Ben Jonson

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Ben Jonson : biography

c. 11 June 1572 – 6 August 1637

Jonson’s other work for the theatre in the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign was marked by fighting and controversy. Cynthia’s Revels was produced by the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre in 1600. It satirised both John Marston, who Jonson believed had accused him of lustfulness, possibly in Histrio-Mastix, and Thomas Dekker. Jonson attacked the two poets again in 1601’s Poetaster. Dekker responded with Satiromastix, subtitled "the untrussing of the humorous poet". The final scene of this play, whilst certainly not to be taken at face value as a portrait of Jonson, offers a caricature that is recognisable from Drummond’s report – boasting about himself and condemning other poets, criticising performances of his plays, and calling attention to himself in any available way.

This "War of the Theatres" appears to have ended with reconciliation on all sides. Jonson collaborated with Dekker on a pageant welcoming James I to England in 1603 although Drummond reports that Jonson called Dekker a rogue. Marston dedicated The Malcontent to Jonson and the two collaborated with Chapman on Eastward Ho, a 1605 play whose anti-Scottish sentiment briefly landed both authors in jail.

Biographies of Ben Jonson

  • Ben Jonson: His Life and Work by Rosalind Miles
  • Ben Jonson: His Craft and Art by Rosalind Miles
  • Ben Jonson: A Literary Life by W. David Kay
  • Ben Jonson: A Life by David Riggs (1989)
  • Ben Jonson: A Life by Ian Donaldson (2011)

Relationship with Shakespeare

There are many legends about Jonson’s rivalry with Shakespeare, some of which may be true. Drummond reports that during their conversation, Jonson scoffed at two apparent absurdities in Shakespeare’s plays: a nonsensical line in Julius Caesar, and the setting of The Winter’s Tale on the non-existent seacoast of Bohemia. Drummond also reported Jonson as saying that Shakespeare "wanted art" (i.e., lacked skill). Whether Drummond is viewed as accurate or not, the comments fit well with Jonson’s well-known theories about literature.

In Timber, which was published posthumously and reflects his lifetime of practical experience, Jonson offers a fuller and more conciliatory comment. He recalls being told by certain actors that Shakespeare never blotted (i.e., crossed out) a line when he wrote. His own response, "Would he had blotted a thousand," was taken as malicious. However, Jonson explains, "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature, had an excellent phantasy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometimes it was necessary he should be stopped". Jonson concludes that "there was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned." Also when Shakespeare died, he said, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Thomas Fuller relates stories of Jonson and Shakespeare engaging in debates in the Mermaid Tavern; Fuller imagines conversations in which Shakespeare would run rings around the more learned but more ponderous Jonson. That the two men knew each other personally is beyond doubt, not only because of the tone of Jonson’s references to him but because Shakespeare’s company produced a number of Jonson’s plays, at least one of which (Every Man in His Humour) Shakespeare certainly acted in. However, it is now impossible to tell how much personal communication they had, and tales of their friendship cannot be substantiated.

Jonson’s most influential and revealing commentary on Shakespeare is the second of the two poems that he contributed to the prefatory verse that opens Shakespeare’s First Folio. This poem, "To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us," did a good deal to create the traditional view of Shakespeare as a poet who, despite "small Latine, and lesse Greeke",W.T. Baldwin had a natural genius. The poem has traditionally been thought to exemplify the contrast which Jonson perceived between himself, the disciplined and erudite classicist, scornful of ignorance and sceptical of the masses, and Shakespeare, represented in the poem as a kind of natural wonder whose genius was not subject to any rules except those of the audiences for which he wrote. But the poem itself qualifies this view: