The Case Is Altered, pr. 1597
The Isle of Dogs, pr. 1597 (with Thomas Nashe; no longer extant)
Every Man in His Humour, pr. 1598, revised 1605
Hot Anger Soon Cold, pr. 1598 (with Henry Chettle and Henry Porter; no longer extant)
Every Man out of His Humour, pr. 1599
The Page of Plymouth, pr. 1599 (with Thomas Dekker; no longer extant)
Robert the Second, King of Scots, pr. 1599 (with Chettle and Dekker; no longer extant)
Cynthia’s Revels: Or, The Fountain of Self-Love, pr. c. 1600-1601
Poetaster: Or, His Arraignment, pr. 1601
Sejanus His Fall, pr. 1603 (commonly known as Sejanus)
Eastward Ho!, pr., pb. 1605 (with George Chapman and John Marston)
Volpone: Or, The Fox, pr. 1605
Epicœne: Or, The Silent Woman, pr. 1609
The Alchemist, pr. 1610
Catiline His Conspiracy, pr., pb. 1611 (commonly known as Catiline)
Bartholomew Fair, pr. 1614
The Devil Is an Ass, pr. 1616
The Staple of News, pr. 1626
The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart, pr. 1629
The Magnetic Lady: Or, Humours Reconciled, pr. 1632
A Tale of a Tub, pr. 1633
The Sad Shepherd: Or, A Tale of Robin Hood, pb. 1640 (fragment)
The Forest, 1616
Ben Jonson, 1925-1952 (C. H. Hereford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, editors; includes Ungathered Verse)
The English Grammar, 1640
Timber: Or, Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter, 1641
Horace His Art of Poetry, 1640 (of Horace’s Ars poetica)
The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, 1616
One of the most colorful personalities and the leading man of letters of his age, Benjamin Jonson left a vigorous impression on his time. Jonson was born in or around London on June 11, 1573. His father, a minister, died a month before Ben was born, and his widowed mother married a bricklayer. By 1580 Jonson was studying with William Camden, one of the finest scholars of his day, at Westminster School. From Camden, Jonson drew his delight and his competence in classical languages and literatures, and learned much of his own country’s history and literature. The Westminster boys also did three plays a year in English and Latin, experiences that constituted Jonson’s apprenticeship for the stage.
After leaving school, probably in 1588, Jonson was a bricklayer, a soldier, and a traveling actor. He married Anne Lewis on November 14, 1594. Of the couple’s four or more children, a six-month-old daughter and a seven-year-old son met untimely deaths. The brief poems written by the grieving father show a tenderness not common to the rugged, often rough-tongued, dramatist. During his acting career he performed as Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589) and later sold additions to Jeronymo (obviously The Spanish Tragedy) to Philip Henslowe, the manager of the Admiral’s Men. Little is known about his career as a soldier except that he served on the Continent and challenged an enemy soldier to a one-on-one fight and killed him.
In 1597 Jonson and two other actors were imprisoned for their part in The Isle of Dogs, chiefly written by Thomas Nashe, a satiric play that was denounced as seditious. One of the actors was Gabriel Spencer, whom Jonson killed in a duel the next year. Spencer’s death led to Jonson’s second recorded brush with the law, but he successfully pleaded benefit of clergy.
This fortunate escape helped make 1598 a memorable year for Jonson. In that year Francis Meres recorded him as one of “our best for Tragedie,” and the theatrical company of Richard Burbage and William Shakespeare produced his Every Man in His Humour, Jonson’s first resounding success, a realistic comedy that marked his future path. This company (the Lord Chamberlain’s, later the King’s Men) produced nine of Jonson’s plays. Unlike Shakespeare, Jonson did not write almost exclusively for one company.
Between 1599 and 1603 Jonson took part in the War of the Theatres, in which dramatists attacked one another through their plays. Jonson’s Poetaster (pr. 1601) and Thomas Dekker’s Satiromastix (pr. 1601) were the main battles in this bloodless conflict. Except for the disgruntled Jonson, who temporarily turned his back on comedy as a result of the war, the participants apparently did not take it too seriously. As a stimulant to theatrical attendance the feud may have been more commercial than emotional.
In 1603 Sejanus His Fall, one of Jonson’s two surviving tragedies, was performed with Shakespeare and Burbage among the principal tragedians, but it was a failure, probably because of a dearth of action and the great number of similar characters. In the same year began Jonson’s long career as writer of court masques, which led to his position as poet laureate in fact if not in name. Except for his third imprisonment (probably in 1605 for his part in Eastward Ho!), Jonson enjoyed a decade of triumphs as his prestige grew in the theater, at court, and in literary circles.
His comedy Volpone: Or, The Fox premiered in 1605 and was a great triumph. The least realistic of the plays, it marks an advance for him as a comic dramatist: Instead of sporting with folly, he castigates vice, and rather than mocking eccentricity, he exposes deceit and greed. Only the subplot retains unaltered the elements of “comedy of humours.” Epicœne: Or, The Silent Woman, his next comedy, is set in London and focuses on a young man’s efforts to get his eccentric uncle to name him heir. Subplots introduce licentious women, gulled men, and foolish courtiers, a standard mix in satiric comedy, and all are labeled by humour names. The Alchemist followed soon after. Set in London during a visitation of the plague, it is like Volpone in that the characters’ desire to get rich leads to their being deceived and exploited. The play presents alchemy and the occult as sophisticated confidence games, but Jonson uses them mainly to satirize people whose greed makes them easy prey for the unscrupulous. His 1614 comedy Bartholomew Fair also was a success, and according to tradition the appellation “O rare Ben Jonson” was first uttered by someone at the Hope Theatre when the first performance ended. Most of the action of this prose play takes place at the annual summer fair, and Jonson uses the opportunity to develop a realistic panorama of Jacobean life. Though he satirizes religious hypocrisy, the play is more lighthearted than the earlier comedies.
His collaboration with the famous architect Inigo Jones led to his acquaintance with notable musicians and graphic artists, and this triumphant period was rounded out by the publication of the first Folio edition of The Workes of Benjamin Jonson in 1616. Until this collection, plays had little literary standing; hence the idea of considering plays “works” aroused much ridicule. The literary world owes Jonson an incalculable debt, however: His Folio begot the much more famous First Folio of Shakespeare in 1623.
After 1616, though less happy and less triumphant, Jonson’s life was not devoid of incident or accomplishment. In 1618 he journeyed to Scotland, the land of his forebears, on foot and visited William Drummond of Hawthornden, the Scottish poet, scholar, and bibliophile, whose record of their conversations is a major source of information about Jonson’s life and thought. Both Oxford and Cambridge conferred honorary master of arts degrees on Jonson, and in 1623 he contributed to the Shakespeare Folio the poem, “To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.” In the same year he suffered a disastrous fire which destroyed many manuscripts, including some of his own unpublished works.
In his last years he was stricken with palsy, then paralysis. He was neglected by King Charles, and Inigo Jones triumphed over him in their long quarrel. His late plays were largely failures on the stage, but he continued to write plays, masques, and poems almost to the end of his life. Several of his noble patrons, notably the Digbys and the earl of Newcastle, stood by him in his adversity. When he died, at Westminster, his followers published a memorial volume of verse filled with extravagant praise.