Ben Jonson was born around June 11, 1572, in London, to an Anglican clergyman. He was educated by the great classical scholar, William Camden, at Westminster School. When his mother remarried a bricklayer after his father died, Jonson was apprenticed as a bricklayer in his stepfather’s business. He escaped to join the army and served in Flanders. In 1594 he married Anne Lewis. They had two children, who died young, and Jonson later separated from his wife.
He became part of Phillip Henslowe’s theater company in London around 1597 as both actor and playwright. He was thrown into Marshalsea prison for his part in the satirical play, “The Isle of Dogs.” The next year he was tried for murder at Old Bailey for killing a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel. Sent to prison, he converted to Roman Catholicism. When released, he had to forfeit all his property and was branded on the thumb as a criminal. He reconverted to Anglicism in 1608.
William Shakespeare was in the cast of Jonson’s second play, “Every Man in His Humour,” in 1598. It was performed at the Globe Theatre with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Jonson became an instant celebrity and created the fashion for comedy about eccentric characters. His next play was “Every Man Out of His Humour” (1599). “Cynthia’s Revels” (1600) was an experiment and displayed Jonson’s classical learning.
Jonson’s conviction of his own superiority gave rise to the “War of the Theaters” where he satirized the other playwrights such as Dekker and Marston (The Poetaster, 1601). Jonson portrayed himself as the classical poet, Horace. The other writers fought back with their own satire on Jonson, but they joined again to collaborate on “Eastward Ho!” (1604), again causing Jonson to be imprisoned for treasonable views.
Jonson wrote not only comedy but also tragedy, such as “Sejanus, His Fall” (1603) about the fall of the Roman dictator. He was called before the Privy Council for the Catholic political implications in the play. At the time he was a Catholic and suspect after the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament. In 1605 Jonson began to write his lyrical court masques that made him a lot of money. He was appointed as Court Poet and teamed up with Inigo Jones, the architect and designer to stage elaborate spectacles. Jones and Jonson later became rivals.
His greatest dramatic works were the comedies between 1605 and 1614, such as “Volpone, the Fox”, in 1606. The play satirizes the rising merchant class of England. “Epicoene, or the Silent Woman” (1609), “The Alchemist” (1610), and “Bartholomew Fair” (1614) are all about deception. He published his own Collected Works in 1616 and was appointed Poet Laureate with a pension.
Jonson’s later plays were not a success, but he had a following of younger writers, called “the Sons of Ben” (such as the Cavalier poets, Herrick, Suckling, Lovelace, and Carew) who treated him as a master writer. Jonson was paralyzed from a stroke and died on August 6, 1637. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription on his tomb: “O rare Ben Jonson.” One of the best-educated men of his time, he aimed at making English literature a professional craft and as dignified as the classics.