Jonson, Ben, 1572–1637, English dramatist and poet, b. Westminster, London. The high-spirited buoyancy of Jonson's plays and the brilliance of his language have earned him a reputation as one of the great playwrights in English literature. After a brief term at bricklaying, his stepfather's trade, and after military service in Flanders, he began working for Philip Henslowe as an actor and playwright. In 1598 he was tried for killing another actor in a duel but escaped execution by claiming right of clergy (that he could read and write).
His first important play, Every Man in His Humour, was produced in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast. In 1599 its companion piece, Every Man out of His Humour, was produced. In The Poetaster (1601) Jonson satirized several of his fellow playwrights, particularly Dekker and Marston, who were writing at that time for a rival company of child actors. He collaborated with Chapman and Marston on the comedy Eastward Ho! (1604). A passage in the play, derogatory to the Scots, offended James I, and the three playwrights spent a brief time in prison.
Jonson's great period, both artistically and financially, began in 1606 with the production of Volpone. This was followed by his three other comic masterpieces, Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Jonson became a favorite of James I and wrote many excellent masques for the court. He was the author of two Roman tragedies, Sejanus (1603) and Catiline (1611). With the unsuccessful production of The Devil Is an Ass in 1616 Jonson's good fortune declined rapidly. His final plays were failures, and with the accession of Charles I in 1625 his value at court was less appreciated.
Jonson's plays, written along classical lines, are marked by a pungent and uncompromising satire, by a liveliness of action, and by numerous humor characters, whose single passion or oddity overshadows all their other traits. He was a moralist who sought to improve the ways of men by portraying human foibles and passions through exaggeration and distortion. Jonson's nondramatic poetry includes Epigrams (1616); The Forrest (1616), notable for the two beautiful songs: "Drink to me only with thine eyes" and "Come, my Celia, let us prove"; and Underwoods (1640). His principal prose work Timber; or, Discoveries (1640) is a collection of notes and reflections on miscellaneous subjects.
Jonson exerted a strong influence over his contemporaries. Although arrogant and contentious, he was a boon companion, and his followers, sometimes called the "sons of Ben," loved to gather with him in the London taverns. Examples of his conversation were recorded in Conversations with Ben Jonson by Drummond of Hawthornden.
See Jonson's works (11 vol., 1925–52); biographies by M. Chute (1953), R. Miles (1986), D. Riggs (1989), and I. Donaldson (2012); studies by E. B. Partridge (1958), J. A. Barish (1960), W. Trimpi (1962), G. B. Jackson (1969), J. G. Nichols (1970), J. B. Bamborough (1970), J. A. Bryant (1973), W. D. Wolf (1973), and D. H. Craig (1989).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.