Ben Jonson

Barry Honold

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637) was the “highbrow” playwright to his “lowbrow” friend and rival, William Shakespeare. He was well-read and his intelligence comes out in his biting satire.

His father was a clergyman who died just before he was born. His mother soon remarried a local bricklayer. Jonson attended school at St. Martin’s Church and showed an early talent for language. He fell in love with the classics and eventually excelled at both Greek and Latin. He briefly attended Westminster but left at seventeen to go help his stepfather in the bricklaying business. He became a soldier and fought for the crown in the Netherlands. His classical leanings even showed in his fighting. He boasted that, like Homer’s Achilles, he killed a man in single combat and stripped him of his armor.

He was imprisoned for a month in 1597 for the now-lost The Isle of Dogs, which possibly satirized Queen Elizabeth. He found his first success the next year with Every Man in His Humour, in which Shakespeare acted. Jonson was back in prison a few months later for killing actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Facing execution, he quickly drew on his vast education and claimed “right of clergy” (clergymen could only be tried by ecclesiastical courts, not secular ones), then recited scripture in Latin. His property was confiscated and his thumb branded, but he was free.

W. Speed Hill once wrote that, whatever else one thought of Jonson, one was forced to concede his “utter inability to countenance criticism.” He had recently co-authored The Page of Plymouth and Robert the Second, King of Scots with Thomas Dekker when he was satirized as too prideful by John Marston. Jonson did not turn the other cheek – he fired back with <i.Every Man Out of His Humour, which attacked Marston’s garrulousness. What ensued was the “War of the Theatres,” a three-year campaign of insults. It drew so much publicity that Shakespeare mentioned it in Hamlet with Guildenstern’s line, “oh, there has been much throwing around of brains.”

He got in trouble for Eastward Ho! because of its political themes and was questioned about potential involvement in Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up Parliament. His reputation suffered because Sejanus failed as a tragedy. However, the Restoration of James I gave his career a boost. The Theatre History website notes that Jonson was responsible for over half of the Court Masques presented to the king. He was honored in 1619 with the title M.A. of Oxford, which signified acceptance by his academic peers. He suffered from a stroke in 1628 which left him partially paralyzed. Charles II gave him an administrative post as city chronologer the next year, which included a small pension. After his death in 1637, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His acolytes published a collection of poems dedicated to him in 1638, the Jonsonus Virbius.

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Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 4:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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