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Friday, 2 October 2015

Ben Jonson


Ben Jonson was born June 11, 1572 in Westminster, London. His father was a clergyman who died before he was born. His master-bricklayer stepfather bought him up.

As a child, Ben was said to be so ugly and ridiculously clothed that he was tormented by his schoolmates. He spent his time reading to forget his misery.

Ben Jonson attended a free parish school in St. Martin's Lane as a boy. Thanks to the sponsorship of the headmaster, was able to attend Westminster Grammar School. Unfortunately, Ben lost his scholarship and was forced to take up bricklaying alongside his stepfather.


After having been an apprentice bricklayer, Ben Jonson went to Netherlands, and volunteered to soldier with the English regiments of Francis Vere in Flanders.

After returning to England, Jonson joined the London theatrical company of Philip Henslowe as an actor and apprentice playwright revising plays already in the repertory.

Jonson's 1598 play Every Man in his Humour established a form of comedy in which every character embraced a "humour" or vice such as greed , lust or avarice. Shakespeare was in the cast.

From 1605 Jonson spent most of his time writing masques for King James 1st’s court. A popular entertainment in England in the first half of the 17th century, they were the first type of entertainment where music, dance and costumes were more important than plot and were the forerunner of ballet and opera.

Jonson's first masque, The Masque of Blackness, was specifically written to accommodate the longing of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, to be described as an African.

On many of these projects Jonson collaborated with the designer Inigo Jones. For example, Jones designed the scenery for Jonson's masque Oberon, the Faery Prince performed at Whitehall on January 1, 1611 in which Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, appeared in the title role.

As time went by a bitter rivalry blew up between them as Jones' spectacular designs such as boats on wheels and clouds on wires were becoming more important than Jonson's written words.

In 1617 Jonson was appointed the first ever Poet Laureate. He was given a pension by James I of £100 per annum. However he didn't always get his money on time and by the late 1620s Jonson was increasingly broke, so he wrote Ode to Himself about "the loathsome age". As a result many poets sprang to his defense and Charles 1 gave him an increased pension, a gift of £100 and 40 gallons of canary wine a year.

During their lifetimes, Jonson upstaged William Shakespeare and was much better known than the English Bard.

Title page of The Workes of Beniamin Ionson (1616), the first folio publication that included stage plays

Jonson's work has had a profound influence on many novelists such as Henry Fielding and especially on restoration dramatists who were known as “The tribe of Ben”.


Ben Jonson married Anne Lewis on November 14, 1594, at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge. Jonson described his wife to William Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest".

Jonson's eldest daughter Mary 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.

It is possible that Jonson’s marriage was unhappy and for five years somewhere in this period, Jonson lived separate from his wife, enjoying instead the hospitality of Lord Aubigny. There may have been a legal separation later in his life.

Jonson often met up with pals like Shakespeare and Walter Raleigh at the Mermaid Tavern, Bread Street, Cheapside where they drunk canary wine and swapped witty stories.

Tales are told of Jonson and Shakespeare having intellectual debates in the Mermaid Tavern,. There appears to have been a complex friendship between the men, as Jonson wrote a preface for the First Folio publication of Shakespeare's plays in which he alternately praised and condemned his deceased rival.


In 1597 Jonson was imprisoned for his collaboration in writing the play The Isle of Dogs. Copies of the play were destroyed, so the exact nature of the offence is unknown. It was the first of several run-ins with the authorities.

Jonson was again briefly imprisoned, this time in Newgate Prison, for killing Gabriel Spenser in a duel on September 22, 1598 in Hogsden Fields, Shoreditch. Jonson was in danger of the gallows but he pleaded the benefit of the clergy and was released in return for his possessions and had a felon’s brand on his thumb.

Certain passages of Jonson's 1605 play Eastward Ho were stated to be insulting to the Scots and Jonson and his fellow actors were arrested. Later they were released and held a banquet to celebrate.

In 1628 Jonson was arrested by mistake on the charge of having written certain verses approving of the assassination of the Duke of Birmingham. On being released he returned home only for his house to catch fire.


Jonson died on August 6, 1637 and his funeral was held three days later. He is buried in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription "O Rare Ben Johnson" (sic) set in the slab over his grave ("rare" coming from the Latin "rarus" meaning remarkable.)

The space allocated for Rare Ben's burial was too small, He'd asked King Charles 1 for a mere square foot after he died, so he was buried in a sitting position.

William Buckland, the Dean of Westminster, stole the heel of Jonson when his grave was disturbed in 1849. It turned up again in a junk shop in 1938.

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