Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

Ben Jonson (1572-1637), after Abraham von Blyenberch (1575-1624), 1617. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Ben Jonson
Born circa 11 June 1572
Westminster, London, England
Died August 6 1637(1637-Template:MONTHNUMBER-06) (aged 65)
Westminster, London, England
Occupation dramatist, poet, actor

Benjamin Jonson (?11 June 1572 - 6 August 1637) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, best known for his satirical plays and his lyric poems. A man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for controversy, he had an unparalleled influence on Jacobean and Caroline playwrights and poets.



Jonson was probably born in Westminster. His father, who died before Ben was 4, seems to have come from Carlisle, and the family to have originally belonged to Annandale. He was sent to Westminster School, for which he seems to have been indebted to the kindness of W. Camden, who was one of the masters. His mother, meanwhile, had married a bricklayer, and he was for a time put to that trade, but disliking it, he ran away and joined the army, fighting against the Spaniards in the Low Countries. Returning to England about 1592 he took to the stage, both as an actor and as a playwright. In the former capacity he was unsuccessful. In 1598, having killed a fellow-actor in a duel, he was tried for murder, but escaped by benefit of clergy. About the same time he joined the Roman Catholic Church, in which he remained for 12 years. It was in 1598 also that his 1st successful play, Every Man in his Humour, was produced, with Shakespeare as one of the players. Every Man out of his Humour (1599), Cynthia's Revels (1600), and The Poetaster (1601), satirising the citizens, the courtiers, and the poets respectively, followed. The last called forth several replies, the most notable of which was the Satiromastix (Whip for the Satirist) of Dekker, a severe, though not altogether unfriendly, retort, which Jonson took in good part, announcing his intention of leaving off satire and trying tragedy. His first work in this kind was Sejanus (1603), which was not very favourably received. It was followed by Eastward Ho, in which he collaborated with Marston and Chapman. Certain reflections on Scotland gave offence to James I, and the authors were imprisoned, but soon released.[1]

From the beginning of the new reign Jonson devoted himself largely to the writing of Court masques, in which he excelled all his contemporaries, and about the same time entered upon the production of the 3 great plays in which his full strength is shown: Volpone; or, The fox, appeared in 1605; Epicæne; or, The silent woman in 1609; and The Alchemist in 1610. His 2nd and last tragedy, Catiline, was produced in 1611. 2 years later he was in France as companion to the son of Sir Walter Raleigh, and on his return he held up hypocritical Puritanism to scorn in Bartholomew Fair, which was followed in 1616 by a comedy, The Devil is an Ass. In the same year he collected his writings -- plays, poems, and epigrams -- in a folio entitled his Works. In 1618 he journeyed on foot to Scotland, where he was received with much honor, and paid his famous visit to Drummond at Hawthornden. His last successful play, The Staple of Newes, was produced in 1625, and in the same year he had his first stroke of palsy, from which he never entirely recovered. His next play, The New Inn, was driven from the stage, for which in its rapid degeneracy he had become too learned and too moral. A quarrel with Inigo Jones, the architect, who furnished the machinery for the court masques, lost him court favor, and he was obliged, with failing powers, to turn again to the stage, for which his last plays, The Magnetic Lady and The Tale of a Tub, were written in 1632 and 1633. Town and court favour, however, turned again, and he received a pension of £100; that of the best poets and lovers of literature he had always kept. The older poets were his friends, the younger were proud to call themselves, and be called by him, his sons. In 1637, after some years of gradually failing health, he died, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. An admirer caused a mason to cut on the slab over his grave the well-known inscription, "O Rare Ben Jonson." His works include a number of epigrams and translations, collections of poems (Underwoods and The Forest); in prose a book of short essays and notes on various subjects, Discoveries.[1]


Jonson was born, probably in Westminster, in the beginning of the year 1573 (or possibly 1572). By the poet's account his grandfather was a gentleman who “came from” Carlisle, and originally, the grandson thought, from Annandale. His arms, “three spindles or rhombi,” are the family device of the Johnstoues of Annandale, a fact which confirms his assertion of Border descent. Ben Jonson further related that he was born a month after the death of his father, who, after suffering in estate and person under Queen Mary, had in the end "turned minister."[2]

2 years after the birth of her son the widow married again; she may be supposed to have loved him in a passionate way peculiar to herself, since on an occasion we find her revealing an almost ferocious determination to save his honor at the cost of both his life and her own. Jonson's stepfather was a master bricklayer, living in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross, who provided his stepson with the foundations of a good education.[2]

After attending a private school in St. Martin's Lane, the boy was sent to Westminster School at the expense, it is said, of William Camden. Jonson's gratitude for an education to which in truth he owed an almost inestimable debt concentrated itself upon the "most reverend head" of his benefactor, then 2nd (and afterwards head) master of the famous school, and the firm friend of his pupil in later life.[2]

After reaching the highest form at Westminster, Jonson is stated, but on unsatisfactory evidence, to have proceeded to Cambridge - according to Fuller, to St. John's College. He says, however, himself that he studied at neither university, but was put to a trade immediately on leaving school. He soon had enough of the trade, which was no doubt his father's bricklaying, for Henslowe in writing to Edward Alleyne of his affair with Gabriel Spenser calls him "bricklayer."[2]

Either before or after his marriage - more probably before, as Sir Francis Vere's 3 English regiments did not leave the Low Countries till 1592 - he spent some time in that country soldiering, much to his own subsequent satisfaction when the days of self-conscious retrospect arrived, but to no further purpose beyond that of seeing something of the world.[2]


Jonson married not later than 1592. The registers of St Martin's Church state that his eldest daughter Maria died in November 1593 when she was, Jonson tells us (epigram 22), only 6 months old. His eldest son Benjamin died of the plague. His wife Jonson characterized to Drummond as "a shrew, but honest;" and for a period (undated) of 5 years he preferred to live without her, enjoying the hospitality of Lord Aubigny (afterwards duke of Lennox).[2]

Long burnings of oil among his books, and long spells of recreation at the tavern, such as Jonson loved, are not the most favoured accompaniments of family life. But Jonson was no stranger to the tenderest of affections: 2 at least of the several children whom his wife bore to him he commemorated in touching little tributes of verse; nor in speaking of his lost eldest daughter did he forget "her mother's tears."[2]


Under Elizbeth IEdit

By the middle of 1597 we come across further documentary evidence of him at home in London, in the shape of an entry in Philip Henslowe's diary (July 28) of 3s. 6d. "received of Bengemenes Johnsones share." He was therefore by this time - when Shakespeare, his senior by nearly 9 years, was already in prosperous circumstances and good esteem - at least a regular member of the acting profession, with a fixed engagement in the lord admiral's company, then performing under Henslowe's management at the Rose.[2]

According to Aubrey, whose statement must be taken for what it is worth, "Jonson was never a good actor, but an excellent instructor." His physique was certainly not well adapted to the histrionic conditions of his - perhaps of any - day; but, in any case, it was not long before he found his place in his company. In 1597, as we know from Henslowe, Jonson undertook to write a play for the lord admiral's men; and in the following year he was mentioned by Merés in his Palladis Taniia as one of "the best for tragedy," without any reference to a connection on his part with the other branch of the drama.[2]

Whether this was a criticism based on material evidence or an unconscious slip, Jonson in the same year 1598 produced one of the most famous of English comedies, Every Man in his Humour, which was first acted - probably in the earlier part of September-by the lord chamberlain's company at the Curtain. Shakespeare was one of the actors in Jonson's comedy. Every Man in his Humour was published in 1601; the critical prologue first appears in the folio of 1616, and there are other divergences (see Castelain, appendix A). After the Restoration the play was revived in 1751 by Garrick with alterations, and long continued to be known on the stage.[2]

It was followed in the same year by The Case is Altered, acted by the children of the queen's revels, which contains a satirical attack upon the pageant poet, Anthony Munday. This comedy, which was not included in the folio editions, is one of intrigue rather than of character; it contains obvious reminiscences of Shylock and his daughter. The earlier of these 2 comedies was indisputably successful.[2]

Before the year 1598 was out, however, Jonson found himself in prison and in danger of the gallows. In a duel, fought on 22 September in Hogsden Fields, he had killed an actor of Henslowe's company named Gabriel Spenser. (The quarrel with Henslowe consequent on this event may account for the production of Every Man in his Humour by the rival company.) In prison Jonson was visited by a Roman Catholic priest, and the result (certainly strange, if Jonson's parentage is considered) was his conversion to the Church of Rome, to which he adhered for 12 years. He pleaded guilty to the charge brought against him, as the rolls of Middlesex sessions show; but, after a short imprisonment, he was released by benefit of clergy, forfeiting his "goods and chattels," and being branded on his left thumb.[3]

The affair does not seem to have affected his reputation; in 1599 he is found back again at work for Henslowe, receiving, together with Dekker, Chettle, and "another gentleman," money for a tragedy (undiscovered) called Robert II, King of Scots. In the same year he brought out through the lord chamberlain's company (possibly already at the Globe, then newly built or building) the elaborate comedy of Every Man out of his Humour (quarto 1600; fol. 1616) - a play subsequently presented before Queen Elizabeth. The sunshine of court favor was not to bring any material comfort to the most learned of her dramatists, before there was laid upon her the inevitable hand of which his courtly epilogue had besought death to forget the use.[3]

Indeed, of his Cynthia's Revels, performed by the chapel children in 1600 and printed with the first title of The Fountain of Self-Love in 1601, though it was no doubt primarily designed as a compliment to the queen, the most marked result had been to offend 2 playwrights of note: Dekker, with whom he had formerly worked in company, and who had a healthy if rough grip of his own; and Marston, who was perhaps less dangerous by his strength than by his versatility. According to Jonson, his quarrel with Marston had begun by the latter attacking his morals, and in the course of it they came to blows, and might have come to worse. In Cynthia's Revels, Dekker is generally held to be satirized as Hedon, and Marston as Anaides (Fleay, however, thinks Anaides is Dekker, and Hedon Daniel), while the character of Crites most assuredly has some features of Jonson himself.[3]

Learning the intention of the 2 writers whom he had satirized, or at all events of Dekker, to wreak literary vengeance upon him, he anticipated them in The Poetaster (1601), again played by the children of the queen's chapel at the Blackfriars and printed in 1602; Marston and Dekker are here ridiculed respectively as the aristocratic Crispinus and the vulgar Demetrius. The play was completed 15 weeks after its plot was conceived. Dekker retaliated on The Poetaster by the Satiromaslix; or, The untrussing of the humorous poet (1602). Some more last words were indeed attempted on Jonson's part, but in the A apologetic Dialogue added to The Poetaster in the edition of 1616, though excluded from that of 1602, he says he intends to turn his attention to tragedy.[3]

This intention he apparently carried out immediately, for in 1602 he received £10 from Henslowe for a play, entitled Richard Crookbacke, now lost unfortunately. According to a statement by Overbury, early in 1603, "Ben Johnson, the poet, now lives upon one Townesend," supposed to have been poet and masque-writer Aurelian Townshend, at one time steward to the 1st earl of Salisbury, "and scornes the world."[3]

To his other early patron, Lord Aubigny, Jonson dedicated the first of his 2 extant tragedies, Sejanus, produced by the king's servants at the Globe late in 1603, Shakespeare once more taking a part in the performance. Either on its performance or on its appearing in print in 1605, Jonson was called before the privy council by the Earl of Northampton. But it is open to question whether this was the occasion on which, according to Jonson's statement to Drummond, Northampton "accused him both of popery and treason" (see Castelain, Appendix C). Though unsuccessful at 1st, the endurance of its reputation is attested by its performance, in a German version by an Englishman, John Michael Girish, at the court of the grandson of James I at Heidelberg.[3]

Under James IEdit

When the reign of James I opened in England and an adulatory loyalty seemed intent on showing that it had not exhausted itself at the feet of Gloriana, ]onson's well-stored brain and ready pen had their share in devising and executing ingenious variations on the theme. His genius was singularly swift and flexible in adapting itself to the new taste for masques and entertainments - new of course in degree rather than in kind - introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort.[3]

The pageant which on 7 May 1603 bade the king welcome to a capital dissolved in joy was partly of Jonson's, partly of Dekker's, devising; and he was able to deepen and diversify the impression by the composition of masques presented to James I when entertained at houses of the nobility. The Satyr (1603) was produced on 1 of these occasions, Queen Anne's sojourn at Althorpe (the seat of Sir Robert Spencer, afterwards Lord Althorpe, who seems to have previously bestowed some patronage upon him). The Penazfes followed on May-day 1604 at the house of Sir William Cornwallis at Highgate, and the queen herself with her ladies played his Masque of Blackness at Whitehall in 1605.[3]

He was soon occasionally employed by the court itself - already in 1606 in conjunction with Inigo Jones, as responsible for the “painting and carpentry" -and thus speedily showed himself master in a species of composition for which, more than any other English poet before Milton, he secured an enduring place in the national poetic literature. Personally, no doubt, he derived considerable material benefit from the new fashion - more especially if his statement to Drummond was anything like correct, that out of his plays (which may be presumed to mean his original plays) he had never gained a couple of hundred pounds.[3]

Good humor seems to have come back with good fortune. Joint employment in The King's Entertainment (1604) had reconciled him with Dekker; and with Marston also, who in 1604 dedicated to him his Malcontent, he was again on pleasant terms. When, therefore, in 1604 Marston and Chapman (who, Jonson told Drummond, was loved of him, and whom he had probably honoured as "Virgil" in The Poetaster) produced the excellent comedy of Eastward Ho, it appears to have contained some contributions by Jonson. At all events, when the authors were arrested on account of one or more passages in the play which were deemed insulting to the Scots, he "voluntarily imprisoned himself" with them. They were soon released, and a banquet at his expense, attended by Camden and Selden, terminated the incident.[4]

Strange to say, in 1605 Jonson and Chapman (though the former, as he averred, had so "at tempered" his style as to have "given no cause to any good man of grief") were again in prison on account of "a play"; but they appear to have been once more speedily set free, in consequence of a very manly and dignified letter addressed by Jonson to the Earl of Salisbury. As to the relations between Chapman and jonson, illustrated by newly discovered letters, see Bertram Dobell in the Athenaeum No. 3831 (March 30, 1901), and the comments of Castelain. He thinks that the play in question, in which both Chapman and Jonson took part, was Sir Gyles Goosecappe, and that the last imprisonment of the 2 poets was shortly after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.[4]

In the mysterious history of the Gunpowder Plot Jonson certainly had some obscure part. On 7 November, very soon after the discovery of the conspiracy, the council appears to have sent for him and to have asked him, as a loyal Roman Catholic, to use his good offices in inducing the priests to do something required by the council - one hardly likes to conjecture it to have been some tampering with the secrets of confession. In any case, the negotiations fell through, because the priests declined to come forth out of their hiding places to be negotiated with - greatly to the wrath of Jonson, who declares in a letter to Lord Salisbury that "they are all so enweaved in it that it will make 500 gentlemen less of the religion within this week, if they carry their understanding about them." Jonson himself, however, did not declare his separation from the Church of Rome for 5 years longer, however much it might have been to his advantage to do so.[4]

His powers as a dramatist were at their height during the earlier half of the reign of James I; and by the year 1616 he had produced nearly all the plays which are worthy of his genius. They include the tragedy of Catiline (acted and printed 1611), which achieved only a doubtful success, and the comedies of Volpone; or, The fox (acted 1605 and printed in 1607 with a dedication “from my house in the Blackfriars ”), Epicæne; or, The silent woman (1609, entered in the Stationers' Register 1610), The Alchemist (1610; printed in 1610), Bartholomew Fair and The Devil is an Ass (acted respectively in 1614 and 1616).[4]

During the same period he produced several masques, usually in connexion with Inigo Jones, with whom, however, he seems to have quarrelled already in this reign, though it is very doubtful whether the architect is really intended to be ridiculed in Bartholomew Fair under the character of Lanthorn Leatherhead. Littlewit, according to Fleay, is Daniel. Among the most attractive of his masques may be mentioned the Masque of Blackness (1606), the Masque of Beauty (1608), and the Masque of Queens (1609), described by Swinburne as “the most splendid of all masques" and as “one of the typically splendid monuments or trophies of English literature."[4]

In 1616 a modest pension of 100 marks a year was conferred upon him; and possibly this sign of royal favor may have encouraged him to the publication of the 1st volume of the folio collected edition of his works (1616), though there are indications that he had contemplated its production, an exceptional task for a playwright of his times to take in hand, as early as 1612. He had other patrons more bountiful than the Crown, and for a brief space of time (in 1613) had travelled to France as governor (without apparently much moral authority) to the eldest son of Sir Walter Raleigh, then a state prisoner in the Tower, for whose society Jonson may have gained a liking at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside, but for whose personal character he, like so many of his contemporaries, seems to have had but small esteem.[4]

By the year 1616 Jonson seems to have made up his mind to cease writing for the stage, where neither his success nor his profits had equalled his merits and expectations. He continued to produce masques and entertainments when called upon; but he was attracted by many other literary pursuits, and had already accomplished enough to furnish plentiful materials for retrospective discourse over pipe or cup.[4]

It was in the year 1618 that, like Samuel Johnson a century and a half afterwards, Ben resolved to have a real holiday for once, and about midsummer started for his ancestral country, Scotland. He had (very heroically for a man of his habits) determined to make the journey on foot; and he was speedily followed by John Taylor, the water-poet, who still further handicapped himself by the condition that he would accomplish the pilgrimage without a penny in his pocket. Jonson, who put money in his good friend's purse when he came up with him at Leith, spent more than a year and a half in the hospitable Lowlands, being solemnly elected a burgess of Edinburgh, and on another occasion entertained at a public banquet there.[4]

But the best-remembered hospitality which he enjoyed was that of the learned Scottish poet, William Drummond of Hawthornden, to which we owe the so-called Conversations. In these famous jottings, the work of no extenuating hand, Jonson lives for us to this day, delivering his censures, terse as they are, in an expansive mood whether of praise or of blame; nor is he at all generously described in the postscript added by his fatigued and at times irritated host as "a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others." A poetical account of this journey, "with all the adventures," was burnt with Jonson's library.[4]

After his return to England Jonson appears to have resumed his former course of life. Among his noble patrons and patronesses were the countess of Rutland (Sidney's daughter) and her cousin Lady Wroth. He confessed about this time that he was or seemed growing "restive," i.e. lazy, though it was not long before he returned to the occasional composition of masques. The extremely spirited Gipsies Metamorphosed (1621) was thrice presented before the king, who was so pleased with it as to grant to the poet the reversion of the office of master of the revels, besides proposing to confer upon him the honour of knighthood. This honour Jonson declined; but there was no reason why he should not gratefully accept the increase of his pension in the same year (1621) to £200 *a temporary increase only, inasmuch as it still stood at 100 marks when afterwards augmented by Charles I.[4]

Under Charles IEdit

The close of King James I's reign found the foremost of its poets in anything but a prosperous condition. Disease had weakened the poet's strength, and the burning of his library, as his Execration upon Vulcan sufficiently shows, must have been no mere transitory trouble to a poor poet and scholar. Moreover he cannot but have felt, from the time of the accession of Charles I early in 1625 onwards, that the royal patronage would no longer be due in part to anything like intellectual sympathy.[5]

He thus thought it best to recur to the surer way of writing for the stage, and in 1625 produced, with no faint heart, but with a very clear anticipation of the comments which would be made upon the reappearance of the "huge, overgrown play-maker," The Staple of News, a comedy excellent in some respects, but little calculated to become popular. It was not printed till 1631.[5]

Jonson, whose habit of body was not more conducive than were his ways of life to a healthy old age, had a paralytic stroke in 1626, and a second in 1628. In the latter year, on the death of Middleton, the appointment of city chronologer, with a salary of 100 nobles a year, was bestowed upon him. He appears to have considered the duties of this office as purely ornamental; but in 1631 his salary was suspended until he should have presented some fruits of his labours in his place, or - as he more succinctly phrased it - "yesterday the barbarous court of aldermen have withdrawn their chandlerly pension for verjuice and mustard, £33, 6s. 8d."[5]

After being in 1628 arrested by mistake on the utterly false charge of having written certain verses in approval of the assassination of Buckingham, he was soon allowed to return to Westminster, where it would appear from a letter of his "son and contiguous neighbour," James Howell, he was living in 1629, and about this time narrowly escaped another conflagration. In the same year (1629) he once more essayed the stage with the comedy of The New Inn, which was actually, and on its own merits not unjustly, damned on the 1st performance. It was printed in 1631, "as it was never acted but most negligently played"; and Jonson defended himself against his critics in his spirited Ode to Himself[5].

The epilogue to The New Inn having dwelt not without dignity upon the neglect which the poet had experienced at the hands of "king and queen," King Charles immediately sent the unlucky author a gift of £100, and in response to a further appeal increased his standing salary to the same sum, with the addition of an annual tierce of canary - the poet-laureate's customary royal gift, though this designation of an office, of which Jonson discharged some of what became the ordinary functions, is not mentioned in the warrant dated 26 March 1630. In 1634, by the king's desire, Jonson's salary as chronologer to the city was again paid.[5]

To his later years belong the comedies, The Magnetic Lady (1632) and The Tale of a Tub (1633), both printed in 1640, and some masques, none of which met with great success. The patronage of liberal-minded men, such as the earl, afterwards duke, of Newcastle — by whom he must have been commissioned to write his last 2 masques, Love's Welcome at Welbeck (1633) and Love's Welcome at Bolsover (1634) - and Viscount Falkland, was not wanting, and his was hardly an instance in which the fickleness of time and taste could have allowed a literary veteran to end his career in neglect.[5]

He was the acknowledged chief of the English world of letters, both at the festive meetings where he ruled the roast among the younger authors whose pride it was to be "sealed of the tribe of Ben," and by the avowal of grave writers, old or young, none of whom would have ventured to dispute his titular pre-eminence. Nor was he to the last unconscious of the claims upon him which his position brought with it. When, nearly 2 years after he had lost his surviving son, death came upon the sick old man on 6 August 1637, he left behind him an unfinished work of great beauty, the pastoral drama of The Sad Shepherd (printed in 1641).[5]

For 40 years, he said in the prologue, he had feasted the public; at 1st he could scarce hit its taste, but patience had at last enabled it to identify itself with the working of his pen. We are so accustomed to think of Ben Jonson presiding, attentive to his own applause, over a circle of younger followers and admirers that we are apt to forget the hard struggle which he had passed through before gaining the crown now universally acknowledged to be his.[5]

Jonson and ShakespeareEdit

There are many legends about Jonson's rivalry with Shakespeare, some of which may be true. Drummond reports that during their conversation, Jonson scoffed at 2 apparent absurdities in Shakespeare's plays: a nonsensical line in Julius Caesar, and the setting of The Winter's Tale on the non-existent seacoast of Bohemia. Drummond also reported Jonson as saying that Shakespeare "wanted (i.e. lacked) art." Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, the comments fit well with Jonson's well-known theories about literature.[6]

In Timber, which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more conciliatory comment. He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e., crossed out) a line when he wrote. His own response, "Would he had blotted a thousand," was taken as malicious. However, Jonson explains, "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped".[7] Jonson concludes that "there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned." Also when Shakespeare died he said "He was not of an age, but for all time."[6]

Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern; Fuller imagines conversations in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the 2 men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson's references to him but because Shakespeare's company produced a number of Jonson's plays, at least one of which (Every Man in his Humour) Shakespeare certainly acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated in the present state of knowledge.[6]

Jonson's most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the 2nd of the 2 poems that he contributed to the prefatory verse that opens Shakespeare's First Folio. This poem, "To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us," did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine, and lesse Greeke", had a natural genius. The poem has traditionally been thought to exemplify the contrast which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and skeptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote. But the poem itself qualifies this view:

Yet must I not give Nature all: Thy Art,
My gentle Shakespeare, must enjoy a part.[8]

Some view this elegy as a conventional exercise, but others see it as a heartfelt tribute to the "Sweet Swan Of Avon," the "Soul of the Age!" It has been argued that Jonson helped to edit the First Folio, and he may have been inspired to write this poem, surely one of his greatest, by reading his fellow playwright's works, a number of which had been previously either unpublished or available in less satisfactory versions, in a relatively complete form.[6]



Apart from 2 tragedies, Sejanus and Catiline, that largely failed to impress Renaissance audiences, Jonson's work for the public theatres was in comedy. These plays vary in some respects. The minor early plays, particularly those written for boy players, present somewhat looser plots and less-developed characters than those written later for adult companies. Already in the plays which were his salvos in the Poet's War, he displays the keen eye for absurdity and hypocrisy that marks his best-known plays; in these early efforts, however, plot mostly takes second place to variety of incident and comic set-pieces. They are, also, notably ill-tempered. Thomas Davies called Poetaster "a contemptible mixture of the serio-comic, where the names of Augustus Caesar, Maecenas, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Tibullus]], are all sacrificed upon the altar of private resentment."[6]

Another early comedy in a different vein, The Case is Altered, is markedly similar to Shakespeare's romantic comedies in its foreign setting, emphasis on genial wit, and love-plot. Henslowe's diary indicates that Jonson had a hand in numerous other plays, including many in genres such as English history with which he is not otherwise associated.[6]

The comedies of his middle career, from Eastward Ho to The Devil is an Ass are for the most part city comedy, with a London setting, themes of trickery and money, and a distinct moral ambiguity, despite Jonson's professed aim in the Prologue to Volpone to "mix profit with your pleasure". His late plays or "dotages", particularly The Magnetic Lady and The Sad Shepherd, exhibit signs of an accommodation with the romantic tendencies of Elizabethan comedy.[6]

Within this general progression, however, Jonson's comic style remained constant and easily recognizable. He announces his programme in the prologue to the folio version of Every Man in His Humour: he promises to represent "deeds, and language, such as men do use." He planned to write comedies that revived the classical premises of Elizabethan dramatic theory—or rather, since all but the loosest English comedies could claim some descent from Plautus and Terence, he intended to apply those premises with rigour.[9] This commitment entailed negations: after The Case is Altered, Jonson eschewed distant locations, noble characters, romantic plots, and other staples of Elizabethan comedy, focussing instead on the satiric and realistic inheritance of new comedy. He set his plays in contemporary settings, peopled them with recognizable types, and set them to actions that, if not strictly realistic, involved everyday motives such as greed and jealousy.[6]

In accordance with the temper of his age, he was often so broad in his characterisation that many of his most famous scenes border on the farcical (as William Congreve, for example, judged Epicoene.) He was more diligent in adhering to the classical unities than many of his peers—although as Margaret Cavendish noted, the unity of action in the major comedies was rather compromised by Jonson's abundance of incident. To this classical model Jonson applied the 2 features of his style which save his classical imitations from mere pedantry: the vividness with which he depicted the lives of his characters, and the intricacy of his plots. Coleridge, for instance, claimed that The Alchemist had 1 of the 3 most perfect plots in literature.[6]

The Sad Shepherd, of which Jonson left behind 3 acts and a prologue, is distinguished among English pastoral dramas by its freshness of tone; it breathes something of the spirit of the greenwood, and is not unnatural even in its supernatural element. While this piece, with its charming love-scenes between Robin Hood and Maid Marion, remains a fragment, another pastoral by Jonson, the May Lord, has been lost, and a 3rd, of which Loch Lomond was intended to be the scene, probably remained unwritten.[10]


Jonson's poetry, like his drama, is informed by his classical learning. Some of his better-known poems are close translations of Greek or Roman models; all display the careful attention to form and style that often came naturally to those trained in classics in the humanist manner. Jonson largely avoided the debates about rhyme and meter that had consumed Elizabethan classicists such as Thomas Campion and Gabriel Harvey. Accepting both rhyme and stress, Jonson used them to mimic the classical qualities of simplicity, restraint, and precision.[6]

“Epigrams” (published in the 1616 folio) is an entry in a genre that was popular among late-Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, although Jonson was perhaps the only poet of his time to work in its full classical range. The epigrams explore various attitudes, most from the satiric stock of the day: complaints against women, courtiers, and spies abound. The condemnatory poems are short and anonymous; Jonson’s epigrams of praise, including a famous poem to Camden and lines to Lucy Harington, are longer and are mostly addressed to specific individuals. Although it is an epigram in the classical sense of the genre, "On My First Sonne" is neither satirical nor very short; the poem, and others like it, resemble what a later age sometimes called "lyric poetry", and it is almost in the form of a Sonnet, however there are some elements missing. It is possible that the title symbolizes this with the spelling of 'son' as 'Sonne'. Johnson's poems of The Forest also appeared in the 1st folio. Most of the 15 poems are addressed to Jonson’s aristocratic supporters, but the most famous are his country-house poem “To Penshurst” and the poem "To Celia” (“Come, my Celia, let us prove”) that appears also in ‘’Volpone.’’[6]

Underwood, published in the expanded folio of 1640, is a larger and more heterogeneous group of poems. It contains "A Celebration of Charis," Jonson’s most extended effort at love poetry; various religious pieces; encomiastic poems, including the poem to Shakespeare and a sonnet on Mary Wroth; the "Execration against Vulcan" and others. The 1640 volume also contains 3 elegies which have often been ascribed to Donne (one of them appeared in Donne’s posthumous collected poems).[6]

Critical introductionEdit

by Adolphus William Ward

Though the readers of Ben Jonson are relatively few, there is no securer fame in our literature than his. He lived long, and ended his days in a very different world of letters as well as of politics from that upon which, after his return from military service in the Netherlands, he had launched the earliest of his great comedies. In his old age, when he had survived both the heat of the quarrels in which he had exulted and the fulness of the popularity which he had contemned,— when his powers were declining and his troubles increasing,— he was generally acknowledged as the chief of his art. His society was courted by grave seniors and by youthful aspirants to literary honours, while by an inner circle of devotees he was venerated as their "metropolitan in poetry," and honoured after death with a collection of tributes such as even in that age of panegyrics would have overweighted the remembrance of any other man.

During the Restoration period his reputation as an English dramatist was still 2nd to none, so far as critical opinion was concerned. But a poet’s name is not kept green by critical opinion, and the name of a dramatic poet perhaps least of all. In his old age, as Jonson informed King Charles I, the "less poetic boys" had judged "parts of him decayed"; to posterity he gradually came to seem over-full and over-difficult. And thus in the end his inability or unwillingness (often expressed with unnecessary frankness) to come to terms with the larger public has revenged itself by his writings having been long and unworthily neglected.

To sink irresistibly into the souls of men, or lightly to move the mirth of the multitude, was and is beyond the power of his poetic genius. To dissolve its inspirations in wantonness, or to satisfy coarse appetites with the husks of its fruits, was incompatible with the character of his mind. No writer was ever at once so varied and so serious, so voluminous and so conscientious. Few have been so careful about what they wrote before publication, and so careless about it afterwards. He thought that he could trust his reputation to the judgment of those who can "understand and define what merit is"; and upon the whole it may be said that both the audience to which he appealed, and that whose opinion he professed neither to love nor to fear, have taken him at his word. His fame as a dramatist — on which his general fame will always essentially depend — must therefore remain within the keeping of those who are "sealed of the tribe of Ben"; but of these the succession is certain to remain unbroken.

A quite special cause has in the course of time not less unjustly than unfortunately interfered with the posthumous popularity of Ben Jonson. Not only has his poetic fame — as was inevitable — been overshadowed by that of Shakespeare; but he was long believed to have entertained, and to have taken frequent opportunities of expressing, a malign jealousy of one both greater and more successful than himself. This rather musty charge was elaborately examined and refuted by Jonson’s editor, Gifford, to whose efforts on this head nothing remains to be added, though perhaps here and there something may with advantage be taken away from them. With pen and with tongue Ben Jonson was always, consciously or unconsciously, exerting his critical faculty; and like his great namesake of the 18th century, who in many respects (not including creative gifts) so strangely resembles him, he loved to measure and qualify even the praise which came warmest from his heart.

In order to judge of his feelings towards Shakespeare, and his opinion of Shakespeare’s genius, it suffices to read with candour as well as care. If the constitution of the writer’s mind, and the circumstances of the writing be taken into account, it may be said with truth that few criticisms at once so generous and so discerning have ever been committed to posterity by a great poet concerning another. At all events it should not be overlooked that the praise which from Jonson weighs heaviest — the praise of Shakespeare’s art — was precisely that of which many generations delighting in the poet’s ‘native woodnotes wild’ failed to understand the meaning.

As a matter of course, Jonson is chiefly remembered as a dramatist, though his labors as such very far from exhausted his extraordinary powers of work, and though for 10 years (beginning with that of Shakespeare’s death) he never wrote for the stage at all. Indeed, though he declared his profits as a playwright to have been extremely small, it seems to have been necessity rather than choice which turned his efforts in this direction. In the spirited Ode to Himself (of which the date is uncertain, but which probably belongs to some time near 1616), as well as in the lines to Shakspere, he makes no secret of his longing for what seemed to him nobler because freer forms of poetry.

But though he not long afterwards (1619) told Drummond of Hawthorndenm in one of his famous Conversations, "that he had an intention to perfect an epic poem entitled Heroologia, of the Worthies of this Country roused by Fame, and to dedicate it to his country," nothing came of the project. Nor would it appear that the burning of his library, for which he execrated "the lame Lord of Fire" in a vivacious series of his favourite heroic couplets, consumed together with the MS. of his English Grammar and of his Aristotelian notes for his Translation of Horace’s Art of Poetry, any original poem of special length or importance.

Exclusively, therefore, of his dramas and masques, and of a few translations from the Latin Poets professing to be nothing more than such, Jonson’s poetical remains consist only of the 3 collections mentioned at the head of this notice. How far the last of these, the Underwoods, which comprises epistles, epigrams, and lyrics of various kinds, was prepared or even designed for publication by Jonson, is unknown.

The lyrics in Jonson’s dramas are extremely few, as becomes a dramatist who (as he rather too tersely expresses it) strove not only to set "words above action," but "matter above words." Indeed, with the exception of 2 or 3 pretty songs (of which 1, exquisitely rendered from a Latin original, and another, afterwards reprinted in an enlarged form in the Underwoods, are cited to exemplify the light touch at the command of Jonson’s not always laborious fingers) none of these often charming and always disturbing obstacles to dramatic interest interfere with the steady progress of his plays. The stately choruses in the tragedy of Catiline stand on a different footing from that of more or less desultory songs.

Even in Jonson’s masques,— a form of poetry which owes to him not indeed its origin, but its establishment as a species in our literature — though the lyrical element necessarily forms an integral part of the composition, yet the importance attached to it by the author is unmistakeably secondary. Nor is the reason of this far to seek. From one point of view, indeed, it is right and proper to insist upon the essential differences between a masque and a drama, and upon the consequent absurdity of applying the same standards of criticism to both. From another point of view it is equally true that it is the dramatic element, or the element of action, in the masque as treated by Jonson, which constitutes the difference between it and a mere ‘disguising’— a difference which in the case of earlier masques had no existence at all.

According to his wont, Jonson was above all anxious to ‘furnish the inward parts’ of the masques, barriers and other entertainments composed by him, and in an age when, by the caprice of fashion and according to the inevitable law of change, a taste for these ‘transitory devices’ had largely superseded the love of the drama, to offer nothing that was not both ‘nourishing and sound.’ Hence whether it was a municipal ‘invention in the Strand,’ to the body of which he had to ‘adapt his soul,’ or a hint of the Queen’s which he had to develop as ladies’ hints sometimes require, his aim was chiefly to give something of dramatic life as well as of deeper meaning to his occasional pieces. Not only was he resolved that so far as in him lay "painting and carpentry" should not be (as he thought Inigo Jones strove to make them) "the soul of masque"; but even the songs and dances, indispensable though they were in one sense, were in another to be, so to speak, adventitious.

Thus while his masques contain more dramatic life than those of any of his contemporaries, and reveal more poetic purpose than those of any other English writer except Milton, the lyrical part of them, though always adequate, rarely challenges special admiration. The extract in heroic couplets from the Hymenæi furnishes a typical instance of the thought expended by Jonson upon what in most other hands would have been a mere conventional personification; the short adagio from the Fortunate Isles shows how fully competent he was to marry words to the required movement of dance or song. A longer extract from Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue would have been necessary to bring into fullest relief what was owed to Jonson by the writer of the greatest—without rival or parallel—of all English masques. Is it inconceivable that our poets should recur, less tentatively than they have hitherto done, to a poetic form so peculiarly suitable for giving expression to the more varied intellectual life of these latter times as was that which Jonson virtually secured to our literature?

Among his detached pieces the Epigrams were the favourites of "honest" Ben Jonson himself,— "the ripest," as he called them, "of his studies." It is unnecessary to point out (though the poet had to do so in the admirable lines addressed to his "mere English" critic) that his conception of the forms and functions of an epigram was the wider one entertained by the Ancients; and that therefore his purpose in the large majority of these poems is not to work rapidly up to a point at the close.

If this be borne in mind, the felicitous terseness of these Epigrams, and of those pieces in the Underwoods which belong to the same class, will not be denied the admiration which it deserves. Some are witty, in the narrower sense of the term,— nearly all in the broader. Their sarcasm, where they contain such, directs itself against various types of men and women — among them, much to Jonson’s credit, rather against those whom he might have been expected to flatter than those whom he might have been expected to assail. But the Fastidious Brisks were as genuine an abomination to Ben Jonson as the Zeal-of-the-land Busies, and this though he to some extent depended for his bread as well as for his sack upon the good-will of the Court and courtiers.

And it may be said in passing that though like all his brother-dramatists he was loyally devoted to the Crown, he was free-spoken even to the most august of his patrons, and constantly recurs to the commonplace but wholesome maxim that it is the love, not the fear, of his subjects upon which a monarch ought to rely. But Jonson’s satirical epigrams are both less effective and less elaborate than those of a directly opposite tendency.

Few of our Jacobean or Caroline poets have equalled him in pregnancy of panegyric — whether his theme was the praise of statesmen like the elder or the younger Cecil, or of men of letters varying in kind and degree from Selden, whom he salutes as ‘monarch of letters,’ to the poet’s fellow-dramatists. Nor was he less happy when the object of his poetic homage was a gentle woman, like the Countess of Bedford celebrated in the lines cited below. And his Epitaphs remain unsurpassed, not only for a condensed force which we are accustomed to find in Jonson, but also for a tender grace which he is not so usually supposed to have possessed.

In the collection called the Forest, small as it is, Jonson has done the greatest justice to the variety of poetic styles of which (in addition to the dramatic) he was capable. He here excuses himself for not writing of love, partly on the favourite poets’ plea of growing age; and in truth his muse was comparatively a stranger to Eros. Yet the little chaplet of tributes to ‘Charis’ put together by Jonson in 1624 and inserted in the Underwoods, and some charming original and translated pieces to be found elsewhere, show him not only to have written graceful love-poetry himself, but to have furnished examples of it to his younger contemporaries. Herrick was in his way almost as much indebted to Jonson as Milton was in his.

As a translator or adapter of Classical originals, Jonson was in his element; his re-settings of favourite gems from Catullus and others were doubtless true labours of love. For the "bricklayer" (as his opponents delighted to be historically justified in calling him) had the early nurture of a scholar; and through life he remained deeply grateful to the famous Camden, his master at Westminster. That among the Latin poets Horace should have specially attracted him, is easily to be accounted for; in some of his original Epistles he has all the brightness and all the urbanity of his Roman model — in the fine Epode included in the Forest he rises to a moral dignity beyond the reach either of Horace or of his later imitators.

For not even a slight summary like the present should exclude from mention among Jonson’s characteristics the firm and steady tone of his morality. In his earlier manhood he twice changed his faith — without the faintest suspicion of interested motives attaching to his conversion — and in his later days he seems to have remained a close student of theology, inclining now to

‘those wiser guides
Whom fashion had not drawn to study sides.’

But to a conscientious desire for truth he added a humility of soul towards things divine, which stands in strange and touching contrast to the high mettle and quick temper of his bearing in most other matters. Critics have been known to cry out against having to hear too much about the robustness of Ben Jonson; but his manliness is inseparable from him, and, as the lines "To Heaven" show, he was not ashamed even of his piety.[11]


In 1616 Jonson received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England's first Poet Laureate.

In 1618, while visiting Edinburgh, he was made an honorary citizen of the city.

In 1619 he traveled with poet Richard Corbet to Christ Church, Oxford, on which occasion he was granted an M.A. by the university.[4]

Jonson was buried on the north side of the nave in Westminster Abbey, and the inscription, “ O Rare Ben Jonson, ” was cut in the slab over his grave. In the beginning of the 18th century a portrait bust was put up to his memory in Poets' Corner by Harley, earl of Oxford.[10]

Of Honthorst's portrait of Jonson at Knole Park there is a copy in the National Portrait Gallery; another was engraved by W. Marshall for the 1640 edition of his Poems.[10]

11 of his poems ("Hymn to Diana," "To Celia," "Simplex Munditiis," "The Shadow," "The Triumph," "An Elegy," "A Farewell to the World," "The Noble Balm," "On Elizabeth L.H." "On Salathiel Pavy," and "A Part of an Ode") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[12]

Critical reputationEdit

During most of the 17th century Jonson was a towering literary figure, and his influence was enormous. Before the English Civil War, the "Tribe of Ben" touted his importance, and during the Restoration Jonson's satirical comedies and his theory and practice of "humour characters" (which are often misunderstood; see William Congreve's letters for clarification) was extremely influential, providing the blueprint for many Restoration comedies. In the 18th century Jonson's status began to decline. In the Romantic era, Jonson suffered the fate of being unfairly compared and contrasted to Shakespeare, as the taste for Jonson's type of satirical comedy decreased. Jonson was at times greatly appreciated by the Romantics, but overall he was denigrated for not writing in a Shakespearean vein. In the 20th century, Jonson's status rose significantly.[6]


As G.E. Bentley notes in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their reputations in the seventeenth century compared, Jonson's reputation was in some respects equal to Shakespeare's in the 17th century. After the English theatres were reopened on the Restoration of Charles II, Jonson's work, along with Shakespeare's and Fletcher's work, formed the initial core of the Restoration repertory. It was not until after 1710 that Shakespeare's plays (ordinarily in heavily revised forms) were more frequently performed than those of his Renaissance contemporaries. Many critics since the 18th century have ranked Jonson below only Shakespeare among English Renaissance dramatists. Critical judgment has tended to emphasize the very qualities that Jonson himself lauds in his prefaces, in Timber, and in his scattered prefaces and dedications: the realism and propriety of his language, the bite of his satire, and the care with which he plotted his comedies.[6]

For some critics, the temptation to contrast Jonson (representing art or craft) with Shakespeare (representing nature, or untutored genius) has seemed natural; Jonson himself may be said to initiate this interpretation in the 2nd folio, and Samuel Butler drew the same comparison in his commonplace book later in the century.[6]

At the Restoration, this sensed difference became a kind of critical dogma. Charles de Saint-Évremond placed Jonson's comedies above all else in English drama, and Charles Gildon called Jonson the father of English comedy. John Dryden offered a more common assessment in the Essay of Dramatic Poesie, in which his avatar Neander compares Shakespeare to Homer and Jonson to Virgil: the former represented profound creativity, the latter polished artifice. But "artifice" was in the 17th century almost synonymous with "art"; Jonson, for instance, used "artificer" as a synonym for "artist" (Discoveries, 33). For Lewis Theobald, too, Jonson “ow[ed] all his Excellence to his Art,” in contrast to Shakespeare, the natural genius. Nicholas Rowe, to whom may be traced the legend that Jonson owed the production of Every Man in his Humour to Shakespeare's intercession, likewise attributed Jonson's excellence to learning, which did not raise him quite to the level of genius. A consensus formed: Jonson was the first English poet to understand classical precepts with any accuracy, and he was the first to apply those precepts successfully to contemporary life. But there were also more negative spins on Jonson's learned art; for instance, in the 1750s, Edward Young casually remarked on the way in which Jonson’s learning worked, like Samson’s strength, to his own detriment. Earlier, Aphra Behn, writing in defence of female playwrights, had pointed to Jonson as a writer whose learning did not make him popular; unsurprisingly, she compares him unfavorably to Shakespeare. Particularly in the tragedies, with their lengthy speeches abstracted from Sallust and Cicero, Augustan critics saw a writer whose learning had swamped his aesthetic judgment.[6]

In this period, Alexander Pope is exceptional in that he noted the tendency to exaggeration in these competing critical portraits: "It is ever the nature of Parties to be in extremes; and nothing is so probable, as that because Ben Johnson had much the most learning, it was said on the one hand that Shakespear had none at all; and because Shakespear had much the most wit and fancy, it was retorted on the other, that Johnson wanted both."[13] For the most part, the 18th century consensus remained committed to the division that Pope doubted; as late as the 1750s, Sarah Fielding could put a brief recapitulation of this analysis in the mouth of a "man of sense" encountered by David Simple.[6]

Though his stature declined during the 18th century, Jonson was still read and commented on throughout the century, generally in the kind of comparative and dismissive terms just described. Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg translated parts of Peter Whalley's edition into German in 1765.[6] Shortly before the Romantic revolution, Edward Capell offered an almost unqualified rejection of Jonson as a dramatic poet, who (he writes) "has very poor pretensions to the high place he holds among the English Bards, as there is no original manner to distinguish him, and the tedious sameness visible in his plots indicates a defect of Genius."[14] The disastrous failures of productions of Volpone and Epicoene in the early 1770s no doubt bolstered a widespread sense that Jonson had at last grown too antiquated for the contemporary public; if he still attracted enthusiasts such as Earl Camden and William Gifford, he all but disappeared from the stage in the last quarter of the century.[6]

The romantic revolution in criticism brought about an overall decline in the critical estimation of Jonson. Hazlitt refers dismissively to Jonson’s “laborious caution.” Coleridge, while more respectful, describes Jonson as psychologically superficial: “He was a very accurately observing man; but he cared only to observe what was open to, and likely to impress, the senses.” Coleridge placed Jonson second only to Shakespeare; other romantic critics were less approving. The early 19th century was the great age for recovering Renaissance drama. Jonson, whose reputation had survived, appears to have been less interesting to some readers than writers such as Thomas Middleton or John Heywood, who were in some senses “discoveries” of the 19th century. Moreover, the emphasis which the romantic writers placed on imagination, and their concomitant tendency to distrust studied art, lowered Jonson's status, if it also sharpened their awareness of the difference traditionally noted between Jonson and Shakespeare. This trend was by no means universal, however; William Gifford, Jonson's first editor of the 19th century, did a great deal to defend Jonson's reputation during this period of general decline. In the next era, Swinburne, who was more interested in Jonson than most Victorians, wrote, “The flowers of his growing have every quality but one which belongs to the rarest and finest among flowers: they have colour, form, variety, fertility, vigour: the one thing they want is fragrance” — by “fragrance,” Swinburne means spontaneity.[6]

In the 20th century, Jonson’s body of work has been subject to a more varied set of analyses, broadly consistent with the interests and programmes of modern literary criticism. In an essay printed in The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot attempted to repudiate the charge that Jonson was an arid classicist by analysing the role of imagination in his dialogue. Eliot was appreciative of Jonson's overall conception and his "surface," a view consonant with the modernist reaction against Romantic criticism, which tended to denigrate playwrights who did not concentrate on representations of psychological depth. Around mid-century, a number of critics and scholars followed Eliot’s lead, producing detailed studies of Jonson’s verbal style. At the same time, study of Elizabethan themes and conventions, such as those by E.E. Stoll and M.C. Bradbrook, provided a more vivid sense of how Jonson’s work was shaped by the expectations of his time.[6]

The proliferation of new critical perspectives after mid-century touched on Jonson inconsistently. Jonas Barish was the leading figure among critics who appreciated Jonson's artistry. On the other hand, Jonson received less attention from the new critics than did some other playwrights and his work was not of programmatic interest to psychoanalytic critics. But Jonson’s career eventually made him a focal point for the revived sociopolitical criticism. Jonson’s works, particularly his masques and pageants, offer significant information regarding the relations of literary production and political power, as do his contacts with and poems for aristocratic patrons; moreover, his career at the centre of London’s emerging literary world has been seen as exemplifying the development of a fully commodified literary culture. In this respect he is seen as a transitional figure, an author whose skills and ambition led him to a leading role both in the declining culture of patronage and in the rising culture of mass consumption.[6]


If Jonson's reputation as a playwright has traditionally been linked to Shakespeare, his reputation as a poet has, since the early 20th century, been linked to that of John Donne. In this comparison, Jonson represents the cavalier strain of poetry, emphasizing grace and clarity of expression; Donne, by contrast, epitomized the metaphysical school of poetry, with its reliance on strained, baroque metaphors and often vague phrasing. Since the critics who made this comparison (Herbert Grierson for example), were to varying extents rediscovering Donne, this comparison often worked to the detriment of Jonson's reputation.[6]

In 1623, historian Edmund Bolton named Jonson the best and most polished English poet. That this judgment was widely shared is indicated by the admitted influence he had on younger poets. The grounds for describing Jonson as the "father" of cavalier poets are clear: many of the cavalier poets described themselves as his "sons" or his "tribe." For some of this tribe, the connection was as much social as poetic; Robert Herrick described meetings at "the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tunne." All of them, including those like Herrick whose accomplishments in verse are generally regarded as superior to Jonson's, took inspiration from Jonson's revival of classical forms and themes, his subtle melodies, and his disciplined use of wit. In these respects Jonson may be regarded as among the most important figures in the prehistory of English neoclassicism.[6]

The best of Jonson's lyrics have remained current since his time; periodically, they experience a brief vogue, as after the publication of Peter Whalley's edition of 1756. Jonson's poetry continues to interest scholars for the light which it sheds on English literary history, such as politics, systems of patronage, and intellectual attitudes. For the general reader, Jonson's reputation rests on a few lyrics that, though brief, are surpassed for grace and precision by very few Renaissance poems: "On My First Sonne"; "To Celia"; "To Penshurst"; and the epitaph on boy player Solomon Pavy.[6]



  • Epigrams / The Forest. First folio, 1616;
    • (edited by Richard Dutton). Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1984.
  • Poetical Works (edited by Robert Bell). London: J.W. Parker, 1854.
  • Poems (edited by Robert Bell). London: C. Griffin, 1870.
  • Songs and Poems. London: Phillip Allen, 1924.
  • Poems (edited by Charles Harold Herford). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1947.
  • Poems (edited by Ronald Duncan). London: Grey Walls Press, 1949.
  • The Complete Poetry (edited by William B. Hunter, Jr.). Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1963.
  • Poems (edited by George Burke Johnson). London: Routledge, 1970.
  • Poems (edited by Ian Donaldson). London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  • The Complete Poems (edited by George A.E. Parfit). London: Penguin, 1988.


  • Every Man out of His Humour comedy (performed 1599). London: William Holme, 1600.
  • Every Man in His Humour, comedy (performed 1598). London: Walter Burre, 1601.
  • The Fountaine of Self-loue; or, Cynthia's revels (performed 1600). London: Walter Burre, 1601.
  • Poetaster; or, The arraignment, comedy (performed 1601). London: R. Bradock] for M. Lownes, 1602.
  • Sejanus: His fall, tragedy (performed 1603). London: G. Elld, for Thomas Thorpe, 1605.
  • Eastward Ho, (with John Marston & George Chapman), comedy (performed 1605). London: William Apsley, 1605.
  • Volpone; or, The Fox, comedy (circa 1605–06). London: Thomas Thorppe, 1607; London: William Stansby, 1616.
  • The Case is Altered, comedy (ca. 1597–98). London: Bartholomew Sutton & William Barrenger, 1609.
  • The Alchemist, (performed 1610). London: Thomas Snodham for Walter Burre, 1612.
  • Catiline His Conspiracy, tragedy (performed and printed 1611). London: Walter Burre, 1611.
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, comedy (performed 1609). London: William Stansby, 1616.
  • Bartholomew Fair, comedy (performed 31 October 1614). London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The Devil is an Ass, comedy (performed 1616). London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The Staple of Newes, comedy (performed Feb. 1626. London: Iohn Beale for Robert Allot, 1631.
  • The New Inne; or, The Light Heart, comedy (licensed 19 January 1629), London: Thomas Harper for Thomas Alcharne, 1631.
  • A Tale of a Tub, comedy (performed 1633). Second folio, 1641.
  • The Magnetic Lady; or, Humors reconciled]], comedy (licensed 12 October 1632). Second folio, 1641.
  • The Sad Shepherd, pastoral (ca. 1637, unfinished). Second folio, 1641.
  • Mortimer his Fall, history, (a fragment). Second folio, 1641.
  • Ben Jonson's Plays (with introduction by Felix E. Schelling). London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910. Volume II
  • Five Plays (edited by G.A. Wilkes). Oxford, UK, & New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
  • Selected Plays (edited by Johanna Procter [Volume I] & Martin Butler [Volume II]). (2 volumes), Cambridge, UK, & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


  • The Coronation Triumph, or The King's Entertainment (performed 15 March 1604; printed 1604); with Thomas Dekker
  • A Private Entertainment of the King and Queen on May-Day (The Penates) (1 May 1604; printed 1616)
  • Particular Entertainment at Althorp (The Satyr) (25 June 1603). London: 1604.
  • The Characters of Two Royall Masques: The one of blacknesse, the other of beautie. London: Thomas Thorp, 1608
    • The Masque of Blackness (6 January 1605)
    • The Masque of Beauty (10 January 1608)
  • Hymenaei (5 January 1606)
  • The Entertainment of the Kings of Great Britain and Denmark (The Hours) (24 July 1606; printed 1616)
  • The Masque of Queens (2 February 1609; printed 1609)
  • The Hue and Cry after Cupid, or The Masque at Lord Haddington's Marriage (9 February 1608; printed ca. 1608)
  • The Entertainment at Britain's Burse (11 April 1609; lost, rediscovered 2004)
  • The Speeches at Prince Henry's Barriers, or The Lady of the Lake (6 January 1610; printed 1616)
  • Oberon, the Faery Prince (1 January 1611; printed 1616)
  • Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly (3 February 1611; printed 1616)
  • Love Restored (6 January 1612; printed 1616)
  • A Challenge at Tilt, at a Marriage (27 December 1613/1 January 1614; printed 1616)
  • The Irish Masque at Court (29 December 1613; printed 1616)
  • Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists (6 January 1615; printed 1616)
  • The Golden Age Restored (1 January 1616; printed 1616)
  • Christmas, His Masque (Christmas 1616; printed 1641)
  • The Vision of Delight (6 January 1617; printed 1641)
  • Lovers Made Men, or The Masque of Lethe, or The Masque at Lord Hay's (22 February 1617; printed 1617)
  • Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (6 January 1618; printed 1641) The masque was a failure; Jonson revised it by placing the anti-masque first, turning it into:
  • For the Honour of Wales (17 February 1618; printed 1641)
  • News from the New World Discovered in the Moon (7 January 1620: printed 1641)
  • The Entertainment at Blackfriars, or The Newcastle Entertainment (May 1620?; MS)
  • Pan's Anniversary, or The Shepherd's Holy-Day (19 June 1620?; printed 1641)
  • The Gypsies Metamorphosed (3 and 5 August 1621; printed 1640)
  • The Masque of Augurs (6 January 1622; printed 1622)
  • Time Vindicated to Himself and to His Honours (19 January 1623; printed 1623)
  • Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion (26 January 1624). London: 1623.
  • The Masque of Owls at Kenilworth (19 August 1624; printed 1641)
  • The Fortunate Isles and Their Union (9 January 1625; printed 1625)
  • Love's Triumph Through Callipolis (9 January 1631). London: I.N. for T. Walkley, 1630.
  • Chloridia: Rites to Chloris and Her Nymphs (22 February 1631; printed 1631)
  • The King's Entertainment at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire (21 May 1633; printed 1641)
  • Love's Welcome at Bolsover ( 30 July 1634; printed 1641)
  • Masques and Entertainments (edited by Henry Morley). London: Routledge, 1890.
  • Selected Masques. New Haven, CT, & London: Yale University Press, 1970.


  • Timber; or, Discoveries: Being observation on men and manners. London: 1641; London: Dent, 1898.

Other worksEdit

  • A Discourse of Love (1618)
  • Barclay's Argenis, translated by Jonson (1623)
  • The Execration against Vulcan (1640)
  • Horace's Art of Poetry, translated by Jonson (1640), with a commendatory verse by Edward Herbert
  • Underwood (1640)
  • English Grammar (1640)

Collected editionsEdit

  • Workes of Beniamin Iohnson [First Folio]. London: William Stansby for Rich. Meighen, 1616.
  • Workes of Beniamin Iohnson (2 volumes)
    • Volume I (reprint of First folio). Richard Bishop for Andrew Crooke, 1640;
    • Volume II (Second folio; edited by Kenelm Digby). London: Richard Meighen, 1640 [1641].
  • Works. (7 volumes), London: D. Midwinter; W. Innys and J. Richardson; J. Knapton; T. Wotton; C. Hitch and L. Hawes, 1756.
  • Works (edited by William Gifford). (9 volumes), London: W. Bulmer, for G. & W. Nicol, 1816. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV, Volume V, Volume VI, Volume VII, Volume VIII, Volume IX
  • Ben Jonson (edited by Brinsley Nicholson & Charles Harold Herford). (3 volumes), London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1893-1895. Volume II
  • Works (edited by Francis Cunningham & William Gifford). London: Bickers, 1875.
  • Works (edited by H.C. Hart). London: Methuen, 1906.
  • Forest, Underwood, and Timber (selected by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1912.
  • The Yale Ben Jonson (edited by Alvin B. Kernan). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.
  • Plays and Masques (edited by Robert M. Adams). New York: Norton, 1989.
  • Cambridge Edition of the Works (edited by Martin Butler [General Editor], David Bevington, Karen Britland, Ian Donaldson, David L. Gants, & Eugene Giddens). (7 volumes), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[15]

Missing works and borderline attributionsEdit

As with other English Renaissance dramatists, a portion of Ben Jonson's literary output has not survived. In addition to The Isle of Dogs (1597), the records suggest these lost plays as wholly or partially Jonson's work: Richard Crookback (1602); Hot Anger Soon Cold (1598), with Porter and Henry Chettle; Page of Plymouth (1599), with Dekker; and Robert II, King of Scots (1599), with Chettle and Dekker. Several of Jonson's masques and entertainments also are not extant: The Entertainment at Merchant Taylors (1607); The Entertainment at Salisbury House for James I (1608); and The May Lord (1613–19).

Finally, there are questionable or borderline attributions. Jonson may have had a hand in Rollo, Duke of Normandy, or The Bloody Brother, a play in the canon of John Fletcher and his collaborators. The comedy The Widow was printed in 1652 as the work of Thomas Middleton, Fletcher and Jonson, though scholars have been intensely skeptical about Jonson's presence in the play. A few attributions of anonymous plays, such as The London Prodigal, have been ventured by individual researchers, but have met with cool responses.[16]

The Forest - FULL Audio Book - by Ben Jonson - English Renaissance Poetry-1

The Forest - FULL Audio Book - by Ben Jonson - English Renaissance Poetry-1

Poems by Ben JonsonEdit

  1. Song: To Celia

See alsoEdit

Preceded by
Samuel Daniel
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
William Davenant



  • W. David Kay, Ben Jonson: A literary life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
  • Rosalind Miles, Ben Jonson: His life and work. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
  • Rosalind Miles, Ben Jonson: His craft and art. London: Routledge, 1990.
  • David Riggs, Ben Jonson: A life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
  • PD-icon.svg Ward, Adolphus William (1911). "Jonson, Ben". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 15 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 502-509. . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 31, 2018.


  • Bentley, G. E. Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945
  • Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660. Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945
  • Butler, Martin. "Jonson's Folio and the Politics of Patronage." Criticism 35 (1993)
  • Chute, Marchette. "Ben Jonson of Westminster." New York: E.P. Dutton, 1953
  • Doran, Madeline. Endeavors of Art. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1954
  • Eccles, Mark. "Jonson's Marriage." Review of English Studies 12 (1936)
  • Eliot, T.S. "Ben Jonson." The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1920
  • Jonson, Ben. Discoveries 1641, ed. G. B. Harrison. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966
  • Knights, L. C. Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson. London: Chatto and Windus, 1968
  • Logan, Terence P., and Denzell S. Smith. The New Intellectuals: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama. Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1975
  • MacLean, Hugh, editor. Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets. New York: Norton Press, 1974
  • Ceri Sullivan, The Rhetoric of Credit. Merchants in Early Modern Writing (Madison/London: Associated University Press, 2002)
  • Teague, Frances. "Ben Jonson and the Gunpowder Plot." Ben Jonson Journal 5 (1998). pp. 249–52
  • Thorndike, Ashley. "Ben Jonson." The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: Putnam, 1907–1921.


  1. 1.0 1.1 John William Cousin, "Jonson, Ben or Benjamin," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 216-217. Wikisource, Web, Jan. 31, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Ward 1911, 502.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Ward 1911, 503.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 Ward 1911, 504.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Ward 1911, 505.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 Ben Jonson, Wikipedia, January 29, 2018. Wikimedia, Web, Feb. 1, 2018.
  8. W.T. Baldwin 's William Shakspere's Smalle Latine and Lesse Greeke, 1944
  9. Doran, 120ff
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Ward, 507.
  11. from Adolphus William Ward, "Critical Introduction: Ben Jonson (1572–1637)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Apr. 9, 2016.
  12. Alphabetical list of authors: Jago, Richard to Milton, John, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919., Web, May 18, 2012.
  13. Alexander Pope, ed. Works of Shakespeare (London, 1725), p. 1
  14. Quoted in Craig, D. H., ed. Jonson: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1995). p. 499
  15. Search results = au:Ben Jonson, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Jan. 27-28, 2016.
  16. Logan and Smith, pp. 82–92

External linksEdit


PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Original article is at [1]

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