To a great deal of people, for a great deal of time, English playwright and poet Ben Jonson was known merely as a rival (and inferior) to William Shakespeare. But there’s more to the story than that! Watch our video lesson to get the skinny on Jonson’s life and work.
Nowadays if there’s a really famous person and they have hanger-on friends, we typically know about the famous person and we don’t know about the friends. This was true even back in Renaissance times, and this kind of had the negative effect of making Ben Jonson someone that we don’t really have such great name association with.
We do have great name association with his more famous buddy William Shakespeare. Ben Jonson was a contemporary friend and rival of Shakespeare’s; unfortunately, his work and life have been a bit eclipsed by the man we call the Bard. Things weren’t always that way, though; this is kind of a modern thing. There was a point in time where Jonson’s fame was even greater than Shakespeare’s, if you can imagine that, and critical revision in the centuries since his life ended changed that a bit.
But there’s importance to his skill, and he has a massive catalog of plays and poems that are not insignificant; he’s still a talented guy that we should know about. We shouldn’t just cast him into the annals of history and say ‘he wasn’t as good as Shakespeare.’ He’s an interesting dude in his own right.He was born in London in 1572. By the age of 25, he’s already deeply entrenched in the city’s burgeoning dramatic culture. In particular, he’s taken up a position with a theater company called The Admiral’s Men. He’s an actor and a writer just like Shakespeare – he kind of did both; most reports we get from this time show that he didn’t really have that much success as an actor, but he tried, and his plays are starting to bring him some real attention.
His first major success came not with The Admiral’s Men but with another company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – if you’re wondering, it’s because pretty much all the actors back then were men. That’s a plot point in Shakespeare in Love – Gwyneth Paltrow dresses up as a dude to be in a play, and then she dresses up as a woman. That’s how things were back then.In 1598 The Lord Chamberlain’s Men put up his comedy, Every Man in His Humour, which is a play that exhibits several really important Jonson traits.
We’re going to pause for a second here and talk about some of these traits so that we can see them as we describe some more of his plays.He loved classical style. He took his plotting cues more from Aristotle and other Greeks and Romans rather than his English contemporaries, especially because his stories tended (more so than his contemporaries) to really emphasize dramatic unity. So he would try to follow the rules set down by Greek and Roman theatre.He was really into farcical characters, which are just people who are defined by their really exaggerated traits.
Like if you’ve got a drunkard with a huge red nose or something like that – that would be a farcical character.He’s into absurdity kind of along those lines – over-the-top, unreal comic situations. Kind of like anything you might see on Adult Swim late at night.
He’s also into presenting contemporary life. That’s a real goal of his. This last one is really central to his mission statement, and a lot of where he finds success is in doing this. He explicitly states in his prologue for the published edition of Every Man in His Humour that he intends to use ‘deeds, and language, such as men do use:/And persons, such as comedy would choose,/When she would show an image of the times,/And sport with human follies, not with crimes.’ That’s sort of his take on what he’s doing with this.
Every Man in His Humour is notable not just for its form but also for its production – a young William Shakespeare was cast to act in this comedy. Recorded details of their relationship are kind of spotty, but people generally assume that this is when they got to know each other and when they started working together. That’s kind of how they encountered each other.By the way, a year later, Jonson released a follow-up to the play called Every Man out of His Humour, which seems to be a pretty clear attempt to cash in on the success of the prior one. It’s kind of nice to know that people still did that back then; it’s not just a modern phenomenon that we release Shrek 6 or whatever. Jonson did it too.
Does that make it more legitimate? I don’t know.
Jonson had a certain amount of success, and a few years after he really gets going. Beginning with the reign of James I in 1603, – so Elizabeth I dies and is succeeded by James I – Jonson actually enjoys a certain amount of royal favor, and he gets a yearly stipend from the English court essentially. His position really gets some people calling him England’s first poet laureate. There wasn’t really a term for it then, but that was kind of what he was.
It also led to a new, interesting direction in Jonson’s career. His interest was now also invested in writing royal masques, which were basically just elaborate stage productions that include acting, dancing and music that are performed at court. This paid a ton better than being a public playwright.In the course of doing this Jonson produced two dozen masques. He produced a whole bunch. Some of them are really considered to be premiere examples of the form. He does a masque really well.
These are things like The Satyr, which is a celebratory exploration of English folklore, and also The Masque of Blackness, which is about African ladies arriving at court so James could cleanse them of their dark skin, which is problematic to say the least. Though it actually went over pretty well at the time because they had different understandings of what was okay. Anyway, The Masque of Blackness is one of his legacy pieces.Even though that one was surprisingly not that controversial, other works that he did did land him in hot water. There were many times before he got this patronage that he was arrested and jailed for offensive material. He even had information about the Guy Fawkes plot, the plot to blow up parliament – ‘remember, remember, the fifth of November,’ all that V for Vendetta stuff.
He had to reveal all that he knew in order to avoid punishment, so he was kind of in the thick of all this stuff. At any rate, the middle period of Jonson’s life was free of legal trouble, and it was generally pretty much his most successful time. He produced work really considered his best, like 1605’s Volpone, which is kind of a combination beast fable/comedy thing.
This is his most-performed play. In 1614 he publishes Bartholomew Fair and also the hilariously named 1616 The Devil is an Ass; that just gets right to the point. 1610 has The Alchemist – not the novel by that guy recently. This last effort is really an examination of destructive greed; it’s especially notable in that Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it one of the three most perfect plots in literature, so Coleridge liked it.
We’ve talked about his plays, we’ve talked about those courtly masques; it behooves us to mention that he did write some poetry and it was pretty good.
Like his stage writings, it’s pretty clearly connected to Greek and Roman sources in its form. He’s also considered to be at the vanguard of a new form of poetry known as Cavalier poetry, which is described as an elegant, graceful, relatively straightforward and often amorous expression of courtly thought. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Cavalier poets are not really that concerned with extended metaphors or textual riddles; they’re not that into words working their magic. They kind of prefer direct, beautifully worded forms of expression.
Jonson’s notable for a few lyrics that really excel at this. The most famous is actually an ode to his deceased son, which is sad – kind of a heavy topic, especially because his plays are so comic; it’s sort of an interesting switch. And it’s actually so short and it’s so nice that we’re actually just going to read it to you here so you can get a sense of what his poetry sounds like.
Here we go.’Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy;Seven yeeres tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.O, could I loose all father, now.
For whyWill man lament the state he should envie?To have so soon scap’d worlds and fleshes rage,And, if no other miserie, yet age?Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say here doth lyeBen. Jonson his best piece of poetrie.For whose sake, hence-forth, all his vowes be such,As what he loves may never like too much.’So it’s very sweet. He’s saying that his son is his best work of poetry, which is very nice. So that’s an example of Jonson’s lyric.
Because we have to talk about it, Shakespeare’s kind of ghosted in and out of this lesson. Jonson and Shakespeare were thought to be rivals. Common critical conception, at least in the 20th century, was that Jonson was kind of the foremost practitioner of real, sculpted verbal excellence – he was a good craftsman – where Shakespeare kind of represented unfettered natural genius.
Of course, in reality Shakespeare knew his dramatic forms just fine, and Jonson was creative as well, but this was sort of the easy way to classify them. It kind of seals their fates later; that’s why Jonson’s fallen out of favor – no one thinks he’s as creative and dramatic as Shakespeare is.But despite their opposition, which even was there when they were living – they were rivals contemporaneously as well as later – and despite Jonson’s reported high opinion of himself, they weren’t really enemies. Jonson had a lot of respect for Shakespeare, and he actually contributed two poems to the front of Shakespeare’s first published folio in 1623. It could be these poems that really contribute to the public’s conception of Shakespeare as a natural genius; it could be Jonson’s characterization of him. In that case, Jonson kind of dug his own grave in terms of his reception later on.
He writes a very sweet poem about Shakespeare after his death – ‘To the Memory of My Beloved Master William Shakespeare, and What He Hath Left Us.’ It’s in that poem that he says – and maybe now it sounds cheesy, but then it probably sounded really nice – ‘he was not of an age, but for all time,’ which turns out to be very, very true. So Jonson got it in one.
Just to sum things up a little bit, there’s temptation to remember Jonson solely in opposition to Shakespeare. I’ve fallen into that trap a little bit during this lesson; I will not tell a lie. The truth is that he really did have a rich career full of plays, masques and poems all his own. He’s really noteworthy for his farcical humor and absurdity as well as his real skill with language and his indebtedness to the Greeks.
He was really into making things follow Greek form. His most famous play is Volpone, which, like I said before, is a fox, so it’s kind of a beast fable-y play, which is very cool. He also produced lyric poems and fathered the group of poets known as the Cavalier poets. He might have said some kind of rough stuff about Shakespeare during his lifetime, but he really did respect him, and he cemented the reputation that Shakespeare has today with that lovely poem he wrote after his death. And that’s Ben Jonson in a nutshell.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify Ben Jonson and some of his early plays
- Paraphrase the common traits of Jonson’s works
- Describe Jonson’s royal masques, plays and Cavalier poetry
- Explain Jonson’s relationship to Shakespeare and the common comparison between them