Ben Jonson


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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 humorhumor,
according to ancient theory, any of four bodily fluids that determined human health and temperament. Hippocrates postulated that an imbalance among the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) resulted in pain and disease, and that good health was achieved
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 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.

Bibliography

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).

Jonson, Ben

 

Born June 11, 1573, in London; died there Aug. 6, 1637. English playwright, poet, and drama theoretician.

Jonson studied at Westminster School. His first comedy was The Case Is Altered (1597; published 1609). He collaborated with Marston and Chapman on the comedy Eastward Ho! (1605), which contained political allusions for which the authors were arrested. In 1616, Jonson edited a collection of his works. In the prologue to the plays he disputed the creative principles of his contemporaries, including his friend Shakespeare. He demanded conformity to the conditions of everyday life in the plot and a linear depiction of characters.

In the comedies Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man out of His Humour (1599), Jonson explained the humors, according to his own theory, as individual “oddities.” However, in the comedies of manners Volpone, or the Fox (1605), Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614), he explained the humors as the typical social flaws of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. The tragediesSejanus (1603) andCatiline (1611) embody the principles of classicism. Jonson also wrote approximately 30 masques—allegorical plays on mythological themes for performance at court.

WORKS

Works, vols. 1-11. Oxford, 1925-52.
The Complete Plays, vols. 1-2. London-New York, 1929-34.
Ben Jonson’s Literary Criticism. Lincoln, Neb. [1970].
In Russian translation:
Dramaticheskie proizv., vols. 1-2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931-33. P’esy. Leningrad-Moscow, 1960.

REFERENCES

Varsher, S. A. Angliiskii teatr vremen Shekspira. Moscow-Petro-grad. 1920
Aksenov, I. Elizavetintsy. Moscow, 1938.
Istoriia angliiskoi literdtury, vol. 1, issue 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1945.
Istoriia zapadnoevropeiskogo teatra, vol. 1. Moscow, 1956.
Romm, A. S.Ben Dzhonson, 1573-1637. Leningrad-Moscow, 1958.
Bentley, G. E. Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the
Seventeenth Century Compared, vols. 1-2. Chicago [1945].
Chute, M. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York, 1953.
Tannenbaum, S. A. Ben Jonson: A Concise Bibliography. New York, 1938.

E. V. KORNILOVA

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Hazlitt, however, having impressionistically clinched Shakespeare's mastery in the above-quoted lines from Troilus and Cressida, makes a surprising leap of taste: "There are people who cannot taste olives--and I cannot much relish Ben Jonson, though I have taken some pains to do it, and went to the task with every sort of good will" (5:34, V1:39).
Barton, "The Road from Penshurst: Wordsworth, Ben Jonson, and Coleridge in 1802," Essays in Criticism 37 (1987): 209-33.
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The title - being not quite what one would expect (Courtly, not Court) - allows him to look beyond the court masques of Thomas Campion, Ben Jonson, Aurelian Townshend, Thomas Carew, and William Davenenant, and widen his scope to include John Milton's Comus and works like Campion's "Brougham Castle Entertainment of 1617.
Tom Chenhalls, who runs the Ben Jonson at Weston on the Green, Oxfordshire, joked: "I don't want Tim to try it just yet.
John is a Ben Jonson scholar; Ben is a biophysicist.
An eighteenth-century engraving by William Hogarth satirises the vogue for foreign operas by showing the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson relegated to the dustbin.
Playwright Ben Jonson -- a tankard-hoisting buddy of Shakespeare's -- called such experiences "timber": the splintery beginning of literary constructions.
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