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Ben Jonson

Born in 1572, Jonson began his working life as a bricklayer and then a soldier, and it is perhaps experiences in these fields – and his prodigious intake of falling down water – that shaped his no-nonsense, confrontational personality.

Jonson became an actor after serving in the army in the Netherlands. By all accounts, he was not a very good actor, but during his time with Pembroke's Men he co-authored a play, "Isle of Dogs," with Nashe. The play, accused of spreading sedition, would lead to one of many brushes with the State, and he was imprisoned for some months.

Jonson wrote for the Admiral's Men until 1856, when a quarrel with Gabriel Spencer, one of the company's leading players, led to a duel. Spencer was killed and Jonson only spared execution by drawing on his knowledge of Latin to invoke the benefit of the clergy, which enabled the convicted criminal to pass as a clergyman, and therefore obtain a discharge from the civil courts. It is believed that while in Newgate Prison he converted to Roman Catholicism, and here was branded on his thumb with the "T" for Tyburn (the most famous place of execution in London after the Tower) to ever more remind him of his lucky escape.

Jonson's first box office successes came about with comedies like "Every Man In His Humour," which featured Shakespeare in the cast. It is thought Shakespeare was probably the one who first championed Jonson as a writer of note. Jonson's method of working began to crystallize about this time, and he began to produce more hard-edged, biting satire dispensing with a lot of the farce and frippery that were Shakespeare's tools. As his work became ever more distinctive and classically inspired he began to heap disdain on other writers and their work.

Boys' Company perform Jonson's Poetaster
Boys' Company performance of
"Poetaster"
In the early 1600's, Jonson embraced a new phenomenon. Boys Companies were as seductive to audiences and as threatening to Shakespeare's brand of theatre as N*Synch and Boys 2 Men were to today's Springsteens, REMs and Rolling Stones.

Boys Companies were highly trained in vocal and instrumental music, and with their youthful looks and skin were probably a lot easier to relate to in women's roles than the half shaved, former soldiers of the adult theatre companies.

Jonson, the classical scholar, and Shakespeare, the populist crowd-pleaser as Jonson saw him, even came to blows in a "discussion" over the merits, or otherwise, of the Boys Companies. A protracted, and wordy, War of the Poets ensued, with both sides of the argument trading digs and insults through their work.

Imagine an episode of the TV show Frasier that lasts three years, and features an unbroken argument between Niles and Frasier Crane on the relative merits of Jung and Freud, and you get the general idea.

Jonson would find himself in trouble with the State time and time again – for ridiculing the Scots in "Eastward Ho!" and most seriously when he was questioned over the gunpowder plot, after which he renounced his "provocative" Roman Catholicism. Later his play, "Sejanus," would also fall foul of the censors.

Jonson, always something of a misunderstood outsider in his own writing, would comment on his lot at the hands of a society rife with envy and suspicion:

know, tis a dangerous age,
Wherein who writes had need present his scenes
Forty-fold proof against the conjuring means
Of base detractors and illiterate apes

(It's interesting that spooky rock person Marilyn Manson has been quoted as referring to Limp Bizkit's front man Fred Durst as an "illiterate ape," Manson being another artistic figure who felt his work was being misrepresented after the atrocious events at Columbine.)

With the arrival of James I on the throne, Jonson found himself in favor once again, and, with his co-writer Inigo Jones, created Court Masques for Queen Anne until their inevitable quarrel. Jonson and Shakespeare seem to have called a truce on their dispute and become close again around 1609. Until Shakespeare's death they seem to have continued their almost good natured jibes and sniping, with Jonson typically dismissing his friend as having "small Latin and less Greek."

Ben Jonson clearly saw himself as a champion of intellectualism – totalitarian states often don't care for intellectuals to the point that they will generally kill most of them. Shakespeare could ultimately be said to be cleverer in diluting his classical influences to reach a wider audience. It's that old Hollywood-versus-arthouse debate.

It was said at the time that "gentle Will" Shakespeare showed Jonson a courtesy that was not returned. Jonson certainly seems to have been brusque and volatile, a matter not helped by his drinking. Everyone drank alcohol in Elizabethan and Jacobean London because the quality of the available drinking water was so bad. But Jonson literally turned it into an art form, composing whole poems about his favorite drinking holes.

There seems to have been an almost brotherly relationship between Jonson and Shakespeare. Though their rivalry was strong, and their verbal jibes at each other cutting, both seemed to recognize the talent in each other – Jonson grudgingly, Shakespeare more generously. They seem to have spent a great deal of time in each other's company. It is believed that Shakespeare may have become ill prior to his death after a typically uproarious night out drinking (something strong and noxious, probably with an odd name like Left Leg) with Jonson and others.

Ultimately it was Jonson – perhaps his greatest and most constant critic – who gave Shakespeare his most enduring epitaph: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Ben Jonson died in 1637.


Works by Ben Jonson:
"The Alchemist"
"Cynthia's Revels"
"Every Man in His Humour"
"Every Man out of His Humour"
"Poetaster"
"Volpone"
"Sejanus"
"Catiline"
"Bartholomew Fair"
"The Devil is an Ass"
"Staple of News"
"Eastward Ho!"
"Epicoene"

The Player

Ben Jonson portrait
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