many of these projects he collaborated, not always peacefully, with designer Inigo Jones. Perhaps partly as a result of this new career, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theaters for a decade.
1616 saw a pension of 100 marks (about 60 pounds) a year conferred upon him, leading some to identify him as England's first Poet Laureate. This sign of royal favour 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 for us aspects of Jonson's personality that would otherwise have been less clearly seen. Jonson delivers his opinions, in Drummond's terse reporting, in an expansive and even magisterial mood. 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.
The period between 1605 and 1620 may be viewed as Jonson's heyday. In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson's most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst.
Decline and death
The 1620s begin a lengthy and slow decline for Jonson. He was still well-known; from this time dates the prominence of the Tribe of Ben, those younger poets such as Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling who took their bearing in verse from Jonson. However, a series of setbacks drained his strength and damaged his reputation.
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 lukewarm reception given that play was, however, nothing compared to the dismal failure of The New Inn; the cold reception given this play prompted Jonson to write a poem condemning his audience (the Ode to Myself), which in turn prompted Thomas Carew, one of the "Tribe of Ben," to respond in a poem that asks Jonson to recognize his own decline (MacLean, 88).
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, succeeding Thomas Middleton; 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, 1st Duke of Newcastle.
The principal factor in Jonson's partial eclipse was, however, the death of James and the accession of King Charles I in 1625. Justly or not, Jonson felt neglected by the new court. A decisive quarrel with Jones harmed his career as a writer of court masques, although he continued to entertain the court on an irregular basis. For his part, Charles displayed a certain degree of care for the great poet of his father's day: he increased Jonson's annual pension to 100 pounds and included a tierce of wine.
Despite the strokes that he suffered in the 1620s, Jonson continued to write. 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.
Apart from two tragedies that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences and have not gained much in reputation since, Jonson's work for the public theaters was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for the boy players, present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies. His late plays or "dotages," particularly The Magnetic Lady and The Sad Shepherd, exhibit some signs of an accomodation with the romantic tendencies of Elizabethan comedy.
With these exceptions noted, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognizable. He announces his program in the prologue to the folio version of Every Man in His Humour; he promises to represent "deeds, and language, such as men do use." He planned to write comedies that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory--or rather, since all but the loosest English comedies could claim to have descended from Plautus and Terence, he intended to apply those premises with rigor (Doran, 120ff). This commitment entailed negations: after The Case is Altered, Jonson eschewed distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots, and other staples of Elizabethan comedy. Jonson focused instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy. He sets his plays in contemporary settings, peoples them with recognizable types, and sets them to actions that, if not strictly realistic, involve everyday motives such as greed and jealousy. To this classical model Jonson applies the two features of his style which save his classical imitations from mere pedantry: the vividness with which he depicts the lives of his characters, and the intricacy of his plots. Coleridge, for instance, claimed that The Alchemist had one of the three most perfect plots in literature.
Jonson's poetry, like his drama, is informed by his classical learning. Some of his better-known poems are close translations of Greek or Roman models; all display the careful attention to form and style that often came naturally to those trained in classics in the humanist manner. Jonson, however, largely avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that had consumed Elizabethan classicists such as Campion and Harvey. Accepting both rhyme and stress, Jonson uses them to mimic the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint, and precision.
“Epigrams” (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. Jonson’s epigrams explore various attitudes, most of them from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers, and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are somewhat longer and mostly addressed to specific individuals. The poems of “The Forest” also appeared in the first folio. Most of the fifteen poems are addressed to Jonson’s aristocratic supporters, but the most famous are his country-house poem “To Penshurst” and the poem “To Celia” (“Come, my Celia, let us prove”) that appears also in ‘’Volpone’’.
‘’Underwoods’’, published in the expanded folio of 1640, is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains ‘’A Celebration of Charis’’, Jonson’s most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth; the ‘’Execration against Vulcan”; and others. The 1640 volume also contains three elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne (one of them appeared in Donne’s posthumous collected poems).
Relationship with Shakespeare
There are many legends about Jonson's rivalry with Shakespeare, some of which may be true. Drummond reports that during their conversation, Jonson scoffed at two apparent absurdities in Shakespeare's plays: a nonsensical line in Julius Caesar, and the setting of The Winter's Tale on the non-existent seacoast of Bohemia. Drummond also reports Jonson saying that Shakespeare "wanted art." Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, it cannot be denied that the comments fit well with Jonson's well-known theories about literature.
In Timber, which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more irenic comment. He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e., crossed out) a line when he wrote. His own response, "Would he had blotted a thousand," was taken as malicious. However, Jonson explains, "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped". Jonson concludes that "there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned."
Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern, in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the two men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson's references to him but because Shakespeare's company produced a number of Jonson's plays, one of which (Every Man in his Humour) Shakespeare acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated in the present state of knowledge.
Jonson's most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the prefatory verse that opens the First Folio. This poem did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine and less Greek," had a natural genius. The poem may be said to exemplify the contrast Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and skeptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules but those of the audiences for which he wrote.
Reception and Influence
With rare exceptions, critics since the seventeenth century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasize the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber, and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies. For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson (representing art or craft) with Shakespeare (representing nature, or untutored genius) has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to initiate this interpretation in his poem on Shakespeare.
John Dryden offered a similar assessment in the Essay of Dramatic Poesie, when he has his avatar Neander compare Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil: the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice. For Lewis Theobald, too, Jonson “ow[ed] all his Excellence to his Art,” in contrast to Shakespeare, the natural genius. When, in the 1750s, Edward Young can casually remark on the way in which Jonson’s learning worked, like Samson’s strength, to his own detriment, it is safe to say that a consensus had formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with much accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life.
The romantic revolution in criticism tended to change Jonson’s position in English literary history without substantially altering the critical estimation of him. Hazlitt refers dismissively to Jonson’s “laborious caution.” Coleridge, while more respectful, describes Jonson as psychologically superficial: “He was a very accurately observing man; but he cared only to observe what was open to, and likely to impress, the senses.” Coleridge, like Dryden, placed Jonson second only to Shakespeare; other romantic critics were less approving. The early nineteenth century was the great age for recovering Renaissance drama. Jonson, whose reputation had survived, appears to have been less interesting to some readers than writers such as Middleton or Heywood, who were in some senses “discoveries” of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the emphasis the romantic writers placed on imagination, and their concomitant tendency to distrust studied art, may have sharpened their awareness of the difference traditionally noted between Jonson and Shakespeare. This trend in criticism remains in the forefront through the Victorian age. Swinburne writes, “The flowers of his growing have every quality but one which belongs to the rarest and finest among flowers: they have colour, form, variety, fertility, vigour: the one thing they want is fragrance”—by “fragrance,” Swinburne means spontaneity.
In the twentieth century, Jonson’s body of work has been subject to a more varied set of analyses, broadly consistent with the interests and programs of modern literary criticism. T.S. Eliot’s essay, printed in ‘’The Sacred Wood’’, attempts to repudiate the charge that Jonson was an arid classicist by analyzing the role of imagination in his dialogue. Around mid-century, a number of critics and scholars followed Eliot’s lead, producing detailed studies of Jonson’s verbal style. At the same time, study of Elizabethan themes and conventions, such as those by E.E. Stoll and M. C. Bradbrook, provided a more vivid sense of how Jonson’s work was shaped by the expectations of his time.
The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. His work was not of programmatic interest to psychoanalytic critics, and he received less attention from the new critics than did some other playwrights. But Jonson’s career made him a focal point for the revived sociopolitical criticism. Jonson’s work, particularly his masques and pageants, offers significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, as do his contacts with and poems for aristocratic patrons; moreover, his career at the center of London’s emerging literary world has been seen as exemplifying the development of a fully commodified literary culture. In this respect, Jonson has been seen as a transitional figure, an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass consumption.
Biographies of Ben Jonson