Dramatist, Poet. One of the great playwrights of English literature, and a colorful representative of its Renaissance period. Jonson's finest work satirizes human foibles with comic realism, verbal brilliance and a remarkable gift for caricature. His reputation once rivaled that of his friend William Shakespeare. He was also a fine lyric poet and the foremost author of English masques (entertainments for the royal court). Jonson was a native of London. His clergyman father died a month before he was born and he was raised as the stepson of a bricklayer, whose trade he was obliged to enter after leaving Westminster School around 1589. Although this ended his formal education, his scholarly bent led him to become the most erudite of Elizabethan playwrights, proud of his knowledge of the Latin and Greek classics. It wasn't long before he quit bricklaying to join the army, seeing action in Flanders, where he allegedly killed an enemy soldier in single combat and stripped him of his weapons. By the mid-1590s he was married and working as an actor - a rather bad one, it seems - and writer for the London stage. The first noteworthy event of Jonson's new profession was typically scandalous. For the Earl of Pembroke's Men he co-wrote a satirical play with Thomas Nashe, "The Isle of Dogs" (1597, now lost), that was banned as seditious by the Privy Council. Nashe fled London to escape arrest while Jonson and two of the actors were tossed into Marshalsea Prison for eight weeks. He then switched to the Lord Chamberlain's Men and won immediate fame with the hit "Every Man In His Humour", premiered in the Summer of 1598. In it the makings of Jonson's mature style were already evident: the classical influences (especially the Roman comedies of Plautus) brought up to date with a London setting and a new vogue for "humour comedy", in which each character is dominated by single "humour", or personality trait. We know that Shakespeare played one of the lead roles and it may have been at his urging that the Lord Chamberlain's Men presented the work. It marked the beginning of Jonson's association with the man he said he loved "on this side of idolatry". His career had just taken off when it nearly ended in disaster. On September 22, 1598, Jonson killed actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel at Hoxton Fields. What provoked it is unknown, though Spencer had been jailed with him over "The Isle of Dogs", after which they joined rival stage companies. Convicted of manslaughter at the Old Bailey, Jonson narrowly escaped execution by pleading "benefit of clergy", meaning he could read and write in Latin. Instead he was branded on his left thumb as a felon and his property was forfeited to the Crown. While in Newgate Prison awaiting trial he became a Catholic, which would cause him further difficulties before he returned to the Protestant faith in 1610; but he remained unrepentant in his personal affairs. He plunged into the "War of the Theatres", a public feud he conducted against John Marston and Thomas Dekker, writers for a company of boy actors. Marston had fired the first shot by mocking Jonson's pride in his play "Histriomastix" (1599). Jonson, brushing up on his Aristophanes, retaliated with the comedies "Every Man Out of His Humour" (1599), "Cynthia's Revels" (1600), and "The Poetaster" (1601), which were answered by Marston's "Jack Drum's Entertainment" (1600) and "What You Will" (1601), and Dekker's "Satiromastix" (1601), all flinging charges of hackdom, egomania and cuckoldry at each other. Dekker suggested that Jonson "shouldst have been hang'd". London theatregoers found the spat amusing enough for Shakespeare to allude to it in "Hamlet" (c. 1601). The combatants soon made peace and even became collaborators, leading some to speculate it was all a publicity stunt; Marston dedicated his best play, "The Malcontent" (1604), to Jonson. More controversy greeted Jonson's first surviving tragedy, "Sejanus" (1603), presented at The Globe with Shakespeare in the cast. Government officials imagined it was a veiled portrayal of executed rebel Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Jonson was hauled before the Privy Council for questioning on suspicion of "popery and treason". The play itself was a flop, as was his later tragedy "Catiline" (1611). In 1605 he found himself briefly in prison again for "Eastward Ho", a comedy co-written with Marston and George Chapman. It had political humor and anti-Scottish sentiments that offended King James I, and according to Jonson the authors were threatened with having their ears and noses cut off. His final conflicts with the authorities were related to his Catholicism. In October 1605 Jonson attended a dinner party at which Robert Catesby and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators were present. A subsequent investigation cleared the author of any involvement in their attempt to spark an anti-Protestant revolt by blowing up the House of Lords; but he was still accused of using his fame to attract others to the Catholic cause, and was fined as a recusant. Amazingly, none of this seriously affected his progress at the royal court. Since James' ascension in 1603 Jonson had become one of the king's favorites for writing court masques, light entertainments combining poetic drama, song and ballet. He would produce 36 of them over the next three decades. They show him at his most fanciful and learned, often drawing on mythological subjects, though he put his personal stamp on the genre by introducing the "anti-masque", a comic interlude that mocks the main plot. Beginning with "The Masque of Blackness" (1605) his frequent collaborator was architect-artist Inigo Jones, who surrounded Jonson's refined verse with dazzling sets, costumes and special effects. Their stormy partnership brought the art of the English masque to its culmination, with such examples as "Hymenaei" (1606), "Oberon, the Faery Prince" (1611), "Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists" (1615), "Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue" (1618), and "Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion" (1624). That art is long extinct, however. It is with the series of comedies Jonson wrote between 1605 and 1616 that his reputation truly rests: "Volpone, or The Fox" (1606), "Epicoene, or The Silent Woman" (1609), "The Alchemist" (1610), "Bartholomew Fair" (1614), and "The Devil is an Ass" (1616). Critics consider "Volpone" and "The Alchemist" his masterpieces. Teeming with swindlers and their greedy, gullible victims, misers, lechers, fools, whores, and religious hypocrites, these plays satirize a world Jonson saw as amoral and corrupt. The point is succinctly made in the subplot of "The Devil is an Ass": an apprentice devil goes up to London to try his luck spreading evil, only to slink back to Hell defeated by humankind's endless capacities for deviousness. The year 1616 was in many ways a turning point for Jonson. Shakespeare died, and for the rest of his life Jonson was acknowledged as the preeminent man of English theatre. Although the title of Poet Laureate did not exist then, King James conferred upon him all the essentials of the position, including an annual pension; from then on he called himself "The King's Poet". In his collected "Works" (1616) he included his plays for consideration as serious literature, an unheard of idea at the time, and by doing so raised drama to a new level of respectability. It set the crucial precedent for the publication of the Shakespeare First Folio in 1623, along with Jonson's prophetic appreciation of the author: "He was not of an age, but for all time". "Works" also contains some of his finest poetry, including his elegies to his young son and daughter and the famous "To Celia", with its opening line "Drink to me, only, with thine eyes". In the midst of these events the disappointing response to "The Devil Is an Ass" was a blow that turned him away from the public stage for nearly a decade. From 1618 to 1619 Jonson went on a walking tour of Scotland, where William Drummond of Hawthornden recorded their conversations. After his return he was awarded an honorary MA degree from Oxford University and invited to lecture on rhetoric at London's Gresham College. A 1623 fire that destroyed his library signalled the decline of Jonson's fortunes. King James died in 1625 and his successor, Charles I, ceased presenting masques for several years, leaving Jonson feeling neglected. He returned to the London stage but none of his late plays, including "The Staple of News" (1625), "The New Inn" (1629), "The Magnetic Lady" (1632), and "A Tale of a Tub" (1633), approached the standard of his earlier triumphs; John Dryden called them his "dotages". In 1628 he suffered a debilitating stroke, but he continued to be productive and cantankerous as always. He cancelled an updated 1630 edition of his "Works" because he was unsatisfied with the printing quality, then broke with Inigo Jones in a creative dispute that damaged his standing at the new royal court. At his death he left two dramas unfinished, the pastoral play "The Sad Shepherd" and "Mortimer his Fall", a tragedy. Jonson brought his defiant individuality with him to the grave: he is the only person buried in Westminster Abbey standing on his feet. Several tales surround this odd disposition. One claims he wanted to be ready for the Resurrection; another that he asked for "18 inches of square ground in Westminster Abbey" from Charles I. Since the death of Edmund Spenser it had become fashionable for London to inter its renowned authors in the Abbey's Poets' Corner, and in the best known version of the story the Dean of the church urged Jonson to accept the honor. He is said to have replied, "I am too poor for that, and no one will lay out funeral charges upon me. No sir, two feet by two feet will do for all I want". Whatever the reason, Jonson was buried upright in the northern aisle of the Nave of the Abbey, beneath a small square stone inscribed "O Rare Ben Johnson [sic]". A proper monument, paid for by subscription, was to have been erected for him soon after his death, but the English Civil War halted this plan and it was not until 1723 that Jonson's memorial tablet was dedicated in Poets' Corner. In the 19th Century his original stone was moved to the base of a nearby wall to protect it, and his grave is now marked by a lozenge stone bearing the same inscription. Jonson was a larger-than-life character, a bear of a man at over six feet tall and 300 pounds, with a huge ego and the fearlessness to defend it. Drummond of Hawthornden recorded flashes of his mercurial personality: "He is a great lover and praiser of himself; a condemner and scorner of others; given rather to lose a friend than a jest...he is passionately kind and angry; careless either to gain or keep; vindictive, but, if he be well answered, at himself...oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason". The warmer aspects of Jonson's nature and his intellectual honesty brought him much aristocratic patronage and the friendships of Shakespeare, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Herbert the Earl of Pembroke, and Francis Bacon, while legend has it he introduced the great playwrighting team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher to each other. In later years he lorded over a young circle of admirers who called themselves the "Sons of Ben" in gatherings at The Mermaid and other taverns, a group that included future "Cavalier poets" Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace, and playwright Richard Brome. For most of the 17th Century he was a major influence on Jacobean, Caroline, and Restoration era playwrights. During the 1700s Jonson's reputation suffered because he was unfairly compared to Shakespeare, but his status rose significantly in the 20th Century. In 2012 Cambridge University Press published his complete works, the first new scholarly edition in 60 years.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards