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Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson (June 11, 1572 - August 6, 1637) was an English dramatist, poet and actor, a friend and contemporary of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare acted in one of Jonson's early plays, Every man in his humour (1598).

Born in Westminster, Jonson's arms, "three spindles or rhombi," are the family device of the Johnstones of Annandale, a fact which confirms Jonson's own assertion of Border descent. His father died a month before Ben's birth, and his mother remarried two years later, to a master bricklayer[?]. Jonson attended school in St. Martin's Lane[?], and was later sent to Westminster School, where one of his teachers was William Camden. On leaving, Jonson is said to have gone on to the University of Cambridge. Jonson himself said that he did not go to university, but was put to a trade immediately. He soon had enough of the trade, probably bricklaying, and spent some time in the Low Countries as a soldier.

Ben Jonson married some time before 1592. The registers of St Martin’s Church state that his eldest daughter Maria died in November, 1593, when she was only six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague ten years later, and a second Benjamin died in 1635. For five years somewhere in this period, Jonson lived separate from his wife, enjoying instead the hospitality of Lord Aubigny.

By the summer of 1597, Johnson had a fixed engagement in the Lord Admiral’s acting company, then performing under Philip Henslowe[?]’s management at the Rose[?]. Jonson, in 1601, was employed by Henslowe to write up Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. By this time, Jonson had begun to write original plays for the Lord Admiral’s Men; and in 1598 he was mentioned by Merès in his Palladis Tamia as one of “the best for tragedy.” In 1598, Jonson produced one of the most famous of English comedies, Every Man in his Humour[?], which was first published in 1601. It was followed by The Case is Altered, a comedy of intrigue.

Before the year 1598 was out, Jonson found himself in prison and in danger of hanging. In a duel, on September 22 in Hogsden Fields, he had killed an actor of Henslowe’s company named Gabriel Spenser. In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest, and the result was his conversion to the Catholicism, to which he adhered for twelve years. He pleaded guilty to the charge brought against him and, after a short imprisonment, was released by benefit of clergy, forfeiting his propery and being branded on his left thumb. Neither the affair or Jonson's Catholic conversion seem to have negatively affected Jonson's repuation, as he was back again at work for Henslowe within months.

At the beginning of the reign of James I of England, Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the reign of the new King. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort, Anne of Denmark. With the success of his plays and masques, such as The Satyr (1603) and Masque of Blackness (1605) Jonson was occasionally employed at court. From 1606 he was, along with Inigo Jones, responsible for "painting and carpentry" — and quickly showed himself master in the composition of drama and for which, more than any other English poet before Milton, he secured an enduring place in the national poetic literature.

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. These include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone, (acted 1605 and printed in 1607), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass (acted respectively in 1614 and 1616). During this same period he produced several masques, usually in connexion with Inigo Jones.

In 1616 a pension of 100 marks a year was conferred upon him, leading to his having been identified as the first poet laureate. This sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616).

In 1618 Jonson took a break from plays and acting, setting out for his ancestral Scotland on foot. He spent over a year there, and the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the Scottish poet, William Drummond[?], to which we owe the Conversations, which help to bring Jonson alive for the modern reader. He delivers his opinions, terse as they are, in an expansive mood either of praise or of blame. In the postscript added by Drummond, he is described as "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others."

By the close of King James I's reign, Jonson was in anything but a prosperous condition. Disease had weakened his strength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcan sufficiently shows, must have been a severe blow. Jonson was nothing if not versatile, and went out of favour only with the accession of King Charles I of England in 1625. He more or less retired from the stage with The Sad Shepherd in the 1630s.

Jonson was buried in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription, "O Rare Ben Jonson", laid in the slab over his grave.


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