Biography Benjamin Jonson

Benjamin Jonson

photo of Benjamin Jonson
  • Time Period1572 - 1637
  • Place

Poet Biography

Born in London of Border descent, Jonson was the son of a clergyman who died before his son's birth. He was educated at Westminster School and then, embarking upon a life that would be characterised throughout by great diversity and outlandish events, worked for a time as a bricklayer for his stepfather. This was followed by military service in Flanders, some acting in a strolling company of actors, and marriage, in 1594, to Anne Lewis, prior to being imprisoned in 1597 for his involvement, as playwright and player, in a satire entitled The Isle of Dogs. One year later he killed another actor in a duel but escaped execution by pleading benefit of clergy. During his subsequent imprisonment he converted to Roman Catholicism only to convert back to Anglicism over a decade later in 1701.

In the same year his most important play, the comedy Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The cast included Shakespeare. His first court masque, of which he produced several in the following years, was produced in 1605 - the same year in which he was, once again, imprisoned for his part in a satire, this time entitled Edward Hoe , and also gave evidence concerning the infamous Gunpowder Plot. The period of his major plays followed with the publication and production of Volpone (1605-6), Epicene (1609) and Bartholomew's Fair (1614), by which time he had also worked as a personal tutor in France and had travelled to Scotland where he recorded his famous conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1616 he published his complete Works - poems, plays and masques - and received, in 1919, an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University and began to lecture on rhetoric at Gresham College, London. Two disasters followed: a fire, in 1623, that destroyed many of his belongings , and a stroke in 1628 from which he never fully recovered.

Jonson was a massive man - he spoke of his "mountain belly" - and a massively prolific writer. As well as his many plays and non-dramatic verses, his numerous masques include The Masque of Queens (1609), Love Restored (1612), Mercury Vindicated From the Alchemists at Court (1616), Pleasure Recounted to Virtue (1618)and Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion (1624). His friends - Shakespeare, Donne, Francis Bacon, George Chapman and so on - were, and those he influenced remain even today, numerous. His tombstone in Westminster Abbey bears the apposite inscription "O rare Ben Jonson".