Authors: Ben Jonson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and playwright

Author Works

Drama:

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)

Poetry:

Poems, 1601

Epigrams, 1616

The Forest, 1616

Underwoods, 1640

Ben Jonson, 1925-1952 (C. H. Hereford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, editors; includes Ungathered Verse)

Nonfiction:

The English Grammar, 1640

Timber: Or, Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter, 1641

Translation:

Horace His Art of Poetry, 1640 (of Horace’s Ars poetica)

Miscellaneous:

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson, 1616

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810000543}{$I[A]Jonson, Ben}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Jonson, Ben}{$I[tim]1573;Jonson, Ben}

Ben Jonson

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyBarish, Jonas A. Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960. Seminal study of Jonson’s comedy goes beyond the scope suggested by the title and examines virtually every aspect of his comedy. Some important discoveries that are now standard assumptions in Jonson criticism (such as the role of subplots) were first made here. Includes bibliography.Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Barton’s approach is comprehensive and magisterial. She covers all aspects of Jonson’s life and writing with grace, style, insight, and perception. For a scholarly study, this is hard to put down. Includes chronology, notes, and index.Brock, D. Heyward. A Ben Jonson Companion. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1983. Long-awaited volume provides a thorough and multifold first reference work with substance and range. Contains illuminating introductions to all the standard topics related to Jonson. The chronologies, indexes, and bibliography are easy to follow.Booth, Stephen. Precious Nonsense: The Gettysburg Address, Ben Jonson’s “Epitaphs on His Children,” and “Twelfth Night.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Using three disparate texts, Booth demonstrates how poetics can triumph over logic and enrich the reading experience. Booth’s presentation is playful yet analytical and his unique reading of Epitaphs on His Children is a valuable addition to critical thought on Jonson’s work.Butler, Martin, ed. Re-presenting Ben Jonson: Text, History, Performance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. An examination of the theater in the time of Jonson as well as of his works. Bibliography and index.Cave, Richard, Elizabeth Schafer, and Brian Woolland, eds. Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice, and Theory. New York: Routledge, 1999. A collection of essays dealing with the dramatic works of Jonson and the English theater of his time. Bibliography and index.Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1953. An old standard that has not been surpassed, Chute’s biography for the general reader is genial, enthusiastic, and bewitching. A good index makes it easier to cross-relate various topics.Dutton, Richard, ed. Ben Jonson. Longman Critical Readers. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2000. This study presents critical analysis and interpretation of Jonson’s literary works. Bibliography and index.Evans, Robert C., ed. Ben Jonson’s Major Plays: Summaries of Modern Monographs. West Cornwall, Conn.: Locust Hill Press, 2000. A reference work containing abstracts and bibliographies of materials by and concerning Jonson. Bibliography and index.Harp, Richard, and Stanley Stewart, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A companion to the playwright and his works.Haynes, Jonathan. The Social Relations of Jonson’s Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A look at Jonson’s dramatic works with emphasis on his political and social views. Bibliography and index.Loxley, James. The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson. New York: Routledge, 2002. A handbook designed to provide readers with critical analysis of Jonson’s works. Bibliography and index.Martin, Mathew R. Between Theater and Philosophy: Skepticism in the Major City Comedies of Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001. An examination of the dramatic works of Jonson and Thomas Middleton, with regard to their use of comedy. Bibliography and index.Miles, Rosalind. Ben Jonson: His Life and Work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Miles’s volume is a fine standard biography-study, especially for the literary background and Jonson’s position in Jacobean courtly society. The scholarly apparatus is thorough: a chronology, an index, a select but extensive bibliography, notes, and an appendix.Partridge, Edward B. The Broken Compass: A Study of the Major Comedies of Ben Jonson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958. This important study of Jonson’s comedy influenced everything that followed. The language and tone is quite scholarly but accessible to a beginner. Does not ignore Jonson’s works that are not “major comedies” but touches on poetry and tragedy only insofar as they affect the comedies that made Jonson’s reputation.Riggs, David. Ben Jonson: A Life. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. This is a full-scale biography rather than a literary biography; the works illuminate the life rather than vice versa. The illumination is brilliant. Riggs reviews all the facts and assembles them in memorable order. He includes all the standard scholarly attachments, but the book deserves to be read simply for the revelations it contains for Jonson and his age, most of which are illustrated.Sanders, Julie. Ben Jonson’s Theatrical Republics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. An analysis of the political and social views of Jonson as they were manifested in his dramatic works. Bibliography and index.Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Ben Jonson. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1999. An introductory overview of Jonson’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index.Watson, Robert N. Editor. Critical Essays on Ben Jonson. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. A collection of previously published and new essays edited by an established authority on the life and work of Ben Jonson. Includes an introduction that provides an overview of criticism of Jonson’s work over his career. In addition, some previously unpublished interviews, letters, and manuscript fragments are included.
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