Often noted as the second greatest English dramatist of his generation (after that Shakespeare guy), the playwright Ben Jonson stands tall in his own right as one of the leading literary figures of the late 16th and early 17th century.
Born in 1572, Jonson was educated at Westminster School in London and possibly went on to Cambridge before he started work as a bricklayer with his stepfather and later served as a soldier, fighting with English troops in The Netherlands.
It was on his return to London that he ventured into acting – among his early roles was Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedie – and by 1597 he was employed as a playwright.
While one of his early play-writing efforts (The Isle of Dogs, co-written with Thomas Nashe) led to a term of imprisonment in Marshalsea Prison in 1597 (he was also briefly imprison about this time for killing another actor in a duel, escaping a death sentence by pleading “benefit of the clergy”), the following year – 1598 – the production of his play Every Man In His Humour established his reputation as a dramatist. Shakespeare, whom some suggest was a key rival of Jonson’s during his career – is said to have been among the actors who performed in it.
Further plays followed including Every Man Out Of His Humour (1599), his only tragedy Sejanus (1603), the popular Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) and it was during these years, particularly following the accession of King James I in 1603, that he became an important figure at the royal court).
His political views continued to cause trouble at times – he was again imprisoned in the early 1600s for his writings and was questioned over the Gunpowder Plot after apparently attending an event attended by most of those later found to be co-conspirators – but his move into writing masques for the royal court – saw his star continue to rise.
All up he wrote more than 20 masques for King James and Queen Anne of Denmark including Oberon, The Faery Prince which featured the young Prince Henry, eldest son of King James, in the title role. Many of these masques saw him working with architect Inigo Jones, who designed extravagant sets for the masques, but their relationship was tense at times.
In 1616 – his reputation well established – Jonson was given a sizeable yearly pension (some have concluded that as a result he was informally the country’s first Poet Laureate) and published his first collection of works the following year. Noted for his wit, he was also known to have presided over a gathering of his friends and admirers at The Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Tavern at 2 Fleet Street (Shakespeare was among those he verbally jousted with).
Jonson spent more than a year in his ancestral home of Scotland around 1618 but on his return to London, while still famous, he no longer saw the same level of success as he had earlier – particularly following the death of King James and accession of his son, King Charles I, in 1625.
Jonson married Anne Lewis – there is a record of such a couple marrying at St Magnus-the-Martyr church near London Bridge in 1594 – but their relationship certainly wasn’t always smooth sailing for they spent at least five years of their marriage living separately. It’s believed he had several children, two of whom died while yet young.
Jonson, meanwhile, continued to write up until his death on 6th August, 1637, and is buried in Westminster Abbey (he’s the only person buried upright in the abbey – apparently due to his poverty at the time of his death).
For an indepth look at the life of Ben Jonson, check out Ian Donaldson’s Ben Jonson: A Life.