JONSON, Ben or Benjamin, English poet and dramatist, contemporary and friend of Shakespeare: b. d. 6 Aug. 1637. Accord ing to his conversations with Drummond, his father was a gentleman, who lost his estate under Queen Mary and then turned minister. Benjamin was born after his father's death, and his mother afterward married a bricklayer, an occupation in which Ben Jonson was en gaged for some time, and with which he was frequently taunted by his enemies. He was educated at Westminster School, under the in struction of William Camden, whose scholarship and friendship he afterward praised in the high est terms. He proceeded to Cambridge but remained there for only a short time, later the degree of master of arts from both universities "by their favour, not his studies? After his return to London, he seems to have worked for a time at his father's trade, then to have served as a soldier in the Low Countries, after which he returned to England, married, and by 1595, became an actor and playwright.
In 1598, his famous comedy 'Every Man in His Humour> was acted by the Lord Chamber lain's servants (Shakespeare's company). This play marks the full beginning of sus dramatic career; it -is the first of his long series of humoristic comedies, and is the first outcome of his life-long effort to infuse into the drama critical consciousness and painstaking art. In the same year Jonson quarreled with a well known actor, Gabriel Spenser, and killed him in a duel on 22 September. Jonson escaped serious penalty by pleading benefit of clergy; and in the following year his 'Every Man Out of His Humour' was acted 'before the queen. Jonson's quarrelsome temper was apparently little abated by his recent imprisonment, for his 'Cynthia's Revels,> acted 1600, satirized Marston and Dekker, and 'The Poetaster,' provoked by retorts actual or intended, continued the attack in unmistakable terms. Dekker retorted in the same year with his 'Satironmastix, or the Untrussing of the Hu mourous Poet.> But this "war of thz theatres' shortly subsided.
The accession of James I in 1603 brought a great improvement in Jonsort's circumstances through the patronage of the court, exhibited in various employments, honors and eventually a pension. Henceforth he counted among his friends and patrons the most distinguished men of the time, and he was able to devote his pro digious energies to scholarship and poetry with out leaning too heavily upon the stage for pecuniary aid. His immediate access to royal favor seems to have been maintained by his success in writing masks. These musical and spectacular entertainments assumed an elabo rate form at the court of James, and Jonson at once became the chief literary purveyor to this' fashion, a position which he maintained until his quarrels with Inigo Jones and the super sedence of the literary by the scenic elements of these shows put an end to his employment. The first half of the reign of was also the time of Jonson's dramatic masterpieces. His tragedies, (Sejanus> and 'Catiline' were acted in 1603 and 1611, and the greatest of his comedies came in the same period, Wolpone,) 1605, 'The Silent Woman,' 1609, 'The Alchem ist> 1610, and 'Bartholomew Fair,' 1614. Dur ing the same years, Jonson was maintaining many friendships with scholars and poets, with Camden, Selden and Bacon, with Chapman, Beaumont, Fletcher and Shakespeare; and he was becoming the recognized chief of the wits whose gatherings have made the Mermaid Tav ern famous in literature.
Jonson's life however, was by no means free from vicissitude. In 1605 he was impris oned along with Marston and Chapman on ac count of a passage reflecting on the Scotch in 'Eastward Hoe,' a play on which they had col laborated. He had become a Roman Catholic in 1598, but after 12 years returned again to the Protestant faith. In 1613 he was in France as tutor of the son of Sir Walter Raleigh; and in 1618 he made a pedestrian expedition to Scotland. Here he was received
with honors and banquets, and entertained for several weeks by the poet, William Drummond, at his seat, Hawthornden. Drummond's notes of his conversations with Jonson furnish us with most interesting and valuable records of Jonson's character and opinions, but it must be remembered that Jonson was talking with great freedom and with no idea of being reported, and that the reports were doubtless colored by the temper and prejudices of the reporter. Some of Jonson's weaknesses as well as his host's sourness of temper are to be found in Drummond's well-known postscript:. "He is a great lover and praiser of himself ; a con temner and scorner of others; given rather to lose 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); . . . he is passionately kynde and angry; careless either to gain or keep; vindic tive, but, if he be well answered, at himself.' From 1616 to 1625 Jonson wrote no plays for the public stage but he wrote numerous masks and remained in high favor at court. After the death of James -he seems to have fallen on unprosperous days; his occupation as a writer of masks ceased, and he turned again to the stage. His 'Staple of News' was acted in 1625, and 'The New Inn,> 1629, the latter proving an utter failure. He had suffered an irreparable loss in the burning of his library which included many manuscripts of his incom pleted works as well as a notable collection of books in which he had a scholar's pride. Want and disease added to his troubles, and we have many appeals for aid addressed by him to his noble patrons. Fortunately these met with re sponse and King Charles increased his annuity. The few plays and entertainments composed at this time give evidence of his failing powers; and give force to the conjecture that the beau tiful drama, 'The Sad Shepherd,' left unfinished at his death, must have been written at a much earlier date. In old age and sick ness, however, Jonson held his place at the head of English men of letters. 'The Mermaid' had given place to 'The Devil Tavern,' and the old friends to a set of young disciples who sealed themselves "of the tribe of Ben." But his liter ary dictatorship was recognized outside of this intimate circle, and contemporary literature abounds in tributes of respect and admiration. The most famous of these is the brief epitaph carved on the stone that marks his grave in Westminster Abbey : "0 rare Ben Jonson." Jonson's character is better known to us than that of any of his literary contemporaries. Combative, arrogant, opinionated, outspoken and generous, he drank deeply, swore freely, learned his Latin thoroughly, wrote his plays carefully, went to prison for his friends and fought every fight to the finish. His failings were due to excess not weakness; his virtues were full-grown; whatever he did, he did vig orously, ponderously perhaps, but always whole heartedly. To scholarship, to criticism, to poetry and the drama, he 'brought this vehement positiveness and this whole-hearted laborious ness. His personality is stamped on all his work, but in the enjoyment of some of its sa lient manifestations,. one must not lose sight of the range and power and fineness of his liter ary achievement as a scholar, a critic, a trans.: lator and a lyric poet as well as a dramatist, nor the great importance of his 40 years of activity in the development of the drama and the history of literature. His non-dramatic work includes an 'English Grammar,' 'Discov eries,' a prose tract treating among other mat ters of literary and dramatic criticism, 'The Forest,' a collection of his epigrams and other poetry, and 'Underwoods,' another collection of minor poems and translations. His drama tic work comprises masks, tragedies and com edies, three forms that Jonson kept distinct.