The English playwright and poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637) is best known for his satiric comedies. An immensely learned man with an irascible and domineering personality, he was, next to Shakespeare, the greatest dramatic genius of the English Renaissance.
Ben Jonson was probably born in or near London, about a month after the death of his clergyman father. He received his formal education at Westminster School, where he studied under the renowned scholar William Camden. He did not continue his schooling, probably because his stepfather forced him to engage in the more practical business of bricklaying. He spent a brief period as a soldier in Flanders and sometime between 1592 and 1595 he was married.
English literature, and particularly the drama, had already entered its golden age when Ben Jonson began his career. Jonson's special contribution to this remarkably exuberant age was his strong sense of artistic form and control. Although an accomplished scholar, he had an unusual appreciation of the colloquial speech habits of the unlettered, which he used with marked effect in many of his plays.
Jonson began his theatrical career as a strolling player in the provinces. By 1597 he was in London, the center of dramatic activity, and had begun writing plays for the theatrical manager Philip Henslowe. In what is probably his first piece of dramatic writing. The Isle of Dogs, Jonson ran afoul of the law. The play (which has not survived) was judged to be a "lewd" work containing "seditious and slanderous matter," and Jonson was imprisoned. In 1598 he was in more serious trouble. Having killed a fellow actor in a duel, he escaped hanging only by claiming right of clergy—that is, by reciting a few words of Latin commonly known as "neck-verse."
In the same year Jonson's first major work, Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare taking the lead role. This play stands as a model of the "comedy of humors," in which each character's behavior is dictated by a dominating whim or affectation. It is also a very cleverly constructed play.
Jonson's next major play, Every Man out of His Humour, appeared in 1599 or early 1600, followed closely by Cynthia's Revels (1601) and Poetaster (1601). These three "comical satires" represent Jonson's contribution to the so-called war of the theaters—a short-lived feud between rival theatrical companies involving Thomas Dekker, John Marston, and perhaps other playwrights in addition to Jonson himself. After this brief but heated skirmish, Jonson turned his energies to what he clearly regarded as one of his most important works, Sejanus His Fall, which eventually appeared in 1603. This rigidly classical tragedy was admired by some of Jonson's learned contemporaries, but the great majority of playgoers considered it a pedantic bore. Jonson's only other surviving tragedy, Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), met with a similar fate.
By 1604, before he had written his most enduring works, Jonson had become known as the foremost writer of masques in England. These highly refined allegorical spectacles were designed for courtly audiences, and as a rule members of noble or royal families took part in the performances. Jonson continued writing masques throughout his career, frequently in cooperation with the famous architect Inigo Jones, who designed the stage sets and machinery.
Jonson's dramatic genius was fully revealed for the first time in Volpone, or the Fox (1606), a brilliant satiric comedy which Jonson claimed was "fully penned" in 5 weeks. It was favorably received not only by London theatergoers but by more sophisticated audiences at Oxford and Cambridge.
Volpone contains Jonson's harshest and most unremitting criticism of human vice. All the principal figures are named (in Italian) after animals suggestive of their characters: for example, Volpone, the cunning fox, and Voltore, the ravenous vulture. The main action turns on Volpone's clever scheme to cheat those who are as greedy as he but not nearly so clever. With the help of his servant Mosca, he pretends to be deathly ill; each of the dupes, encouraged to believe that he may be designated heir to Volpone's fortune, tries to win his favor by presenting him with gifts. Volpone is too clever for his own good, however, and is finally betrayed by Mosca and exposed to the magistrates of Venice. The punishment imposed on him (and on the self-seeking dupes as well) is unusually severe for a comedy; in fact, there is almost nothing in Volpone which provokes laughter.
The satire of Jonson's next three comedies is more indulgent. Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609) is an elaborate intrigue built around a farcical character with an insane hatred of noise. The principal intriguer, Sir Dauphine Eugenie, tricks his noise-hating uncle Morose into marrying a woman Morose believes to be docile and quiet. She, however, turns out to be an extremely talkative person with a horde of equally talkative friends. After tormenting his uncle and in effect forcing him into a public declaration of his folly, Sir Dauphine reveals that Morose's voluble wife is actually a boy disguised as a woman.
In The Alchemist (1610) the characters are activated more by vice than folly—particularly the vices of hypocrisy and greed. Jonson's treatment of such characters, however, is less harsh than it was in Volpone, and their punishment consists largely in their humiliating self-exposure. Bartholomew Fair (1614), unlike Jonson's other comic masterpieces, does not rely on complicated intrigue and deception. Its relatively thin plot is little more than an excuse for parading an enormously rich and varied collection of unusual characters.
After Bartholomew Fair, Jonson's dramatic powers suffered a decline. His major achievements were solidified by the appearance of his Works in a carefully prepared folio volume published in 1616. Although he continued writing plays for another 15 years, most of these efforts have been dismissed as "dotages." He remained nonetheless an impressive and respected figure, especially in literary and intellectual circles. In 1619, for example, he was awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. He was also idolized by a group comprising younger poets and playwrights who styled themselves the "tribe of Ben."
It is from this last phase of Jonson's dramatic career that much of the information about his personal life and character comes. One major source of information is the record of conversations with Jonson kept by the Scottish poet Drummond of Hawthornden. In the summer of 1618 Jonson took a walking tour to Scotland, in the course of which he spent a few days with Drummond. His host concluded that Jonson was "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest; jealous of every word and action of those about him, especially after drink, which is one of the elements in which he liveth; … oppressed with fancy, which hath ever mastered his reason." This somewhat unflattering portrait accords reasonably well with the personality that reveals itself indirectly in Jonson's plays.
Jonson's nondramatic writings include a grammar of English (printed in 1640), a miscellaneous collection of notes and reflections on various authors entitled Timber, or Discoveries (also printed in 1640), and a large number of poems, almost all of them written in response to particular events in the poet's experience. Most of his poetry was written in short lyric forms, which he handled with great skill. His lyric style tends to be simple and unadorned yet highly polished, as in the epigram on the death of his first daughter, which begins "Here lies to each her parents ruth,/ Mary, the daughter of their youth."
After the death of King James I in 1625, Jonson suffered a number of setbacks. His talents as a masque writer were not fully appreciated by the new king, and as a result Jonson was frequently short of money. He was paralyzed in 1628 and confined for the remainder of his life to his home in Westminster. He evidently continued his scholarly study of the classics, which had occupied him throughout his active life. He died on Aug. 6, 1637. In recognition of his stature as the foremost man of letters of his age, he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The standard biography of Jonson is C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, Ben Jonson: The Man and His Work (1925), which constitutes the first 2 volumes of an 11-volume edition of Jonson's works completed in 1952. The following works contain detailed criticism of most of Jonson's plays: Edward B. Partridge, The Broken Compass: A Study of the Major Comedies of Ben Jonson (1958); Jonas A. Barish, Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy (1960); and Robert E. Knoll, Ben Jonson's Plays: An Introduction (1964). Useful background studies are L. C. Knights, Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (1937); Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert H. Ball, A Short View of Elizabethan Drama (1943; rev. ed. 1958); Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (1954); and Muriel Clara Bradbrook, The Growth and Structure of Elizabethan Comedy (1955).