Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

Ben Jonson (1572-1637), after Abraham von Blyenberch, 1617. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ben Jonson
Born circa 11 June 1572
Westminster, London, England
Died August 6 1637(1637-Template:MONTHNUMBER-06) (aged 65)
Westminster, London, England
Occupation Dramatist, poet and actor

Benjamin Jonson (?11 June 1572 - 6 August 1637) was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet, and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best,[1] and his lyric poems. A man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy, Jonson had an unparalleled breadth of influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets.



Although he was born in Westminster, London, Jonson claimed his family was of Scottish Border country descent, and this claim may have been supported by the fact that his coat of arms bears three spindles or rhombi, a device shared by a Borders family, the Johnstones of Annandale. His father died a month before Ben's birth, and his mother remarried two years later, to a master bricklayer.[2]

Jonson attended school in St. Martin's Lane, and was later sent to Westminster School, where one of his teachers was William Camden. Jonson remained friendly with Camden, whose broad scholarship evidently influenced his own style, until the latter's death in 1623. Jonson was once thought to have gone on to the University of Cambridge,[2] but Jonson himself contradicts this, saying that he did not go to university, but was put to a trade, probably bricklaying, immediately: a legend recorded by Thomas Fuller indicates that he worked on a garden wall in Lincoln's Inn. He soon had enough of the trade and spent some time in the Low Countries as a volunteer with the regiments of Francis Vere. In conversations with poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, subsequently published as the Hawthornden Manuscripts, Jonson reports that while in the Netherlands he killed an opponent in single combat and stripped him of his weapons.[3]

Jonson married, some time before 1594, a woman which he described to Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest." His wife has not been definitively identified, but she is sometimes identified as the Ann Lewis who married a Benjamin Jonson at St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge. The registers of St. Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Mary died in November 1593, when she was six months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague 10 years later (Jonson's epitaph to him On My First Sonne was written shortly after), and a second Benjamin died in 1635. For five years somewhere in this period, Jonson lived separately from his wife, enjoying the hospitality of Lord Aubigny.


By summer 1597, Jonson had a fixed engagement in the Admiral's Men, then performing under Philip Henslowe's management at The Rose. John Aubrey reports, on uncertain authority, that Jonson was not successful as an actor; whatever his skills as an actor, he was evidently more valuable to the company as a writer.

By this time Jonson had begun to write original plays for the Lord Admiral's Men; in 1598 he was mentioned by Francis Meres in his Palladis Tamia as one of "the best for tragedy." None of his early tragedies survives, however. An undated comedy, The Case is Altered, may be his earliest surviving play.

In 1597 a play which he co-wrote with Thomas Nashe, The Isle of Dogs, was suppressed after causing great offence. Arrest warrants for Jonson and Nashe were issued by Elizabeth's so-called interrogator, Richard Topcliffe. Jonson was jailed in Marshalsea Prison and charged with "Leude and mutynous behavior", while Nashe managed to escape to Great Yarmouth. A year later, Jonson was again briefly imprisoned, this time in Newgate Prison, for killing another man, an actor Gabriel Spenser, in a duel on 22 September 1598 in Hogsden Fields,[3] (today part of Hoxton). Tried on a charge of manslaughter, Jonson pleaded guilty but was subsequently released by benefit of clergy, a legal ploy through which he gained leniency by reciting a brief bible verse (the neck-verse), forfeiting his 'goods and chattels' and being branded on his left thumb.[4]

In 1598 Jonson produced his first great success, Every Man in his Humour, capitalising on the vogue for humour plays which George Chapman had started with An Humorous Day's Mirth. William Shakespeare was among the first cast. Jonson followed the next year with Every Man Out of His Humour, a pedantic attempt to imitate Aristophanes. It is not known whether this was a success on stage, but when published, it proved popular and went through several editions.

Jonson's other work for the theater in the last years of Elizabeth I's reign was unsurprisingly marked by fighting and controversy. Cynthia's Revels was produced by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre in 1600. It satirized both John Marston, who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness, probably in Histrio-Mastix, and Thomas Dekker, against whom Jonson's animus is not known. Jonson attacked the two poets again in 1601's Poetaster. 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.

This "War of the Theatres" appears to have ended with reconciliation on all sides. Jonson collaborated with Dekker on a pageant welcoming James I to England in 1603 although Drummond reports that Jonson called Dekker a rogue. Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson and the two collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho, a 1605 play whose anti-Scottish sentiment briefly landed both authors in jail.

Royal PatronageEdit

At the beginning of the reign of James I of England in 1603, Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort Anne of Denmark. In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Sir Philip Sidney) and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson's most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst.

In 1603 Thomas Overbury reported that Jonson was living on Aurelian Townsend and "scorning the world." Perhaps this explains why his trouble with English authorities continued. That same year he was questioned by the Privy Council about Sejanus, a politically-themed play about corruption in the Roman Empire. He was again in trouble for topical allusions in a play, now lost, in which he took part. After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, he appears to have been asked by the Privy Council to attempt to prevail on a certain priest to cooperate with the government; the priest he found was Father Thomas Wright, who heard Fawkes's confession (Teague, 249).

File:Jonson 1616 folio Workes title page.jpg

At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career, writing masques for James' 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; 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.

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 January 1, 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 theaters for a decade. He later told Drummond that he had made less than two hundred pounds on all his plays together.

Johnson published the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works in 1616. Other volumes followed in 1640–41 and 1692. (See: Ben Jonson folios)

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, Drummond of Hawthornden, in April of 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".

In Edinburgh, Jonson is recorded as staying with a John Stuart of Leith.[2] From Edinburgh he travelled west and lodged with the Duke of Lennox where he wrote a play based on Loch Lomond.[2]

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.

Decline and deathEdit

Jonson began to decline in the 1620s. He was still well-known; from this time dates the prominence of the Sons of Ben or the "Tribe of Ben", those younger poets such as Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Sir John Suckling who took their bearing in verse from Jonson. However, a series of setbacks drained his strength and damaged his reputation. He resumed writing regular plays in the 1620s, but these are not considered among his best. They are of significant interest, however, for their portrayal of Charles I's England. The Staple of Newes, for example, offers a remarkable look at the earliest stage of English journalism. The lukewarm reception given that play was, however, nothing compared to the dismal failure of The New Inn; the cold reception given this play prompted Jonson to write a poem condemning his audience (the Ode to Myself), which in turn prompted Thomas Carew, one of the "Tribe of Ben," to respond in a poem that asks Jonson to recognize his own decline.[5]

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.

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.

Jonson died on 6 August 1637 and his funeral was held on 9 August.

Jonson and ShakespeareEdit

There are many legends about Jonson's rivalry with Shakespeare, some of which may be true. Drummond reports that during their conversation, Jonson scoffed at two apparent absurdities in Shakespeare's plays: a nonsensical line in Julius Caesar, and the setting of The Winter's Tale on the non-existent seacoast of Bohemia. Drummond also reported Jonson as saying that Shakespeare "wanted (i.e. lacked) art." Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, the comments fit well with Jonson's well-known theories about literature.

In Timber, which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more conciliatory comment. He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e., crossed out) a line when he wrote. His own response, "Would he had blotted a thousand," was taken as malicious. However, Jonson explains, "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped".[6] Jonson concludes that "there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned." Also when Shakespeare died he said "He was not of an age, but for all time." Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern; Fuller imagines conversations in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the two men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson's references to him but because Shakespeare's company produced a number of Jonson's plays, at least one of which (Every Man in his Humour) Shakespeare certainly acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated in the present state of knowledge.

Jonson's most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the second of the two poems that he contributed to the prefatory verse that opens Shakespeare's First Folio. This poem, "To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us," did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine, and lesse Greeke",[7] had a natural genius. The poem has traditionally been thought to exemplify the contrast which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and skeptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote. But the poem itself qualifies this view:

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.

Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but others see it as a heartfelt tribute to the "Sweet Swan Of Avon," the "Soul of the Age!" It has been argued that Jonson helped to edit the First Folio, and he may have been inspired to write this poem, surely one of his greatest, by reading his fellow playwright's works, a number of which had been previously either unpublished or available in less satisfactory versions, in a relatively complete form.



Apart from two tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences, Jonson's work for the public theatres was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for boy players, present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later, for adult companies. Already in the plays which were his salvos in the Poet's War, he displays the keen eye for absurdity and hypocrisy that marks his best-known plays; in these early efforts, however, plot mostly takes second place to variety of incident and comic set-pieces. They are, also, notably ill-tempered. Thomas Davies called Poetaster "a contemptible mixture of the serio-comic, where the names of Augustus Caesar, Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Tibullus, are all sacrificed upon the altar of private resentment." Another early comedy in a different vein, The Case is Altered, is markedly similar to Shakespeare's romantic comedies in its foreign setting, emphasis on genial wit, and love-plot. Henslowe's diary indicates that Jonson had a hand in numerous other plays, including many in genres such as English history with which he is not otherwise associated.

The comedies of his middle career, from Eastward Ho to The Devil is an Ass are for the most part city comedy, with a London setting, themes of trickery and money, and a distinct moral ambiguity, despite Jonson's professed aim in the Prologue to Volpone to "mix profit with your pleasure". His late plays or "dotages", particularly The Magnetic Lady and The Sad Shepherd, exhibit signs of an accommodation with the romantic tendencies of Elizabethan comedy.

Within this general progression, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognizable. 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.[8] This commitment entailed negations: after The Case is Altered, Jonson eschewed distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots, and other staples of Elizabethan comedy, focussing instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy. He set his plays in contemporary settings, peopled them with recognizable 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.


Jonson's poetry, like his drama, is informed by his classical learning. Some of his better-known poems are close translations of Greek or Roman models; all display the careful attention to form and style that often came naturally to those trained in classics in the humanist manner. Jonson largely avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that had consumed Elizabethan classicists such as Thomas Campion and Gabriel Harvey. Accepting both rhyme and stress, Jonson used them to mimic the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint, and precision.

“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 an epigram in the classical sense of the genre, "On My First Sonne" is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, and others like it, resemble what a later age sometimes called "lyric poetry", and it is almost in the form of a Sonnet, however there are some elements missing. It is possible that the title symbolizes this with the spelling of 'son' as 'Sonne'. Johnson'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.’’

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).

Critical introductionEdit

by Adolphus William Ward

Though the readers of Ben Jonson are relatively few, there is no securer fame in our literature than his. He lived long, and ended his days in a very different world of letters as well as of politics from that upon which, after his return from military service in the Netherlands, he had launched the earliest of his great comedies. In his old age, when he had survived both the heat of the quarrels in which he had exulted and the fulness of the popularity which he had contemned,— when his powers were declining and his troubles increasing,— he was generally acknowledged as the chief of his art. His society was courted by grave seniors and by youthful aspirants to literary honours, while by an inner circle of devotees he was venerated as their "metropolitan in poetry," and honoured after death with a collection of tributes such as even in that age of panegyrics would have overweighted the remembrance of any other man.

During the Restoration period his reputation as an English dramatist was still second to none, so far as critical opinion was concerned. But a poet’s name is not kept green by critical opinion, and the name of a dramatic poet perhaps least of all. In his old age, as Jonson informed King Charles I, the "less poetic boys" had judged "parts of him decayed"; to posterity he gradually came to seem over-full and over-difficult. And thus in the end his inability or unwillingness (often expressed with unnecessary frankness) to come to terms with the larger public has revenged itself by his writings having been long and unworthily neglected.

To sink irresistibly into the souls of men, or lightly to move the mirth of the multitude, was and is beyond the power of his poetic genius. To dissolve its inspirations in wantonness, or to satisfy coarse appetites with the husks of its fruits, was incompatible with the character of his mind. No writer was ever at once so varied and so serious, so voluminous and so conscientious. Few have been so careful about what they wrote before publication, and so careless about it afterwards. He thought that he could trust his reputation to the judgment of those who can "understand and define what merit is"; and upon the whole it may be said that both the audience to which he appealed, and that whose opinion he professed neither to love nor to fear, have taken him at his word. His fame as a dramatist — on which his general fame will always essentially depend — must therefore remain within the keeping of those who are "sealed of the tribe of Ben"; but of these the succession is certain to remain unbroken.

One quite special cause has in the course of time not less unjustly than unfortunately interfered with the posthumous popularity of Ben Jonson. Not only has his poetic fame—as was inevitable — been overshadowed by that of Shakspere; but he was long believed to have entertained, and to have taken frequent opportunities of expressing, a malign jealousy of one both greater and more successful than himself. This rather musty charge was elaborately examined and refuted by Jonson’s editor, Gifford, to whose efforts on this head nothing remains to be added, though perhaps here and there something may with advantage be taken away from them. With pen and with tongue Ben Jonson was always, consciously or unconsciously, exerting his critical faculty; and like his great namesake of the eighteenth century, who in many respects (not including creative gifts) so strangely resembles him, he loved to measure and qualify even the praise which came warmest from his heart. In order to judge of his feelings towards Shakspere, and his opinion of Shakspere’s genius, it suffices to read with candour as well as care.... If the constitution of the writer’s mind, and the circumstances of the writing be taken into account, it may be said with truth that few criticisms at once so generous and so discerning have ever been committed to posterity by one great poet concerning another. At all events it should not be overlooked that the praise which from Jonson weighs heaviest — the praise of Shakspere’s art — was precisely that of which many generations delighting in the poet’s ‘native woodnotes wild’ failed to understand the meaning.

As a matter of course, Jonson is chiefly remembered as a dramatist, though his labours as such very far from exhausted his extraordinary powers of work, and though for ten years (beginning with that of Shakspere’s death) he never wrote for the stage at all. Indeed, though he declared his profits as a playwright to have been extremely small, it seems to have been necessity rather than choice which turned his efforts in this direction. In the spirited Ode to Himself (of which the date is uncertain, but which probably belongs to some time near 1616), as well as in the lines to Shakspere, he makes no secret of his longing for what seemed to him nobler because freer forms of poetry. But though he not long afterwards (1619) told Drummond of Hawthornden in one of his famous Conversations, "that he had an intention to perfect an epic poem entitled Heroologia, of the Worthies of this Country roused by Fame, and to dedicate it to his country," nothing came of the project. Nor would it appear that the burning of his library, for which he execrated "the lame Lord of Fire" in a vivacious series of his favourite heroic couplets, consumed together with the MS. of his English Grammar and of his Aristotelian notes for his Translation of Horace’s Art of Poetry, any original poem of special length or importance.

Exclusively, therefore, of his dramas and masques, and of a few translations from the Latin Poets professing to be nothing more than such, Jonson’s poetical remains consist only of the three collections mentioned at the head of this notice. How far the last of these, the Underwoods, which comprises epistles, epigrams, and lyrics of various kinds, was prepared or even designed for publication by Jonson, is unknown.

The lyrics in Jonson’s dramas are extremely few, as becomes a dramatist who (as he rather too tersely expresses it) strove not only to set "words above action," but "matter above words." Indeed, with the exception of two or three pretty songs (of which one, exquisitely rendered from a Latin original, and another, afterwards reprinted in an enlarged form in the Underwoods, are cited to exemplify the light touch at the command of Jonson’s not always laborious fingers) none of these often charming and always disturbing obstacles to dramatic interest interfere with the steady progress of his plays. The stately choruses in the tragedy of Catiline stand on a different footing from that of more or less desultory songs.

Even in Jonson’s masques,— a form of poetry which owes to him not indeed its origin, but its establishment as a species in our literature — though the lyrical element necessarily forms an integral part of the composition, yet the importance attached to it by the author is unmistakeably secondary. Nor is the reason of this far to seek. From one point of view, indeed, it is right and proper to insist upon the essential differences between a masque and a drama, and upon the consequent absurdity of applying the same standards of criticism to both. From another point of view it is equally true that it is the dramatic element, or the element of action, in the masque as treated by Jonson, which constitutes the difference between it and a mere ‘disguising’— a difference which in the case of earlier masques had no existence at all.

According to his wont, Jonson was above all anxious to ‘furnish the inward parts’ of the masques, barriers and other entertainments composed by him, and in an age when, by the caprice of fashion and according to the inevitable law of change, a taste for these ‘transitory devices’ had largely superseded the love of the drama, to offer nothing that was not both ‘nourishing and sound.’ Hence whether it was a municipal ‘invention in the Strand,’ to the body of which he had to ‘adapt his soul,’ or a hint of the Queen’s which he had to develop as ladies’ hints sometimes require, his aim was chiefly to give something of dramatic life as well as of deeper meaning to his occasional pieces. Not only was he resolved that so far as in him lay "painting and carpentry" should not be (as he thought Inigo Jones strove to make them) "the soul of masque"; but even the songs and dances, indispensable though they were in one sense, were in another to be, so to speak, adventitious.

Thus while his masques contain more dramatic life than those of any of his contemporaries, and reveal more poetic purpose than those of any other English writer except Milton, the lyrical part of them, though always adequate, rarely challenges special admiration. The extract in heroic couplets from the Hymenæi furnishes a typical instance of the thought expended by Jonson upon what in most other hands would have been a mere conventional personification; the short adagio from the Fortunate Isles shows how fully competent he was to marry words to the required movement of dance or song. A longer extract from Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue would have been necessary to bring into fullest relief what was owed to Jonson by the writer of the greatest—without rival or parallel—of all English masques. Is it inconceivable that our poets should recur, less tentatively than they have hitherto done, to a poetic form so peculiarly suitable for giving expression to the more varied intellectual life of these latter times as was that which Jonson virtually secured to our literature?

Among his detached pieces the Epigrams were the favourites of "honest" Ben Jonson himself,— "the ripest," as he called them, "of his studies." It is unnecessary to point out (though the poet had to do so in the admirable lines addressed to his "mere English" critic) that his conception of the forms and functions of an epigram was the wider one entertained by the Ancients; and that therefore his purpose in the large majority of these poems is not to work rapidly up to a point at the close. If this be borne in mind, the felicitous terseness of these Epigrams, and of those pieces in the Underwoods which belong to the same class, will not be denied the admiration which it deserves. Some are witty, in the narrower sense of the term,— nearly all in the broader. Their sarcasm, where they contain such, directs itself against various types of men and women — among them, much to Jonson’s credit, rather against those whom he might have been expected to flatter than those whom he might have been expected to assail. But the Fastidious Brisks were as genuine an abomination to Ben Jonson as the Zeal-of-the-land Busies, and this though he to some extent depended for his bread as well as for his sack upon the good-will of the Court and courtiers.

And it may be said in passing that though like all his brother-dramatists he was loyally devoted to the Crown, 1 he was free-spoken even to the most august of his patrons, and constantly recurs to the commonplace but wholesome maxim that it is the love, not the fear, of his subjects upon which a monarch ought to rely. But Jonson’s satirical epigrams are both less effective and less elaborate than those of a directly opposite tendency. Few of our Jacobean or Caroline poets have equalled him in pregnancy of panegyric—whether his theme was the praise of statesmen like the elder or the younger Cecil, or of men of letters varying in kind and degree from Selden, whom he salutes as ‘monarch of letters,’ to the poet’s fellow-dramatists. Nor was he less happy when the object of his poetic homage was a gentle woman, like the Countess of Bedford celebrated in the lines cited below. And his Epitaphs, among which room could only be found here for two of the most pathetic, remain unsurpassed, not only for a condensed force which we are accustomed to find in Jonson, but also for a tender grace which he is not so usually supposed to have possessed.

In the collection called the Forest, small as it is, Jonson has done the greatest justice to the variety of poetic styles of which (in addition to the dramatic) he was capable. He here excuses himself for not writing of love, partly on the favourite poets’ plea of growing age; and in truth his muse was comparatively a stranger to Eros. Yet the little chaplet of tributes to ‘Charis’ put together by Jonson in 1624 and inserted in the Underwoods, and some charming original and translated pieces to be found elsewhere, show him not only to have written graceful love-poetry himself, but to have furnished examples of it to his younger contemporaries. Herrick was in his way almost as much indebted to Jonson as Milton was in his.

As a translator or adapter of Classical originals, Jonson was in his element; his re-settings of favourite gems from Catullus and others were doubtless true labours of love. For the "bricklayer" (as his opponents delighted to be historically justified in calling him) had the early nurture of a scholar; and through life he remained deeply grateful to the famous Camden, his master at Westminster. That among the Latin poets Horace should have specially attracted him, is easily to be accounted for; in some of his original Epistles he has all the brightness and all the urbanity of his Roman model — in the fine Epode included in the Forest he rises to a moral dignity beyond the reach either of Horace or of his later imitators.

For not even a slight summary like the present should exclude from mention among Jonson’s characteristics the firm and steady tone of his morality. In his earlier manhood he twice changed his faith — without the faintest suspicion of interested motives attaching to his conversion — and in his later days he seems to have remained a close student of theology, inclining now to

‘those wiser guides
Whom fashion had not drawn to study sides.’

But to a conscientious desire for truth he added a humility of soul towards things divine, which stands in strange and touching contrast to the high mettle and quick temper of his bearing in most other matters. Critics have been known to cry out against having to hear too much about the robustness of Ben Jonson; but his manliness is inseparable from him, and, as the lines "To Heaven" show, he was not ashamed even of his piety.[9]


In 1616 Jonson received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England's first Poet Laureate.

In 1618, while visiting Edinburgh, he was made an honorary citizen of the city. On returning to England, he was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree from the University of Oxford.

Jonson is buried in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey - the only person to be buried in the Abbey in an upright position - in a plot 18 inches square. A monument to him was erected on the east side of Poets' Corner around 1723.[10]

During most of the 17th century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous. 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. In the 18th century 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. In the 20th century, Jonson's status rose significantly.


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 work, 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 emphasize 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.

For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson (representing art or craft) with Shakespeare (representing nature, or untutored genius) has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to initiate this interpretation in the second folio, and Samuel Butler drew the same comparison in his commonplace book later in the century.

At the Restoration, this sensed difference became a kind of critical dogma. Charles de Saint-Évremond placed Jonson's comedies above all else in English drama, and Charles Gildon called Jonson the father of English comedy. John Dryden offered a more common assessment in the Essay of Dramatic Poesie, in which his Avatar Neander compares Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil: the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice. But "artifice" was in the 17th century almost synonymous with "art"; Jonson, for instance, used "artificer" as a synonym for "artist" (Discoveries, 33). For Lewis Theobald, too, Jonson “ow[ed] all his Excellence to his Art,” in contrast to Shakespeare, the natural genius. Nicholas Rowe, to whom may be traced the legend that Jonson owed the production of Every Man in his Humour to Shakespeare's intercession, likewise attributed Jonson's excellence to learning, which did not raise him quite to the level of genius. A consensus formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with any accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life. But there were also more negative spins on Jonson's learned art; for instance, in the 1750s, Edward Young casually remarked on the way in which Jonson’s learning worked, like Samson’s strength, to his own detriment. Earlier, Aphra Behn, writing in defence of female playwrights, had pointed to Jonson as a writer whose learning did not make him popular; unsurprisingly, she compares him unfavorably to Shakespeare. Particularly in the tragedies, with their lengthy speeches abstracted from Sallust and Cicero, Augustan critics saw a writer whose learning had swamped his aesthetic judgment.

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."[11] 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.

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."[12] 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.

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.

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.

The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. Jonas Barish was the leading figure among critics who appreciated Jonson's artistry. On the other hand, Jonson received less attention from the new critics than did some other playwrights and his work was not of programmatic interest to psychoanalytic critics. But Jonson’s career eventually made him a focal point for the revived sociopolitical criticism. Jonson’s works, particularly his masques and pageants, offer significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, as do his contacts with and poems for aristocratic patrons; moreover, his career at the centre of London’s emerging literary world has been seen as exemplifying the development of a fully commodified literary culture. In this respect he is seen as a transitional figure, an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass consumption.


If Jonson's reputation as a playwright has traditionally been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early 20th century, been linked to that of John Donne. In this comparison, Jonson represents the cavalier strain of poetry, emphasizing grace and clarity of expression; Donne, by contrast, epitomized the metaphysical school of poetry, with its reliance on strained, baroque metaphors and often vague phrasing. Since the critics who made this comparison (Herbert Grierson for example), were to varying extents rediscovering Donne, this comparison often worked to the detriment of Jonson's reputation.

In 1623, historian Edmund Bolton named Jonson 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; Robert 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 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.

Eleven of his poems ("Hymn to Diana," "To Celia," "Simplex Munditiis," "The Shadow," "The Triumph," "An Elegy," "A Farewell to the World," "The Noble Balm," "On Elizabeth L.H." "On Salathiel Pavy," and "A Part of an Ode") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[13]



  • Epigrams / The Forest. First folio, 1616;
    • (edited by Richard Dutton). Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1984.
  • Poetical Works (edited by Robert Bell). London: J.W. Parker, 1854.
  • The Poems of Ben Jonson (edited by Robert Bell). London: C. Griffin, 1870.
  • Songs and Poems. London: Phillip Allen, 1924.
  • Poems (edited by Charles Harold Herford). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1947.
  • Poems (edited by Ronald Duncan). London: Grey Walls Press, 1949.
  • The Complete Poetry (edited by William B. Hunter, Jr.). Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1963.
  • Poems (edited by George Burke Johnson). London: Routledge, 1970.
  • Poems (edited by Ian Donaldson). London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • The Complete Poems (edited by George A.E. Parfit). London: Penguin, 1988.


  • Every Man out of His Humour comedy (performed 1599). London: William Holme, 1600.
  • Every Man in His Humour, comedy (performed 1598). London: Walter Burre, 1601.
  • The Fountaine of Self-loue; or, Cynthia's revels (performed 1600). London: Walter Burre, 1601.
  • Poetaster; or, The arraignment, comedy (performed 1601). London: R. Bradock] for M. Lownes, 1602.
  • Sejanus: His fall, tragedy (performed 1603). London: G. Elld, for Thomas Thorpe, 1605.
  • Eastward Ho, (with John Marston & George Chapman), comedy (performed 1605). London: William Apsley, 1605.
  • Volpone; or, The Fox, comedy (circa 1605–06). London: Thomas Thorppe, 1607; London: William Stansby, 1616.
  • The Case is Altered, comedy (ca. 1597–98). London: Bartholomew Sutton & William Barrenger, 1609.
  • The Alchemist, (performed 1610). London: Thomas Snodham for Walter Burre, 1612.
  • Catiline His Conspiracy, tragedy (performed and printed 1611). London: Walter Burre, 1611.
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, comedy (performed 1609). London: William Stansby, 1616.
  • Bartholomew Fair, comedy (performed 31 October 1614). London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The Devil is an Ass, comedy (performed 1616). London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The Staple of Newes, comedy (performed Feb. 1626. London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The New Inne; or, The Light Heart, comedy (licensed 19 January 1629), London: Thomas Harper for Thomas Alcharne, 1631.
  • A Tale of a Tub, comedy (performed 1633). Second folio, 1641.
  • The Magnetic Lady; or, Humors reconciled]], comedy (licensed 12 October 1632). Second folio, 1641.
  • The Sad Shepherd, pastoral (ca. 1637, unfinished). Second folio, 1641.
  • Mortimer his Fall, history, (a fragment). Second folio, 1641.
  • Ben Jonson's Plays (with introduction by Felix E. Schelling). London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910. Volume II
  • Five Plays (edited by G.A. Wilkes). Oxford, UK, & New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Selected Plays (edited by Johanna Procter [Volume I] & Martin Butler [Volume II]). (2 volumes), Cambridge, UK, & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.



  • Timber; or, Discoveries: Being observation on men and manners. London: 1641; London: Dent, 1898.

Other worksEdit

Collected editionsEdit

  • The Workes of Beniamin Iohnson [First Folio]. London: William Stansby for Rich. Meighen, 1616.
  • The Workes of Beniamin Iohnson (2 volumes)
    • Volume I (reprint of First folio). Richard Bishop for Andrew Crooke, 1640;
    • Volume II (Second folio; edited by Kenelm Digby). London: Richard Meighen, 1640 [1641].
  • The Works. (7 volumes), London: D. Midwinter; W. Innys and J. Richardson; J. Knapton; T. Wotton; C. Hitch and L. Hawes, 1756.
  • The Works (edited by William Gifford). (9 volumes), London: W. Bulmer, for G. & W. Nicol, 1816. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI, Volume VII, Volume VIII, Volume IX
  • Ben Jonson (edited by Brinsley Nicholson & Charles Harold Herford). (3 volumes), London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893-1895. Volume II
  • The Works (edited by Francis Cunningham & William Gifford). London: Bickers, 1875.
  • The Works (edited by H.C. Hart). London: Methuen, 1906.
  • Forest, Underwood, and Timber (selected by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1912.
  • The Yale Ben Jonson (edited by Alvin B. Kernan). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.
  • Plays and Masques (edited by Robert M. Adams). New York: Norton, 1989.
  • Cambridge Edition of the Works (edited by Martin Butler [General Editor],

David Bevington, Karen Britland, Ian Donaldson, David L. Gants, & Eugene Giddens). (7 volumes), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[14]

Missing works and borderline attributionsEdit

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).

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 skeptical 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.[15]

The Forest - FULL Audio Book - by Ben Jonson - English Renaissance Poetry-149:45

The Forest - FULL Audio Book - by Ben Jonson - English Renaissance Poetry-1

Poems by Ben JonsonEdit

  1. Song: To Celia

See alsoEdit

Preceded by
Samuel Daniel
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
William Davenant


Biographies Edit


  • Bentley, G. E. Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945
  • Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660. Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945
  • Butler, Martin. "Jonson's Folio and the Politics of Patronage." Criticism 35 (1993)
  • Chute, Marchette. "Ben Jonson of Westminster." New York: E.P. Dutton, 1953
  • Doran, Madeline. Endeavors of Art. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1954
  • Eccles, Mark. "Jonson's Marriage." Review of English Studies 12 (1936)
  • Eliot, T.S. "Ben Jonson." The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1920
  • Jonson, Ben. Discoveries 1641, ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966
  • Knights, L. C. Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968
  • Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith. The New Intellectuals: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1975
  • MacLean, Hugh, editor. Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. New York: Norton Press, 1974
  • Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Credit. Merchants in Early Modern Writing (Madison/London: Associated University Press, 2002)
  • Teague, Frances. "Ben Jonson and the Gunpowder Plot." Ben Jonson Journal 5 (1998). pp. 249–52
  • Thorndike, Ashley. "Ben Jonson." The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: Putnam, 1907–1921


  1. Evans, Robert C (2000). "Jonson's critical heritage". In Harp, Richard; Stewart, Stanley. The Cambridge companion to Ben Jonson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-64678-2. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Robert Chambers, Book of Days
  3. 3.0 3.1 Drummond, William (1619). Heads of a conversation betwixt the famous poet Ben Johnson and William Drummond of Hawthornden, January 1619.,M1. 
  4. 1911 Encyclopedia biography
  5. Maclean, p. 88
  7. W.T. Baldwin 's William Shakspere's Smalle Latine and Lesse Greeke, 1944
  8. Doran, 120ff
  9. from Adolphus William Ward, "Critical Introduction: Ben Jonson (1572–1637)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 9, 2016.
  10. Ben Jonson, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  11. Alexander Pope, ed. Works of Shakespeare (London, 1725), p. 1
  12. Quoted in Craig, D. H., ed. Jonson: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1995). p. 499
  13. Alphabetical list of authors: Jago, Richard to Milton, John. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 18, 2012.
  14. Search results = au:Ben Jonson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 27-28, 2016.
  15. Logan and Smith, pp. 82–92

External linksEdit

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