Ben Jonson Comedy Within A Tragedy Essay

Ben Jonson: Comedy Within A Tragedy Essay, Research Paper

Born in London, England around June 11, 1572, Ben Jonson would learn the true meaning of tragedy at a tender young age (The Life of Ben Jonson). Jonson’s father was Protestant and sentenced to prison and deprived of his estate during the reign of Mary Tudor, who was Catholic. With only a month left till Ben Jonson’s birth his Mother was left a penniless widow when his father suddenly past away. Seeking financial stability, Jonson’s Mother hastily married a bricklayer shortly following Ben’s birth (Ben Jonson).

Ben Jonson attended school at the Westminster School in London where the school’s Master William Camden paid for his education. Following completion of his education, Jonson opted to practice his stepfathers trade of brick laying rather than attending a University for further education (Poetry: Ben Jonson). Growing very unhappy with the trade he had chosen, Jonson joined the Army where he served in Flanders.

Jonson made the decision to return to England in 1592 where he met his soon to be wife, Anne Lewis. The two were united in marriage just a few years later on November 14, 1594. Jonson returned to the trade of bricklaying to support his family, but began writing poetry on the side. In 1596 his wife, Anne, gave birth to their only son whom Johnson referred to as his “best piece of poetry”(Ben Jonson). Eventually growing tired of bricklaying again; Jonson gained employment as an actor and playwright with the London theatrical company of Phillip Henslowe (The Life of Ben Jonson). Following his employment, Johnson was imprisoned by Elizabeth for his play, The Isle of Dogs because the authorities believed it offensive (The Life of Ben Jonson).

After his imprisonment, Ben Jonson emerged from the crowds of unrecognized playwrights with his play Every Man in His Humor. This being Jonson’s first popular work, he dedicated it to his inspiration, teacher, and friend Master William Camden. Following Jonson’s success, he once again found himself in trouble with the law.

During a duel in the fields at Shoreditch, Johnson mistakenly killed fellow actor Gabriel Spencer. Jonson was tried for murder at Old Baily, where he narrowly escaped by sent to the gallows by pleading the benefit of clergy. Forfeiting all of his possessions and receiving the brand of felon on his thumb, Jonson was released (The Life of Ben Jonson). It was during these subsequent imprisonment’s that Jonson converted his beliefs to Roman Catholicism (The Life of Ben Jonson).

Following Jonson’s release was the first performance of his new play, Every Man Out if his Humor causing reason for grand celebration. However, his happiness was cut short in 1603 when his son at the tender age of seven was struck down with the plague. Devastated by his son’s death, Jonson began to live the bohemian life of the city, drinking often and engaging in very detrimental behavior (Ben Jonson).

Desiring to raise himself up from the bottom, Jonson received an opportunity to compose entertainment and masques for the court (The Life of Ben Jonson). Jonson was given the task of designing masques to be associated with all important state occasions and as a result, Johnson was appointed court poet. Ben Jonson designed masques that showed off his erudition, wit, and versatility, thereby showcasing some of his best lyric poetry ever (Barish, 40).

Above all this Jonson would become known for his enduring comedies written between 1605 and 1614(The Life of Ben Jonson). Volpone, written in 1605, and The Alchemist, written in 1610 are both broad-based comedies that stand as Jonson’s most produced plays. Both plays are well liked in modern times and were highly regarded during Jacobean times (Ben Jonson). Following the highly successful Volpone and The Alchemist, Johnson teamed up with George Chapman and William Marsten in the to write Eastwrd Ho!, a brilliant comedy that ridiculed the Scots. Deeply offending King James I, who was a Scot himself, the authors were sentenced to imprisonment. In time, Jonson contacted enough people to help secure his release by claiming Marsten, who fled to avoid imprisonment, had written the offensive lines himself (Ben Jonson).

In 1610, after being a devout Catholic for over a decade, Jonson converted back to Anglicanism (The Life of Ben Jonson). As one could see Jonson continually experienced tragedy throughout his life. It was then in 1616, Jonson’s comedy, The Devil is an Ass, opened to wide criticism causing Johnson to become very discouraged. Jonson was discouraged to the point that it took him nine years to write and produce another play. Although Jonson would not write for some time, he was appointed as poet laureate and received a substantial pension (The Life of Ben Jonson).

At 45 years old, Jonson began a yearlong journey to Scotland entirely by foot (The Life of Ben Jonson). During his journey, William Drummond of Hawthorden recorded conversations between himself and Jonson. Drummond remarked about Jonson

“ He is a great lover and praise of himself; a condemned and scorner

of others; given rather then to loose a friend than jest;…he is

Passionately kind and angry; careless either to gain or keep

vindictive, but, if he will be answered, at himself…; oppressed

with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason”(qtd in The Life…)

Upon his return from Scotland, Ben Jonson was presented with an honorary Master of Arts from Oxford University, and subsequently given the opportunity to lecture on rhetoric at Gresham College in London (The Life of Ben Jonson). It was then is 1625 that Jonson’s dry spell ended with the play The Staple of News. Then in 1628 Jonson’s life took a turn for the worse. He started out the year by being appointed Chronologer for the city of London, but within a few months of receiving this honor he suffered a severe stroke which left his paralyzed and confined (Barish, 57).

During his confinement, Jonson was well cared for by his friends and financially by the King. On August 6, 1637 Ben Jonson died from a combination of complications resulting from his stroke (Barish,58). Jonson was buried in the historic Westminster Abby under a concrete slab engraved, “ O’ Rare Ben Jonson!”(The Life of Ben Jonson).

Following Jonson’s death, his admirers and friends contributed to the collection of memorial eulogies, entitled Jonsonus Virbius published in 1638(The Life of Ben Jonson). Despite Jonson’s death, the world still had one more play to experience. Sad Shepherds Tale, was his last play that was unfinished by his death. It was posthumously published in 1641.

Despite all of Ben Jonson’s apparent failures and despite his frequent feuds, he was the dean and leader of a group of writers. These young poets would meet at Mermaid Tavern in the Cheapside district of London were they became known as the “Sons of Ben, later called the Cavalier Poets (the Life of Ben Jonson). The “Sons” included such great writers as Robert Herrick, Thomas Larew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace to name a few (The Life of Ben Jonson). For a man who never received a true University education; his writing made and impact for many years and generations.

From the beginning, the stage was only a form of financial support for Jonson because he only aspired to be a pure poet (Poetry Ben Jonson). Ben Jonson cannot in fact be considered only a poet because his playwrights hold a prominent place in history and theatre. Ben Jonson is an icon in theatrical history and literature (Ben Jonson), and he is also known as a master of comedies. With his mixture of personal prestige, the extraordinary number of his friends and enemies, and maybe the fact that we know little about him, Ben Johnson is considered by many to be one of the most eccentric playwrights ever.


Alex Konieczny

September 24, 2000

Connie Whitt-Lambert

Intro to Theatre

“Ben Jonson.” Online. Internet. 18 Sept. 2000. Available http://www.imagi-

Jokinen, Anniina. “The Life Of Ben Jonson.” 17 July 2000. Online. Internet.

18 Sept. 2000. Available


Jonas, A Barish, ed., Ben Jonson. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.

“Poetry: Ben Jonson: Biography.” Online. Internet. 18 Sept. 2000. Available


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