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Jonson, Ben (c. 1572–1637) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Ben Jonson was born in London around 1572, one month after his father’s death. The following year, his mother married a bricklayer, a profession Jonson also followed intermittently, though apparently viewing it with contempt. With a patron’s help, he attended Westminster School and studied with William Camden, but he did not finish school or go on to university. He married Anne Lewis in 1594, a marriage that seems not to have been very happy and that was characterized by long separations. They had several children together, none of whom survived childhood.

By 1597, after a brief stint with the army in Flanders and a few years as a bricklayer’s apprentice, Jonson had become involved with the acting profession, first as an actor, then as a playwright. One of his earliest writing efforts, his collaboration on The Isle of Dogs (no longer extant), led to his imprisonment for sedition. He was arrested again the following year for killing Gabriel Spencer, a fellow actor. Since he could read, he was allowed to plead the benefit of clergy and was released, although he was branded on the thumb and had all his goods seized. While in prison, Jonson converted to Catholicism, an act that later created problems for him, although he apparently escaped major repercussions professionally.

In fact, no aspect of these imprisonments seems to have impeded his writing career substantially. Starting in 1598 with The Case is Altered , closely followed by Every Man in His Humor, Every Man Out of His Humor, Cynthia’s Revels , and Poetaster , Jonson made a name for himself as a popular playwright. At the same time, however, he became engaged in the so-called War of the Theatres, wherein Jonson, John Marston, and Thomas Dekker* traded insults through their literary endeavors, a skirmish that continued until 1601. In 1602, Jonson made major changes in his life. He abandoned stage comedies and left his wife, to reside first with Sir Robert Townsend, then with Esme Stuart, Seigneur D’Aubigny, patrons who supported him into the next phase of his literary career.

Jonson flourished during the reign of James I, despite further encounters with the law. He was imprisoned in 1605 with John Marston and George Chapman* after being accused of satirizing the Scots in Eastward Ho! He then returned to court in 1606, when he and his wife were charged with recusancy (he returned to the Church of England in 1610). There was also some suspicion that he had been involved in the Gunpowder Plot in 1604.

Nevertheless, Jonson remained in the good graces of the king and entered a period of rich theatrical production. Not only did he produce numerous masques and other court entertainments, but he also wrote several of the plays for which he is most remembered, including Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair , and The Devil is an Ass . Furthermore, in 1616, he published a folio edition of his Works , was granted a royal pension, and began a decade’s reign in London taverns as head of the “Tribe of Ben.” However, despite the accolade of an honorary M.A. from Oxford in 1619 and a notable walking tour of Scotland in 1618 with William Drummond, who recorded their conversations, Jonson’s fortunes began to decline into the 1620s. His house and books were destroyed by a fire in 1623, and the king’s death in 1625 left him without his key supporter. Charles I increased Jonson’s pension in 1630, but the new king did not continue his parents’ avid patronage of theatrical entertainments. Consequently, despite Jonson’s continuing literary efforts, he never regained his prominence, although he was appointed Thomas Middleton’s* successor as chronologer of the city of London in 1628, the same year he suffered a debilitating stroke. Jonson died on 6 August 1637 at the age of sixty-five. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, with the famous epitaph “O rare Ben Jonson.”


As the texts remaining from the War of the Theatres period indicate, we have commentary on Jonson’s literary output virtually from the start of his career. Charles Fitsgeffrey, for example, wrote in 1601 that Jonson was “guilty of stealing and of wicked thieving,/All the nine Muses sitting by in circle” (Craig, 86). Similarly, the anonymous Returne from Pernassus: Or the Scourge of Simony (1606), a play produced by the students at Cambridge in 1601–2, announces that Jonson was “so slow an Inventor, that he were better betake himselfe to his old trade of Bricklaying” (Craig, 87). A few years later, an anonymous attack on his Epigrams of 1615 suggests to readers that although they may “[p]eruse his [Jonson’s] booke, thou shalt not find a dram of witt, befitting a true Epigram” (Craig, 122). Clearly, Jonson’s popularity as a writer demonstrates that not everyone shared such views during this era; still, his prominence and his outspoken personality made him the target of many attacks as well as much praise throughout his lifetime. In his commendation, a notable collection of commemorative verses, Jonsonus Virbius , was published to honor him in 1638, followed shortly by Sir Kenelm Digby’s two-volume folio edition of Jonson’s Works .

Much of the criticism of Jonson after his death emphasizes areas of comparison with Shakespeare. The reputed personal feud between Shakespeare and Jonson seems largely to have been fabricated, but beginning in the 1630s, numerous critics have engaged in battles disputing the relative merits of the famous friends and contemporaries. Jonson has often been considered the inferior writer when the two are compared; nevertheless, many writers emphasize his unique contributions to literary history. When the comparison is set aside, the value of Jonson’s writings becomes indisputable.

John Dryden’s extensive criticism provides the most prominent seventeenth-century response to Jonson (Craig, 9), but many other writers also debated the merits of Jonson’s canon, including Aphra Behn in 1673, who apparently favored the works of Shakespeare (Behn, 123). Thomas Shadwell, in contrast, announced in 1668 that Jonson “is the man, of all the World, I most passionately admire for his Excellency in Drammatick- Poetry ” (Shadwell, 11), while Samuel Pepys alternately pronounces Epicoene “an excellent play” (Pepys, 109) and “[not] so good [a] play as I formerly thought” (Pepys, 390).

Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and Henry Fielding are among those in the eighteenth century who commented upon Jonson’s writing. Pope famously, if unfairly, declared, “What trashe are his [Jonson’s] works, taken all together!” (Craig, 381), although in deference to Jonson, he apparently demurred from a plan to mark his dog’s grave “O Rare Bounce!” (Spence, 269). Dr. Johnson, on the other hand, remarked that Jonson, “like Egypt’s Kings,” left a “lasting Tomb” (Craig, 314), and Henry Fielding praises Jonson at some length in his preface to Joseph Andrews .

Nineteenth-century writers prepared the way for the criticism that predominated in the early part of the twentieth century. A. C. Swinburne and others posed, once again, the contrast between Jonson and Shakespeare. They also devoted significant attention to Jonson’s classicism and his theories of poetry and drama. Subsequently, Jonsonian studies were profoundly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s essay on the playwright in 1919 and by the publication of the Herford and Simpson edition of Jonson’s collected works, which began appearing in 1925. Over the next few decades, critics, including Douglas Bush, Cleanth Brooks, and L. C. Knights, debated topics such as Jonson’s social realism, his originality, his classicism, the nature of his dramatic and poetic art, and his didacticism (Brock and Welsh, 16–18).

Among the book-length studies of Jonson in the 1960s and 1970s, Jonson’s drama was central. Jonas Barish, for example, offered an important account of Jonson’s prose in the comedies (1960); Stephen Orgel offered a study of Jonson’s masques (1965); Gabriele Bernhard Jackson explored Vision and Judgment in Ben Jonson’s Drama (1968); and Alan Dessen examined Jonson’s Moral Comedy (1971). During the same period, scholars such as L. A. Beaurline, G. R. Hibbard, Hugh Maclean, and Arthur Marotti added to our understanding of Jonson’s poetry.

The proliferation of new approaches to early modern texts that has occurred since 1980 is reflected in Jonsonian criticism. While essays continue to be written on familiar themes such as Jonson’s classicism and comparisons between Shakespeare and Jonson, current books and articles display diverse interests, ranging from topics concerned with race and gender to proposed connections between Jonsonian comedy and MTV or, in Douglas Bruster’s work, to the plays of David Mamet. Gail Kern Paster, for example, discusses The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair in her study of early modern drama and humoral medical theory (1993). Also in 1993, Katharine Eisaman Maus included Jonson in her essay on gender “A Womb of His Own: Male Renaissance Poets in the Female Body.” Several critics, including Kim F. Hall, Hardin Aasand, and Joyce Green MacDonald, published articles in the early 1990s that focus on the Masque of Blackness , a dramatic text that is helping scholars conceptualize the theories of race that were germane during the early modern period.

At the same time, critics such as Richard Helgerson, Jonathan Goldberg, Richard Burt, and Joseph Lowenstein have been considering Jonson in the light of questions of literary production, literary patronage, and censorship during this period. Similarly, numerous critics, including Kathleen McLuskie, Katharine Maus, and Karen Newman discuss Jonson and his works in relation to the economic imperatives operative while Jonson was writing.

Although Jonson’s plays are performed less often than those of Shakespeare, critical interest in his drama and in his poetry remains deservedly high. As our knowledge of the Jacobean court continues to grow, Jonson will undoubtedly become even more significant for students of early modern literature and culture.

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