Birthplace: London, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Westminster Abbey, London, England
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Volpone
English dramatist, born probably in Westminster, in the beginning of the year 1573 (or possibly, if he reckoned by the unadopted modern calendar, 1572). By the poet's account his grandfather had been a gentleman who came from Carlisle, and originally, the grandson thought, from Annandale. His arms, "three spindles or rhombi", are the family device of the Johnstones of Annandale, a fact which confirms his assertion of Border descent. Ben Jonson further related that he was born a month after the death of his father, who, after suffering in estate and person under Queen Mary, had in the end "turned minister." Two years after the birth of her son the widow married again; she may be supposed to have loved him in a passionate way peculiar to herself, since on one occasion we find her revealing an almost ferocious determination to save his honor at the cost of both his life and her own. Jonson's stepfather was a master bricklayer, living in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross, who provided his stepson with the foundations of a good education. After attending a private school in St. Martin's Lane, the boy was sent to Westminster School at the expense, it is said, of William Camden. Jonson's gratitude for an education to which in truth he owed an almost inestimable debt concentrated itself upon the "most reverend head" of his benefactor, then second and afterwards head master of the famous school, and the firm friend of his pupil in later life.
After reaching the highest form at Westminster, Jonson is stated, but on unsatisfactory evidence, to have proceeded to Cambridge -- according to Fuller, to St. John's College. He says, however, himself that he studied at neither university, but was put to a trade immediately on leaving school. He soon had enough of the trade, which was no doubt his father's bricklaying, for Henslowe in writing to Edward Alleyne of his affair with Gabriel Spenser calls him "bergemen [sic] Jonson, bricklayer." Either before or after his marriage -- more probably before, as Sir Francis Vere's three English regiments were not removed from the Low Countries until 1592 -- he spent some time in that country soldiering, much to his own subsequent satisfaction when the days of self-conscious retrospect arrived, but to no further purpose beyond that of seeing something of the world.
Ben Jonson married not later than 1592. The registers of St. Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Maria died in November 1593 when she was, Jonson tells us (epigram 22), only six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague ten years later (epigram 45). A younger Benjamin died in 1635. His wife Jonson characterized to Drummond as "a shrew, but honest"; and for a period (undated) of five years he preferred to live without her, enjoying the hospitality of Lord Aubigny (afterwards duke of Lennox). Long burnings of oil among his books, and long spells of recreation at the tavern, such as Jonson loved, are not the most favored accompaniments of family life. But Jonson was no stranger to the tenderest of affections: two at least of the several children whom his wife bore to him he commemorated in touching little tributes of verse; nor in speaking of his lost eldest daughter did he forget "her mother's tears." By the middle of 1597 we come across further documentary evidence of him at home in London in the shape of an entry in Philip Henslowe's diary (July 28) of 3s. 6d. "received of Bengemenes Johnsones share." He was therefore by this time -- when Shakespeare, his senior by nearly nine years, was already in prosperous circumstances and good esteem -- at least a regular member of the acting profession, with a fixed engagement in the lord admiral's company, then performing under Henslowe's management at the Rose. Perhaps he had previously acted at the Curtain (a former house of the lord admiral's men), and "taken mad Jeronimo's part" on a play-wagon in the highway. This latter appearance, if it ever took place, would, as was pointed out by Gifford, probably have been in Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, since in The First Part of Jeronimo Jonson would have had, most inappropriately, to dwell on the "smallness" of his "bulk." He was at a subsequent date (1601) employed by Henslowe to write up The Spanish Tragedy, and this fact may have given rise to Wood's story of his performance as a stroller. Jonson's additions, which were not the first changes made in the play, are usually supposed to be those printed with The Spanish Tragedy in the edition of 1602; Charles Lamb's doubts on the subject, which were shared by Coleridge, seem an instance of that subjective kind of criticism which it is unsafe to follow when the external evidence to the contrary is so strong.
According to Aubrey, whose statement must be taken for what it is worth, "Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor." His physique was certainly not well adapted to the histrionic conditions of his -- perhaps of any -- day; but, in any case, it was not long before he found his place in the organism of his company. In 1597, as we know from Henslowe, Jonson undertook to write a play for the lord admiral's men; and in the following year he was mentioned by Merès in his Palladis Tamia as one of "the best for tragedy", without any reference to a connection on his part with the other branch of the drama. Whether this was a criticism based on material evidence or an unconscious slip, Ben Jonson in the same year 1598 produced one of the most famous of English comedies, Every Man in his Humour, which was first acted -- probably in the earlier part of September -- by the lord chamberlain's company at the Curtain. Shakespeare was one of the actors in Jonson's comedy, and it is in the character of Old Knowell in this very play that, according to a bold but ingenious guess, he is represented in the half-length portrait of him in the folio of 1623, beneath which were printed Jonson's lines concerning the picture. Every Man in his Humour was published in 1601; the critical prologue first appears in the folio of 1616, and there are other divergences. After the Restoration the play was revived in 1751 by David Garrick (who acted Kitely) with alterations, and long continued to be known on the stage. It was followed in the same year by The Case is Altered, acted by the children of the queen's revels, which contains a satirical attack upon the pageant poet, Anthony Munday. This comedy, which was not included in the folio editions, is one of intrigue rather than of character; it contains obvious reminiscences of Shylock and his daughter. The earlier of these two comedies was indisputably successful.
Before the year 1598 was out, however, Jonson found himself in prison and in danger of the gallows. In a duel, fought on the 22nd of September in Hogsden Fields, he had killed an actor of Henslowe's company named Gabriel Spenser. The quarrel with Henslowe consequent on this event may account for the production of Every Man in his Humour by the rival company. In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest, and the result (certainly strange, if Jonson's parentage is considered) was his conversion to the Church of Rome, to which he adhered for twelve years. Jonson was afterwards a diligent student of divinity; but, though his mind was religious, it is not probable that its natural bias much inclined it to dwell upon creeds and their controversies. He pleaded guilty to the charge brought against him, as the rolls of Middlesex sessions show; but, after a short imprisonment, he was released by benefit of clergy, forfeiting his "goods and chattels", and being branded on his left thumb. The affair does not seem to have affected his reputation; in 1599 he is found back again at work for Henslowe, receiving together with Thomas Dekker, Chettle and "another gentleman", earnest-money for a tragedy (undiscovered) called Robert II, King of Scots. In the same year he brought out through the lord chamberlain's company (possibly already at the Globe, then newly built or building) the elaborate comedy of Every Man out of his Humour (quarto 1600; folio 1616) -- a play subsequently presented before Queen Elizabeth. The sunshine of court favor, rarely diffused during her reign in rays otherwise than figuratively golden, was not to bring any material comfort to the most learned of her dramatists, before there was laid upon her the inevitable hand of which his courtly epilogue had besought death to forget the use. Indeed, of his Cynthia's Revels, performed by the chapel children in 1600 and printed with the first title of The Fountain of Self-Love in 1601, though it was no doubt primarily designed as a compliment to the queen, the most marked result had been to offend two playwrights of note -- Dekker, with whom he had formerly worked in company, and who had a healthy if rough grip of his own; and Marston, who was perhaps less dangerous by his strength than by his versatility. According to Jonson, his quarrel with Marston had begun by the latter attacking his morals, and in the course of it they came to blows, and might have come to worse. In Cynthia's Revels, Dekker is generally held to be satirized as Hedon, and Marston as Anaides (Fleay, however, thinks Anaides is Dekker, and Hedon Daniel), while the character of Crites most assuredly has some features of Jonson himself. Learning the intention of the two writers whom he had satirized, or at all events of Dekker, to wreak literary vengeance upon him, he anticipated them in The Poetaster (1601), again played by the children of the queen's chapel at the Blackfriars and printed in 1602; Marston and Dekker are here ridiculed respectively as the aristocratic Crispinus and the vulgar Demetrius. The play was completed fifteen weeks after its plot was first conceived. It is not certain to what the proceedings against author and play before the lord chief justice, referred to in the dedication of the edition of 1616, had reference, or when they were instituted. Fleay's supposition that the "purge", said in the Returne from Parnassus (Part II, act IV, scene III) to have been administered by Shakespeare to Jonson in return for Horace's "pill to the poets" in this piece, consisted of Troilus and Cressida is supremely ingenious, but cannot be examined here. As for Dekker, he retaliated on The Poetaster by the Satiromastix, or The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet (1602). Some more last words were indeed attempted on Jonson's part, but in the Apologetic Dialogue added to The Poetaster in the edition of 1616, though excluded from that of 1602, he says he intends to turn his attention to tragedy. This intention he apparently carried out immediately, for in 1602 he received £10 from Henslowe for a play, entitled Richard Crookbacke, now lost -- unfortunately so, for purposes of comparison in particular, even if it was only, as Fleay conjectures, "an alteration of Marlowe's play." According to a statement by Overbury, early in 1603, "Ben Johnson, the poet, now lives upon one Townesend", supposed to have been the poet and masque-writer Aurelian Townshend, at one time steward to the 1st earl of Salisbury, "and scornes the world." To his other early patron, Lord Aubigny, Jonson dedicated the first of his two extant tragedies, Sejanus, produced by the king's servants at the Globe late in 1603, Shakespeare once more taking a part in the performance. Either on its performance or on its appearing in print in 1605, Jonson was called before the privy council by the Earl of Northampton. But it is open to question whether this was the occasion on which, according to Jonson's statement to Drummond, Northampton "accused him both of popery and treason." Though, for one reason or another, unsuccessful at first, the endurance of its reputation is attested by its performance, in a German version by an Englishman, John Michael Girish, at the court of the grandson of James I at Heidelberg.
When the reign of James I opened in England and an adulatory loyalty seemed intent on showing that it had not exhausted itself at the feet of Gloriana, Jonson's well-stored brain and ready pen had their share in devising and executing ingenious variations on the theme "Welcome -- since we cannot do without thee!" With extraordinary promptitude his genius, which, far from being "ponderous" in its operations, was singularly swift and flexible in adapting itself to the demands made upon it, met the new taste for masques and entertainments -- new of course in degree rather than in kind -- introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort. The pageant which on the 7th of May 1603 bade the king welcome to a capital dissolved in joy was partly of Jonson's, partly of Dekker's, devising; and he was able to deepen and diversify the impression by the composition of masques presented to James I when entertained at houses of the nobility. The Satyr (1603) was produced on one of these occasions, Queen Anne's sojourn at Althorpe, the seat of Sir Robert Spencer, afterwards Lord Althorpe, who seems to have previously bestowed some patronage upon him. The Penates followed on Mayday 1604 at the house of Sir William Cornwallis at Highgate, and the queen herself with her ladies played his Masque of Blackness at Whitehall in 1605. He was soon occasionally employed by the court itself -- already in 1606 in conjunction with Inigo Jones, as responsible for the "painting and carpentry" -- and thus speedily showed himself master in a species of composition for which, more than any other English poet before Milton, he secured an enduring place in the national poetic literature. Personally, no doubt, he derived considerable material benefit from the new fashion -- more especially if his statement to Drummond was anything like correct, that out of his plays (which may be presumed to mean his original plays) he had never gained a couple of hundred pounds.
Good humor seems to have come back with good fortune. Joint employment In The King's Entertainment (1604) had reconciled him with Dekker; and with Marston also, who in 1604 dedicated to him his Malcontent, he was again on pleasant terms. When, therefore, in 1604 Marston and Chapman (who, Jonson told Drummond, was loved of him, and whom he had probably honored as "Virgil" in The Poetaster, and who has, though on doubtful grounds, been supposed to have collaborated in the original Sejanus) produced the excellent comedy of Eastward Ho, it appears to have contained some contributions by Jonson. At all events, when the authors were arrested on account of one or more passages in the play which were deemed insulting to the Scots, he "voluntarily imprisoned himself" with them. They were soon released, and a banquet at his expense, attended by Camden and Selden, terminated the incident. If Jonson is to be believed, there had been a report that the prisoners were to have their ears and noses cut, and, with reference apparently to this peril, "at the midst of the feast his old mother drank to him, and showed him a paper which she had intended (if the sentence had taken execution) to have mixed in the prison among his drink, which was full of lusty strong poison; and that she was no churl, she told him, she minded first to have drunk of it herself." Strange to say, in 1605 Jonson and Chapman, though the former, as he averred, had so "attempered" his style as to have "given no cause to any good man of grief", were again in prison on account of "a play"; but they appear to have been once more speedily set free, in consequence of a very manly and dignified letter addressed by Jonson to the Earl of Salisbury. The play in question, in which both Chapman and Jonson took part, was likely Sir Gyles Goosecappe, and this last imprisonment of the two poets was shortly after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. In the mysterious history of the Gunpowder Plot Jonson certainly had some obscure part. On the 7th of November, very soon after the discovery of the conspiracy, the council appears to have sent for him and to have asked him, as a loyal Roman Catholic, to use his good offices in inducing the priests to do something required by the council -- one hardly likes to conjecture it to have been some tampering with the secrets of confession. In any case, the negotiations fell through, because the priests declined to come forth out of their hiding-places to be negotiated with -- greatly to the wrath of Ben Jonson, who declares in a letter to Lord Salisbury that "they are all so enweaved in it that it will make 500 gentlemen less of the religion within this week, if they carry their understanding about them." Jonson himself, however, did not declare his separation from the Church of Rome for five years longer, however much it might have been to his advantage to do so.
His powers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reign of James I; and by the year 1616 he had produced nearly all the plays which are worthy of his genius. They include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone, or the Fox (acted 1605 and printed in 1607 with a dedication "from my house in the Blackfriars"), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609; entered in the Stationers' Register 1610), the Alchemist (1610; printed in 1610), Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass (acted respectively in 1614 and 1616). During the same period he produced several masques, usually in connection with Inigo Jones, with whom, however, he seems to have quarrelled already in this reign, though it is very doubtful whether the architect is really intended to be ridiculed in Bartholomew Fair under the character of Lanthorn Leatherhead. Littlewit, according to Fleay, is Daniel. Among the most attractive of his masques may be mentioned the Masque of Blackness (1606), the Masque of Beauty (1608), and the Masque of Queens (1609), described by Swinburne as "the most splendid of all masques" and as "one of the typically splendid monuments or trophies of English literature." In 1616 a modest pension of 100 marks a year was conferred upon him; and possibly this sign of royal favor may have encouraged him to the publication of the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616), though there are indications that he had contemplated its production, an exceptional task for a playwright of his times to take in hand, as early as 1612.
He had other patrons more bountiful than the Crown, and for a brief space of time (in 1613) had travelled to France as governor (without apparently much moral authority) to the eldest son of Sir Walter Raleigh, then a state prisoner in the Tower, for whose society Jonson may have gained a liking at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, but for whose personal character he, like so many of his contemporaries, seems to have had but small esteem. By the year 1616 Jonson seems to have made up his mind to cease writing for the stage, where neither his success nor his profits had equalled his merits and expectations. He continued to produce masques and entertainments when called upon; but he was attracted by many other literary pursuits, and had already accomplished enough to furnish plentiful materials for retrospective discourse over pipe or cup. He was already entitled to lord it at the Mermaid, where his quick antagonist in earlier wit-combats (if Fuller's famous description be authentic) no longer appeared even on a visit from his comfortable retreat at Stratford. That on the other hand Ben carried his wicked town habits into Warwickshire, and there, together with Drayton, made Shakespeare drink so hard with them as to bring upon himself the fatal fever which ended his days, is a scandal with which we may fairly refuse to load Jonson's memory. That he had a share in the preparing for the press of the first folio of Shakespeare, or in the composition of its preface, is of course a mere conjecture.
It was in the year 1618 that, like Samuel Johnson a century and a half afterwards, Ben resolved to have a real holiday for once, and about midsummer started for his ancestral country, Scotland. He had (very heroically for a man of his habits) determined to make the journey on foot; and he was speedily followed by John Taylor, the water-poet, who still further handicapped himself by the condition that he would accomplish the pilgrimage without a penny in his pocket. Jonson, who put money in his good friend's purse when he came up with him at Leith, spent more than a year and a half in the hospitable Lowlands, being solemnly elected a burgess of Edinburgh, and on another occasion entertained at a public banquet there. But the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the learned Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden, to which we owe the so-called Conversations. In these famous jottings, the work of no extenuating hand, Jonson lives for us to this day, delivering his censures, terse as they are, in an expansive mood whether of praise or of blame; nor is he at all generously described in the postscript added by his fatigued and at times irritated host as "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others." A poetical account of this journey, with all the adventures, was burned with Jonson's library.
After his return to England Jonson appears to have resumed his former course of life. Among his noble patrons and patronesses were the countess of Rutland (Sidney's daughter) and her cousin Lady Wroth; and in 1619 his visits to the country seats of the nobility were varied by a sojourn at Oxford with Richard Corbet, the poet, at Christ Church, on which occasion he took up the master's degree granted to him by the university; whether he actually proceeded to the same degree granted to him at Cambridge seems unknown. He confessed about this time that he was or seemed growing "restive" (lazy), though it was not long before he returned to the occasional composition of masques. The extremely spirited Gipsies Metamorphosed (1621) was thrice presented before the king, who was so pleased with it as to grant to the poet the reversion of the office of master of the revels, besides proposing to confer upon him the honor of knighthood. This honor Jonson (hardly in deference to the memory of Sir Petronel Flash) declined; but there was no reason why he should not gratefully accept the increase of his pension in the same year (1621) to £200 -- a temporary increase only, inasmuch as it still stood at 100 marks when afterwards augmented by Charles I.
The close of King James I's reign found the foremost of its poets in anything but a prosperous condition. It would be unjust to hold the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tun, or the Old Devil with its Apollo club-room, where Ben's supremacy must by this time have become established, responsible for this result; taverns were the clubs of that day, and a man of letters is not considered lost in our own because he haunts a smoking-room in Pall Mall. Disease had weakened the poet's strength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcan sufficiently shows, must have been no mere transitory trouble to a poor poet and scholar. Moreover he cannot but have felt, from the time of the accession of Charles I early in 1625 onwards, that the royal patronage would no longer be due in part to anything like intellectual sympathy. He thus thought it best to recur to the surer way of writing for the stage, and in 1625 produced, with no faint heart, but with a very clear anticipation of the comments which would be made upon the reappearance of the "huge, overgrown play-maker", The Staple of News, a comedy excellent in some respects, but little calculated to become popular. It was not printed until 1631. Jonson, whose habit of body was not more conducive than were his ways of life to a healthy old age, had a paralytic stroke in 1626, and a second in 1628. In the latter year, on the death of Middleton, the appointment of city chronologer, with a salary of 100 nobles a year, was bestowed upon him. He appears to have considered the duties of this office as purely ornamental; but in 1631 his salary was suspended until he should have presented some fruits of his labors in his place, or -- as he more succinctly phrased it -- "yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandlerly pension for verjuice and mustard, £33, 6s. 8d." After being in 1628 arrested by mistake on the utterly false charge of having written certain verses in approval of the assassination of Buckingham, he was soon allowed to return to Westminster, where it would appear from a letter of his "son and contiguous neighbor", James Howell, he was living in 1629, and about this time narrowly escaped another conflagration. In the same year (1629) he once more essayed the stage with the comedy of The New Inn, which was actually, and on its own merits not unjustly, damned on the first performance. It was printed in 1631, "as it was never acted but most negligently played"; and Jonson defended himself against his critics in his spirited Ode to Himself. The epilogue to The New Inn having dwelt not without dignity upon the neglect which the poet had experienced at the hands of "king and queen", King Charles immediately sent the unlucky author a gift of £100, and in response to a further appeal increased his standing salary to the same sum, with the addition of an annual tierce of canary -- the poet-laureate's customary royal gift, though this designation of an office, of which Jonson discharged some of what became the ordinary functions, is not mentioned in the warrant dated the 26th of March 1630. In 1634, by the king's desire, Jonson's salary as chronologer to the city was again paid. To his later years belong the comedies, The Magnetic Lady (1632) and The Tale of a Tub (1633), both printed in 1640, and some masques, none of which met with great success. The patronage of liberal-minded men, such as the earl, afterwards duke, of Newcastle -- by whom he must have been commissioned to write his last two masques Love's Welcome at Welbeck (1633) and Love's Welcome at Bolsover (1634) -- and Viscount Falkland, was not wanting, and his was hardly an instance in which the fickleness of time and taste could have allowed a literary veteran to end his career in neglect. He was the acknowledged chief of the English world of letters, both at the festive meetings where he ruled the roast among the younger authors whose pride it was to be "sealed of the tribe of Ben", and by the avowal of grave writers, old or young, not one of whom would have ventured to dispute his titular pre-eminence. Nor was he to the last unconscious of the claims upon him which his position brought with it. When, nearly two years after he had lost his surviving son, death came upon the sick old man on the 6th of August 1637, he left behind him an unfinished work of great beauty, the pastoral drama of The Sad Shepherd (printed in 1641). For forty years, he said in the prologue, he had feasted the public; at first he could scarce hit its taste, but patience had at last enabled it to identify itself with the working of his pen.
We are so accustomed to think of Ben Jonson presiding, attentive to his own applause, over a circle of younger followers and admirers that we are apt to forget the hard struggle which he had passed through before gaining the crown now universally acknowledged to be his. Howell records, in the year before Ben's death, that a solemn supper at the poet's own house, where the host had almost spoiled the relish of the feast by vilifying others and magnifying himself, "T. Ca." (Thomas Carew) buzzed in the writer's ear "that, though Ben had barrelled up a great deal of knowledge, yet it seemed he had not read the Ethics, which, among other precepts of morality, forbid self-commendation." Self-reliance is but too frequently coupled with self-consciousness, and for good and for evil self-confidence was no doubt the most prominent feature in the character of Ben Jonson. Hence the combativeness which involved him in so many quarrels in his earlier days, and which jarred so harshly upon the less militant and in some respects more pedantic nature of Drummond. But his quarrels do not appear to have entered deeply into his soul, or indeed usually to have lasted long. He was too exuberant in his vituperations to be bitter, and too outspoken to be malicious. He loved of all things to be called "honest", and there is every reason to suppose that he deserved the epithet. The old superstition that Jonson was filled with malignant envy of the greatest of his fellow-dramatists, and lost no opportunity of giving expression to it, hardly needs notice. Those who consider that William Shakespeare was beyond criticism may find blasphemy in the saying of Jonson that Shakespeare "wanted art." Occasional jesting allusions to particular plays of Shakespeare may be found in Jonson, among which should hardly be included the sneer at "mouldy" Pericles in his Ode to Himself. But these amount to nothing collectively, and to very little individually; and against them have to be set, not only the many pleasant traditions concerning the long intimacy between the pair, but also the lines, prefixed to the first Shakespeare folio, as noble as they are judicious, dedicated by the survivor to "the star of poets", and the adaptation, clearly sympathetic notwithstanding all its buts, "de Shakespeare nostrat." in the Discoveries. But if Gifford had rendered no other service to Jonson's fame he must be allowed to have once for all vindicated it from the cruellest aspersion which has ever been cast upon it. That in general Ben Jonson was a man of strong likes and dislikes, and was wont to manifest the latter as vehemently as the former, it would be idle to deny. He was at least impartial in his censures, dealing them out freely to Puritan poets like Wither and (supposing him not to have exaggerated his free-spokenness) to princes of his church like Cardinal du Perron. And, if sensitive to attack, he seems to have been impervious to flattery -- to judge from the candor with which he condemned the foibles even of so enthusiastic an admirer as Beaumont. The personage that he disliked the most, and openly abused in the roundest terms, was unfortunately one with many heads and a tongue to hiss in each -- no other than that "general public" which it was the fundamental mistake of his life to fancy he could "rail into approbation" before he had effectively secured its goodwill. And upon the whole it may be said that the admiration of the few, rather than the favor of the many, has kept green the fame of the most independent among all the masters of an art which, in more senses than one, must please to live.
Jonson's learning and industry, which were alike exceptional, by no means exhausted themselves in furnishing and elaborating the materials of his dramatic works. His enemies sneered at him as a translator -- a title which the preceding generation was inclined to esteem the most honorable in literature. But his classical scholarship shows itself in other directions besides his translations from the Latin poets (the Ars poetica in particular), in addition to which he appears to have written a version of Barclay's Argenis; it was likewise the basis of his English Grammar, of which nothing but the rough draft remains (the manuscript itself having perished in the fire in his library), and in connection with the subject of which he appears to have pursued other linguistic studies (Howell in 1629 was trying to procure him a Welsh grammar). And its effects are very visible in some of the most pleasing of his non-dramatic poems, which often display that combination of polish and simplicity hardly to be reached -- or even to be appreciated -- without some measure of classical training.
Exclusively of the few lyrics in Jonson's dramas (which, with the exception of the stately choruses in Catiline, charm, and perhaps may surprise, by their lightness of touch), his nondramatic works are comprised in the following collections. The book of Epigrams (published in the first folio of 1616) contained, in the poet's own words, the "ripest of his studies." His notion of an epigram was the ancient, not the restricted modern one -- still less that of the critic (R.C., the author of The Times' Whistle) in whose language, according to Jonson, "witty" was "obscene." On the whole, these epigrams excel more in encomiastic than in satiric touches, while the pathos of one or two epitaphs in the collection is of the truest kind. In the lyrics and epistles contained in the Forest (also in the first folio), Jonson shows greater variety in the poetic styles adopted by him; but the subject of love, which John Dryden considered conspicuous by its absence in the author's dramas, is similarly eschewed here. The Underwoods (not published collectively until the second and surreptitious folio) are a miscellaneous series, comprising, together with a few religious and a few amatory poems, a large number of epigrams, epitaphs, elegies and odes, including both the tributes to Shakespeare and several to royal and other patrons and friends, besides the Execration upon Vulcan, and the characteristic ode addressed by the poet to himself. To these pieces in verse should be added the Discoveries -- Timber, or Discoveries made upon Men and Matters, avowedly a commonplace book of aphorisms noted by the poet in his daily readings -- thoughts adopted and adapted in more tranquil and perhaps more sober moods than those which gave rise to the outpourings of the Conversations at Hawthornden. As to the critical value of these Conversations it is far from being only negative; he knew how to admire as well as how to disdain. For these thoughts, though abounding with biographical as well as general interest, Jonson was almost entirely indebted to ancient writers, or (as has been shown by Professor Spingarn and by Percy Simpson) indebted to the humanists of the Renaissance.
The extant dramatic works of Ben Jonson fall into three or, if his fragmentary pastoral drama be considered to stand by itself, into four distinct divisions. The tragedies are only two in number -- Sejanus his Fall and Catiline his Conspiracy. Of these the earlier, as is worth noting, was produced at Shakespeare's theater, in all probability before the first of Shakespeare's Roman dramas, and still contains a considerable admixture of rhyme in the dialogue. Though perhaps less carefully elaborated in diction than its successor, Sejanus is at least equally impressive as a highly wrought dramatic treatment of a complex historic theme. The character of Tiberius adds an element of curious psychological interest on which speculation has never quite exhausted itself and which, in Jonson's day at least, was wanting to the figures of Catiline and his associates. But in both plays the action is powerfully conducted, and the care bestowed by the dramatist upon the great variety of characters introduced cannot, as in some of his comedies, be said to distract the interest of the reader. Both these tragedies are noble works, though the relative popularity of the subject (for conspiracies are in the long run more interesting than camarillas) has perhaps secured the preference to Catiline. Yet this play and its predecessor were alike too manifestly intended by their author to court the goodwill of what he calls the "extraordinary" reader. It is difficult to imagine that (with the aid of judicious shortenings) either could altogether miss its effect on the stage; but, while Shakespeare causes us to forget, Jonson seems to wish us to remember, his authorities. The half is often greater than the whole; and Jonson, like all dramatists and, it might be added, all novelists in similar cases, has had to pay the penalty incurred by too obvious a desire to underline the learning of the author.
Perversity -- or would-be originality -- alone could declare Jonson's tragedy preferable to his comedy. Even if the revolution which he created in the comic branch of the drama had been mistaken in its principles or unsatisfactory in its results, it would be clear that the strength of his dramatic genius lay in the power of depicting a great variety of characters, and that in comedy alone he succeeded in finding a wide field for the exercise of this power. There may have been no very original or very profound discovery in the idea which he illustrated in Every Man in his Humour, and, as it were, technically elaborated in Every Man out of his Humour -- that in many men one quality is observable which so possesses them as to draw the whole of their individualities one way, and that this phenomenon "may be truly said to be a humour." The idea of the master quality or tendency was, as has been well observed, a very considerable one for dramatist or novelist. Nor did Jonson (happily) attempt to work out this idea with any excessive scientific consistency as a comic dramatist. But, by refusing to apply the term "humour" to a mere peculiarity or affectation of manners, and restricting its use to actual or implied differences or distinctions of character, he broadened the whole basis of English comedy after his fashion, as Molière at a later date, keeping in closer touch with the common experience of human life, with a lighter hand broadened the basis of French and of modern Western comedy at large. It does not of course follow that Jonson's disciples, the Bromes and the Cartwrights, always adequately reproduced the master's conception of "humorous" comedy. Jonson's wide and various reading helped him to diversify the application of his theory, while perhaps at times it led him into too remote illustrations of it. Still, Captain Bobadil and Captain Tucca, Macilente and Fungoso, Volpone and Mosca, and a goodly number of other characters impress themselves permanently upon the memory of those whose attention they have as a matter of course commanded. It is a very futile criticism to condemn Jonson's characters as a mere series of types of general ideas; on the other hand, it is a very sound criticism to object, with Barry Cornwall, to the "multitude of characters who throw no light upon the story, and lend no interest to it, occupying space that had better have been bestowed upon the principal agents of the plot."
In the construction of plots, as in most other respects, Jonson's at once conscientious and vigorous mind led him in the direction of originality; he depended to a far less degree than the greater part of his contemporaries (Shakespeare with the rest) upon borrowed plots. But either his inventive character was occasionally at fault in this respect, or his devotion to his characters often diverted his attention from a brisk conduct of his plot. Barry Cornwall has directed attention to the essential likeness in the plot of two of Jonson's best comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist; and another critic, W. Bodham Donne, has dwelt on the difficulty which, in The Poetaster and elsewhere, Ben Jonson seems to experience in sustaining the promise of his actions. The Poetaster is, however, a play sui generis, in which the real business can hardly be said to begin until the last act.
Dryden, when criticizing Ben Jonson's comedies, thought fit, while allowing the old master humor and incontestable "pleasantness", to deny him wit and those ornaments thereof which Quintilian reckons up under the terms urbana, salsa, faceta and so forth. Such wit as Dryden has in view is the mere outward fashion or style of the day, the euphuism or "sheerwit" or chic which is the creed of Fastidious Brisks and of their astute purveyors at any given moment. In this Ben Jonson was no doubt defective; but it would be an error to suppose him, as a comic dramatist, to have maintained towards the world around him the attitude of a philosopher, careless of mere transient externalisms. It is said that the scene of his Every Man in his Humour was originally laid near Florence; and his Volpone, which is perhaps the darkest social picture ever drawn by him, plays at Venice. Neither locality was ill-chosen, but the real atmosphere of his comedies is that of the native surroundings amidst which they were produced; and Ben Jonson's times live for us in his men and women, his country gulls and town gulls, his alchemists and exorcists, his "skeldring" captains and whining Puritans, and the whole ragamuffin rout of his Bartholomew Fair, the comedy par excellence of Elizabethan low life. After he had described the pastimes, fashionable and unfashionable, of his age, its feeble superstitions and its flaunting naughtinesses, its vaporing affectations and its lying effronteries, with an odour as of "divine tabacco" pervading the whole, little might seem to be left to describe for his "sons" and successors. Enough, however, remained; only that his followers speedily again threw manners and "humours" into an undistinguishable medley.
The gift which both in his art and in his life Jonson lacked was that of exercising the influence or creating the effects which he wished to exercise or create without the appearance of consciousness. Concealment never crept over his efforts, and he scorned insinuation. Instead of this, influenced no doubt by the example of the free relations between author and public permitted by Attic comedy, he resorted again and again, from Every Man out of his Humour to The Magnetic Lady, to inductions and commentatory intermezzos and appendices, which, though occasionally effective by the excellence of their execution, are to be regretted as introducing into his dramas an exotic and often vexatious element. A man of letters to the very core, he never quite understood that there is and ought to be a wide difference of methods between the world of letters and the world in the theater.
The richness and versatility of Jonson's genius will never be fully appreciated by those who fail to acquaint themselves with what is preserved to us of his "masques" and cognate entertainments. He was conscious enough of his success in this direction -- "next himself", he said, "only Fletcher and Chapman could write a masque." He introduced, or at least established, the ingenious innovation of the anti-masque, which Schlegel has described, as a species of "parody added by the poet to his device, and usually prefixed to the serious entry", and which accordingly supplies a grotesque antidote to the often extravagantly imaginative main conception. Jonson's learning, creative power and humorous ingenuity -- combined, it should not be forgotten, with a genuine lyrical gift -- all found abundant opportunities for displaying themselves in these productions. Though a growth of foreign origin, the masque was by him thoroughly domesticated in the high places of English literature. He lived long enough to see the species produce its poetic masterpiece in Comus.
The Sad Shepherd, of which Jonson left behind him three acts and a prologue, is distinguished among English pastoral dramas by its freshness of tone; it breathes something of the spirit of the greenwood, and is not unnatural even in its supernatural element. While this piece, with its charming love scenes between Robin Hood and Maid Marion, remains a fragment, another pastoral by Jonson, the May Lord, has been lost, and a third, of which Loch Lomond was intended to be the scene, probably remained unwritten.
Though Ben Jonson never altogether recognized the truth of the maxim that the dramatic art has properly speaking no didactic purpose, his long and laborious life was not wasted upon a barren endeavor. In tragedy he added two works of uncommon merit to our dramatic literature. In comedy his aim was higher, his effort more sustained, and his success more solid than were those of any of his fellows. In the subsidiary and hybrid species of the masque, he helped to open a new and attractive though undoubtedly devious path in the field of dramatic literature. His intellectual endowments surpassed those of most of the great English dramatists in richness and breadth; and in energy of application he probably left them all behind. Inferior to more than one of his fellow dramatists in the power of imaginative sympathy, he was first among the Elizabethans in the power of observation; and there is point in Barrett Wendell's paradox, that as a dramatist he was not really a poet but a painter. Yet it is less by these gifts, or even by his unexcelled capacity for hard work, than by the true ring of manliness that he will always remain distinguished among his peers.
Jonson was buried on the north side of the nave in Westminster Abbey, and the inscription, "O Rare Ben Jonson", was cut in the slab over his grave. In the beginning of the 18th century a portrait bust was put up to his memory in the Poets' Corner by Harley, earl of Oxford. Of Honthorst's portrait of Jonson at Knole Park there is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery; another was engraved by W. Marshall for the 1640 edition of his Poems.
Wife: Ann Lewis (m. 14-Nov-1594, until his death)
High School: Westminster School
University: University of Cambridge
Manslaughter Killed actor Philip Henslowe in a duel, c. 1597
Manslaughter Gabriel Spencer
Duel: Swords killed Gabriel Spenser, 22-Sep-1598
Converted to Catholicism 1598
Branded "T" for Tyburn, ball of left thumb
Do you know something we don't?
Submit a correction or make a comment about this profile
Copyright ©2014 Soylent Communications