Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass renders a man’s form or likeness so true as his speech. Nay, it is likened to a man; and as we consider feature and composition in a man, so words in language; in the greatness, aptness, sound structure, and harmony of it.— Ben Jonson, 1640 (posthumous)
In midlife, Jonson claimed that his paternal grandfather was a member of the extended Johnston family of Annandale in the Scottish borders, a genealogy that is attested by the three spindles (rhombi) in the Jonson family coat of arms: one spindle is a diamond-shaped heraldic device used by the Johnston family. Jonson's clergyman father died two months before his birth; his mother married a master bricklayer two years later. Jonson attended school in St. Martin's Lane. Later, a family friend paid for his studies at Westminster School, where the antiquarian, Historian, topographer and officer of arms, william Camden (1551–1623) was one of his masters. In the event, the pupil and the master became friends, and the intellectual influence of Camden's broad-ranging scholarship upon Jonson's art and literary style remained notable, until Camden's death in 1623.
Regarding his marriage Jonson described his wife to william Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest". The identity of Jonson's wife has always been obscure, yet she sometimes is identified as "Ann Lewis", the woman who married a Benjamin Jonson in 1594, at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge. Concerning the family of Anne Lewis and Ben Jonson, the St. Martin's Church registers indicate that Mary Jonson, their eldest daughter, died in November 1593, at six months of age. Then a decade later, in 1603, Benjamin Jonson, their eldest son, died of Bubonic plague when he was seven years old; to lament and honour the dead boy, Benjamin Jonson père wrote the elegiac On My First Sonne (1603). Moreover, 32 years later, a second son, also named Benjamin Jonson, died in 1635. In that period, Ann Lewis and Ben Jonson lived separate lives for five years; their matrimonial arrangement cast Ann Lewis as the housewife Jonson, and Ben Jonson as the Artist who enjoyed the residential hospitality of his patrons, Sir Robert Townshend and Lord Aubigny, Esme Stuart, 3rd Duke of Lennox.
As with other English Renaissance dramatists, a portion of Ben Jonson's literary output has not survived. In addition to The Isle of Dogs (1597), the records suggest these lost plays as wholly or partially Jonson's work: Richard Crookback (1602); Hot Anger Soon Cold (1598), with Porter and Henry Chettle; Page of Plymouth (1599), with Dekker; and Robert II, King of Scots (1599), with Chettle and Dekker. Several of Jonson's masques and entertainments also are not extant: The Entertainment at Merchant Taylors (1607); The Entertainment at Salisbury House for James I (1608); and The May Lord (1613–19).
Notwithstanding this emphatically Protestant grounding, Jonson maintained an interest in Catholic doctrine throughout his adult life and, at a particularly perilous time while a religious war with Spain was widely expected and persecution of Catholics was intensifying, he converted to the faith. This took place in October 1598, while Jonson was on remand in Newgate Gaol charged with manslaughter. Jonson's biographer Ian Donaldson is among those who suggest that the conversion was instigated by Father Thomas Wright, a Jesuit priest who had resigned from the order over his acceptance of Queen Elizabeth's right to rule in England. Wright, although placed under house arrest on the orders of Lord Burghley, was permitted to minister to the inmates of London prisons. It may have been that Jonson, fearing that his trial would go against him, was seeking the unequivocal absolution that Catholicism could offer if he were sentenced to death. Alternatively, he could have been looking to personal advantage from accepting conversion since Father Wright's protector, the Earl of Essex, was among those who might hope to rise to influence after the succession of a new monarch. Jonson's conversion came at a weighty time in affairs of state; the royal succession, from the childless Elizabeth, had not been settled and Essex's Catholic allies were hopeful that a sympathetic ruler might attain the throne.
Jonson's other work for the theatre in the last years of Elizabeth I's reign was marked by fighting and controversy. Cynthia's Revels was produced by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre in 1600. It satirised both John Marston, who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness in Histriomastix, and Thomas Dekker. Jonson attacked the two poets again in Poetaster (1601). Dekker responded with Satiromastix, subtitled "the untrussing of the humorous poet". The final scene of this play, whilst certainly not to be taken at face value as a portrait of Jonson, offers a caricature that is recognisable from Drummond's report – boasting about himself and condemning other poets, criticising performances of his plays and calling attention to himself in any available way.
At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career, writing masques for James's court. The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605) are two of about two dozen masques which Jonson wrote for James or for Queen Anne, some of them performed at Apethorpe Palace when the King was in residence. The Masque of Blackness was praised by Algernon Charles Swinburne as the consummate Example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing and spectacle.
The period between 1605 and 1620 may be viewed as Jonson's heyday. By 1616 he had produced all the plays on which his present reputation as a dramatist is based, including the tragedy Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved limited success and the comedies Volpone (acted 1605 and printed in 1607), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fair (1614) and The Devil is an Ass (1616). The Alchemist and Volpone were immediately successful. Of Epicoene, Jonson told Drummond of a satirical verse which reported that the play's subtitle was appropriate, since its audience had refused to applaud the play (i.e., remained silent). Yet Epicoene, along with Bartholomew Fair and (to a lesser extent) The Devil is an Ass have in modern times achieved a certain degree of recognition. While his life during this period was apparently more settled than it had been in the 1590s, his financial security was still not assured.
Conviction, and certainly not expedience alone, sustained Jonson's faith during the troublesome twelve years he remained a Catholic. His stance received attention beyond the low-level intolerance to which most followers of that faith were exposed. The first draft of his play Sejanus was banned for "popery", and did not re-appear until some offending passages were cut. In January 1606 he (with Anne, his wife) appeared before the Consistory Court in London to answer a charge of recusancy, with Jonson alone additionally accused of allowing his fame as a Catholic to "seduce" citizens to the cause. This was a serious matter (the Gunpowder Plot was still fresh in mind) but he explained that his failure to take communion was only because he had not found sound theological endorsement for the practice, and by paying a fine of thirteen shillings (65p) he escaped the more serious penalties at the authorities' disposal. His habit was to slip outside during the sacrament, a Common routine at the time—indeed it was one followed by the royal consort, Queen Anne, herself—to show political loyalty while not offending the conscience. Leading church figures, including John Overall, Dean of St Paul's, were tasked with winning Jonson back to orthodoxy, but these overtures were resisted.
On leaving Westminster School, Jonson was to have attended the University of Cambridge, to continue his book learning but did not, because of his unwilled apprenticeship to his bricklayer stepfather. According to the churchman and Historian Thomas Fuller (1608–61), Jonson at this time built a garden wall in Lincoln's Inn. After having been an apprentice bricklayer, Ben Jonson went to the Netherlands and volunteered to soldier with the English regiments of Francis Vere (1560–1609) in Flanders.
In May 1610 Henry IV of France was assassinated, purportedly in the name of the Pope; he had been a Catholic monarch respected in England for tolerance towards Protestants, and his murder seems to have been the immediate cause of Jonson's decision to rejoin the Church of England. He did this in flamboyant style, pointedly drinking a full chalice of communion wine at the eucharist to demonstrate his renunciation of the Catholic rite, in which the priest alone drinks the wine. The exact date of the ceremony is unknown. However, his interest in Catholic belief and practice remained with him until his death.
On many of these projects he collaborated, not always peacefully, with designer Inigo Jones. For Example, Jones designed the scenery for Jonson's masque Oberon, the Faery Prince performed at Whitehall on 1 January 1611 in which Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, appeared in the title role. Perhaps partly as a result of this new career, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theatres for a decade. He later told Drummond that he had made less than two hundred pounds on all his plays together.
"Epigrams" (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, although Jonson was perhaps the only poet of his time to work in its full classical range. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are longer and are mostly addressed to specific individuals. Although it is included among the epigrams, "On My First Sonne" is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, intensely personal and deeply felt, typifies a genre that would come to be called "lyric poetry." It is possible that the spelling of 'son' as 'Sonne' is meant to allude to the sonnet form, with which it shares some features. A few other so-called epigrams share this quality. Jonson's poems of "The Forest" also appeared in the first folio. Most of the fifteen poems are addressed to Jonson's aristocratic supporters, but the most famous are his country-house poem “To Penshurst” and the poem “To Celia” ("Come, my Celia, let us prove") that appears also in Volpone.
In 1618 Jonson set 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 of Hawthornden, in April 1619, sited on the River Esk. Drummond undertook to record as much of Jonson's conversation as he could in his diary, and thus recorded aspects of Jonson's personality that would otherwise have been less clearly seen. Jonson delivers his opinions, in Drummond's terse reporting, in an expansive and even magisterial mood. Drummond noted he was "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others".
The Hawthornden Manuscripts (1619), of the conversations between Ben Jonson and the poet william Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), report that, when in Flanders, Jonson engaged, fought and killed an enemy soldier in single combat, and took for trophies the weapons of the vanquished soldier. After his military activity on the Continent, Jonson returned to England and worked as an actor and as a Playwright. As an actor, Jonson was the protagonist “Hieronimo” (Geronimo) in the play The Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1586), by Thomas Kyd (1558–94), the first revenge tragedy in English literature. Moreover, by 1597, he was a working Playwright employed by Philip Henslowe, the leading Producer for the English public theatre; by the next year, the production of Every Man in His Humour (1598) had established Jonson's reputation as a dramatist.
Despite the strokes that he suffered in the 1620s, Jonson continued to write. At his death in 1637 he seems to have been working on another play, The Sad Shepherd. Though only two acts are extant, this represents a remarkable new direction for Jonson: a move into pastoral drama. During the early 1630s he also conducted a correspondence with James Howell, who warned him about disfavour at court in the wake of his dispute with Jones.
In his time Jonson was at least as influential as Donne. In 1623, Historian Edmund Bolton named him the best and most polished English poet. That this judgment was widely shared is indicated by the admitted influence he had on younger poets. The grounds for describing Jonson as the "father" of cavalier poets are clear: many of the cavalier poets described themselves as his "sons" or his "tribe". For some of this tribe, the connection was as much social as poetic; Herrick described meetings at "the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tunne". All of them, including those like Herrick whose accomplishments in verse are generally regarded as superior to Jonson's, took inspiration from Jonson's revival of classical forms and themes, his subtle melodies, and his disciplined use of wit. In these respects Jonson may be regarded as among the most important figures in the prehistory of English neoclassicism.
The principal factor in Jonson's partial eclipse was, however, the death of James and the accession of King Charles I in 1625. Jonson felt neglected by the new court. A decisive quarrel with Jones harmed his career as a Writer of court masques, although he continued to entertain the court on an irregular basis. For his part, Charles displayed a certain degree of care for the great poet of his father's day: he increased Jonson's annual pension to £100 and included a tierce of wine and beer.
Jonson died on 6 August 1637 and his funeral was held on 9 August. 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. John Aubrey, in a more meticulous record than usual, notes that a passer-by, John Young of Great Milton, Oxfordshire, saw the bare grave marker and on impulse paid a workman eighteen pence to make the inscription. Another theory suggests that the tribute came from william Davenant, Jonson's successor as Poet Laureate (and card-playing companion of Young), as the same phrase appears on Davenant's nearby gravestone, but Essayist Leigh Hunt contends that Davenant's wording represented no more than Young's coinage, cheaply re-used. The fact that Jonson was buried in an upright position was an indication of his reduced circumstances at the time of his death, although it has also been written that he asked for a grave exactly 18 inches square from the monarch and received an upright grave to fit in the requested space.
Underwood, published in the expanded folio of 1640, is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains A Celebration of Charis, Jonson's most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth; the Execration against Vulcan and others. The 1640 volume also contains three elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne (one of them appeared in Donne's posthumous collected poems).
Finally, there are questionable or borderline attributions. Jonson may have had a hand in Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or The Bloody Brother, a play in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. The comedy The Widow was printed in 1652 as the work of Thomas Middleton, Fletcher and Jonson, though scholars have been intensely sceptical about Jonson's presence in the play. A few attributions of anonymous plays, such as The London Prodigal, have been ventured by individual researchers, but have met with cool responses.
Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous for he has been described as 'One of the most vigorous minds that ever added to the strength of English literature'. Before the English Civil War, the "Tribe of Ben" touted his importance, and during the Restoration Jonson's satirical comedies and his theory and practice of "humour characters" (which are often misunderstood; see william Congreve's letters for clarification) was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. John Aubrey wrote of Jonson in "Brief Lives." By 1700 Jonson's status began to decline. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson's type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but overall he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein.
As G. E. Bentley notes in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, Jonson's reputation was in some respects equal to Shakespeare's in the 17th century. After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II, Jonson's work, along with Shakespeare's and Fletcher's, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory. It was not until after 1710 that Shakespeare's plays (ordinarily in heavily revised forms) were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the 18th century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasise the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber, and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies.
A monument to Jonson was erected in about 1723 by the Earl of Oxford and is in the eastern aisle of Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner. It includes a portrait medallion and the same inscription as on the gravestone. It seems Jonson was to have had a monument erected by subscription soon after his death but the English Civil War intervened.
In this period, Alexander Pope is exceptional in that he noted the tendency to exaggeration in these competing critical portraits: "It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Johnson had much the most learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both." For the most part, the 18th century consensus remained committed to the division that Pope doubted; as late as the 1750s, Sarah Fielding could put a brief recapitulation of this analysis in the mouth of a "man of sense" encountered by David Simple.
The best of Jonson's lyrics have remained current since his time; periodically, they experience a brief vogue, as after the publication of Peter Whalley's edition of 1756. Jonson's poetry continues to interest scholars for the light which it sheds on English literary history, such as politics, systems of patronage and intellectual attitudes. For the general reader, Jonson's reputation rests on a few lyrics that, though brief, are surpassed for grace and precision by very few Renaissance poems: "On My First Sonne"; "To Celia"; "To Penshurst"; and the epitaph on boy player Solomon Pavy.
Though his stature declined during the 18th century, Jonson was still read and commented on throughout the century, generally in the kind of comparative and dismissive terms just described. Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg translated parts of Peter Whalley's edition into German in 1765. Shortly before the Romantic revolution, Edward Capell offered an almost unqualified rejection of Jonson as a dramatic poet, who (he writes) "has very poor pretensions to the high place he holds among the English Bards, as there is no original manner to distinguish him and the tedious sameness visible in his plots indicates a defect of Genius." The disastrous failures of productions of Volpone and Epicoene in the early 1770s no doubt bolstered a widespread sense that Jonson had at last grown too antiquated for the contemporary public; if he still attracted enthusiasts such as Earl Camden and william Gifford, he all but disappeared from the stage in the last quarter of the century.
In 2012, after more than two decades of research, Cambridge University Press published the first new edition of Jonson's complete works for 60 years.
The romantic revolution in criticism brought about an overall decline in the critical estimation of Jonson. Hazlitt refers dismissively to Jonson's "laborious caution." Coleridge, while more respectful, describes Jonson as psychologically superficial: “He was a very accurately observing man; but he cared only to observe what was open to, and likely to impress, the senses.” Coleridge placed Jonson second only to Shakespeare; other romantic critics were less approving. The early 19th century was the great age for recovering Renaissance drama. Jonson, whose reputation had survived, appears to have been less interesting to some readers than Writers such as Thomas Middleton or John Heywood, who were in some senses "discoveries" of the 19th century. Moreover, the emphasis which the romantic Writers placed on imagination, and their concomitant tendency to distrust studied art, lowered Jonson's status, if it also sharpened their awareness of the difference traditionally noted between Jonson and Shakespeare. This trend was by no means universal, however; william Gifford, Jonson's first Editor of the 19th century, did a great deal to defend Jonson's reputation during this period of general decline. In the next era, Swinburne, who was more interested in Jonson than most Victorians, wrote, "The flowers of his growing have every quality but one which belongs to the rarest and finest among flowers: they have colour, form, variety, fertility, vigour: the one thing they want is fragrance” – by “fragrance,” Swinburne means spontaneity.
Within this general progression, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognisable. He announces his programme in the prologue to the folio version of Every Man in His Humour: he promises to represent "deeds, and language, such as men do use." He planned to write comedies that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory—or rather, since all but the loosest English comedies could claim some descent from Plautus and Terence, he intended to apply those premises with rigour. This commitment entailed negations: after The Case is Altered, Jonson eschewed distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots and other staples of Elizabethan comedy, focusing instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy. He set his plays in contemporary settings, peopled them with recognisable types, and set them to actions that, if not strictly realistic, involved everyday motives such as greed and jealousy. In accordance with the temper of his age, he was often so broad in his characterisation that many of his most famous scenes border on the farcical (as william Congreve, for Example, judged Epicoene.) He was more diligent in adhering to the classical unities than many of his peers—although as Margaret Cavendish noted, the unity of action in the major comedies was rather compromised by Jonson's abundance of incident. To this classical model Jonson applied the two features of his style which save his classical imitations from mere pedantry: the vividness with which he depicted the lives of his characters, and the intricacy of his plots. Coleridge, for instance, claimed that The Alchemist had one of the three most perfect plots in literature.
In the 20th century, Jonson’s body of work has been subject to a more varied set of analyses, broadly consistent with the interests and programmes of modern literary criticism. In an essay printed in The Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot attempted to repudiate the charge that Jonson was an arid classicist by analysing the role of imagination in his dialogue. Eliot was appreciative of Jonson's overall conception and his "surface", a view consonant with the modernist reaction against Romantic criticism, which tended to denigrate playwrights who did not concentrate on representations of psychological depth. Around mid-century, a number of critics and scholars followed Eliot's lead, producing detailed studies of Jonson's Verbal style. At the same time, study of Elizabethan themes and conventions, such as those by E. E. Stoll and M. C. Bradbrook, provided a more vivid sense of how Jonson's work was shaped by the expectations of his time.