Ben Jonson

Surely, you've heard of William Shakespeare, but have you heard of Ben Jonson (1572‐1637)? Jonson was an English Renaissance poet and dramatist. Jonson's influence on literature during his time was second only to William Shakespeare. Jonson is thought of as the first unofficial poet laureate of England, as he was provided a yearly pension to write for the royal courts in 1616. Jonson is best known for his lyric poem, 'Song: To Celia' (1616), which is also known by its first line, 'Drink to me only with thine eyes.' 

Ben Jonson Ben Jonson

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Table of contents

    Ben Jonson, Oil Portrait, StudySmarterFig 1: Ben Jonson was known to be a controversial figure. He wrote for the royal courts but simultaneously got in trouble for the way he crafted critiques of society in his plays.

    Ben Jonson Biography

    Benjamin Jonson was born in London, England on June 11, 1572. His father was a clergyman who died shortly before he was born. Jonson's mother remarried a bricklayer two years after his father's death.

    Jonson grew up in Westminster, London, and went to school in St. Martin's Lane. He later went to study at the Westminster School and began an influential, lifelong friendship with one of his schoolmasters, William Camden (1551‐1623). Camden was a famous historian and topographer, whose intellectual scholarship greatly impacted Jonson's literary style.

    After graduating from the Westminster School, Jonson was supposed to attend Cambridge University. However, he was forced to undergo a bricklaying apprenticeship with his stepfather instead. After his apprenticeship, Jonson volunteered as an English soldier in the Netherlands. Upon returning to England, he worked as an actor and playwright.

    In 1594, around the time he began his acting and playwriting career, Ben Jonson married a woman known as Anne Lewis. There is not much known about Anne Lewis or her marriage with Jonson, but the couple had at least two children who died young. Jonson wrote the famous poem 'On My First Sonne' (1603), remembering his eldest son, who died of the Bubonic Plague.

    In 1598, Jonson wrote his first renowned play, a comedy titled Every Man in His Humor. The famous poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, played a lead role in a 1616 production of Every Man in His Humor. Jonson and Shakespeare were familiar with one another, but little is known about the nature of their relationship.

    In September 1598, Jonson fought in a duel with an Elizabethan actor named Gabriel Spenser. A year earlier, Spenser was imprisoned for eight weeks after performing in the play, The Isle of Dogs (1597), which was written by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe. The play was banned for being seditious and offensive. Though the exact cause of the duel was unknown, it resulted in Jonson killing Gabriel Spenser. Jonson was tried for murder and pleaded guilty. Jonson only served a few weeks in prison and converted to Roman Catholicism while in jail.

    Ben Jonson, Old Latin Bibles, StudySmarterFig 2: Johnson declared the "benefit of clergy" and proved his ability to read and write in Latin to gain a reduced prison sentence.

    The year 1603 marked the beginning of the English reign of King James I. Jonson wrote many masques for King James and his wife, Queen Anne, including The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605). Jonson received patronage from the royals and many aristocrats. However, he also frequently got into trouble with English authorities for the content of his plays, which were satirical and did not shy away from critiques of society and political corruption.

    Masques were a form of entertainment for the royal courts that were popular in 16th and early 17th century Europe. Masques involved a combination of performative arts

    —music, singing, dancing, and acting—within an elaborately decorated stage. The art form was popular in England and was influenced by Italian Renaissance theater.

    1605 to 1620 was the most significant time in Jonson's writing career. During this period, he produced his most famous comedies, Volpone (1605) and The Alchemist (1610), along with other notable plays such as Epiconene, or the Silent Woman (1609), Bartholomew Fair (1614), and The Devil Is an Ass (1616). He also published his renowned poems, 'Song: to Celia' (1616), 'On my First Sonne' (1616), and 'To Penshurst' (1616).

    Jonson often spent time in the presence of noble friends such as the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, and notable writers including Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, William Shakespeare, and John Donne.

    Ben Jonson Cause of Death

    Beginning in the 1620s, Ben Jonson's health and creative productivity began to decline. Though he still wrote some plays and poetry, Johnson suffered several strokes and faded out of significance among the royal courts due to King James's death and King Charles I's crowning in 1625.

    Ben Jonson died in August 1637, at the age of 65. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. A huge crowd of people attended his funeral, mourning the loss of one of the greatest poets and dramatists of the 17th century.

    Ben Jonson, Westminster Abbey, StudySmarterFig 3: Ben Jonson was buried upright in Westminster Abbey so that his grave could fit into a small space.

    Ben Jonson Contribution to Drama

    Ben Jonson is known for the invention and popularization of the dramatic comedy genre known as the comedy of humours.

    The comedy of humours focuses on characters with specific traits or humours that dominate their personalities and desires. Ben Jonson and another English Dramatist, George Chapman, popularized the genre during the late 1500s.

    Jonson wrote plays with profound character study, questioning what it is that drives a human being to act in a particular way. He blends reality with satire to reveal the oddities of human nature. Jonson's 1598 play, Every Man in His Humour, is a landmark piece for developing the comedy of humours genre. In an introduction to Jonson's sequel to the play titled, Every Man out of His Humour (1599), he explains how he concocts his characters, saying:

    Some one peculiar quality

    Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw

    All his affects, his spirits, and his powers.

    In their confluctions, all to run one way." 4

    Through his plays, Ben Jonson explores how people can be controlled by strange qualities, which affect how they behave in any circumstance. For example, in Every Man in His Humour, the character Kitely's actions are affected by his suspicions that his wife is unfaithful. As he progressed in his playwriting, Jonson delved deeper into the analysis of character study, which can be seen in his 1610 play The Alchemist.

    Ben Jonson Poetry Writing Style

    Ben Jonson is known for his simple, yet sophisticated writing style, which was influenced by his study of classical Greek and Roman poetry. Jonson frequently used rhyme and iambic meter (patterns of alternation of unstressed and stressed syllables) to create structured poems with an established rhythm. Jonson is known for his lyric poems and epigrams. His writing often has a satirical angle to it.

    Lyric poems are a short, songlike form of poetry that typically express strong feelings and emotions from the first-person perspective.

    An epigram is a short poem that expresses an idea in a satirical, witty, or amusing way.

    Ben Jonson Famous Poems

    Ben Jonson is well-known for his lyric poems, 'Song: to Celia,' 'On My First Sonne,' and 'To Penshurst,' which were all published in a collection of his work in 1616.

    Song: to Celia (1616)

    Drink to me only with thine eyes,

    And I will pledge with mine;

    Or leave a kiss but in the cup,

    And I’ll not look for wine." 1

    Jonson's poem, 'Song: to Celia' is also known by its famous first lines, "Drink to me only with thine eyes." 1 The love poem became a popular English song in which the speaker declares the power of love through imagery derived from classical writing.

    On My First Sonne (1616)

    Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

    My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy." 2

    'On My First Sonne' is a poem written for Jonson's son, who died of the Bubonic Plague as a child in 1603. The poem explores the themes of grief and death in a single stanza with rhyming couplets.

    To Penshurst (1616)

    Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,

    Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row

    Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;

    Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told" 3

    'To Penshurst' is a classic, country house poem. A country house poem is a poem in which the author writes to compliment a wealthy friend or patron through a vivid description of his or her house. In 'To Penshurst,' Ben Jonson praises the First Earl of Leicester, Robert Sidney, through a description of his large, medieval, ancestral home.

    Ben Jonson - Key Takeaways

    • Ben Jonson is an English poet and dramatist who lived in London from 1572 to 1637.
    • Jonson is known for inventing and popularizing the dramatic comedy genre, the comedy of humours.
    • Jonson is known for his lyric poetry and epigrams.
    • Jonson is known for his plays, Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist, Volpone, Epiconene, or the Silent Woman, and Bartholomew Fair.
    • Jonson is known for his poems, 'Song to Celia,' 'On my First Sonne,' and 'To Penshurst.'

    1 Ben Jonson, 'Song to Celia,' 1616.

    2 Ben Jonson, 'On my First Sonne,' 1616.

    3 Ben Jonson, 'To Penshurst,' 1616.

    4 Ben Jonson, Every Man out of His Humour, 1599.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Ben Jonson

    What kind of poet was Ben Jonson? 

    Ben Jonson is an English Renaissance poet known for his lyric poetry.

    Where is Ben Johnson buried? 

    Ben Jonson is buried in Westminster Abbey, London. 

    What was Ben Jonson known for? 

    Ben Jonson is an English poet and dramatist known for his poems, 'Song to Celia,' 'On My First Sonne,' and 'To Penthurst.,' and for his comedic dramas, 'Every Man in His Humour,' 'Volpone,' and 'The Alchemist.'  

    What is the relationship between Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare? 

    Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare were friends, and Shakespeare acted in a lead role in one of Jonson's plays. 

    Why was Ben Jonson buried standing up?

    Ben Jonson was buried standing up so that his grave could fit in a small space in Westminster Abbey. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: William Shakespeare performed in Jonson's play, Every Man in His Humour. 

    True or False: Ben Jonson killed a man in a duel. 

    What did Jonson write for King James and Queen Anne?

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