Ben Jonson: Biography (1572-1637)

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Who is Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson Biography

Ben Jonson: Biography (1572-1637) A Literary Giant of the Stuart Era

Ben Jonson was a significant figure in English literature, renowned for his work as a playwright, poet, and actor during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His contributions to the literary world have cemented his place as one of the major dramatists and poets of the English Renaissance, second only to Shakespeare in his time.

Early Life and Background

Ben Jonson was born on June 11, 1572, in London, England. He died on August 6, 1637. Jonson’s early life was marked by hardship; his father, a minister, died a month before Jonson was born, leaving his family in financial difficulty. His mother remarried a bricklayer, and Jonson initially worked in his stepfather’s trade before joining the army and later, pursuing a career in the arts.

Academic Life

Though Jonson never attended university, he was educated at Westminster School under the renowned scholar William Camden, where he received a solid foundation in classical literature and languages. This education profoundly influenced his later work, which is known for its classical allusions and adherence to classical unities.

Career and Works

Jonson’s career in theater began in the 1590s. He worked as an actor and a playwright for various acting companies in London. His first major success was the comedy “Every Man in His Humour,” performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1598 with William Shakespeare in the cast. Jonson’s other significant works include “Volpone,” “The Alchemist,” “Bartholomew Fair,” and “The Masque of Blackness,” among others. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jonson was highly successful in writing masques, a form of festive courtly entertainment that blended music, dance, and elaborate staging.

Literary Contributions and Style

Jonson was a key figure in the development of the comedic genre in English theatre, known for his satirical plays that mocked the follies and vices of society. His work is characterized by its sophisticated structure, keen wit, and moralistic tone. He was also a prolific poet, with his collection “The Forest” and “Underwoods” including some of the most admired lyric poetry of the era.

Jonson’s comedy of humours, where characters are dominated by exaggerated personality traits or imbalances within their constitution, is a hallmark of his work. This innovative approach allowed Jonson to explore human nature and societal norms through satire, enriching his comedies with both humor and critique. His mastery of this genre is exemplified in plays such as “Every Man in His Humour” and “Volpone.”

Personal Life and Legacy: The first Poet Laureate

Jonson married Anne Lewis in 1594, and the couple had several children, though only a few survived to adulthood. Jonson’s personal life was marked by tragedy, including the deaths of his first son and later, another son and a daughter. His relationships with other poets and playwrights of the time were complex, marked by both deep friendships and bitter rivalries.

Despite facing numerous challenges throughout his life, including imprisonment and accusations of murder, Jonson’s contributions to English literature remained invaluable. He was the first English playwright to be granted a pension by the monarch, making him, in essence, the first Poet Laureate. Jonson’s influence persisted after his death, impacting the works of playwrights and poets in the centuries that followed.

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