Ben Jonson

(1572 - 1637)

Ben Jonson

This biography was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays . Ed. Charles Read Baskerville. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. pp. 827-830.

Intimately acquainted with the Greek and Roman classics, critically observant of life about him, and endowed beyond any other writer of his day with the satirist's gifts, Ben Jonson with his originality, his clearly defined principles of art, and his impatience with anything but the best, brought to the business of play-writing an equipment which enabled him to infuse into his work elements which profoundly influenced English drama for generations after his time. He was born in London or its environs in the year 1572, the posthumous son of a clergyman, and, according to Fuller, was sent to a private school in St. Martin's Church, and later to Westminster, where his tutor, the eminent antiquary, William Camden, probably instilled into him that taste for the classics which was to influence strongly the subsequent work of the dramatist. About 1589, probably because of his poverty, instead of pursuing a university education he left Westminster to follow his stepfather's trade of bricklaying. Except that he saw service as a soldier in the Netherlands, was married to one whom he later characterized as "a shrew, yet honest," was a member of a strolling company of actors in which he may have played the hero of Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, very little is known of his career until July 28, 1597, when Henslowe 's Diary records a loan of £4 made to him as an actor at Paris Garden. On the same day the privy council ordered all London theaters suppressed as a result of the performance of a play now lost, The Isle of Dogs . Probably for his share with Nashe in the writing of this play, Jonson was imprisoned in the Marshalsea until an order was signed on October 3 for his release. In the same year he is thought to have composed The Case Is Altered , a comedy in the manner of Chapman . By September, 1598, he had acquired sufficient reputation to be accounted by Francis Meres one of the best for tragedy, but Meres' basis for such a pronouncement can now be but a subject of conjecture. About the middle of September, however, Jonson's reputation as a writer of comedy was definitely established when Every Man in His Humor was played by the Lord Chamberlain's Company at the Curtain, a performance in which Shakespeare acted a part, possibly that of elder Knowell. On September 22, 1598, Jonson killed his fellow-actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel. When brought to trial, he confessed and claimed right of clergy; his property was confiscated and his thumb branded. The following year he collaborated with Dekker in two plays now lost, The Page of Plymouth and Robert the Second, King of Scots , and wrote Every Man out of His Humor , performed and published in 1600. By caricaturing Marston in this play he definitely committed himself to a part in the stage quarrel, in which his next two plays, Cynthia's Revels and The Poetaster , were to figure prominently. With the performance of Sejanus in 1603 Jonson appeared as a writer of a tragedy which not only was unpopular on the boards but which, because of political attacks made upon it, caused him to be questioned by the privy council. Late in 1604 he collaborated with Chapman and Marston in writing Eastward Ho! and, when they were sent to prison "for citing something against the Scots," Jonson voluntarily accompanied them. On January 6, 1605, he began his great career of masque-writing with the production of The Masque of Blackness at Whitehall, and during the reign of James he furnished twenty of the thirty-seven masques presented at court. Early in 1606 he composed Volpone ; toward the,close of 1609, Epicoene ; in 1610, The Alchemist ; and in 1611, another tragedy, Catiline His Conspiracy , which was as little of a success as Sejanus had been. During the first years of the century Jonson formed friendships with some of the greatest wits of the day and with such eminent patrons as the Countess of Bedford, the Countess of Rutland, Lady Wroth, and the Earl of Pembroke. About 1612 he had the first of several quarrels with Inigo Jones, the noted architect who designed costumes and scenery for masques at court, and in the autumn he accompanied Raleigh's son to France in the capacity of tutor, returning before the end of June the following year. About this time he began the task of preparing his works for publication in the folio of 1616. Following the performance of Bartholomew Fair in October, 1614, and the rather unsuccessful, loosely constructed play, The Devil Is an Ass , in 1616, Jonson produced no plays for about nine years, although he wrote a few masques. In the summer of 1618 he set out for Scotland, where he visited William Drummond of Hawthornden, whose notes on Ben's conversations are invaluable for biographical details and for their criticisms upon contemporaries. On July 19, 1619, Jenson was made M.A. of Oxford. He now stood at the head of English men of letters, a past master about whom the wits of London gathered in tavern meetings, especially at the Devil's Head, where the upper chamber, known as the Apollo, was set aside for meetings of "The Tribe of Ben." The performance of The Staple of News in 1626 marks the dramatist's return to the stage, and by 1634 he had produced The New Inn ,The Magnetic Lady , and A Tale of a Tub , probably, though not certainly, an old play revised. The Sad Shepherd he left unfinished at his death. Although in 1628 a paralytic stroke confined him to his chamber, he succeeded Thomas Middleton as city chronologer, and in the following year he was granted a pension of £l00 by King Charles. From November, 1635, when his son died, until his own death, no biographical information is available. He died on August 6, 1637, and was buried three days later in Westminster Abbey. The following year saw the appearance of Jonsonus Virbius , a collection of thirty-three pieces of verse contributed to his memory by his admirers. In 1640 appeared a reprint of the 1616 folio, and a second volume of Jonson's works, printed 1631-41, was issued 1640-41 under the supervision of Sir Kenelm Digby.

Every Man in His Humor , not Jonson's greatest but probably his most influential play, first acted by the Lord Chamberlain's Men in 1598, was entered in the Stationers' Register August 4, 1600, and was printed the following year. This version, with its scene laid in Florence and its chief characters bearing Italian names, was later carefully revised by Jonson for publication in the 1616 folio. The scene was shifted to London, the characters were given English names and were more individualized, and the expression in general was much altered, the most notable change being the excision of Lorenzo's (Knowell's) defense of poetry at the end of the play, a passage which delayed the action and to Jonson's mind probably violated the principle of decorum because it was unsuited to such a gathering. The plot is of Jonson's own invention, but from Chapman's An Humorous Day's Mirth (1599) he drew hints for the gull, and from Plautine comedy he derived the suggestion of a pair of elderly persons deceived and outwitted by a pair of clever, young men, is well as the shrewd serving-man and the braggart soldier. In its preservation of unity of tone, its observance of the unities of time, place, and action, and its truth to what is typical or normal in action and character, the play shows a definite adherence to the requirements of classical comedy as formulated by Renaissance criticism, notably by Sidney in his Defense of Poesy , published in 1595. The prologue to the later version of the play presents Jonson's essential dramatic theory for all his comedies. He here expresses condemnation of the wildly romantic tendencies in the drama and declares his purpose to "show the image of the times" by employing "deeds and language such as men do use," and to make follies, not crimes, his chief consideration. During the last twenty years of the sixteenth century, Lyly, Greene, Nashe, and Lodge in their didactic writings and, at the end of the century, Chapman in his Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1598) and An Humorous Day's Mirth (1599) had created characters dominated by humors. To exhibit the follies of men Jonson created the comedy of humors which ... is fully developed in Every Man out of His Humor and Cynthia's Revels .

Perhaps prompted by the success of Shakespeare's Julius Cæsar and by the popularity of the tragedy of political adventure about the time of the conspiracy and trial of Essex, Jonson turned from the Comic Muse, who, as he says, had proved "so ominous" to him, and tried his hand at Roman tragedy. Sejanus , performed before the end of 1603 by the King's Men at the Globe, with Shakespeare among the actors, was entered in the Stationers' Register November 2, 1604, and Published in 1605. In his address to the reader Jonson says "a second pen" had a good share in the original version of the play, but, since Jonson rewrote the parts of his collaborator, neither these passages nor their original author can be identified, though Chapman has been suggested with some probability. For the story of Sejanus , Jenson relied mainly upon Tacitus' Annals and Dion's Roman History , but he drew details from Suetonius' life of Tiberius, Juvenal's tenth satire, and Seneca's De Tranquillitate . Although he departs but little from his sources, the play is far more than a mosaic of translated passages, for he has thoroughly re-created and quickened his materials by the imaginative treatment required of the dramatist. He does not adhere nearly so closely to classical technique as in his earlier plays, but he achieves greater coherence and displays more constructive skill. In stressing the arrogance and fall of Sejanus, Jonson was influenced by the medieval conception of tragedy still surviving in the popular Mirror for Magistrates . The play was not and never can be popular. The characters are too numerous, too little individualized, and too imperfectly grouped. Moreover, the play is lacking in pity. As Herford says, "Jonsonian tragedy suffers from an inner poverty in the humanities of the heart."

Volpone , "fully penned" in five weeks early in 1606, was presented shortly after by the King's Men at the Globe and in the summer and autumn of the same year at both universities, and was published in 1607/8. The play is not confined merely to follies, as were the earlier comedies, but includes crimes, so that, as Coleridge remarks, "there is no goodness of heart in any of the prominent characters." Nevertheless, the production of Volpone restored Jonson's popularity, which had been temporarily dimmed by the poor reception accorded Sejanus . The latter play had taught him the necessity of a closely knit plot and the value of Roman history as a source. Legacy-hunting, so frequent in Roman literature, had impressed him as fertile soil for imposture and fraud, and for the materials of the play he drew suggestions from numerous classical sources, among which may be mentioned Lucian's dialogues, Horace's satires, and Libanius. Professor J. D. Rea in his edition of the play has stressed Jonson's debt to Erasmus' Praise of Folly . The scene of the action is quite appropriately laid in Italy, to the Elizabethan mind the land of villainy, and only in the sub-plot (which, although it affords some effective comic episodes, does not advance the action) does Jonson introduce a bit of his own England in the persons of Sir Politic and his lady. The play observes the unities carefully, and the arrangement of scenes is according to classical precedent.

Jonson's most popular and, in the light of his theory, most perfect play, The Alchemist , entered in the Stationers' Register October 3, 1610, and published in 1612, was written during the plague season of 1610 for performance before Londoners who, like Lovewit, would return to their homes after all danger of infection had passed. The practice of alchemy was as common to the life of the time as it had been in the Middle Ages, and exposures of impostures such as Jonson portrays were so frequent in life as well as in literature that it has been impossible to discover any source for this aspect of the play. From Plautus' Mostellaria he may have derived the quarrel scene at the opening of the play and the idea of the unexpected return of the owner of a house in which rogues are carrying on their practices; and he may have taken certain minor suggestions from Plautus' P¦nulus and Erasmus' colloquy on the alchemist. Professor Child's suggestion of Giordano Bruno's Il Candelaio (1582) as a source has not won general acceptance. The construction of the play reveals the hand of the master. All the unities are rigidly observed. The action takes place in a single day at a house in the Blackfriars district of London, and, while the three intrigues remain distinct, each being a unit in itself, they are actuated by similar motives, are pervaded by one comic tone, and are related to the general plan. Suspense as to the outcome of the action constantly increases to the very end of the play.

Lord Haddington's Masque or, as it is appropriately named by Gifford, The Hue and Cry after Cupid , was printed, probably in 1608, in an undated quarto, and in the folio of 1616. The classical legend upon which it was founded is as old at least as Moschus, and had been often retold in Italy and in France. None of these versions, however, can be designated as a source for Jonson's masque. The piece occupies an important place in the evolution of the masque, not only because in the rôles of Cupid and his twelve boys "most anticly attired" it offers a good example of the antimasque or foil, intended by its grotesqueness and drollery to set off the beauty of the main masque, but because in its brevity, simplicity, and high poetical quality it avoids the excesses which often characterized its successors.

Jonson's one extant attempt at pastoral drama, The Sad Shepherd, was found as a fragment among his papers after his death, and was published by Sir Kenelm Digby in the second folio with the date 1641 on its title-page. The circumstances and exact date of its composition are still to be ascertained, but there is some reason for regarding it as the work of the author's last years. Jonson here turns aside from examples set by his predecessors in the type, and boldly strikes out to produce a truly English pastoral play. He suppresses satire and symbolism, and for Arcadia with its shadowy shepherds as main characters he substitutes Sherwood Forest with Maid Marian and Robin Hood and his merry men; instead of the satyr of conventional pastoral tradition he introduces Maudlin the Witch and Puck-Hairy. In thus subordinating or ignoring many of the time-worn conventions of the pastoral and introducing freshness and real life, Jonson was reverting to the practice of the first pastoral poet, Theocritus.

IV M: England Through 1635