Ben Jonson


Ben Jonson : biography

c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

Jonson died on 6 August 1637 and his funeral was held on 9 August. He is buried in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey, with the inscription "O Rare Ben Johnson" (sic) set in the slab over his grave. John Aubrey, in a more meticulous record than usual, notes that a passer-by, John Young of Great Milton, Oxfordshire, saw the bare grave marker and on impulse paid a workman eighteen pence to make the inscription. Another theory suggests that the tribute came from William D’Avenant, Jonson’s successor as Poet Laureate (and card-playing companion of Young), as the same phrase appears on D’Avenant’s nearby gravestone, but essayist Leigh Hunt contends that Davenant’s wording represented no more than Young’s coinage, cheaply re-used. The fact that Jonson was buried in an upright position was an indication of his reduced circumstances at the time of his death,Adams, J. Q. The Jonson Allusion Book. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922. pp. 195–6 although it has also been written that he asked for a grave exactly 18 inches square from the monarch and received an upright grave to fit in the requested space.Donaldson (2011:1)

It has been claimed that the inscription could be read "Orare Ben Jonson" (pray for Ben Jonson), possibly in an allusion to Jonson’s acceptance of Catholic doctrine during his lifetime (although he had returned to the Church of England in about 1610, when anti-Catholic laws once again become more strictly enforced) but the carving shows a distinct space between "O" and "rare".

Early life

Ben Jonson said that his family originated from the folk of the Anglo-Scottish border country, which genealogy is verified by the three spindles (rhombi) in the Jonson family coat of arms; the spindle is a diamond-shaped heraldic device shared with the Border-country Johnstone family of Annandale. His clergyman father died two months before Ben’s birth; two years later, his mother remarried, to a master bricklayer.Robert Chambers, Book of Days“Ben Jonson”, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, pp. 611 Jonson attended school in St. Martin’s Lane; and later, a family friend paid for his studies at Westminster School, where the antiquarian, historian, topographer, and officer of arms, William Camden (1551–1623) was one of his instructors. In the event, the pupil and the instructor became friends, and the intellectual influence of Camden’s broad-range scholarship upon Jonson’s art and literary style remained notable, until the artist’s death in 1623.

On leaving Westminster School, Jonson was to have attended the University of Cambridge, to continue his book learning; but did not, because of his unwilling apprenticeship to his bricklayer stepfather. About that time in Jonson’s life, the churchman and historian Thomas Fuller (1608–61) recorded the contemporary Jonsonian legend that the bricklayer Ben Jonson had built a garden wall in Lincoln’s Inn. After having been an apprentice bricklayer, Ben Jonson went to the Netherlands, and volunteered to soldier with the English regiments of Francis Vere (1560–1609), in Flanders.

The Hawthornden Manuscripts (1619), of the conversations between Ben Jonson and the poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649), reported that, when in Flanders, the soldier Jonson had engaged, fought, and killed an enemy soldier in single combat, and took for trophies the weapons of the vanquished soldier. Upon demobilisation from military service on the Continent, Jonson returned to England and worked as an actor and as a playwright. As an actor, Jonson was the protagonist “Hieronimo” (Geronimo) in the play The Spanish Tragedy (ca. 1586), by Thomas Kyd (1558–94), the first revenge tragedy in English literature. Moreover, by 1597, he was a working playwright employed by Philip Henslowe, the leading producer for the English public theatre; by the next year, the production of Every Man in His Humour (1598) had established Ben Jonson’s reputation as a dramatist.“Ben Jonson”, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, p. 611“Thomas Kyd”, Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge, volume 11, p. 122.