Ben Jonson: Poet, Playwright, and Dramatist of Distinction

Ben JonsonBen (Benjamin) Jonson (June 11, 1572 – Aug. 6, 1637) was a noted English poet, literary critic, essayist, playwright, and dramatist of distinction during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He was born in Westminster, London, England on June 11, 1572. He also perished in England on Aug. 6, 1637, at the age of 65. Widely regarded as England’s first Poet Laureate, the wordsmith led a troubled and tumultuous life marked by tragedy.

Jonson had meager beginnings as his clergyman father was killed shortly before his birth. His mother married a master bricklayer two years later. His relationship with his stepfather was tumultuous and full of conflict. This trait carried over into the artist’s personality. He was well-known for his combative and volatile nature. This trait would follow him throughout his life.

In fact, the wordsmith’s combative nature landed him in hot water more than once. He killed at least two men in duels and was spared from hanging due to the “benefit of clergy.” This meant Jonson was granted a lenient sentence by proving he could read and write in Latin.

Jonson attended St. Martin’s parish school during his early years. Then, thanks to a family friend who recognized his potential, the young man moved on to the prestigious Westminster School. During this time, he developed some long-lasting ties with mentors including William Camden, who was a well-regarded historian, topographer, and scholar of the age.

Once he completed the Westminster school in 1589, the future thespian intended to attend the University of Cambridge to continue his education. However, his plans were waylaid when he undertook a reluctant apprenticeship with his bricklayer stepfather. Alas, his work with his stepfather was short-lived. Instead, Jonson served in the military at Flanders in the Netherlands for a short time before moving back to London, where he worked as a writer, actor, and playwright for Philip Henslowe’s theater company.

Ben Jonson

Regarding his marriage to Anne Lewis in 1594, the playwright described his wife to fellow contemporary and confidante William Drummond as “a shrew, yet honest.” Details regarding the marriage and family of Anne Lewis and Jonson are vague and incomplete. It is believed that they had at least three children, Mary, who was their eldest daughter and died in November 1593, at six months of age. In 1603, Benjamin Jr., their eldest son, died of Bubonic Plague when he was seven years old. Then, 32 years later, another son, who was also named Benjamin, died in 1635. During that period, it is also believed that Ann Lewis and the poet were separated for five years. The circumstances surrounding the separation are unknown. However, the death of their children might have played a role in their rift.

Ben Jonson was not only considered a poet, playwright, and dramatist of distinction but the most learned poet of the age. Moreover, he was widely regarded by many as England‘s first Poet Laureate. He was known to immerse himself in his work and there was no subject too dense or controversial for the playwright to tackle.

Ben Jonson

The height of the writer’s popularity came upon King James I’s ascension to the throne in 1603. Under King James I, Jonson became a royal favorite. His work with the Royal Court brought the wordsmith into intimate association with the leading men of the day. In 1616, the royal favorite was granted a yearly stipend of 100 marks, which is the equivalent of 60 pounds or approximately $100 U.S. dollars.

Ben Jonson was considered a well-regarded English poet, playwright, and dramatist of distinction whose talents were in league with and rival to “The Bard” himself, William Shakespeare. His talents as a poet and actor exerted a lasting impact upon English poetry as well as stage comedy. He popularized the genre of humor, introduced the concept of satire, and made stage comedy relevant. Some of his best known satirical plays include Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (aka The Foxe) (1605), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre: A Comedy (1614). The wordsmith is buried in the famed Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh

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The Academy of American Poets–Ben Jonson
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