Ben Jonson was an English actor, poet, dramatist and critic. Active in the early Stuart period, he is one of the most influential literary figures of the time, although perhaps less popularly revered than William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. His plays include Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fayre. He also co-wrote the now-lost play, Isle of Dogs,with Thomas Nashe, which, for reasons unknown, was suppressed by the authorities.
Jonson was born in London on 11 June 1572, a month after his father’s death. His widowed mother struggled financially until her remarriage a few years later to Robert Brett, a bricklayer. The family then took up residence in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. (Pictured: Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch).
As a child, Jonson attended an educational establishment run by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, before moving on to Westminster School at the age of 7. Here he studied under William Camden, an antiquarian who wrote the first definitive history of Elizabeth’s reign. A tradition of Westminster School was to encourage the study of English translations of Latin and Greek writings, which influenced his future work.
The stage beckons
Once his education had ended, there was a brief foray into the world of labouring. It soon became clear, however, that there was no hope of Jonson entering his step-father’s profession as it was something he ‘could not endure’. In the early 1590s, the young man signed up to fight with English forces in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he was drawn to London’s theatre world, where he began work as both an actor (he is believed to have played the role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s most well-known play, The Spanish Tragedy) and a playwright.
By 1597, however, he was devoting more time to writing plays than acting in them. According the records of the impresario Philip Henslowe, Jonson wrote a number of plays for Henslowe just before the turn of the century – most of which are now lost. The play that was to make his name – Every Man in His Humour – was produced in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (possibly with Shakespeare in an acting role), to great acclaim.
Jonson married Anne Lewis – a woman he described as ‘a shrew, yet honest’ – in St Magnus the Martyr church near London Bridge on 14 November 1594. The couple would go on to have several children, at least two of whom would die before reaching adulthood.
On 22 September 1598, Jonson was involved in a dual with another actor, Gabriel Spencer, who died as a result. Jonson was subsequently imprisoned for the murder, and narrowly avoided the gallows. As punishment for his crime, Jonson’s thumb was branded (which marked him out as a convict for the rest of his life), and his possessions were seized. During his time in prison, Jonson converted to Catholicism.
Trouble followed Jonson for the rest of his life. In 1605, Eastward Ho!, a play co-authored with John Marston, landed both writers in prison for a short time, on account of the work’s perceived anti-Scottish content Given that James VI of Scotland had recently succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne, the authorities took a very dim view of perceived incitement of anti-Scottish, and therefore treasonous, sentiment. A charge of recusancy followed in 1606, but this time Jonson escaped imprisonment by paying a fine of thirteen shillings.
In the 1620s, Jonson entered a period of slow physical decline, during which time he is believed to have suffered a number of strokes. He died on 6 August 1637, and was buried three days later in Westminster Abbey. His grave is marked with a slab of blue marble which bears the inscription, ‘O Rare, Ben Jonson’.