Ben Jonson: A Life

Early life

Ben Jonson was born on 11 June 1572. His father, a clergyman, had died a month before his birth. His mother married a bricklayer, Robert Brett, when Ben was still a young boy, and the family took up residence on Hartshorn Lane, a narrow alley that once ran from the Strand to the wharves on the Thames. As a boy, he went to the local elementary school maintained by the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A gifted student, he was sent to Westminster School, where he studied under the school’s second master, the famous antiquary, William Camden. His early biographer, William Fuller, wrote that he went up to St. John’s College, Cambridge, but had to return after only a month due to lack of funds, and instead worked for his stepfather on the new buildings at Lincoln’s Inn in the summer of 1588. Jonson would be mocked for his early life as a labourer by the city wits in his later life. In the early 1590s, Jonson left London and joined the English troops in the Netherlands, returning to England in the autumn of 1592.


Like William Shakespeare, Jonson began his career in the theatre as an actor. Thomas Dekker taunted Jonson that he worked in a travelling acting company, playing the part of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. His earliest known play, The Case is Altered, was performed in London in 1597; in the same year, he collaborated with Thomas Nashe on a play, The Isle of Dogs, which caused such offence to the authorities that Jonson was imprisoned along with two actors, Gabriel Spence and Robert Shaa. The next year, Jonson was in prison again, this time on a more serious charge of manslaughter after killing the actor, Spence, in a duel. He escaped hanging by being able to recite the ‘neck-verse’, Psalm 51:1, but was branded on the thumb.

Jonson’s career reached its peak under James I. He wrote his most successful plays, Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), and was the leading writer of masques for the courts of James and his consort, Queen Anna. In the same year that he published his Works (1616), he was awarded an annual royal pension, establishing his reputation as the ‘King’s Poet’. With the death of James I and accession of Charles I in 1625, Jonson’s fortunes began to decline, as did his health, and he suffered a debilitating stroke around 1628. His late plays were failures on the public stage, and he relied heavily on his royal pension and the patronage of his noble friends, particularly William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle. Jonson died in August 1637, and was buried in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey after a grand funeral procession attended by many of the nobility and gentry.

A full biography of Ben Jonson is available to subscribers only at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and a shorter version is available freely at Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature.


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