Ben Jonson Biography

Apparently, Ben Jonson descends from a Scottish family. He never knew his father (his father died one month after his birth) and his mother remarried to a master bricklayer. Jonson attended school in Saint Martin’s lane and then at Westminster School. He did not go to University, never enjoyed the trade of brick-laying, enrolled in the army and then fought in the Low Countries. He married to a woman whom he described as “a shrew, but honest”. In 1597 he was in London, probably actor, or trying his luck writing plays. In 1599, he had already written a few comedies, including “Every man in his humour” and “The case is altered”. By 1599, he had already been thrown in jail twice, first for the offences caused by his play “The Isle of dogs”, and the second time for killing someone in a duel. He then converted to Catholicism. In 1598 “Every man in his humour” had been a success, and apparently included Shakespeare as one of the actors.

Never shy of controversies, Jonson had issues and feuds, mainly with John Marston and Thomas Dekker. During the reign of James I, Jonson started writing masques which then were very much in fashion. But his problems with authority did not stop here. He was questioned by the Privy council for his Play “Sejanus”, dealing with corruption in the Roman Empire, which they had felt was a theme a little too close to home. He also had some obscure involvement with many conspirators of the Gunpowder plot, but was not sent to jail this time. Then came fame and success with [Volpone->artXXX]in 1606, The Alchemist in 1610, “Bartholomew Fair” in 1614, “The devil is an ass” in 1616. Still, contrarily to Shakespeare, Jonson always struggled with money. In the 1620s, he carried on writing till the end but never achieved the same success than the one he had known in the previous years. He died on 6 August 1637. He is buried inside Westminster Abbey.

Far from Shakespearan comedies, lighter, romantic, with their plots involving love and foreign locations, Ben Jonson’s comedies were harsher, cruder, aimed to use a language “such as men do use”, he will remain best known for the sheer intricacy of his stories, and especially the cruelty of situations which he describes, always aiming to denounce the ugly side of human nature through the use of satire, sometimes verging on the absurd. Revered in the Seventeenth century alongside Shakespeare, he remains one of the greatest English playwrights, and also one of the most controversial. Coleridge is known as saying that The Alchemist has one of the most perfect plots of English literature. [Volpone->artXXX]’s influence crossed borders. It was rewritten by Stefan Zweig and Jules Romains, and staged in 1928. Les Éditions de Londres have no doubt the uniqueness and the strength of Jonson’s satirical comedies exerted a major influence on British humour.

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