Ben Jonson

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Jonson, Ben

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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

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, 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.


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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Thomas Greene's seminal discussion of the Jonsonian 'centered self' acknowledges that several of these tributes 'come to rest at their conclusions upon an image of rooted stability, typically situated in an actual residence, a house or estate'.
Contrasting Shakespearean and Jonsonian practical jokers and victims, as well as the roles of Shakespearean comic actors Will Kemp (for example, Bottom and Falstaff) and Robert Armin ("artificial fools" like Feste), likewise proves illuminating.
Lockwood suggests that Coleridge saw his and others' poems as the equivalent of a paper currency, as the promissory notes that might substitute for, or replace entirely, Jonsonian and other literary bullion.
From a Jonsonian perspective, much the most important even in these years was the publication in 1816 of William Gifford's complete edition, which Lockwood rightly identifies as a key moment in the poet's afterlife and in contemporary scholarship.
In his contribution "The Theatrical Construction of a Cavalier Mentality in Fletcher's Plays and a Jonsonian Riposte," Keith Whitlock expounds the ways in which episodes, characters and passages from Cervantes' Novelas ejemplares enter the source material of a number of plays by John Fletcher and Ben Jonson.
While Lanyer does not assert Jonsonian mastery over Cookham, she does depict her speaker as having enjoyed some of its pleasures: "Remember beauteous Dorsets former sports, / So farre from beeing toucht by ill reports; / Wherein my selfe did alwaies beare a part" (119-21).
The diametrical opposition has benefited neither Shakespeare nor Jonson, so the attempt of Jonsonians: Living Traditions to refine our image of Jonson's legacy and to query our perception of what and who is' Jonsonian' is to be welcomed.
Moreover, in my argumentation, I am using Jonson's other masque--The Masque ofBeauty--asa counterpoint to my main object of study, which is The Masque of Blackness, because that later piece seems to represent the "normal" condition of female Jonsonian masquers, that is, non-blackness and beauty.
Not only does the novel contain characters like Anton who are "Totally unreal" (166)--and Anton is perhaps the most exaggerated and comic emblem of greed in American letters, the kind of character Sorrentino calls a "humour" in the Jonsonian sense--it also, as the above passage indicates, contains a narrator who often addresses the reader directly so as to talk about such literary practices openly.
Later in the introduction, Rygg explains that the structure of her book was chosen to attempt to replicate her sense of discovery regarding Pythagorean philosophy and its relation to the series of "Jonsonian" masques (so-called after poet and playwright Ben Jonson, the most dominant producer of masque texts) enacted at the English court during the first decades of the seventeenth century.
Loewenstein's "Personal Material: Jonson and Book-burning"; James Knowles's "Johnson's and his Sources"; Michael Cordner's "Zeal-of-the-Land Busy Restored"; Lois Potter's "The Swan Song of the Stage Historian"; Hugh Craig's "Jonsonian Chronology and the Styles of A Tale of a Tub"; and Robert C.
On paper, Siva's elegant phrase-making always enhances the power of his arguments (I am particularly fond of his use of essentially Jonsonian antitheses: for Scarman, `infliction had become an affliction', in Brent, `an issue of class was being fought out on the terrain of race').