Ben Jonson (1547-1637)

Benjamin Jonson was an English playwright and poet. Jonson’s artistry exerted a lasting influence upon English poetry and stage comedy. He was born at Westminister and educated at Westminister school. His father died before Jonson’s birth, and the boy adopted the trade of his stepfather, who was a master bricklayer. From this, he turned to acting and writing plays, engaging himself, both as actor and playwright, with the Lord Admiral’s company (1597). In 1617, he has created a poet for the king, and the close of James’s reign saw Jonson the undisputed ruler of English literature. His favourite haunt was the Mermaid Tavern, where he reigned as dictator over a younger literary generation. He was buried in Westminister Abbey, and over him was placed the epitaph “o rare Ben Jonson!”

Jonson’s numerous works, comedies, tragedies, masques, and lyrics, are of widely varying merit, but all of them, as well as his Timber, a kind of commonplace-book, which is of considerable interest for its critical comment on literature. To him, the chief function of literature was to instruct. His play was divided conventionally into comedies and tragedies, for Jonson, true to his classical models, did not combine the two. In his comedies, he aimed to return to the controlled, satirical, realistic comedy of the classical dramatist, and the inductions of his plays make it clear that he hoped to reform the drama on these lines. His main concern was with the drawing of character, and his creations are important because they introduce the “comedy of humours“. Many of his characters arc, in consequence, types, but the best, like Bobadill in Every Man in his Humour, rise above the type and live as truly great comic characters.

His early comedies, Every Man in his Humour (1598), Every Man out of Humour (1599), Cynthia’s Revels (1600), and The Poetaster (1601), show his ingenuity of plot, his hearty humour, his wit, and they are full of vivacity and fun. Every Man in his Humouris, perhaps, his greatest work. The middle group of comedies, Volpone, or the Fox (1605), Epicoene, or The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre (1614), represents, as a group, his best work. They are all satirical in tone, realistic and natural in dialogue, and ingenious in the plot. The characters are less angular and more convincing. His later comedies, The Devil is an Ass (1616) and The Staple of News (1625), show a distinct falling-off in dramatic power.

The two historical tragedies, Sejanus his Fall (1603) and Catiline his Conspiracy (1611), are composed of classical models. They are too laboured and mechanical to be reckoned as great tragedies. Jonson was also friends with many of the writers of his day, and many of his most well-known poems include tributes to friends such as Shakespeare, John Donne, and Francis Bacon. Ben Jonson died in Westminster on August 8, 1637. A tremendous crowd of mourners attended his burial at Westminster Abbey. He is regarded as one of the major dramatists and poets of the seventeenth century.