Ben Jonson

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Ben Jonson : biography

c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

Regarding his personal life, to William Drummond, Jonson described the woman he took to wife as “a shrew, yet honest”. Since the seventeenth century, the identity of Mrs Ben Jonson has been obscure, yet she sometimes is identified as “Ann Lewis”, the woman who married a Benjamin Jonson in 1594, at the church of St Magnus-the-Martyr, near London Bridge.“Ben Jonson”, Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th Edition, p. 612. Concerning the family procreated by Anne Lewis and Ben Jonson, the St. Martin church registers indicate that Mary Jonson, their eldest daughter, died in November 1593, at six months of age. That a decade later, in 1603, Benjamin Jonson, their eldest son, died of Bubonic plague when he was seven years old; to lament and honour the dead boy, Benjamin Jonson père wrote the elegiac On My First Sonne (1603). Moreover, thirty-two years later, a second son, also named Benjamin Jonson, died in 1635. In that period, Mr and Mrs Jonson lived separate lives for five years; their matrimonial arrangement cast Ann Lewis as the housewife Jonson, and Ben Jonson as the artist who enjoyed the residential hospitality of his patrons, Sir Robert Townshend and Lord Aubigny, Esme Stuart, 3rd Duke of Lennox.

Royal patronage

At the beginning of the reign of James I, King of England, in 1603 Jonson joined other poets and playwrights in welcoming the new king. Jonson quickly adapted himself to the additional demand for masques and entertainments introduced with the new reign and fostered by both the king and his consort Anne of Denmark. In addition to his popularity on the public stage and in the royal hall, he enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats such as Elizabeth Sidney (daughter of Sir Philip Sidney) and Lady Mary Wroth. This connection with the Sidney family provided the impetus for one of Jonson’s most famous lyrics, the country house poem To Penshurst.

In February 1603 John Manningham reported that Jonson was living on Robert Townsend, son of Sir Roger Townshend, and "scorns the world.". Perhaps this explains why his trouble with English authorities continued. That same year he was questioned by the Privy Council about Sejanus, a politically themed play about corruption in the Roman Empire. He was again in trouble for topical allusions in a play, now lost, in which he took part. Shortly after his release from a brief spell of imprisonment imposed to mark the authorities’ displeasure at the work, in the second week of October 1605, he was present at a supper party attended by most of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. After the plot’s discovery he appears to have avoided further imprisonment; he volunteered what he knew of the affair to the investigator Robert Cecil and the Privy Council. Father Thomas Wright, who heard Fawkes’s confession, was known to Jonson from prison in 1598 and Cecil may have directed him to bring the priest before the council, as a witness. (Teague, 249). At the same time, Jonson pursued a more prestigious career, writing masques for James’s court. The Satyr (1603) and The Masque of Blackness (1605) are two of about two dozen masques which Jonson wrote for James or for Queen Anne; The Masque of Blackness was praised by Algernon Charles Swinburne as the consummate example of this now-extinct genre, which mingled speech, dancing, and spectacle.

On many of these projects he collaborated, not always peacefully, with designer Inigo Jones. For example, Jones designed the scenery for Jonson’s masque Oberon, the Faery Prince performed at Whitehall on 1 January 1611 in which Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, appeared in the title role. Perhaps partly as a result of this new career, Jonson gave up writing plays for the public theatres for a decade. He later told Drummond that he had made less than two hundred pounds on all his plays together.

In 1616 Jonson received a yearly pension of 100 marks (about £60), leading some to identify him as England’s first Poet Laureate. This sign of royal favour may have encouraged him to publish the first volume of the folio collected edition of his works that year. Other volumes followed in 1640–41 and 1692. (See: Ben Jonson folios)