JONSON, Ben

(1572/73-1637)
Although Ben Jonson began his literary career as a playwright, he successfully marketed himself as England's first professional poet. He produced plays and poems sufficient to fill eleven volumes in the Oxford edition. Although he has been treated as a model for the intellectual, he was influenced by legends of Maid Marian and Robin Hood as well as by the Greek and Latin classics.
According to his own report, Jonson was the posthumous son of an Anglican clergyman of Scottish ancestry by the name of Johnson. An anonymous bene­factor enabled young Ben to attend the elite Westminster School, but financial constraints prevented him from continuing his education at Oxford or Cam­bridge. Instead, he served as an apprentice to his stepfather, a bricklayer, even­tually becoming a journeyman. Particularly in his youth, he was known for drunken brawls and affairs with married women, siring at least one illegitimate child. Jonson fought in the Low Countries in his late teens, later boasting of having killed a Spanish infantryman in a duel. He married Anne Lewis in 1594, when he was only twenty-two, presumably for love. The union was soon af­fected by financial struggles, long separations, and the loss of all four of their children between 1601 and 1611. According to Jonson, he and Anne separated permanently around 1614.
In 1597 Jonson became an actor with the Earl of Pembroke's Men and then began writing plays for that company. With Thomas Nashe,* he satirized the court in The Isle of Dogs, now lost. Nashe escaped, but Jonson and several of the players were imprisoned, and the company was banned from London. The incident caused mutual ill feeling, and less than a year later, in mysterious circumstances, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer, one of the actors who had been imprisoned. Because Jonson was able to prove knowledge of Latin, he escaped execution for murder and was instead branded on the thumb. By his own ac­count, he converted to the Catholic faith while in prison, returning to Anglican­ism when the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 made it dangerous to be a Catholic in England.
Jonson's first success as a writer was the comedy Eastward Ho! (1605), a collaboration with John Marston and Thomas Dekker* that went through three editions in one year. It was less popular with James I,* who jailed the collab­orators for mocking Scottish courtiers; Jonson apparently appealed for help to powerful friends who secured their release. Jonson soon gained James as one of his many patrons; the royal family commissioned masques and entertainments from Jonson, who usually collaborated with the prominent set and costume de­signer Inigo Jones. For a time Jonson acted as tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh's* son Wat, who carted his drunken tutor around Paris during Mardi Gras. Jonson considered himself primarily a poet, and his plays and masques as forms of poetry. His inclusion of plays in his 1616 Works of Benjamin Jonson was the first treatment of popular plays as serious literature and set a precedent for the 1623 publication of William Shakespeare's* plays (with a tribute by Jonson, "To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare," which includes the infamous complaint that Shakespeare had "small Latin and less Greek"). After publishing his works, Jonson was awarded a royal pension, mak­ing him the unofficial poet laureate of England.
If Jonson was notoriously contentious and eventually alienated both Marston and Jones, he inspired devotion in his disciples. Young poets like Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew called themselves "sons of Ben" and engaged with Jonson in literary discussions, usually in the Apollo Room of the Devil Tavern. Jonson was also granted much official recognition, including an honorary degree from Oxford (1619), the offer of a knighthood (an expense he declined), and the office of master of revels. His last years were marked by misfortune: a 1623 fire that destroyed much of his library and several unpublished manuscripts, a decrease in royal commissions after Charles I ascended the throne, failures in the public theater, and in 1628 a stroke that left him paralyzed. Despite these setbacks, he continued writing poetry; in 1630 he successfully petitioned for an increase in his pension. He was visited by many friends during his confinement, and his 1637 funeral was attended by most of the aristocracy.
Jonson survived competition with Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe* to become a prominent English playwright; his career paralleled and contributed to the modern idea of the author; and his stylistic influence has been felt by generations of poets. Among his best-known dramatic works are Volpone (1606), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), and the masques The Masque of Blackness (in which Queen Anne performed in blackface, 1604) and Oberon (1613). His many poems anthologized and studied today include "To Penshurst," the seat of the Sidney family, "On My First Daughter," "On My First Son," and "Song: To Celia" from Volpone.
Bibliography
R. Dutton, Ben Jonson: Authority: Criticism, 1996. [m2]D. Riggs, Ben Jonson: A Life, 1989.
Jean Graham

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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