Ben 'Origin Unknown' Jonson (1572?-1637)

Benjamin Johnson1 was born in the first half of 1573, probably 11 June, somewhere in England2. We know he wasn't born in Westminster, although that's where he went to school. His father had been a Protestant minister who died very shortly before Ben's birth. At some point, Ben's mother moved to the city of Westminster and married a bricklayer3. Ben attended the free parish school when he was very young, and it was only because of the intervention of some kindly soul4 that he was able to afford to go on to Westminster Grammar School5. He tried for a scholarship, the only way he could possibly have continued his schooling....and failed6. Ben's stepfather arranged for him to be apprenticed to another bricklayer for the seven years it would take for Ben to receive his guild membership and become a free, full citizen of London. There's no real record of his opinion of all this (naturally), but we do know that he read a lot. I mean a LOT. Pretty soon he could hold his own with any formally-educated person, though in Ben's own frequently-expressed opinion, he could more than hold his own with anybody7.

Ben married a woman named Ann Lewis on 14 November 15948, which was odd because the wedding took place while Ben was still an apprentice and not really free to marry. Ann9 must have been an unusually tolerant woman, since she let Ben go into acting rather than bricklaying once his apprenticeship ended. Acting (then and now) was an iffy profession at the best of times, and Ben started out in about the worst acting job there was: travelling with a touring company10. But three years later, we find Ben's name on the list of actors at the Swan, a theatre used by Pembroke's Company. One of his first assignments was to help an established playwright, Thomas Nashe, write a play called Isle of Dogs. The play was banned almost instantly on the grounds that it was seditious11. Both playwrights and most of the leading actors were arrested and thrown into Fleet Prison. Ben was in prison for a few months, and he was out of a job when he was released: the Swan Theatre was never allowed to reopen after the scandal. Undaunted, he started working for the Admiral's Company at the Rose Theatre. In 1598, he wrote a play called Every Man in His Humour, a comedy in the classical style which Ben so admired12. This play was actually performed by a rival company called the Chamberlain's Men, which featured Richard Burbage (the Elizabethan Brad Pitt) and William Shakespeare13. The play was a great hit, and Ben was on his way.

On 22 December 1598, Ben fought a duel with an actor named Gabriel Spencer. We don't know what the fight was about14, but Ben won, unfortunately killing Gabriel in the process. Ben found himself promptly back in prison and under sentence of death. He got off by pleading benefit of clergy, an ancient law which allowed ministers to escape executions on the grounds that they were touched by God and therefore above human laws. He wasn't a clergyman, of course, but he could read Latin and that was all that ancient law required him to do. Ben was branded at the base of his thumb with a T and released15. In any case, Ben started writing for the Company again, apparently forgiven for Gabriel's death. In 1599, Every Man out of His Humour was first performed16. This was the first of his plays to be printed, and it was fairly popular. It was a very unusual thing for plays to be printed at all back then, and Ben made it even stranger by printing this play in an expensive format instead of the usual cheap quarto style.

Ben also wrote several plays for the Children of the Chapel Royal, a newly-established boy acting troup. Cynthia's Revels was one of those plays, a very informed satire of the Court. So informed was it that two other playwrights of the time, John Marston and Thomas Dekker, were convinced they recognized themselves in two of the less-likeable characters. They promptly collaborated on a play satirizing Ben, which the Chamberlain's Men performed, to the great delight of the London theatregoing public17. Ben just as promptly fired back with Poetaster, or The Arraignment, whose main character was the image of Marston, with Dekker in a more minor role. Horace (the Roman playwright and one of Ben's biggest heroes) was also there, spouting the Classical theories of playwriting. So Dekker also put Horace into his next play, Satiromastix, which translates to "the satirist whipped." The feud ended there, though. Poetaster had attacked the law and the military as well as Dekker and Marston. Ben was saved by the intervention of one Richard Martin, a lawyer with an actual sense of humor, and after that, Ben decided that tragedies were safer. He wrote several over the next two years.

In February 1603, Ben finally got himself a patron18. Sir Robert Townsend supplied the necessary funds for Ben to live on while writing Sejanus, a Roman tragedy. Though it was performed, it was only the highly educated minority who really liked it. Fortunately, the newly-crowned Queen Anne, wife of James I, loved plays and masques. Ben was about to hit the big time.

To be Continued... or possibly edited... or both.

Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1953.

  1. That's his legal name, as much as such things mattered in those days. He spelled his last name differently to try and make him stand out in a city already cluttered with Johnsons. It really didn't take in his day, though - his friends and enemies both left the 'h' in and even his printers spelled his name the usual way whenever he wasn't looking.

  2. I find this lack of information very frustrating. You'd think someone would have paid a little more attention to the birth of a famous poet and playwright.

  3. This was quite a comedown for her. Bricklayers were pretty low down even on the scale of laborers, whereas ministers were of course educated and generally well-respected. It was probably solely due to his mother's influence that Ben got to go to school at all.

  4. No, we don't know who the kindly soul is. Face it, we know next to nothing about this man. Unsubstantiated Newsflash! Sources tell me the man was William Camden, the the headmaster of the Westminister School. (added Feb 2, 2001)

  5. Westminster School taught Latin, of course, and also (unusually) Greek. They also had a teacher who didn't believe in beating his students. All in all, the school was shockingly progressive.

  6. Yep, he blew it. Just one of those amazing bits of irony we find amongst the famous.

  7. Ben had a very high opinion of his own intelligence throughout his life. He also had no use for the idea that noble birth automatically makes you a better person.

  8. Yes, it's an actual, verifiable fact. Don't let it go to your head, though.

  9. Don't go expecting any information about Ann. Ben wrote three words of description about her in later years: a "shrew, yet honest," he called her. To be fair to Ben, he thought honest was about the best compliment anybody could give anybody; to be fair to Ann, Ben deserved some nagging, as he was rarely faithful and frequently lived apart from her, on one occasion

  10. [...?...] outdated plays using wretched props. But they were still more culture than most villages got to see in those days.

  11. This is a good representative sample of the way Ben's entire life tended to be. The Privy Council was so upset by this play that they not only closed down all the London theatres for a time, they even talked about tearing down all the London theatres.

  12. Though worshipped is probably a better word than admired. His life goal was nothing less than the complete reformation of the Elizabethan theatre in the style of the ancient Romans and Greeks. Unfortunately for Ben, the Elizabethan theatre thought it was just fine the way it was.

  13. Though a great admirer of Shakespeare's poetry, as well as a personal friend of Will's, Ben thought his plays in general to be just one more symptom of how far downhill the theatre had gone.

  14. Maybe Gabriel just ad-libbed too much.

  15. I'm not sure why they used a T; maybe just because it was a simple shape. While in prison, Ben converted to Roman Catholicism, persuaded by a minister who was probably a fellow prisoner. Ben just must have liked the path of most resistance. Twelve years later, just when Catholicism was starting to be tolerated, he became a Protestant again.

  16. In spite of the title similarity, it was nothing to do with Ben's earlier play. That confused a lot of people.

  17. They loved a good theatrical feud. Ben wasn't trying to satirize Dekker or Marston, actually; they just leapt to conclusions and kind of embarrassed themselves. Ben wrote a few lines on the subject, saying they "might have sat still, unquestioned,/ Had they but the wit or conscience/To think well of themselves."

  18. This was the single major focus of most poets and playwrights of the time. The biggest problem was that there were always many more poets than patrons.

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