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date: 29 September 2023

Jonson, Benjamin [Ben]free


Jonson, Benjamin [Ben]free

  • Ian Donaldson

Benjamin Jonson (1572–1637)

by Abraham van Blyenberch, c. 1617

Jonson, Benjamin [Ben] (1572–1637), poet and playwright, was born on 11 June 1572, probably in or near London. He was of Scottish descent, and retained a keen interest in the country of his forebears. 'His Grandfather came from Carlisle and he thought from Anandale to it' noted the Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, after meeting Jonson on his travels north of the border in 1618–19; 'he served King Henry 8 and was a Gentleman' (Conversations with William Drummond, ll. 234–5). The Johnstones or Johnstouns—the name is spelt in thirteen different ways in Scotland in this period, but always with a t—were a powerful family of brigands and aristocratic warlords who had played a major part in skirmishes in Annandale and along the Scottish borders over several centuries. Jonson was sufficiently impressed by their reputation to have adopted their armorial bearings of 'three spindles or Rhombi' as his own (ibid., l. 588; Symonds, 2–3). Jonson's grandfather may have been one of the Scottish prisoners seized by the English from Annandale during the battle of Solway Moss in November 1542, brought south to the English garrison at Carlisle, and wooed into loyal service of Henry VIII: a ‘Maister Johnston’ is recorded among this company (LP Henry VIII, vol. 17, 1900, 625–6). About Jonson's father, who died a month before the birth of his son, little is known. According to Drummond's memoir, he had lost 'all his estate under Queen Marie' (a phrase that appears to imply initial prosperity) and suffered imprisonment and forfeiture; on his release, he 'at last turn'd Minister' (Conversations, ll. 236–9). The date and circumstances of his marriage are unknown. In its southward progress, his family name had shifted to the commoner English spelling, ‘Johnson’; yet ‘Jonson’ was to be the poet's own favoured spelling in all surviving examples of his autograph, and in his published work from 1604 onwards. ‘Ben’ was the version of his forename by which he would be universally known.

Early life

Jonson was 'brought up poorly', according to his own report (Conversations, l. 239). His earliest years would have been difficult for his recently widowed mother: a clergyman's wages in this period were modest, and her husband can have had little accumulated wealth to leave her. While Jonson was still a 'little child' in 'his long coats', however, his mother married again, this time to a bricklayer, and the family moved to Hartshorn (or Christopher) Lane, a narrow alleyway which ran from the Strand to Thames-side wharves, not far from Charing Cross (Fuller, Worthies, 243). The bricklayer has been plausibly identified as Robert Brett, a contractor of comfortable means who had risen to become master of the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company by the time of his death on 29 August 1609 (Bamborough). No record of Brett's marriage or will has been found, and little is known about Jonson's mother, apart from a single anecdote, recorded by Drummond, of her bravery at the time of her son's imprisonment in 1605 for his part in the writing of Eastward Ho! Fearing a fatal sentence, she prepared a poisoned draught for him, and 'that she was no churle she told she minded first to have Drunk of it herself' (Conversations, ll. 282–3). It has been conjectured that she may have been the Rebecca Brett who was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 9 September 1609, just a few days after Robert Brett's own death (Kay, Life, 2). Brett may have had other children, to judge from the recurrence of the family name in the parish records: they certainly included John (1582–1618) and Robert (1584–1618), who were eventually to inherit their father's business. Ben would thus have been the oldest child in a busy and growing household.

At an early age Jonson attended a small elementary school maintained by the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, not far from Hartshorn Lane; here he learned to read and write in English, along with elementary rules of grammar. At the prompting of an unidentified 'friend' (sometimes thought to be the lawyer John Hoskyns) he was sent off as a day boy to Westminster School, perhaps at the age of seven, where he was fortunate enough to study under William Camden, who was at that time the school's second master (Conversations, ll. 239–40). In later life Jonson spoke warmly of his pupillage and friendship with the great antiquary— (‘Alumnus olim, aeternum Amicus’, ‘a pupil once, a friend for ever’)—acknowledging Camden as the source of:

All that I am in arts, all that I know(How nothing's that?)

Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 4.4–5; Jonson, Epigrams, no. 14, ll. 1–3Other friendships formed at Westminster were to prove equally enduring: with the young Robert Cotton, for example, another protégé of Camden's, from whose superlative collection of books and manuscripts Jonson was later to profit; and with the future poet and fellow convert to Catholicism Hugh Holland, whose verses to the memory of Shakespeare would eventually stand beside Jonson's at the head of the 1623 first folio. Like other Westminster poets after him—Richard Corbett, George Herbert, Henry King, Abraham Cowley, John DrydenJonson benefited deeply from the school's traditions of rhetorical and classical training, and, in particular, from the exercise of rendering Greek and Latin verse and prose into their equivalent English forms. Camden, who had a good knowledge of earlier English poetry, seems also to have encouraged his boys to write verses of their own in English. Noting Jonson's 'opinion of Verses' in 1618–19, William Drummond observed 'that he wrott all his first in prose, for so his master Cambden had Learned him' (Conversations, ll. 376–8). Through the Latin play, a regular event in the life of Westminster School, Jonson had early experience in a medium he was eventually to make his own. He was to retain a special fondness for the comedies of Plautus and Terence which were commonly performed on these occasions, and for the school's traditions of dramatic performance, to which he refers familiarly in two later plays, The Staple of News (1626) and The Magnetic Lady (1632).

Fuller believed that Jonson 'was statutably admitted into Saint Johns colledge in Cambridge' but, for want of funds, was obliged to return after a few weeks to London to help his stepfather with new building works at Lincoln's Inn (Fuller, Worthies, 243). Though Jonson's name does not appear in the records of the college or the university, Fuller's prodigious memory and local knowledge of Cambridge make the story credible; and the possibility of a connection with St John's is strengthened by a request to Jonson from its president, Robert Lane, that he 'penne a dyttye' to celebrate the visit of King James to the college in 1615 (Mullinger, 1–4). The building work at Lincoln's Inn with which Jonson was involved has been dated to the summer of 1588 (Eccles, Marriage, 264). It has been suggested that Jonson might have lingered at Westminster a year or two longer—his English Grammar shows a familiarity with Hebrew, which was taught only at seventh form—and that he began to work as a labourer as late as 1590. But tuition in languages such as Hebrew was easily available in London at this time, and Drummond's observation that Jonson was 'taken from' Westminster suggests an earlier departure (Conversations, l. 240).

His stepfather's trade proved one that Jonson 'could not endure' (Conversations, l. 242). Fuller pictures him with trowel in hand and book in pocket, labouring reluctantly at his uncongenial task. John Aubrey tells of a lawyer overhearing Jonson reciting verses from Homer while working on the new buildings at Lincoln's Inn; 'discoursing with him and finding him to have a Witt extraordinary', he provided 'some Exhibition to maintaine him at Trinity College in Cambridge' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.178). No evidence of Jonson's connection with Trinity has been found, however, and Aubrey (or his informant, Richard Hill) may have been muddled in their memories of the timing of Jonson's stay at Cambridge. Taunts about his early work as a bricklayer followed Jonson throughout later life. As late as 1633, after the failure of The Magnetic Lady, Alexander Gill abusively suggested it was time the ageing Jonson abandon the theatre, and return to his former trade. Yet Jonson had in fact been attached to this trade throughout a surprisingly long period of his life. The quarterage book of the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company shows him making payments to the company from 1595, and still paying his dues as late as 1611, when he was at the height of his career as a dramatist and writer of court masques. It is possible, as David Kay has suggested, that Jonson's continued membership of the guild was a hedge against unemployment, and that he returned to bricklaying during periods of financial need, when work for the court and the theatres was slack (Kay, Bricklayer). But guild membership was also an avenue to citizenship, and a warrant therefore of social standing. In 1618 Jonson was welcomed to the city of Edinburgh not as a celebrated writer, but as 'inglisman burges and gildbrother in communi forma' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.233). ‘Burges’ (a Scottish term) implies that Jonson had served his apprenticeship to full term, and 'gildbrother' that he was still associated with the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company at this advanced stage of his career. Such qualifications may have eased his ready acceptance by the civic community in Edinburgh; later still, in 1628, they made possible his appointment as chronologer to the City of London.

At some time in the early 1590s, however, Jonson abandoned his work as a bricklayer, and joined the English expeditionary forces to the Low Countries. The dates of this period of service, as of other events in his early life, have been disputed, but it is likely that he was recruited during the early months of 1591, when special efforts were made to reinforce the English presence in the Netherlands. In the spring of that year Maurice of Nassau, commander of the army of the states general, began his first campaign to drive the Spanish out of the inland provinces of the north. The English general Sir Francis Vere, accompanied by his younger brother, Sir Horace, whom Jonson was later to celebrate in Epigrams, no. 91, gave brilliant support and tactical advice. Zutphen fell in May, Deventer in June, and Nijmegen in October. English troops were also involved the following year in the successful siege of Steenwijk in June, and the capture of Coevorden in September. Jonson may have seen service at all or several of these sites. One notable feat he described to William Drummond with evident pride almost thirty years later: 'In his servuce in the Low Countries, he had in the face of both the Campes Killed ane Enimie and taken opima spolia from him' (Conversations, ll. 244–6). Opima spolia are the arms traditionally taken by victors from the vanquished on the field of battle: the Latin phrase hints at the antiquity of the custom. Single-combat fighting of the kind suggested here, originally undertaken by opposing kings or leaders as a way of avoiding wider bloodshed among their men, was rarely practised in this period; Jonson's victory would have brought him to the notice of his superior officers. But it was also the forerunner of other, less happy, fights in which he was later to be involved.

Entering the theatre

After 'returning soone' to England—probably with the first contingent of homecoming troops in autumn 1592—Jonson 'betook himself to his wonted studies' (Conversations, l. 243). Where and at what date he chose to enter the theatre is unclear. Aubrey believed that on his return from the Low Countries Jonson 'acted and wrote at The Green curtaine but both ill, a kind of nursery or obscure Play house, somewhere in the Suburbes (I think towards Shoreditch, or Clarkenwell' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.179). It is possible that Aubrey (or his informant, J. Greenhill) was again confused about the exact sequence of events in Jonson's early life. (Later in the decade Jonson was certainly to be associated with the Curtain Theatre, Shoreditch, where Every Man in his Humour was performed in 1598.) Aubrey's assertion that Jonson 'was never a good Actor, but an excellent Instructor' (ibid., 1.182) nevertheless has the ring of truth. Once he had firmly established himself as a writer, Jonson (unlike Shakespeare) chose to abandon his career as an actor altogether. In several of his plays, however, he gives an amusing glimpse of his own anxious presence behind the scenes. Gossip Mirth in the 'Induction' to The Staple of News (1626) speaks of the author in the tiring house 'rowling himselfe up and downe like a tun' (ll. 61–74) in sweaty agitation as he issues last-minute directions to the actors.

The gibes of Captain Tucca in Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix (1601) suggest that early in his career Jonson may have worked as 'a poore Jorneyman Player' with a travelling company, playing the part of the royal marshal Hieronymo, crazed by the murder of his son and his thwarted search for justice, in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy: 'thou hast forgot how thou amblest (in leather pilch) by a play-wagon, in the high way, and took'st made Jeronimo's part, to get service among the mimickes' (Satiromastix, iv.i, ll. 161–5). It has been plausibly suggested that the troupe with which Jonson was travelling was Pembroke's Company, who were on the road in 1595–6 (Bowers, 396–7). The Spanish Tragedy was to leave a strong, though not entirely positive, impression on Jonson's creative imagination: humorous and parodic echoes of the play are to be found throughout his later work. In 1601 and 1602 the theatre manager Philip Henslowe was to pay Jonson for writing 'adicians' to Kyd's play. Whether Jonson is in fact the author of the surviving additions to The Spanish Tragedy is still however an open question.

On 14 November 1594 Jonson was married to Anne Lewis in the church of St Magnus the Martyr, by London Bridge. Mark Eccles has argued that the location of this church, adjoining the theatrical parish of St Saviour, Southwark, suggests that by this date Jonson was working as an actor on or near the Bankside: at the Rose Theatre, or Newington Butts, or the Paris Garden—where, according to Dekker (Satiromastix, iv.i, ll. 150–53), he played the part of Zuliman in a tragedy (Eccles, Marriage, 261). Jonson's earliest surviving play, The Case is Altered (published in quarto in 1609, but not included in the 1616 folio) was performed by Pembroke's Company probably during the first half of 1597. Modelled on two of Plautus's comedies, Captivi and Aulularia, the play has elements that Jonson would later ridicule, but to which he would return in his final years: cross-wooings, lost children, happy reunitings. 'The Isle of Dogs', written in collaboration with Thomas Nashe, was performed by the company at the new Swan Theatre on the Bankside in July of the same year. For unknown reasons, this play caused grave offence. It may have glanced at members of the court circle and possibly at the queen herself, whose palace at Greenwich lay opposite the Isle of Dogs, down river from the city. On 28 July the privy council, in apparent response to its performance, ordered the closure of all the London theatres because of the 'greate disorders' caused 'by lewd matters that are handled on the stages, and by resorte and confluence of bad people'. Jonson and two of his fellow actors, Gabriel Spencer and Robert Shaa, were arrested and imprisoned at the instigation of Elizabeth's interrogator, the notorious Richard Topcliffe, and charged at Greenwich on 15 August with 'Leude and mutynous behavior' (APC, 22.346; Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.217–18). Nashe had fled to the safety of Great Yarmouth, but his rooms were raided and papers seized. Throughout this episode, as Jonson later told Drummond, 'his judges could gett nothing of him to all their demands bot I and No'; though 'they plac'd two damn'd Villans to catch advantage of him, with him', he was warned of their intentions by the prison keeper, and evaded their enquiries (Conversations, ll. 256–60). The affair subsided as mysteriously as it had begun. Jonson and his companions were released on 2 October, and a few days later Henslowe's company, the Lord Admiral's Men, began to perform again at the Rose Theatre with impunity, in defiance of the closure order which was still officially in place. Pembroke's Men were effectively destroyed, however, by the closure, and several members of this company were recruited by Henslowe for the Admiral's Men.

An exchange of payments recorded on 28 July, the very day of the privy council order, suggests that Henslowe had been attempting to attract Jonson himself to become a sharer in the Admiral's Men. The absence of further recorded payments suggests that this move came to nothing. Over the next two years, however, Henslowe employed Jonson regularly as one of his writers, noting payment for a number of plays that today are known only through their titles. These include 'Hot Anger Soon Cold', written with Henry Porter and Henry Chettle, and perhaps performed in August 1598; 'Page of Plymouth', with Thomas Dekker, a year later; and 'Robert II, The King of Scots Tragedy', with Chettle, Dekker, and others, for which payments were made in August and September 1599. During the early part of his career Jonson undoubtedly wrote, in part or in whole, other plays that have now disappeared. In September 1598 Francis Meres in Palladis tamia nominated Jonson among those he reckoned 'our best for Tragedie' (G. Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols., 1904, 2.319), but no tragedies of Jonson's from this period have survived. A play called 'Richard Crookback', for which Jonson received payment from Henslowe in 1602, has similarly vanished. By 1619 Jonson was able to report to Drummond 'that the half of his comedies were not in Print' (Conversations, l. 393). Many of these unpublished comedies probably dated from the 1590s; like most of his other lost plays, they may have been collaborative or commissioned pieces, which he felt little need to preserve.

Early successes

Every Man in his Humour, performed in the autumn of 1598 at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch by Shakespeare's own company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, with Shakespeare himself and Richard Burbage in leading roles, marked a different level of achievement. This skilfully constructed city comedy, wittily exploiting the fashionable notion of ‘humours’, clearly established Jonson as the coming dramatist of the 1590s. In its radically revised form—the locale shifted from Florence to London, its action more thoroughly domesticated—the play was to occupy pride of place at the head of the folio edition of Jonson's collected works in 1616, symbolically marking the beginning of his career as a dramatist, and the arrival of a new kind of vernacular comedy. Bobadilla, the comedy's impoverished, smooth-tongued veteran, is an engaging braggart worthy of comparison with Shakespeare's Falstaff—who had made his first stage appearance just a few months earlier in 1 Henry IV, presented by the same company. Burbage, who was from now on to be Jonson's leading man as well as Shakespeare's, may perhaps have played Musco, the ingenious servant, while Shakespeare himself may possibly have taken the part of Lorenzo, a father anxious about his son's ventures into poetry and high-spirited company.

On 22 September 1598, while Every Man in his Humour was probably still in performance, Jonson was indicted at Shoreditch on a charge of manslaughter, having killed in a duel the actor Gabriel Spencer, with whom he had been imprisoned during the previous summer. Years later Jonson was to tell William Drummond that Spencer had challenged him to this fight, and, with a sword 10 inches longer than his own, had wounded him in the arm before being overcome; and that for this offence he himself 'was Emprisoned and almost at the Gallowes' (Conversations, ll. 246–51). Jonson escaped by reading the so-called neck-verse ( Psalm 51: 1), possibly after the intervention of Henslowe or a member of his company (Dekker, Satiromastix, iv.iii, ll. 252ff.; Henslowe's Diary, 286). His goods were confiscated, and he was branded on the thumb as a convicted felon. While in prison, Jonson was converted to Catholicism, perhaps by Father Thomas Wright, a learned Jesuit who had studied in Rome and Milan and was now himself living in semi-detention in London's gaols. Jonson's earliest surviving poems can be dated from this period; some are addressed to fellow Catholics or show other traces of his new-found faith.

Every Man out of his Humour was performed at Burbage's recently built Globe Theatre on the Bankside in November or December 1599, and again at court about Christmas of the same year. Though the play's title appeared to promise a sequel of sorts to Jonson's earlier success, the new piece proved very different from its predecessor in tone and structure. In the revised ending written for court performance, the envious figure Macilente declares himself to be wholly redeemed by the sudden appearance of the queen herself: a hopeful, if implausible, conclusion that awkwardly anticipates the subtler structural transformations of Jonson's Jacobean court masques. The Fountain of Self-Love, or, Cynthia's Revels was performed 'by the then Children of Queene Elizabeths Chappell' at Blackfriars Theatre some time between 2 September 1600 and May 1601, and again on 6 January 1601 at court. The court performance was evidently not liked. Despite the play's famous lyric in praise of the Virgin Queen ('Queene and Huntresse, chaste, and fayre'), its references to her hounding of Actaeon may have aroused political suspicion, on the very eve of Essex's rebellion, while the ambitions of Criticus 'A creature of a most perfect and divine temper' (ii.iii) to ingratiate himself at the court of Cynthia may have seemed too close to the ambitions of the author himself. Jonson was to revise the play extensively for publication in his 1616 folio, reversing the play's title and subtitle, and including much satire on court behaviour that is not to be found in the quarto of 1601.

Poetaster, performed at Blackfriars by the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel probably in the spring of 1601, seems to have been prompted in part by personal antagonisms. Jonson later informed Drummond that 'he had many quarrells with Marston beat him and took his Pistol from him, wrote his Poetaster on him the beginning of them were that Marston represented him in the stage' (Conversations, ll. 284–6). Reacting, perhaps over sensitively, to Marston's portraits of him in What you will and Jack Drum's Entertainment, Jonson retaliated with a portrait of Marston in the character of Crispinus, who at the end of Poetaster is forced to vomit up a number of hard words, known to have been favoured by Marston himself. Dekker, also glanced at in Poetaster in the character of Demetrius, took revenge in Satiromastix, a comedy performed privately that autumn by Paul's Company and publicly at the Globe by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Dekker's play, of which Jonson appears to have had advance information while writing Poetaster, presents ‘Horace’, alias Jonson, as a self-promoting, self-creating figure, shooting his quills like a porcupine and flicking 'inke in everie mans face' (Satiromastix, iv.ii, ll. 128, 102).

Despite the vividness of such exchanges, the so-called ‘war of the theatres’ may have been a less substantial combat than an earlier generation of literary historians imagined. Recent scholars have stressed the collaborative ties that actually united the rival companies and dramatists, and the presence of other, political, currents within a play such as Poetaster—whose original title, The Arraignment, may well have reminded early audiences of the celebrated trial earlier that year of Essex and Southampton. Like many of his friends, future patrons, and fellow Catholics—John Selden, Sir Henry Goodyere, Sir Henry Neville, Lord Monteagle, the earls of Bedford, Rutland, and PembrokeJonson seems to have looked expectantly to Essex, and to have been dismayed by his sudden downfall. The world invoked by the figure of Envy at the opening of the play, of:

wrestings, comments, applications,Spie-like suggestions, privie whisperings,And thousand such promooting sleights as these

Poetaster, Induction, ll. 24–6is not merely that of Augustan Rome, but hints also at the condition of contemporary England following the death of Essex. It was a world with which Jonson himself would become increasingly and uncomfortably familiar in the years that followed.

Domestic life

In the 'Apologetical Dialogue' to Poetaster Jonson depicts himself in monkish seclusion, working

halfe my nights, and all my dayes,Here in a cell, to get a darke, pale face,To come forth worth the ivy, or the bayes.

ll. 233–5Here as elsewhere in his writing Jonson gives little sense of the possible companionship of his marriage and family life. Little is known about Anne, the wife whom Jonson many years later was tersely to describe as 'a shrew yet honest' (Conversations, l. 254). For increasing periods of time, the couple appear to have lived apart. During the early years of the new century Jonson lodged with various friends and patrons. 'Ben. Johnson the poet nowe lives upon one Townesend' observed John Manningham the diarist in February 1603—referring to Sir Robert Townshend, at some stage the patron also of John Fletcher—'and scornes the world' (Diary of John Manningham, 187). '5 yeers he had not bedded with her', noted Drummond, 'but remained with my Lord Aulbanie' (Conversations, ll. 254–5). Though the precise dates of Jonson's five-year residence in Blackfriars with the king's cousin Esmé Stuart, seigneur d'Aubigny, have been variously assigned, the stay may well have begun in 1603, not long after Aubigny's arrival in London from Scotland with the royal party in May of that year. It is possible that Jonson was working on his Roman tragedy, Sejanus, while lodging in turn with these two patrons: a copy of the 1605 quarto of the play is inscribed to Townshend, and the play itself is gratefully dedicated to Aubigny, who may have offered significant protection during the troubles that followed the staging of that play and of Eastward Ho!, and in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in late 1605 and early 1606. Jonson's residence with Aubigny may thus have been prompted as much by practical necessity as by any domestic unhappiness. The separation of the Jonsons during this period seems in any case not to have been absolute: the 'Epistle Dedicatory' printed with the quarto edition of Volpone in 1607 is signed 'from my house in the Blackfriars', while the baptism of an infant, Benjamin Jonson, 'son to Benjamin', in February 1608 suggests that about this time the couple were at least in intermittent contact.

They had several other children before this date. An earlier Benjamin, probably born in 1596, had died of the plague in 1603. Jonson was once more away from home, staying this time in William Camden's company with Sir Robert Cotton in Huntingdonshire. Jonson told Drummond he had had a vision of the boy appearing before him in adult shape, with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if cut by a sword. He described the vision to Camden, who persuaded him it 'was but ane appreehension of his fantasie', but letters arrived later from his wife, informing him of the boy's death (Conversations, ll. 261–72). The episode was to inspire one of Jonson's most touching epitaphs (On my First Son, Epigrams, no. 45). The death at six months of a daughter, Mary, had prompted another moving epitaph, perhaps in 1600 (On my First Daughter, Epigrams, no. 22). Another boy, Joseph, 'the sone of Beniamyne Johnson', had been baptized at Cripplegate on 9 December 1599. Jonson is likely to have fathered other children, both legitimate and illegitimate. If the Elizabeth, 'daughter of Ben Johnson', whose baptism is recorded in the register of St Mary Matfelon on 25 March 1610 and the 'Benjamin Johnson fil. Ben', baptized at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 6 April of the same year were both his children, then they were almost certainly born of different mothers. 'In his youth given to Venerie', noted Drummond laconically in his account of Jonson's early life (Conversations, l. 287).

Celebrating James

Jonson made no attempt to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth on 24 March 1603; 'His Muse an other path desires to tread', as one contemporary pointedly remarked (H. Chettle, England's Mourning Garment, 1603, sigs. D2v–D3r). King James's accession, on the other hand, prompted in Jonson a burst of energetic writing. He composed speeches for three of the eight pageants for the royal entry to the City of London on 15 March 1604, working in uneasy collaboration with Dekker, and a Panegyre to James on his progress to Westminster Hall four days later to open his first parliament, along with a series of epigrams saluting the new monarch, his policies, and even his early poetry—about which, in private conversation with Drummond, he was later to express misgivings. The previous summer Jonson had devised an entertainment at Althorp for Queen Anne and Prince Henry in their progress south from Edinburgh, and more royal entertainments were now to follow: at Highgate in May 1604, to divert the king and queen at the home of Sir William Cornwallis; at Theobalds, Sir Robert Cecil's estate, in July 1606, in celebration of the visit to England of King Christian of Denmark and his meeting with King James; and at Theobalds once more in May of the following year, in honour of another royal visit. Other entertainments which Jonson wrote during this same period in connection with civic occasions have largely vanished, though a manuscript of 'Britain's Burse', performed in the king's presence to mark the opening of Cecil's New Exchange in April 1609, has recently come to light, as have three surviving songs from the 'Merchant Taylors' Entertainment', also staged in the king's presence in July 1607.

Jonson's firm acceptance into royal favour was achieved on 6 January 1605 with the presentation of The Masque of Blackness in the old Banqueting House at Whitehall. Queen Anne herself had proposed the masque's central and surprising device: that she and eleven of her ladies should emerge from a scallop shell, 'all paynted like Blackamores face and neck bare', dazzlingly bejewelled and 'strangely attired', to dance with members of the court. The shell was borne in to the hall on a mobile wave, 'stuck with a chev'ron of lights', and escorted by six huge sea monsters (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 10.449, 8.171). Though it shocked more demure observers, this audacious and costly affair, the first of Jonson's collaborations with Inigo Jones, secured their commissions for the masquing season for many years to come. Through Jones's and Jonson's combined genius the Stuart court masque achieved its most sophisticated form—though temperamental differences, compounding tensions intrinsic in the form itself, drove the two men increasingly apart. Hymenaei was presented at court on 5 January 1606 in celebration of the marriage of the young earl of Essex and Frances Howard—and, through Jonson's deft contrivance, James's parallel ‘marriage’ of the two kingdoms. The printed version of the masque, published later that year, contained Jonson's provocative comparison of the outward ‘show’ of the court masque—Jones's scenes and machines—to the transitory human body, and the poetic text of the masque—his own contribution—to the enduring soul. The Masque of Beauty, a companion piece to Blackness, was performed at the new Banqueting House on 10 January 1608, and The Haddington Masque, marking the marriage of Elizabeth Radcliffe, daughter of Robert, fifth earl of Sussex, with James Ramsay, Viscount Haddington, a mere month later.

The Haddington Masque had presented a comical or 'antique' dance of Cupid and his companions, in light-hearted parody of the more graceful dancing of the main masquers that was to follow. In The Masque of Queens, performed at court on 2 February 1609, Jonson developed this device more fully into 'a magicall Daunce, full of praeposterous change, and gesticulation' executed by a coven of witches, as an 'antimasque' (or 'foyle, or false-Masque') to set off the masque's main entry of heroic women, personated by Queen Anne and her ladies. This sharply antithetical form became a regular feature of Jonson's subsequent masques, in which a rabble of threatening or grotesque antimasquers would miraculously vanish at the entry of the principal masquers; as vice, in an ideal world, might be conquered by the very sight of virtue. This glitteringly optimistic view of the power and majesty of the court was further elaborated in The Speeches at Prince Henry's Barriers (6 January 1610), Oberon (1 January 1611), and Love Restored (6 January 1612). It was a court superbly endowed—so the latter masque asserts—with the ten ornaments of Honour, Courtesy, Valour, Urbanity, Confidence, Alacrity, Promptness, Industry, Ability, and Reality.

Fame and trouble, 1603–1612

In his dealings with the court over these years Jonson had not invariably encountered these virtues, though Promptness and Alacrity may well have been in evidence on 6 January 1604 when he and his friend Sir John Roe were thrown out of the performance of an unnamed masque at Hampton Court (possibly Daniel's Vision of the Twelve Goddesses), perhaps for revealing too openly their opinion of its qualities. During the first decade of James's reign, the most productive period of his long career, Jonson was involved in recurrent troubles with authority. Despite his favoured position at court, his writing, like his personal life, was regularly subjected to the closest scrutiny.

Sejanus, 'Acted, in the yeere 1603' (or probably early in 1604, by modern dating) with Shakespeare himself in a leading role, brought Jonson into immediate collision with a powerful enemy, Henry Howard, first earl of Northampton, at whose instigation he was summoned before the privy council to answer charges 'both of popperie and treason' (Conversations, ll. 325–7). The basis for these charges cannot easily be deduced from the 1605 quarto and 1616 folio texts, which differ, on Jonson's admission, from the play as originally performed. These revised texts excised offensive references as well as the work of 'a second pen'. (The unnamed collaborator is sometimes thought to have been George Chapman, though Shakespeare, who acted in the tragedy, has also plausibly been proposed.) It is likely that some of the play's lines about the behaviour of princes and court favourites were more sharply pointed in the acting text. In the character of Cremutius Cordus, the chronicler whose work is seized and burnt by suspicious authorities, Jonson possibly hinted at his own recent experiences, while the atmosphere of constant surveillance that Silius notes in the house of Agrippina, where:

every second ghest your tables take,Is a fee'd spie, t'observe who goes, who comes,What conference you have, with whom, where, when

Sejanus, ii, 444–6is one with which Jonson, through his Catholic connections, might well have had personal acquaintance.

Eastward Ho!, a collaboration between Jonson, John Marston, and George Chapman performed by the Children of Her Majesty's Revels at Blackfriars probably in July or August of 1605, occasioned further and even more threatening trouble. In Jonson's own account, he was impeached 'by Sir James Murray to the King for writting something against the Scots' in this play, and 'voluntarly Imprissonned himself with Chapman and Marston, who had written it amongst them. The report was that they should then had their ears cutt and noses' (Conversations, ll. 273–7). It is not clear whether this response was provoked by an unlicensed performance during the absence of the king and lord chamberlain at Oxford during the summer months or by the preparation of the play for printing in September, when the printers were obliged to cancel a number of offensive passages. The play's references to James's lavish distribution of knighthoods among his Scottish followers must have been especially galling to such Scottish knights as Murray, whose disgruntlement may have been deepened by the actors' mimicry of Scottish accents, and other byplay. A group of ten letters written from prison by Chapman and Jonson to Aubigny, Salisbury, Suffolk, Pembroke, Montgomery, as well as to other unnamed figures and to the king himself (Washington, DC, Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V. a. 321), is almost certainly related to this episode, though the letters do not name the play which had given offence, or confirm Jonson's statement to Drummond that his imprisonment was voluntary, or suggest the involvement of Marston.

Released from prison, Jonson attended a supper party on or about 9 October 1605 at William Patrick's house in the Strand, along with many of the leading conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, now in its final stages of preparation: Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Francis Tresham, Lord Mordaunt, Thomas Winter, John Ashfield, and another unidentified guest. Jonson's precise role in relation to this conspiracy is obscure and ambiguous. The plot was finally revealed by a warning from Tresham to his Catholic brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, that he should stay away from parliament on 5 November; Monteagle raised the alarm, and twenty barrels of gunpowder awaiting detonation were discovered in a ground-floor vault directly beneath the House of Lords' chamber. Jonson prudently directed a congratulatory epigram to Monteagle (Epigrams, no. 60), whom he praised as the saviour of his nation, and agreed to assist Robert Cecil, newly created earl of Salisbury, in his investigation of the conspiracy. On 7 November Jonson received a warrant from the privy council allowing him to escort an unnamed priest to visit the Lords, and give testimony about the conspiracy to members of the council. Jonson failed in the end to locate this priest, who, it has plausibly been suggested, may have been Father Thomas Wright, the Jesuit who is thought to have converted Jonson some years earlier (F. Teague, Jonson and the Gunpowder Plot, Ben Jonson Journal, 5, 1998, 249–52). On 8 November Jonson wrote to Salisbury describing the wide ramifications of the conspiracy, and suggesting that its exposure would convince many Catholics quickly to change their religion: 'So that to tell your Lo: playnly my heart, I thinke they are All so enweav'd in it, as it will make 500 Gent: lesse of the Religion within this weeke, if they carry theyr understanding about them' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.202).

Jonson himself was not, however, among those who carried their understanding about them, and chose to change their faith. On 10 January 1606, just a few days after the performance at court of Hymenaei, Ben and Anne Jonson were presented before the consistory court on charges of recusancy, and on 26 April they returned to answer those charges. Jonson vigorously denied an accusation of 'seduceing of youthe … to the popishe religion', and declared that he had abstained from receiving communion on account of a religious 'scruple' that the minister of the parish or some suitably qualified person might perhaps now help him to resolve (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.220–23). Of his wife's recent habits, he professed imperfect knowledge, though he vouched for her general piety. The couple were required in future to produce a certification of attendance at communion, and Ben was ordered to discuss his theological difficulties with the dean of St Paul's, the archbishop of Canterbury's chaplain, and other learned men. These advisers were evidently unable to persuade him to a conversion, for in May and June of the same year he and Anne were back in the consistory court to answer the same charges.

Jonson's comic masterpiece, Volpone, or, The Fox, was written at unusual speed (''Tis knowne, five weekes fully pen'd it': prologue, l. 16) in the aftermath and interstices of these events. The play's plots and counter-plots may seem at times as labyrinthine as those in which Jonson himself had lately been embroiled, its dazzling depiction of Venetian fraud and judicial corruption being tinged with some knowledge of the processes of crime and punishment in contemporary London. Volpone was performed at the Globe by the King's Men, probably about mid-March 1606, with Richard Burbage possibly in the title role. The 'Epistle Dedicatory' printed with the quarto edition of 1607 speaks delightedly of the play's reception at Oxford and Cambridge, though there are no surviving records of its performance in either university. The tributory verses prefixed to the quarto text give some sense of Jonson's social and intellectual friendships at this moment; admirers of the play included the historian and poet Edmund Bolton, who had been summoned on recusancy charges with Jonson in January of that year; George Chapman, Jonson's recent collaborator and cell mate; Lord Aubigny, his Catholic patron and protector; and John Donne, himself a recent convert from the Roman church, with whom Jonson seems to have been on close and friendly terms since the 1590s. A few years later (c.1611), Donne and Jonson were to be fellow members of a club, composed largely of lawyers and politicians, that met regularly at the Mermaid tavern in Bread Street [see Patrons of the Mermaid tavern]. (Contrary to popular legend, Shakespeare was not a member of the Mermaid Club, and the lively 'wit-combates' between Jonson and Shakespeare to which Thomas Fuller famously referred must have occurred elsewhere—if they occurred at all (Fuller, Worthies, 126).)

Epicene, or, The Silent Woman was performed by the Children of Her Majesty's Revels at Whitefriars in December 1609 or January 1610. The play's wittily discursive style anticipates in some respects that of Etherege and Congreve, as does its highly contemporary setting in the newly developing West End of London. (Jonson was living at this time in Blackfriars, not far from the Strand, where the play itself is set—and where John Donne's and Jonson's patron, Lucy, countess of Bedford, and Donne himself, also resided.) John Dryden in An Essay of Dramatic Poesy was admiringly to analyse the play's structural complexity, though elsewhere he expressed distaste for its more boisterous elements. Epicene brought Jonson once again into conflict with the authorities: by February 1610 the play had been banned after complaints from the king's cousin Arabella Stuart concerning a reference to 'the Prince of Moldavia, and … his mistris, mistris EPICOENE' (v.i, ll. 24–5). The 'prince' in question was Stephen Janiculo, a claimant to the throne of the Romanian province of Moldavia, who, though already married, had announced his intention of marrying Arabella Stuart. Arabella herself had some claim of succession to the English throne, and was later to play an 'epicene' role of sorts through making her escape in male dress from the custody of the bishop of Durham. Jonson strenuously denied that he had revised the piece to include any reference to contemporary events, and complained characteristically of those who:

with particular slightOf application … make a libell, which he made a play.

Epicene, second prologue, ll. 11–12, 14

The Alchemist was performed in 1610 by the King's Men probably at the Blackfriars Theatre, in the very district in which the play itself is set. Through internal references the action can be assumed to occur in the very year of the play's presentation—a year in which London was affected by the plague, a fact crucial to its brilliantly contrived plot—and precisely dated to 1 November 1610. From mid-July to late November the London playhouses were actually closed in order to curb the spread of the infection; the play was presented in Oxford in September, but its London performance must have occurred at some point before this period of closure.

The assassination in Paris on 14 May 1610 of the French king, Henri IV, further increased fears in England of similar extremist action, and led to a further tightening of anti-Catholic laws. Jonson returned to the Church of England about this time. Later he reported to Drummond that at 'his first communion in token of true Reconciliation, he drank out all the full cup of wyne' (Conversations, ll. 314–16). Despite this decisive gesture, Jonson seems to have retained certain Catholic sympathies and associations for the remainder of his life, his close friendship in particular with Sir Kenelm and Lady Venetia Digby in the 1630s drawing him into renewed contact with Catholic circles. Drummond in 1619 had noted with evident displeasure that Jonson was 'for any religion as being versed in both' (ibid., l. 690).

Catiline his Conspiracy was presented by the King's Men in the summer of 1611. Despite Jonson's high expectations, the play was badly received, Cicero's long orations in the fourth act evidently straining the patience of its audiences. Jonson quickly published a quarto text of the play which he commended to 'the Reader extraordinary' and dedicated to Lord Pembroke, deploring the ignorance of 'these Jig-given times'. The play, which gained wider admiration later in the century, has been thought by one scholar to offer a veiled 'parallelograph' of the complex events of the Gunpowder Plot in which Jonson during his Catholic years had been enmeshed (B. N. De Luna, Jonson's Romish Plot, 1967). While it is unlikely that the play's references are quite as specific or detailed as here claimed, the tragedy, like much of Jonson's work from this period of his life, bears evident marks of his own recent experiences of conspiracy and interrogation.

The middle years, 1612–1625

During the summer of 1612 Jonson set off for France and the Netherlands in the company of Walter Ralegh (b. 1593), mischievous son of a distinguished father. Jonson was employed as 'governor' or tutor to the young Ralegh, as he may also recently have been to another high-spirited scion of a well-known family, the young Sir William Sidney (b. 1590), whom Jonson in The Forest, no. 14, sternly addresses in November 1611 on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday. At the age of fifteen Sidney had stabbed a schoolmaster, with near fatal consequences. Jonson too had a reputation for physical violence:

didst thou not put outA boies Right eye that Croste thy mankind poute?

asked Chapman years later in 'An invective wrighten … against Mr Ben: Johnson' (lines 29–30; Poems, ed. P. B. Bartlett, 1941, 374)—and may therefore have been considered an aptly intimidating tutor for these wild youths. In the case of young Ralegh, however, any confidence of this kind was misplaced. Drummond notes that the 'knavishly inclyned' Ralegh caused Jonson:

to be Drunken and dead drunk, so that he knew not wher he was, therafter laid him on a Carr which he made to be Drawen by Pioners through the streets, at every corner showing his Governour streetched out and telling them that was a more Lively image of the Crucifix then any they had.

Conversations, ll. 296–302

A trace of these experiences is perhaps to be found in Jonson's next play, Bartholomew Fair, performed at the recently opened Hope Theatre on 31 October 1614 and at court the following day, in which the irascible Humphrey Wasp, 'governor' to Bartholomew Cokes, proves equally incapable of maintaining authority over his feckless charge.

On 4 September 1612 (25 August, by English dating) Jonson attended a debate in Paris between the protestant minister Daniel Featly (Ralegh's old Oxford tutor) and a Catholic adversary, D. Smith, future bishop of Chalcedon, concerning the nature of the real presence, and was appointed—along with his acquaintance from London, John Pory—to testify formally concerning the arguments advanced. At some point during his stay in Paris, perhaps through the mediation of Pory, Jonson also encountered the learned Cardinal Duperron, and informed him bluntly that his free translations of books 1 and 4 of the Aeneid 'were naught' (Conversations, ll. 69–71). Letters dispatched from Jean Beaulieu in Paris to his fellow agent in Brussels, William Trumbull, on 3 and 11 March 1613 (21 February and 1 March by English dating) advised Trumbull that Jonson and Ralegh had 'taken a resolution to passe, by Sedan [in the Ardennes], into your partes'. In an open testimonial Beaulieu commended Jonson's 'extraordinarie and rare partes of knowledge and understanding', but in a supplementary note he referred privately to 'some crosse busynes' in which Jonson had recently been employed (BL, Add. MS 72250). By early April Jonson and Ralegh had moved on from Brussels to Antwerp, and shortly thereafter appear to have visited Leiden, where Jonson met the great Dutch scholar and poet Daniel Heinsius (D. McPherson, English Language Notes, 44, 1976, 105–9). By 29 June they were back in London, as a reference in 'An Execration upon Vulcan' (The Underwood, no. 43, ll. 129–38) implies that Jonson witnessed the burning of the Globe that day after cannon misfired into the thatched roof of the theatre during a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII.

Absent from England during the crucial period of 1612–13, Jonson had been unable to observe the initial moves in the swiftly developing affair between James's favourite, Robert Carr, and Frances Howard, divorced countess of Essex. On 21 April 1613 Carr's secretary and intimate friend, Sir Thomas Overbury, who opposed the couple's plans to marry, had been placed in close confinement in the Tower, where he was to die in suspicious circumstances five months later. Jonson may have known Overbury at least since 1602, and in an epigram written about 1610 had praised his ability to set a moral example in a court beset by temptation: 'Where, what makes others great, doth keepe thee good!' (Diary of John Manningham, 187; Jonson, Epigrams, no. 113, l. 4). The two men had later quarrelled after Overbury—author of The Wife, a poem advocating marital loyalty—attempted to use Jonson as a go-between in a suit to the (already married) countess of Rutland (Conversations, ll. 213–19). Jonson and Overbury nevertheless shared many political aims and friendships with former followers of the second earl of Essex, including the earls of Pembroke and Southampton, Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, Sir Henry Neville, and others opposed to the Howard faction. On 26 December 1613 Frances Howard was married to Robert Carr, newly created earl of Somerset, and was led to the altar by Jonson's old enemy, her great-uncle Henry Howard, the earl of Northampton. Jonson, who had written Hymenaei in celebration of Frances Howard's first marriage in 1606, was now required to help celebrate her dubious second match. A Challenge at Tilt (performed on 27 December 1613 and 1 January 1614) and The Irish Masque (performed on 29 December 1613 and 3 January 1614) were the result. Whether Jonson was aware of the already circulating rumours that the couple had conspired to poison Overbury, it is impossible to say. The precise facts of the situation would at this stage have been far from clear, but the extreme awkwardness of Jonson's position must have been very evident.

Even before his departure for the continent Jonson had been gathering together many of his writings from the past two decades with a view to publication. 'A booke called Ben Johnson his Epigrams' was entered in the Stationers' register on 15 May 1612 by the publisher and bookseller John Stepneth. Stepneth died later in 1612, and no copies of such a book survive, though Drummond includes 'Ben Jhonsons Epigrams' among the 'bookes red by me anno 1612' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 8.16). Conceivably this was a manuscript collection. Jonson was also planning a folio edition of his collected works. It has been guessed (without much evidence) that he intended to publish this collection in 1612 or 1613, dedicating the work to the young Prince Henry, and was thwarted by Henry's unexpected death in November 1612. The handsome folio edition of Jonson's Workes was finally published by William Stansby between 6 and 25 November 1616 (M. Bland, William Stansby and the production of the Workes of Beniamin Jonson, 1615–16, The Library, 20, 1998, 10). Jonson himself appears to have taken an unusually close interest in its production, though recent scholarship has shown that he did not exercise control over typographical detail to the degree imagined by his twentieth-century Oxford editors, C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (who placed great trust in the folio's authority as copy-text).

Jonson's decision to include nine plays, generally regarded as an ephemeral form of literature, within a volume whose title promised more serious matter was a seeming paradox that attracted the amused attention of several observers. The volume was not however designed to present Ben Jonson uniquely or even primarily as a man of the theatre. It included also more than a dozen masques, a smallish group of court entertainments, the Panegyre written for the king's entry to parliament in 1604, and two substantial collections of poems, Epigrams and The Forest. The catalogue, with its carefully organized column of distinguished patrons, friends, and institutions to whom the various works within the folio are dedicated—William Camden; the inns of court; Richard Martin; Esmé Stuart, Lord Aubigny; the two universities; Sir Francis Stuart; Mary, Lady Wroth; William Herbert, earl of Pembroke—stresses the range and versatility of Jonson's accomplishments, and his ability to command the respect of those in crucial positions of power. Pembroke, to whom both Catiline and the Epigrams are dedicated and a poem of praise (Epigrams, no. 102) addressed, had recently been appointed lord chamberlain, and would continue to provide crucial protection and support for Jonson, providing him with £20 each new year for books, and probably contriving his award of an honorary degree from Oxford in 1619.

Jonson placed a high valuation on his Epigrams, which he described in his dedication to Pembroke as 'the ripest of my studies' (l. 4). The title-page of this collection announces it as a first book; evidently more such books were contemplated. Though Jonson continued to experiment with the form, and to speak sharply of the shortcomings of other epigrammatists, such as Owen, Harington, and Sir John Davies (Conversations, ll. 223–5, 37–40, 381–3), no second book of epigrams was to appear in his lifetime. The Forest, a group of fifteen (formally more various) poems written between 1600 and 1612, included the imaginative addresses to Sir Robert Sidney's estate at Penshurst and to Sir Robert Wroth at Durrants. Both these estates are adduced, in idealized form, as models of an alternative social community, removed from the competitive anxieties of court and urban life.

The publication of the 1616 folio in the very year of Shakespeare's death consolidated Jonson's position as England's foremost living author. Shakespeare had died on 23 April from a fever contracted, according to dubious Stratford legend, after a 'merry meeting' with two visitors from London, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton (J. Ward, Diary, recorded 1662, in Schoenbaum, 120). On 1 February Jonson was granted a royal pension of 100 marks (£66 13s. 4d.) per annum, payable in quarterly instalments, establishing him in fact if not in name as Britain's poet laureate. Late payment of this pension would cause him much anguish in the years to come. In The Devil is an Ass, performed at Blackfriars by the King's Men in the autumn of 1616, Jonson glances at royal practices with a characteristic mix of admiration and critical amusement. James's recent triumph in exposing a case of sham diabolical possession during a witchcraft trial in Leicester is flatteringly recalled in the comedy's final dénouement, but the comedy also looks more sharply at the king's manner of granting knighthoods and monopolies, and included satire on 'the Duke of Drown land' which James asked Jonson to suppress (Conversations, ll. 414–15).

Now in his late forties and at the height of his fame, Jonson chose to abandon the metropolis for almost a year. 'Ben Jonson is going on foot to Edinburgh and back, for his profit' wrote George Gerrard to Sir Dudley Carleton on 4 June 1617 (CSP dom., 1611–18, 472). James and his entourage were visiting Edinburgh at this moment, and reports of their warm reception in that city were already reaching London. Jonson may have been spurred by these accounts, and was also no doubt curious to see the country of his father's family. He planned to write a versified account of his travels entitled A Discovery, along with 'a fisher or Pastorall play' set on Loch Lomond (Conversations, ll. 406, 402–3). A slender man in his youth, Jonson was now almost 20 stone in weight, with 'Mountaine belly' and 'rockye face' (ibid., l. 677). He set off the following summer (1618), and walked by stages along the Great North Road, arriving by early August in Edinburgh, where he was feasted by the town council, and visited a number of prominent families. John Taylor the Water Poet followed Jonson's journey by a more westerly route, having been (so Jonson supposed) 'sent along here to scorn him', but the two men had a friendly meeting at Leith, and parted on amicable terms (ibid., l. 607; J. Taylor, The Pennyless Pilgrimage, 1618, 58–9).

At the year's end Jonson stayed with William Drummond at Hawthornden Castle on the River Esk, 7 miles south of Edinburgh. Drummond, a learned bachelor thirteen years younger than Jonson, had studied in France, mastered a number of European languages, and amassed a fine library; he took a keen interest in contemporary English, Scottish, and continental writing. Drummond's notes of Jonson's 'informations' during this stay—the so-called Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden—were apparently made for private use, but were finally published in an abridged and reordered form in the 1711 folio edition of Jonson's works, and in a fuller state, from a newly discovered eighteenth-century transcript, by David Laing in 1833. They vividly record Jonson's literary opinions and ambitions, his jokes, dreams, and personal reminiscences, along with much social gossip. His sharper verdicts—'that Done for not keeping of accent deserved hanging. That Shakesperr wanted Arte', etc. (Conversations, ll. 48–50)—shocked many eighteenth-century readers, reinforcing the myth of Jonson's supposed malignity towards (in particular) his greatest rival. They should be seen, however, as argumentative moments within more extended, now irrecoverable, private conversations, and weighed against Jonson's more generous public tributes, in particular the poem to his 'beloved' Shakespeare which stands at the head of the 1623 first folio.

Drummond and Jonson had many interests in common, and their subsequent correspondence is unfailingly affectionate. Their temperamental differences are nevertheless clearly apparent in the final sketch of Jonson's character which Drummond added after his guest's departure from Hawthornden in January 1619. 'He is a great lover and praiser of himself', wrote Drummond:

a contemner and Scorner of others, given rather to losse a friend, than a Jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the Elements in which he liveth) a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well bot what either he himself, or some of his friends and Countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kynde and angry, carelesse either to gaine or keep, Vindicative, but if he be well answered, at himself.

Conversations, ll. 680–89

By early May 1619 Jonson was back in London, where he was warmly welcomed by James, who had taken a close interest in his northern travels. For a period following his return Jonson devoted himself to quiet scholarship, removed from the pressures of public life. While in Scotland he had informed Drummond that 'He was Master of Arts in both the Universities by their favour not his studie' (Conversations, ll. 252–3). No records concerning Jonson's honorary degree from Cambridge or of the Oxford conferral survive, but in July 1619 Jonson was formally inducted into the Oxford degree, and, according to Anthony Wood, spent some time in residence at Christ Church at the invitation of his old friend Richard Corbett (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 1st edn, 1.518). Jonson later extended the circle of his Oxford friendships to include the learned group (of which Hobbes, Chillingworth, and Clarendon, were prominent members) which gathered at the house of Lucius Cary, Lord Falkland, at Great Tew.

Whether Anne Jonson was still alive in the 1620s is doubtful. It is just possible that the marriage of 'Benjamyne Johnson and Hester Hopkins' recorded in the register of St Giles Cripplegate on 27 July 1623 is that of the poet, but there is no other evidence of his having entered into a second marriage about this time. Giving testimony in a chancery case on 20 October 1623, he is described as 'Beniamin Johnson of Gresham Colledge in London gent. aged 50. yeares and vpwards' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.582). C. J. Sisson has conjectured that Jonson may have remained for a period of time at Gresham College, deputizing for Henry Croke, who held the office of professor of rhetoric from 1619 to 1627; and that sections of Jonson's commonplace book, Discoveries, may represent notes for lectures he delivered at that time (TLS, 21 Sept 1951). But it is possible that Jonson was merely taking temporary refuge at the college after the fire that damaged his library late that year. In 'An Execration upon Vulcan' (The Underwood, no. 43) Jonson ruefully lists a number of his unpublished writings that perished in the fire, including a history of the reign of Henry V, a commentary on Horace's Ars poetica, a translation of Barclay's Latin romance Argenis, and the works he had begun on his Scottish journey.

Jonson's scholarly standing was now clearly recognized. His name was reportedly listed among the eighty-four 'Essentials' or founding members of an 'Academ Royal', first proposed to the crown in 1617 by his friend Edmund Bolton: a scheme encouraged by James, but slow to progress, and finally collapsing at his death. Other, more surprising, honours and offices hovered and receded in similar fashion. Writing to Sir Martin Stutevile on 15 September 1621, the Revd Joseph Mead declared that Jonson was to be knighted, but escaped it narrowly, 'for that his Majestie would have done it, had not been means made (himself not unwilling) to avoid it' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.87). Soon afterwards Jonson was granted a patent for the reversion of the mastership of the Revels, in the event that Sir George Buck, the present master, and Sir John Astley, who was next in line, died before he did, but in the event Jonson died first.

Jonson continued throughout this period to produce court masques in every year except 1619, when he was absent in the north. The most popular of these was The Gypsies Metamorphosed, a daringly satirical piece that was performed on three occasions in the late summer of 1621 at Burley on the Hill, Belvoir, and Windsor. During the final years of James's reign, however, Jonson came to feel increasingly marginalized from the life of the court. His sense of alienation is clearly evident in 'An Epistle to one that Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben' (The Underwood, no. 47), written in the late summer of 1623 while elaborate preparations were under way in London and Southampton for the reception of Prince Charles and his intended bride, the infanta of Castile. Jonson's collaborator, Inigo Jones, was playing a central role in these events, while Jonson himself was not. Jonson consoles himself by describing another, more exclusive, group, 'the tribe of Ben', that met convivially under his presidency in the Apollo Room of the Devil and St Dunstan tavern near Temple Bar, with rules of conduct and standards of friendship more rigorous and exacting (so the poem implies) than those of the court itself. The failure of Charles's and Buckingham's unpopular mission to Madrid was soon however to be public knowledge. Eighteen months later, James would be dead, and Charles himself would soon be married to a French bride.

The final years, 1626–1637

The Staple of News, Jonson's first new play for a decade, was performed at the Blackfriars Theatre by the King's Men early in 1626, not long after Charles's coronation on 2 February, to which the play makes oblique reference. Ostensibly a satire on news-mongering, The Staple of News also boldly touches on questions of filial inheritance and succession that might well have seemed relevant to the political moment. The personal tastes and character of the new king were in some ways less congenial to Jonson than those of his robustly learned father, and his own position at court might have appeared less secure. Ideologically, however, Jonson was not greatly at variance with Charles, whose unpopular counsellors (such as Lord Weston, lord high treasurer from 1628) and policies he continued loyally to support. In an epigram addressed to Charles on his anniversary day (27 March) 1629, as troubles and debt were mounting throughout the land, Jonson deplored the public's failure to appreciate the value of their monarch:

'Tis not alone the Merchant, but the ClowneIs Banke-rupt turned! the Cassock, Cloake, and GownAre lost upon accompt! And none will knowHow much to heaven for thee, great CHARLES, they owe!

The Underwood, no. 64It has been suggested that, in disenchantment with the state of England during the final decade of his life, Jonson turned nostalgically back to the England of Elizabeth; this taste for retrospection being evident in the themes and structure of such late plays as The New Inn, presented by the King's Men early in 1629, and A Tale of a Tub, performed by Queen Henrietta's Men at the Cockpit 'as new' in May 1633 (see A. Barton). Yet in the scornful 'Ode to Himself' written after the failure of The New Inn Jonson vowed to 'leave the lothed stage' and direct his remaining energies to praising the present king, 'tuning forth the acts of his sweete raigne' (ll. 1, 59). It was seemingly with the theatre, not with his monarch, that Jonson's quarrel chiefly lay.

An engraving of Jonson made in the mid-1620s by Robert Vaughan (possibly based on a portrait by the Dutch artist Abraham van Blyenberch, a version of which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London) shows a scraggily bearded, heavily built figure, with 'one eie lower, than tother, and bigger' (as Aubrey was later to describe him; Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.180). He is plainly dressed and crowned with laurel, and stares gloomily through an oval border whose inscription proclaims him 'doctissimi poetarum anglorum', the most learned of English poets. The melancholic look may perhaps reflect the sharp decline in Jonson's health that began in these years. Late in 1627 or early in 1628 he appears to have suffered a paralytic stroke. He was by now grossly overweight, and further affected by a 'palsy' (possibly Parkinson's disease) which, in Clarendon's words, 'made a deep Impression upon his Body and his Mind' (The Life of Edward, Earl of Clarendon, 1759, 16). In a late poem he wryly views himself as:

a tardie, coldUnprofitable Chattell, fat and old,Laden with Bellie


doth hardly approachHis friends, but to breake Chaires or cracke a Coach.

The Underwood, no. 56, ll. 7–10

Poverty compounded these afflictions. On 19 January 1628 a grant of £5 was made by the dean and chapter of Westminster 'to Mr Beniamin Jhonson in his sicknes and want', and in March of the same year Jonson thanked King Charles in verse for 'A Hundred Pounds He Sent Me in My Sickness' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.244; The Underwood, no. 62). Jonson's poems and letters written during the last period of his life—especially those to his new and watchful patron, William Cavendish, earl of Newcastle—return touchingly to these practical problems now besetting his life.

Disease, the Enemie, and his Ingineeres,Want, with the rest of his conceal'd compeeres,Have cast a trench about mee, now, five yeares,

he writes in 1631 in an 'Epistle Mendicant' addressed to the lord treasurer (The Underwood, no. 71, ll. 4–6). Jonson's poverty at this and other stages of his life must have been attributable in part to his style of living. The generous habits that Drummond had noted in 1619 evidently continued into old age. James Howell in the 1630s speaks of a 'solemne supper' given by Jonson in which 'there was good company, excellent chear, choice wines, and joviall wellcome' (Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 11.419). From September 1628 Jonson enjoyed a further income of 100 nobles a year as city chronologer, being appointed in succession to Thomas Middleton 'To collect and set down all memorable acts of this City and occurences thereof' (ibid., 1.241), a task he evidently performed with such inefficiency that from November 1631 to September 1634 payment of the stipend was suspended. In 1630 Jonson's court pension was increased from 100 marks to £100 per year, augmented by a tierce (42 gallons) of Canary Spanish wine from Charles's store at Whitehall. Izaak Walton gives a vivid glimpse of Jonson in his final years in his lodgings near the Abbey, tended by 'a woman that govern'd him … and that nether he nor she tooke much Care for next weike: and wood be sure not to want Wine: of which he usually tooke too much before he went to bed, if not oftner and soner' (ibid., 1.182).

Despite all difficulties, the last phase of Jonson's life was still remarkably productive, and his work still marked by fresh energy and invention. Love's Triumph through Callipolis (9 January 1631) and Chloridia (22 February 1631) were to be his final masques at court, and the unhappy end of his long collaboration with Jones. When Jones took objection to his name appearing after Jonson's on the title-page of Love's Triumph ('The Inventors, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones'), Jonson retaliated by omitting his name entirely from the title-page of Chloridia, and by ridiculing his more spectacular scenic inventions (and social ambitions) in 'An expostulation with Inigo Jones' (Ungathered Verse, no. 34). But in two subsequent entertainments to regale King Charles on his progress to and from his coronation in Scotland—the first at Welbeck on 31 May 1633, the other at Bolsover on 30 July of the same year—as in the unfinished pastoral, The Sad Shepherd, Jonson drew imaginatively on northern traditions (including the stories of Robin Hood) and memories of his own Scottish journey many years earlier. In their rural settings and occasional employment of romance conventions, the comedies of Jonson's last period are strikingly different from the bustling city intrigues of his early maturity. None of his late plays, however, was to enjoy theatrical success. In the 'Induction' to The Magnetic Lady (staged at Blackfriars in October 1632 with noisy disruptions from three of Jonson's old adversaries, Alexander Gill, Nathaniel Butter, and Inigo Jones) the Boy who serves as the author's apologist speaks of the steady progress of Jonson's comic writing since the late 1590s to this present moment, as he approaches 'the close, or shutting up of his Circle' (ll. 104–5). Jonson's insistence, here as elsewhere, on the constancy of his own artistic and moral life has tended however to obscure the many shifts, experiments, and renewals to be found within his long career, and the many contradictions within his complex character.

Jonson died in mid-August 1637. His funeral procession was attended by 'all or the greatest part of the nobilitie and gentry then in the town' (Sir Edward Walker, Garter, 17 Aug 1637, in Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.115). He was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey, beneath a square of blue marble with the inscription 'O Rare Ben Jonson', 'donne at the chardge of Jack Young afterwards knighted, who walking there when the grave was covering gave the fellow eighteen pence to cutt it' (Aubrey, ibid., 1.179–80). Jonsonus virbius, a volume of memorial verses edited by Dr Brian Duppa and dominated by tributes from Jonson's Oxford friends, was published early in 1638, and other commemorative poems continued to appear in the following months, mourning the passing of the supreme literary figure of his age. A second folio edition of Jonson's works was published in 1640–41 in three volumes: the first being a reprint of the 1616 folio, the second containing Bartholomew Fair, The Devil is an Ass, and The Staple of News (a volume prepared for publication, but left unpublished, in 1631), and the third presenting a number of hitherto unpublished masques and plays, along with the English Grammar, Discoveries, a verse translation of Horace's Ars poetica, and a third major collection of poems, The Underwood. A quarto containing 'An Execration upon Vulcan' and other poems and a duodecimo edition of another version of the Ars poetica were published by John Benson in 1640; while a third folio, containing a number of texts not published in 1640–41 (including The New Inn and Leges convivales and a recast version of the English Grammar) was to appear in 1692.

'Remembrance with posteritie'

Unlike Shakespeare, with whom it has been his fate continually to be compared, Jonson did not choose to work continuously for a single theatrical company, or indeed primarily within the theatre. His ambitions, befitting a pupil of William Camden, were to excel in the many branches of Renaissance humanistic endeavour: as a poet, historian, philologist, rhetorician, as well as writer for the stage. His intellectual energies were expressed not only in his poetry and dramatic work, but in writings as various as the English Grammar, the account of the reign of Henry III contributed to Ralegh's History of the World, the translations of Horace, and the miscellaneous meditations on statecraft, social conduct, literary criticism, and theology to be found in his commonplace book, Discoveries. He moved warily but ambitiously between three main professional sites: the court, the playhouse, and the printing house. Under James, he and Jones were soon clearly established as the leading providers of royal masques and entertainments. In the theatre, where his two surviving tragedies met with initial failure, Jonson perfected a kind of comedy more technically perfect in design, more sharply contemporary in subject matter, than that of his greatest rival. The power of the printed book, which might carry his writings and those he celebrated to 'remembrance with posteritie' (Epigrams, dedication), also deeply attracted him. Skilfully wresting his play texts out of the hands of the theatre companies, to whom they technically belonged, and publishing them, often in revised form, under his own name, Jonson created a notion of authorial ownership and identity that is recognizably modern. His 1616 folio was to serve as an important model for similar collected editions later in the century.

Throughout much of the seventeenth century Jonson was commonly regarded as a writer whose literary distinction equalled, and perhaps outshone, that of Shakespeare himself. His dramatic practice was closely studied by immediate disciples such as Nathan Field, Richard Brome, William Cartwright, and other so-called ‘sons of Ben’, and by most of the major Restoration dramatists. His poetry was widely admired throughout the century, being read with particular affection and attention by Robert Herrick and John Suckling, Abraham Cowley and John Milton, John Oldham and the earl of Rochester. John Dryden's deep respect for Jonson's writing was tempered only by his greater regard for Shakespeare; 'I admire him, but I love Shakespeare', says one of the speakers apologetically in 'An essay of dramatic poesy' (‘An Essay of Dramatic Poesy’ and other Essays, ed. G. Watson, 2 vols., 1962, 1.70). Throughout the eighteenth century this comparative assessment was further weighted by a growing conviction, stirred by Rowe's biographical speculations in his edition of Shakespeare in 1709, that Jonson was chronically envious of his rival's more fluent genius, and that Jonson's writings were coldly laborious, lacking Shakespeare's spontaneity and generous warmth. Despite the efforts of William Gifford in his edition of Jonson's works in 1816 to scotch these perceptions, Jonson was commonly regarded in the nineteenth century as an uncongenial classic, best sampled in small doses. His shorter lyrics were often praised, but his dramatic works, which David Garrick had enterprisingly adapted for the eighteenth-century stage, were by and large neglected. Coleridge praised The Alchemist as having one of the world's three most skilful plots, but never saw the play in performance.

The gradual modern recovery of Jonson has built upon the monumental labours of his Oxford editors, C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Ben Jonson, 11 vols., 1925–52), and has been aided by an ever-growing body of criticism and scholarship. It has been stimulated by the appreciation of writers such as T. S. Eliot, who in an influential review for the Times Literary Supplement of 13 November 1919 commended 'intelligent saturation in his work as a whole'; by James Joyce, who named Jonson as one of the four writers whose work he had read comprehensively; by the poet Thom Gunn, who has edited a selection of his poems, and the dramatist Peter Barnes, who has adapted several of his plays for stage and radio. The Royal Shakespeare Company has successfully performed a number of his plays, including works such as The New Inn and The Devil is an Ass, which had never or scarcely ever been staged since the seventeenth century. A major new edition of his complete works was published in seven volumes by Cambridge University Press in 2012.


  • Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, P. Simpson, and E. M. Simpson, 11 vols. (1925–52)
  • The Cambridge edition of the works of Ben Jonson, ed. D. Bevington, M. Butler, and I. Donaldson, 7 vols. (2012)
  • Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, P. Simpson, and E. Simpson, 11 vols. (1925–52), 1.128–78
  • Henslowe's diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (1961)
  • Wood, Ath. Oxon., 1st edn, vol. 1 [Benjamin Johnson]
  • D. Riggs, Ben Jonson: a life (1989)
  • W. D. Kay, Ben Jonson: a literary life (1995)
  • J. B. Bamborough, ‘The early life of Ben Jonson’, TLS (8 April 1960), 225
  • W. D. Kay, ‘“Rare Ben”: the bricklayer of Westminster and his family’, unpubd typescript
  • W. D. Kay, ‘The shaping of Jonson's career: a re-examination of facts and problems’, Modern Philology, 67 (1970), 224–37
  • M. Eccles, ‘Jonson's marriage’, Review of English Studies, 12 (1936), 257–72
  • M. Eccles, ‘Jonson and the spies’, Review of English Studies, 13 (1937), 385–91
  • I. Donaldson, Jonson's walk to Scotland (1993)
  • M. Butler, ‘Late Jonson’, The politics of tragicomedy: Shakespeare and after, ed. G. McMullan and J. Hope (1992), 166–88
  • R. Miles, Ben Jonson: his life and work (1986)
  • I. Donaldson, Jonson's magic houses: essays in interpretation (1997)
  • M. Butler, ‘“Servant, but not slave”: Ben Jonson at the Jacobean court’, PBA, 90 (1996), 65–93
  • W. H. Phelps, ‘The date of Ben Jonson's death’, N&Q, 225 (1980), 146–9
  • J. Bass Mullinger, ‘Was Ben Jonson ever a member of our college?’, The Eagle, 25 (1904), 1–4 [St John's College, Cambridge]
  • I. A. Shapiro, ‘The Mermaid Club’, Modern Language Review, 45 (1950), 6–17
  • T. A. Stroud, ‘Ben Jonson and Father Thomas Wright’, ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, 14 (1947), 274–82
  • The diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple, 1602–1603, ed. R. Parker Sorlien (1976)
  • S. Orgel and R. Strong, Inigo Jones: the theatre of the Stuart court, 2 vols. (1973)
  • M. Butler, ed., Re-presenting Ben Jonson: text, history, performance (1999)
  • R. Dutton, Mastering the revels: the regulation and censorship of English Renaissance drama (1991)
  • A. Barton, Ben Jonson: dramatist (1984)
  • F. T. Bowers, ‘Ben Jonson the actor’, Studies in Philology, 34 (1937), 396–7
  • C. J. Sisson, ‘Ben Jonson of Gresham College’, TLS (21 Sept 1951), 604
  • A. R. Braunmuller, ed., A seventeenth-century letter-book: a facsimile edition of Folger MS V.a321 (1983)
  • D. Lindley, The trials of Frances Howard: fact and fiction at the court of King James (1993)
  • J. A. Symonds, Ben Jonson (1886)
  • E. M. Portal, ‘The “Academ Roial” of King James I’, PBA, [7] (1915–16), 189–208
  • R. Lander Knutson, Playing companies and commerce in Shakespeare's time (2001)
  • J. Loewenstein, ‘The script in the marketplace’, Representing the English Renaissance, ed. S. Greenblatt (1988), 265–78
  • S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's lives (1970)
  • J. H. Penniman, ed., Ben Jonson, ‘Poetaster’, and Thomas Dekker, ‘Satiromastix’ (1913)
  • CSP dom., 1611–18, 472
  • W. Bang and L. Krebs, Ben Jonson's ‘The fountaine of self-love, or, Cynthias revels’ (1908) [1601 quarto]
  • T. Mason, ed., A register of baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish of St Martin's-in-the-Fields … from 1550 to 1619 (1898)


  • NRA, commonplace book attributed to Jonson
  • NRA, corresp. and literary MSS


  • A. van Blyenberch, oils, 1617, NPG [see illus.]
  • R. Vaughan, line engraving, 1625, BM; repro. in The workes of Beniamin Jonson (1640), vol. 1, frontispiece
  • W. Marshall, line engraving, 1640, BM
  • G. Vertue, line engraving, 1711 (after A. van Blyenberch), BM, NPG
  • A. van Blyenberch, oils, second version, Knole, Kent
  • W. Elder, engraving (after R. Vaughan), repro. in B. Jonson's execration against Vulcan (1640), frontispiece
  • mezzotint (after A. van Blyenberch), NPG

Wealth at Death

£8 8s. 10d.: Ben Jonson, ed. Herford, Simpson, and Simpson, 1.249 (act books of the dean and chapter of Westminster, no. 4, 1632–44; second entry under date ‘Vicesimo secundo die mensis Augusti Ano dni 1637’, fol. 53)

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