Ben Jonson’s full name was Benjamin Jonson. His father died when Ben was a child and his mother married a brick layer. Ben was sent to a local church school. William Camden, a master at Westminster School, spotted his potential and paid for him to be educated at Westminster. But Jonson’s step-father had higher things in mind for him. He took him out of school and set him to work as a brick layer. Jonson hated the work and went to join the English army in Flanders. He distinguished himself by challenging a Spanish soldier to single combat and killing him in front of the two armies.
Jonson returned to England in 1592 and married. Family life was not happy. For five years he and his wife lived apart. He described his wife as “a shrew, but honest”. They seem to have grown closer in later years. None of his children survived him.
Jonson decided to take up a theatrical career. In 1586 he was recorded as a player and a playwright of ‘the Admiral’s Men’. The Admiral’s Men were a well-known troupe of actors and rivals to Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
In 1598 Jonson fought a duel with one of his fellow actors and killed him. Killing was a capital offence, but a good defence to murder under Elizabethan law was that you could read Latin – ‘benefit of clergy’ as it was called. Jonson, who must have been glad he had concentrated on his lessons at Westminster School, was only branded on the thumb.
But killing the staff did not endear him to Henslowe, the manager of the Admiral’s Men, and he was forced to leave. He turned to Shakespeare for help. Shakespeare persuaded the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to stage one of Jonson’s plays, Every Man To His Humour, at the Globe in 1598. Shakespeare played one of the parts. Henslowe must have forgiven Jonson because Jonson wrote several plays which were put on at the Fortune Theatre in Golden Lane, a new theatre built by Edward Alleyn for the Admiral’s Men as a rival to Shakespeare’s Globe. Jonson continued to write for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as well and in 1603, his great tragedy, Sejanus, was put on by Shakespeare’s company. They were close friends; and Jonson, Shakespeare and others used to engage in what they called ‘wit-combats’ at the Mermaid Tavern and the Devil’s Tavern.
Clearly Jonson liked a good fight. But as he grew older he gave up actually killing his enemies, in favour of lampooning them in his plays. He seems to have had a running dispute with two fellow playwrights, Marston and Dekker. He portrayed them insultingly in several plays. But he did not entirely give up old ways. He got into a fight with Marston in which he beat him and took his pistol away.
Further career opportunities were opened for him by the accession to the throne of James I. Jonson was commissioned to write masques for performance before the king. But he was soon in trouble again. Chapman and Marston (with whom Jonson had made up) were thrown in prison because their play, Eastward Hoe, contained some references to the Scots which offended the king. The expected penalty was to have their noses and ears cut off. With characteristic courage, Jonson insisted on joining them in prison because he had been part of the writing team. Fortunately, they had some friends at court who spoke for them and they were released with their features intact.
In 1605, Jonson had a great success with Volpone which was staged at the Globe. The next ten years were the most brilliant of his career. He was not a prolific play writer, but the five plays he wrote between 1605 and 1615 – Epicoene, The Alchemist, Cataline, Bartholomew Fayre and The Devil Is An Ass – were all great successes. Only Shakespeare was more successful in the public theatre.
King James was a great fan of Jonson’s plays. Jonson was the most learned of the Elizabethan playwrights. His knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics was profound, and he was fanatical in observing the classical Greek rules of drama. He indulged in a thousand little touches derived from reading Latin literature. All this suited the King’s temperament very well, since he fancied himself as a scholar. The King gave Jonson an annual pension. According to gossip of the time, the king wanted to knight Jonson, but Jonson asked influential friends to persuade him not to.
The accession of Charles I to the throne brought a downturn in Jonson’s career. The new king was not such an admirer. Jonson’s lucrative role in writing royal masques for performance at court was taken over by Inigo Jones. His plays for the stage were not successes. Jonson was going out of fashion. He responded to critics by writing abusive verses about them. In 1626 he fell ill with the dropsy and the palsy, from which he suffered increasingly in his last years.
Ben Jonson died in 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His connection with the Barbican is that he lived for some time in the Parish of St Giles Without Cripplegate (which included the Barbican) and his plays were performed at the Fortune Theatre in Golden Lane.