‘O Rare Ben Jonson!’

‘O Rare Ben Jonson!’

Ben Jonson went from a classically educated schoolboy to an apprentice bricklayer and solider, before becoming one of the 17th-century's most eminent playwrights and poets. Andrew Dickson recounts Jonson's eventful life, and how his success was often marred by a difficult relationship with alcohol, with fellow playwrights and actors, and with theatre itself.

To see Ben Jonson is to see a series of absorbing contradictions. The adopted son of a bricklayer, Jonson rose to be one of the most important cultural figures in early 17th-century Britain, an ambitious literary socialite who became England’s first (unofficial) poet laureate and did more than any of his rivals to forge the modern image of the creator-author. As a playwright, he stands comparison with his slightly older contemporary William Shakespeare; as a poet, he is practically in a class of his own.

But there is a shadowy side to Jonson, too. A fractious and combative personality, he fell out with numerous collaborators, and once killed a fellow actor in a duel. This brilliant dramatist also had an anguished relationship with what he once called the ‘loathèd stage’, and composed biting moral satires even while living what he candidly admitted was an over-indulgent personal life. Among the numerous outsized personalities who dominated Stuart culture, Jonson was one of the largest – in every measurable sense.

Portrait of Ben Jonson, c. 1617

Portrait of Ben Jonson, c. 1617

Portrait of Ben Jonson painted at the height of his literary career.

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Books and bricks

Some of these complexities must relate to the odd circumstances of Jonson’s upbringing. He was born in central London in 1572 a month after the death of his father, whereupon his mother remarried a bricklayer, Robert Brett.[1] Jonson later said he had been ‘brought up poorly’, but that might be an exaggeration, and he had the great good fortune to be sent to Westminster School, perhaps paid for by a wealthy friend.[2] Westminster was the leading English grammar school of its day, and as well as receiving a top-notch humanistic education with detailed drilling in Latin and Greek, Jonson mingled with boys who would become the leading intellectual and political lights of his generation.

Desiderius Erasmus' Institutio Principis Christiani, or The Education of A Christian Prince, 1516

Desiderius Erasmus' Institutio Principis Christiani, or The Education of A Christian Prince 1516

Erasmus strongly advocated a classical and humanistic education in his handbook for Renaissance leaders – the title page of which is shown here.

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There is a story that Jonson briefly attended St John’s College, Cambridge, but was pulled out after a few weeks to help his stepfather’s building business. In any case, he seems to have worked intermittently as a labourer from the late 1580s onwards, no doubt expanding his horizons by reading in his free time. Jonson claimed that he ‘could not endure’ this work, and was later dogged by jokes about it (the biographer John Aubrey reports that he was once overheard reciting Homer while working on a building site).[3] Nonetheless, he wasn’t ashamed to keep up his subscription to the bricklayers’ guild until 1611, when he was at the zenith of his fame as a playwright – possibly because craftsmen, unlike writers, were well-respected in Elizabethan society.

Jonson seems to have left regular labouring work in the early 1590s, and by 1592 was in the Netherlands, fighting for the English army (and successfully killing a man in single combat, if his tales about the episode are to believed). He was soon back in London, and in 1594 married Anne Lewis, a woman about whom little is known, partly because Jonson himself – so voluble in other regards – was tight-lipped, merely describing her as ‘a shrew yet honest’.[4] There is evidence that the couple lived apart for substantial periods, indicating that the marriage may well have been unhappy. More certain is that it was unlucky: a son and daughter were both lost to illness, which occasioned some of Jonson’s sparest and most moving verse:

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by fate on the just day.
(‘On my First Son’, ll. 1–4)[5]

Though Jonson and Anne had another son, it is possible that this child, too, died young. And although Jonson fathered other children, they seem to have been with women other than his wife.

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

The Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1620) offers man-to-man advice on ‘how to chuse a good wife from a bad’ and how to address the tricky task of understanding women.

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To theatre – and prison

It’s unclear how Jonson got his start in the theatre world, but there’s evidence that he began as an actor, perhaps with a troupe touring the English countryside. One tradition holds that he played the part of the tragically mad hero Hieronymo in Thomas Kyd’s bloodthirsty and popular revenge drama The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1583–92), and by 1597 he was among the team of freelance writers employed by the impresario and playhouse owner Philip Henslowe.[6] Most likely Jonson would have been employed to ‘mend’ or adapt old plays as well as write new ones, and nearly all his work from this period is lost – perhaps because Jonson himself did not especially want to preserve it. After being involved in writing a satire, The Isle of Dogs (1597), which was suppressed by the authorities for being a ‘lewd plaie ... containing very seditious and sclanderous matter’, the playwright was thrown in jail for a few months.[7]

Jonson’s breakthrough came in 1598 with his play Every Man in His Humour. A smart, witty city comedy – the plot includes a young man about town trying to outwit his over-protective father, and another father jealous about his young wife – it was successfully debuted by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in the company, and became one of the biggest hits of its era.[8] But the year was also a bleak one for Jonson, who in September became involved in a heated dispute with the actor Gabriel Spencer that ended in a duel. Spencer was killed, and Jonson only escaped the gallows by reciting Psalm 51 (colloquially known as ‘neck verse’), a loophole available to anyone able to read. It seems to have been during this stint in prison that he converted to Catholicism, and his first surviving poems seem to come from around this period.

Jonson then spent several years embroiled in what became known as the ‘war of the theatres’, a score-settling competition with rival playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker, which produced the satires Every Man out of His Humour (c. 1599) and Poetaster (1601). Jonson also wrote a none-too-subtle attempt to curry favour with Elizabeth I, Cynthia’s Revels (c.1600), which flopped. In 1605, he contributed to the comedy Eastward Ho!, which unwisely satirised the newly installed King James I. Yet again, Jonson ended up in prison, and appears to have been in genuine danger of execution, if his story of his mother preparing poison for him to make his death less painful is to be believed.[9] He was also under heavy suspicion during the Catholic Gunpowder Plot that November, partly because of his faith but also because he knew many of the conspirators.

Autograph Letter by Ben Jonson Concerning The Gunpowder Plot

Autograph Letter by Ben Jonson Concerning The Gunpowder Plot

This is a letter from Jonson to Robert Cecil, senior advisor to King James I, written shortly after the discovery of the Plot.

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Royal blessings

Yet in other respects James’s arrival marked a turnaround for Jonson. That same year, 1605, he had devised a lavish court entertainment, The Masque of Blackness, in collaboration with the designer Inigo Jones. It was an enormous success, and helped the playwright win not only some much-craved social recognition, but lucrative commissions. Jonson would continue writing masques with Jones until the 1630s, producing some of the most dazzling – and dazzlingly expensive – theatrical spectacles England had ever seen.[10]

Autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, 1609

Autograph manuscript of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens, 1609

This handwritten title page declares that the masque was performed by ‘Anne Queene of great Britayne. &r. With her honorable ladyes. At white Hall Feb. 2. 1609’.

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Jonson also continued to write for the public stage. A decade-long burst of creativity that began early in the Jacobean era produced what many regard as his greatest plays. His coolly controlled Roman tragedy Sejanus debuted in 1603 (again with Shakespeare in the cast), and was followed by the slick Venetian comedy Volpone, Or the Fox (first performed 1606), and the London ‘city’ comedies The Alchemist (first performed 1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614) and The Devil is an Ass (1616). Not as often performed as they should be, the comedies in particular are brilliant, vivid pieces of work – busily plotted, sharply funny and populated by a rogue’s gallery of tricksters and their victims.[11]

First edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone, 1607

First edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone, 1607

Ben Jonson explains his views on the early modern theatre, and his moralistic motivation in writing satirical comedies in an epistle to the reader.

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Jonson’s sociability during this period is attested to by stories about the so-called ‘Mermaid Club’, based at the Mermaid Tavern on Cheapside, which involved many leading theatre folk and writers, among them John Donne and the playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher – not merely drinking sessions, if the legends are correct, but battles of intellectual wits.[12] Jonson also seems to have converted back to Protestantism in 1610; it’s likely that Donne, who would later become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, was involved. Despite this reconversion, Jonson seems to have lived as convivially as ever, in later life becoming a regular at the Apollo room at the Devil Tavern near Temple Bar in London. Many younger writers, among them Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew, attended the so-called ‘Apollo Club’, helping begin the movement that has become known as the ‘Tribe of Ben’ – a loose grouping who expressed admiration for Jonson’s verse and drama (not to mention his commitment to hard drinking).

Ben Jonson's Leges Convivales, or Rules for the Tavern Academy

Ben Jonson's Leges Convivales, or Rules for the Tavern Academy

Jonson wrote the house rules for the Apollo Club, which were originally painted on the wall of the tavern and have been published here in the 1692 edition of his Workes.

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But Jonson’s own affair with what he called the ‘loathèd stage’ (‘Ode to himself’, l. 1) was always tempestuous, and he yearned to be taken more seriously as an artist. In 1616, he took the audacious step of publishing his collected Workes in a meticulously produced folio edition – including, even more audaciously, his plays among them. Despite the criticism that followed – playwriting was generally regarded as populist hackwork – this did much to make drama a respectable art, particularly when Jonson was awarded a royal pension later that year, becoming in effect England’s first poet laureate. It’s almost certain that without Jonson’s publication, Shakespeare’s colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell would not have produced a folio edition of his own collected plays in 1623 – a volume to which Jonson contributed two heartfelt but unsentimental poetic tributes.[14]

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio

Poetic tribute to Shakespeare, in which Jonson famously states that his friend/rival had only ‘small Latine, and lesse Greeke’.

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Shakespeare’s death in 1616 meant that Jonson was now regarded as England’s most pre-eminent writer, but he seems to have been as restless as ever. He left London in 1618 to embark on a year-long walking tour of England and Scotland, en route meeting the writer William Drummond, who avidly noted down their conversations (the source of many of Jonson’s best anecdotes). It’s possible that he remarried at this point, but he seems to have devoted himself mostly to scholarship and writing, particularly poetry.

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

Works by John Donne and Ben Jonson in the Newcastle Manuscript

An epitaph composed by Jonson for his friend, Sir William Cavendish (later Duke of Newcastle), on the death of his mother.

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Jonson’s last years were tough. His much-prized library and a number of unpublished manuscripts went up in smoke in a house fire in 1623 – a loss bitterly recorded in his poem ‘An Execration Upon Vulcan’ – and the accession of Charles I in 1625 meant that his star began to wane, particularly when he fell out with Inigo Jones. Ruinously overweight and increasingly ill, the author perhaps suffered a stroke in 1628, his misery increased by a punishing lack of funds, no doubt linked to his extravagant tastes in wine and food. The biographer Izaak Walton records him being looked after by a serving woman, and commented that ‘nether he nor she tooke much Care for next weike: and wood be sure not to want Wine: of which he usually tooke too much before he went to bed, if not oftner and soner’.[15] There was a final burst of creativity that produced several more plays, but none of them were successful and Jonson died in 1637.

Perhaps the best epitaph comes from William Drummond, who despite revering Jonson seems to have looked on the older man with a clear gaze:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and Scorner of others, given rather to losse 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) a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well bot what either he himself, or some of his friends and Countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kynde and angry, carelesse either to gaine or keep, Vindicative, but if he be well answered, at himself.[16]

Generous and warm but alive to Jonson’s many faults, it is a tribute the author himself would no doubt have respected, and could even have penned.


Footnotes:

[1] The identification is not certain but plausible; it is possible that Jonson’s mother was called Rebecca. These and other biographical details are taken from Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 65. Donaldson’s essay on Jonson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is very readable and well worth consulting; online at: [http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/15116 ]. His more recent essay for the Cambridge edition of Johnson's works is freely available, and keyed to the new text [http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/k/essays/jonsons_life_essay/1/].

[2] Informations to William Drummond of Hawthornden, in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson, gen. eds David Bevington, Martin Butler and Ian Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 181, online at: [http://universitypublishingonline.org/cambridge/benjonson/]. Citations to Drummond are from this edition.

[3] Informations, p. 183; John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. by Richard Barber (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1982), p. 178.

[4] Informations, p. 192.

[5] Epigrams, p. 45, in the Cambridge Edition.

[6] Donaldson notes that The Spanish Tragedy was performed 29 times in Henslowe’s theatre alone, and that ‘the language of Kyd’s play seems to have worked in Jonson’s head like an old tune that he could never quite expel’ (A Life, p. 105).

[7] The play takes its name from the London area, but beyond the controversy that surrounded it very little is known. See The Lost Plays Database [https://www.lostplays.org/lpd/Isle_of_Dogs,_The], which includes the Privy Council’s outraged minutes.

[8] Richard Allen Cave offers a useful introduction to the play and its variant versions in his English Dramatists: Ben Jonson (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 20–30. A cheap edition of the text is in Ben Jonson, Five Plays, ed. by G A Wilkes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[9] Like many of the best stories about Jonson, the author himself is the source; see Informations, pp. 214–15.

10] A useful and informative edition of this remarkable artform is David Lindley, Court Masques (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). Ten of the Jonson/Jones masques are included.

[11] The most recent cheap edition is by Gordon Campbell (ed.), The Alchemist and Other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). Campbell’s introduction is also very good.

[12] The Luminarium online encyclopedia includes a brief entry on the Mermaid, along with a useful map of Elizabethan London [http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/mermaid.htm].

[13] For background, see Jennifer Brady and W H Herendeen (eds), Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio (Newark, DE, 1991), and Lynn S Meskill’s useful overview ‘Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio: A Revolution in Print?’, Edudes Episémè 14 (2008), 177–91, online at:[http://www.etudesepisteme.org/ee/file/num_14/ee_14_art_meskill.pdf].

[14] One sits opposite Martin Droeshout’s engraving of Shakespeare, right at the front of the volume; the other is entitled ‘To the memory of my Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us’. Jonson’s relationship with Shakespeare has been endlessly discussed, but from the evidence of the younger man’s tributes he seems to have had warm feelings towards his colleague-cum-rival, even though the tone of the latter poem is characteristically balanced – on the one hand comparing Shakespeare to the greatest authors of classical antiquity, yet making a point of criticising his ‘small Latine, and less Greeke’.

[15] Cited in Donaldson, A Life, p. 407; the relevant passage is in the ‘Life Records’ of the Cambridge Edition, p. 72.

[16] Informations, pp. 554–60.

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

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