Ben Jonson

Portrait of Ben Jonson, c. 1617
Portrait of Ben Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch, c. 1617 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Biography

Ben Jonson, poet and playwright, was born in London on 11 June 1572. His father, a clergyman, died a month before he was born, and his mother soon married Robert Brett, a master bricklayer.

Education

He attended Westminster School from around the late 1570s, where his tutor was the famous historian William Camden: Jonson later wrote that he owed to Camden ‘All that I am in arts, all that I know’. Not able to attend university, Jonson’s Westminster years provided the most important educational experience of his life, and sparked his love of classical authors such as the Roman poet Horace.

Early employment, marriage and family

After Westminster, Jonson served as a soldier in the Netherlands, and worked for his stepfather as a bricklayer. In 1594 he married Anne Lewis. The deaths of their children Mary and Benjamin are movingly recorded in Jonson’s poems ‘On my first daughter’ and ‘On my first sonne’.

Jonson’s career in the theatre

Jonson started out in the theatre as an actor, but quickly moved into writing plays. His earliest surviving play, The Case is Altered, was performed in 1597, and his first smash hit, the sophisticated city comedy Every Man in his Humour, in 1598. Jonson produced the comedies for which he is now most famous in nine intensive years: Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614).

The coronation of James I in 1603 marked the beginning of Jonson’s long literary relationship with the Stuarts. Over the next four decades, often in collaboration with the theatre designer Inigo Jones, he wrote many entertainments for the royal family.

Friendships and rivalries

Though he had many long-lasting friendships, Jonson seems to have been quarrelsome, thin-skinned and, in the words of his good friend William Drummond, ‘a great lover and praiser of himself’. In 1598 he killed his opponent in a duel, narrowly avoiding execution for manslaughter. Jonson took aim at his fellow playwrights, who mocked his bricklaying background and sense of superiority, in his viciously satiric play Poetaster (c. 1601). His relationship with Jones at the Stuart court was finally destroyed by rivalry.

Fame and death

Jonson masterminded the publication of his Workes in 1616, which collected his entertainments, some of his poetry, and many of his plays. This unprecedented volume set the scene for William Shakespeare’s posthumous First Folio in 1623. Jonson was rewarded with a royal pension and, with Shakespeare’s death, was widely regarded as England’s greatest living author.

He journeyed on foot to Scotland in 1618, and was appointed City Chronologer to the City of London in 1628 (‘To collect and set down all memorable acts of this City and occurences thereof’). The same year he possibly suffered a paralytic stroke. He died on 6 August 1637, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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