Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jonson, Benjamin
JONSON, BENJAMIN (1573?–1637), dramatist, commonly known in his own day, and invariably since, as Ben Jonson, was born, it is said, in Westminster, in 1572–3. He was, according to his own account, as reported by Drummond of Hawthornden [q. v.], the grandson of 'a gentleman' who had come from Carlisle, 'and he thought from Annandale to it,' and had taken service under Henry VIII. Benjamin's father, however, lost his estate under Mary, subsequently became a 'minister,' and died a month before the birth of the dramatist. Mr. J. A. Symonds has shown that Jonson's arms, 'three spindles or rhombi,' were the specific bearing of the Johnstons of Annandale. He thus inherited border blood, a fact which may account for his combative instinct. Of his mother's ancestry, nothing is known. The little recorded of her shows that she was a woman of vigorous character, with much of the proud self-consciousness which marked her son. Her second husband, whom she married while Benjamin was still a child, was a 'master-bricklayer' living in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. Jonson was, according to his own account, 'poorly brought up.' He was first sent to a school held in the church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, but was soon removed to Westminster School at the expense of William Camden [q. v.], then second master, to whom he owed his future eminence in learning. The evidence is rather against his having attended either university. Fuller asserts that he was for a time a member of St. John's College, Cambridge; but he himself told Drummond that he was 'taken from school and put to a trade,' and that the degree which he possessed in each university was 'by their favour, not his studie.' The 'trade' in question, that of his stepfather, soon proved intolerable, and he escaped into Flanders, where the English troops were then prosecuting the struggle with Spain. Here he challenged and slew one of the enemy in single fight. He returned under unknown circumstances to London, probably not later than 1592, and married. He described his wife as 'a shrew, yet honest' (i.e. 'virtuous but ill-tempered'). For five years he lived apart from her, and he is said by Fuller to have been 'not very happy in his children,' none of whom survived him, while two at least, the eldest daughter Mary and son Benjamin (Epig. 22, 45), died in infancy; the former in November 1593, aged six months, and the latter of the plague in 1603, aged seven. Another son, also named Benjamin, for whom he obtained in 1635 the reversion of the office of master of the revels, died on 20 Nov. of that year.
Jonson began, probably not later than 1595, to work for the stage. In 1597 he appears both as a ‘player’ and as a playwright to the ‘admiral's men’ (Hewslowe, 22 July, 3 Dec.); in 1598 as writing a ‘tragedy’ for them (ib. 23 Oct.); and in the latter year Meres expressly mentions him among the chief English writers of tragedy. Dryden's vague assertion that he had written ‘several plays very unsuccessfully before’ this date is of little weight, but may be true. Two events of 1598 added, in different ways, to his fame. On 22 Sept. he fought what he later described as ‘a duel’ with one Gabriel Spencer, a fellow-actor, and killed him. Arrested on a charge of felony, he, according to the official record, pleaded guilty (Middlesex Sessions Rolls, quoted in Athenæum, 6 March 1886). He escaped the gallows by benefit of clergy, but underwent a brief imprisonment, in the course of which he adopted ‘on trust’ the catholic faith, to abjure it, on conviction, twelve years later. His own account to Drummond of the charge of murder ignores the confession of guilt, and hints that efforts were made to implicate him in still graver offences. The whole transaction remains obscure, but it is clear from the silence of his enemies, and from his own complacent language, that it was not thought to tell against him. It caused, however, a temporary breach with the admiral's company, whose manager, Henslowe, records the event with illiterate indignation. In October Henslowe seems, according to a somewhat obscure entry, to have handed over a ‘plot’ left in his hands by ‘Benjamin’ to Chapman for completion. The immediate consequence of the breach was the offer of Jonson's first extant comedy, ‘Every Man in his Humour,’ to the rival company, the ‘lord chamberlain's servants,’ by whom it was accepted—a late tradition recorded by Rowe says on the recommendation of Shakespeare—and it was successfully performed at the Globe in 1598, Shakespeare himself taking a part. Jonson thenceforth ranked among the foremost dramatists of the day. Henslowe, before August 1599, had once more sought his services, and from this date until 1602 he continued to write for Henslowe's company, for the most part in collaboration, but he included none of these plays among his works, and they have all, with one exception, perished. In the meantime he was throwing all the force of his genius into the three ‘comical satires,’ ‘Every Man out of his Humour,’ ‘Cynthia's Revels,’ and ‘Poetaster,’ of which the first was performed by the lord chamberlain's company, the others by the children of the queen's chapel. They are in part devoted to a somewhat petty quarrel with his associate, Thomas Dekker [q. v.], and with the probably somewhat younger dramatist, John Marston [q. v.] Jonson subsequently ascribed his dispute with the latter (in the course of which he ‘beat him and took his pistol from him’) to Marston's having ‘represented him on the stage in his youth given to venery.’ Such a representation has been detected in the Tubrio of the ‘Scourge of Villany’ (1598); and a retaliatory portrait of Marston has been variously detected in both the Clove (Simpson, Nicholson) and Buffone of Jonson's next play, ‘Every Man out of his Humour.’ It is doubtful whether Dekker was also attacked in that piece, since in September 1599 we find him still collaborating with Jonson for Henslowe. But it is certain that both Dekker and Marston were portrayed in the Hedon and Anaides of ‘Cynthia's Revels’ (1600). Marston's ‘Jack Drum's Entertainment’ in the same year contained a caricature of Jonson, and he and Dekker were engaged upon a more serious joint-attack, the ‘Satiromastix,’ when Jonson forestalled them with the ‘Poetaster’ (1601), the work of fifteen weeks. In addition to its elaborate ridicule of the two hostile playwrights, this satire contained matter highly irritating to lawyers, soldiers, and actors. To these he addressed an ‘Apologetic Dialogue,’ which atoned for the offence in so characteristic a way that after one hearing it was prohibited. At its close, however, he had hinted his intention, ‘since the Comic Muse hath proved so ominous to me,’ of turning to tragedy. Earnests of this design are probably to be found in the (lost) ‘Richard Crookback’ and the additions to Kyd's ‘Jeronymo,’ which Jonson executed for the placable Henslowe (the Histrio of the ‘Poetaster’) in June 1602, receiving for the former the unusually high sum of 10l. But his first extant tragedy, in which he was perhaps aided by Chapman, was ‘Sejanus,’ performed at the Globe in 1603 by Shakespeare's company. It was ill received by the audience at large, but greatly admired by cultivated persons. Among these was Esme Stuart, lord D'Aubigny [q. v.], as whose guest Jonson lived for five years, which covered the period of the first production of ‘Sejanus.’ In February 1602 also, when he was said to have left his wife, a contemporary notice states that ‘Johnson, the poet, now lives upon one Townesend and scornes the world.’ To D'Aubigny Jonson in 1616 dedicated the tragedy in grateful terms. In the meantime the accession of James had provided opportunities of a different kind. In June 1603 Jonson was called upon to write the entertainment for the king's reception at Althorp, on his way south; in the following spring he similarly helped to celebrate the royal progress through the city. On Twelfth Night, 1605, the first of his long series of court masques, the ‘Masque of Blackness,’ was performed at Whitehall with scenery by Inigo Jones [q. v.] Early in the same year the connection thus opened was seriously endangered. Offence was taken at court at certain references to the Scotch in the play of ‘Eastward Ho,’ and its chief authors, Chapman and Marston, were thrown into prison. Jonson, who had also contributed, with characteristic chivalry joined them, and ‘the report was they should have had their ears cut and noses.’ Both Jonson and Chapman had, however, powerful friends at court. They were released intact, and Jonson feasted all his friends; ‘at the midst of the feast his old Mother dranke to him, and shew him a paper which she had (if the sentence had taken execution) to have mixed in the prisson among his drinke, which was full of lustie strong poison, and that she was no churle, she told, she minded first to have drunk of it herself’ (Conversations, § 13). A few months later Jonson wholly retrieved his position on the popular stage by the great comedy ‘Volpone’ (1605), acted at the Globe, and subsequently with still greater éclat at the two universities, to which he dedicated the first edition in his loftiest piece of prose. The proceedings following the discovery of Guy Fawkes' plot, Nov. 5 in the same year, incidentally show that he now possessed the full confidence of the government. Charged by the privy council to invite confidences from Catholic priests, he applied to the Venetian ambassador's chaplain, but the person named to him ‘would not be found.’ His letter (Nov. 8) announcing his failure, and a copy of the safe-conduct for the priest, are extant. But the transaction remains obscure.
The following ten years are the most brilliant phase of Jonson's career. His enemies ceased to be aggressive; some of them had, like Marston, become effusive disciples. He was the honoured guest of a crowd of noble friends, and a king of good fellows among his fellow poets and playwrights. He was in constant request at court, being commended by his learning to James, and by his genius for erudite pageantry to Queen Anne. His ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Marriage Masques’ of this period include the most original and graceful of the whole series. His work for the popular stage was not prolific; but the five dramas performed between 1605 and 1615, ‘Epicœne,’ the ‘Alchemist,’ ‘Catiline,’ ‘Bartholmew Fayre,’ and ‘The Divell is an Asse,’ are all masterpieces. Some months of 1613 were occupied by a journey to France as tutor to a ‘knavishly inclined’ son of Raleigh (to whose ‘History of the World’ Jonson had made contributions). He returned in time to compose ‘A Challenge at Tilt’ for the wedding of Somerset and the divorced Countess of Essex, December 1613. Four years later, in June 1618, he set out on the memorable pedestrian journey to Scotland. He was warmly received by the literary society of Edinburgh. In a letter written just after his return (19 May 1619) he sends greetings to ‘the beloved Fentons, the Nisbets, the Scots, the Levingtons.’ In September 1618 he was made a burgess of Edinburgh, being the guest of ‘Mr. John Stuart’ at Leith, where he was visited by John Taylor, the ‘Water-poet’ and waterman [q. v.], who had followed him from London, also on foot. Between this date and 19 Jan. 1619 he spent some weeks in the house of William Drummond of Hawthornden, whose notes of his talk are a main source of Jonsonian biography. Scotland had evidently a keen—perhaps an inherited—fascination for Jonson, and inspired many literary plans. He wrote a poem on Edinburgh, of which one enthusiastic line survives; he designed to write a ‘pastoral,’ or ‘fisher’ play, with its scene laid on Loch Lomond, of which he begged Drummond to send him a description; he showed curiosity about Scottish antiquities and institutions, particularly about the university system, even then so unlike that of England; finally, on his return, he wrote a poetic narrative of the whole journey, ‘with all the adventures’ (Underwoods, No. 62). On 25 Jan. 1619 he left Leith for the south, and, travelling at leisure, reached London about the end of April. In the following summer he visited Oxford, where he was the guest of the genial poet, Richard Corbet [q. v.], senior student of Christ Church, and where, on 19 July, he formally received the M.A. degree which had been conferred before his Scottish journey. One of Jonson's finest epitaphs, that on ‘dear Vincent Corbet’ (ib. No. 10), commemorates the death of his host's father in this year. The remaining months of 1619 were probably spent in further travel and social distractions, both unfavourable to sustained labour. He wrote, indeed, the slight though amusing masque, ‘The World in the Moon,’ for the ensuing Twelfth Night (his absence had been ‘regretted’ on the previous Twelfth Night, and the masque, by an unknown hand, ‘not liked’); but he there makes the printer say: ‘He [Jonson] has been restive, they say, ever since [his return from Scotland], for we have had nothing from him.’ The following year (1621) was likewise spent largely in the country, the ‘Masque of Gypsies,’ the most popular, though by no means the best, of all his masques, being performed successively at Burleigh, Belvoir, and Windsor (August 1621). In the following October the king indicated his favour by granting to Jonson the reversion of the office of master of the revels after the deaths of Sir George Buc [q. v.] and Sir John Astley. The latter eventually survived him. James was, moreover, according to the gossip of the time, desirous of knighting Jonson, and was with difficulty induced by influential friends of the latter to refrain. He, however, raised Jonson's pension from a hundred marks to 200l. Between this date and 1623 occurred the greatest calamity of Jonson's private life, the burning of his library, which, although repeatedly impoverished by forced sales (Conversations, § 13), was probably among the richest in England, and was moreover stored with poetic and scholarly lucubrations of his own. His ‘Execration against Vulcan,’ in which he made poetic capital of his loss, enables us to appreciate its exact extent.
The accession of Charles opened the least fruitful and the least prosperous period of Jonson's career. The new king, with a finer taste in literature, had not his predecessor's regard for learning, and his generosity was intermittent and his favour inconstant. In the early part of 1626 Jonson was attacked by palsy, followed somewhat later by dropsy. Both diseases gradually strengthened their hold upon him, and during his last years confined him to his bed. He had returned to the stage in 1625 under the pressure, it is supposed, of want; but the ‘Staple of News,’ his last great play (1625), though apparently not ill received, had for four years no successor. His masque ‘The Fortunate Isles’ was performed on Twelfth Night, 1626, at court, as introduction to the ‘Neptune's Triumph,’ in which, in 1624, he had celebrated Charles's return from Spain. But the court masques of the following three winters, perhaps through the influence of Inigo Jones, were placed in the hands of others. In September 1628 his means were somewhat increased by his election to the post of chronologer to the city of London, vacated by the death of Middleton, and worth one hundred nobles a year, and before the year closed he was once more busy for the stage. The result was the most disastrous failure he experienced. The ‘New Inn’ (performed by the king's men, January 1629) was, as Jonson angrily asserted on the title-page two years later, ‘not acted but most negligently played’ and ‘more squeamishly beheld and censured.’ It was not heard to the end, and the pathetic epilogue, in which Jonson betrays for the first and last time a consciousness of failing powers, was not spoken. But the ignominious rejection of his work fired his pride at once, and in the ‘Ode to Himself’ he turned upon his critics in a strain which reaches the highest note of lyrical invective. It evoked several ‘answers,’ both hostile and friendly: Owen Feltham's parody, ‘Come leave this saucy way,’ alone surviving of the former; while Cleveland's is the most enthusiastic, and Carew's the most judicious, of the latter. The unspoken epilogue found recognition of another kind. His hint that ‘had he lived the care of king and queen’ he would have written better, elicited from Charles a present of 100l. ‘in his sickness, 1629’ (acknowledged by the poet in ‘Underwoods,’ No. 80). He was also commissioned to write a masque for the ensuing new year, Inigo Jones again devising the scenery. This was the slight ‘Love's Triumph through Callipolis.’ It apparently pleased, for he was called upon to provide the Shrovetide masque (‘Chloridia’); and a poetical epistle addressed in January 1630 to Charles (ib. No. 95), requesting that his allowance of one hundred marks might be ‘converted into pounds,’ produced immediate assent, with the addition of an annual terce of canary (ib. No. 86; Rawl. MS. V. A. 28912). But this aftermath of court favour was brief. ‘Chloridia’ was not successful, and its failure led to differences with his collaborator Jones, who is said further to have resented Jonson's publication of it with his own name first. The literary element in the court masques was now in reality subordinate to the scenic. Jones's position at court was better assured than Jonson's, and Jones used his power without scruple. Jonson thenceforth disappeared from the court, and his fierce and repeated attacks upon Jones harmed only himself. In the autumn of 1631 the city withdrew his salary as chronologer from the no longer fashionable poet, who had indeed done no work as holder of the office. The masque for 1632 was put into the hands of Aurelian Townshend [q. v.] Jonson was forced once more to try the stage. His comedy, ‘The Magnetic Lady,’ performed in the autumn term, reminded society that he was still alive. It was ostentatiously ridiculed by Jonson's enemies—Jones, Nathaniel Butter, Alexander Gill—the last of whom Jonson castigated with a score of ineffectively abusive verses. The actors, moreover, interpolated certain offensive passages, for which they received an official reprimand. But it was fairly well received by the audience at large, and was in Langbaine's day ‘generally esteemed an excellent play.’ It was followed, after an unusually short interval, by Jonson's last complete comedy, the ‘Tale of a Tub,’ 1633. How it was received on the popular stage we do not know; it was, however, repeated at court in 1634, where it was ‘not likte.’ In its original form the play contained a fierce attack on Jones under the name of Vitruvius Hoop. Jones used his influence, however, and the part was ‘wholly struck out by command of my lord chamberlain’ (Office Book of Master of Revels). The name occurs a few times in the text, and Jones was likewise derided, less ostensibly, in the character of In-and-In Medlay—a reserve shaft, it would seem, provided in view of the emergency which actually occurred. The ‘Expostulation with Inigo Jones,’ which roused resentment at court, and was, at the entreaty of his friend Howell, suppressed by the poet, closed this, the most barren of his quarrels.
Jonson did not, however, lack friends, and one of these, the Duke of Newcastle, contributed generously to his support. To Easter 1632 probably belongs the letter in which Jonson writes, not to borrow, ‘for I have neither fortune to repay nor security to engage that will be taken,’ but to entreat him ‘to succour my present necessities.’ To him we owe the two last of Jonson's masques: ‘Love's Welcome’ at Welbeck and at Bolsover, performed before the king, the former in 1633, on his way to Scotland, the latter in July 1634. A few verses followed for the king's birthday and like occasions. The New-year's and birthday odes of 1635 (Underwoods, Nos. 98, 99)—the former recalling the masque in form—were apparently the last of the series. In Sept. 1634 the king induced the city to resume payment of Jonson's salary as chronologer. For three years Jonson lingered; among his last occupations was to prepare for the stage, perhaps to write, the fragmentary ‘Sad Shepherd’ found among his papers. His last laureate verses were written on 1 Jan. 1635 (Fleay, English Drama, i. 356). He died 6 Aug. 1637, and was buried three days later in the Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Early in 1638 a collection of some thirty elegies was published under the title ‘Jonsonus Virbius,’ edited by his friend Brian Duppa [q. v.], in which nearly all the leading poets of the day, except Milton, took part. Preparations were also made for an elaborate tomb in Westminster Abbey, but the political crisis interrupted its execution, and a casual visitor, Sir John Young, caused ‘O rare Ben Jonson’ to be cut in the slab which remains his only monument.
None of Jonson's contemporaries lived more completely in the heart of English life. ‘His conversation,’ says Clarendon, who knew him in his old age, ‘was very good and with men of most note.’ He was acquainted with nearly all the remarkable men of his time. His most cordial friends were men who, like himself, combined genius and learning—his master, Camden (Epig. 14), Selden, ‘the bravest man in all languages’ (Underwoods, No. 31; Conv. § 18), Chapman, the most scholarly next to himself among the dramatists. With Bacon, whom he finally regarded as the culminating glory of his generation in letters (Discov. § ‘Dom. Verulamius,’ sqq.), he had much familiar intercourse (Conv. § 13; Underwoods, No. 70). With his fellow-poets his relations were, as has been seen, not uniformly friendly. It is plain from his disparaging references to Marston and Dekker (Conv. §§ 3, 12, 13) that he had admitted neither to his intimacy, in spite of the complete capitulation of the former. Drayton, on the other hand, he claimed as his friend; but the friendship was on both sides rather candid than hearty, and struck the world as yet more distant than it was. The disparaging remark on Drayton in the ‘Conversations’ (§ 11) is of less weight than Jonson's manly and dignified ‘Vision on the Muses of his Friend Michael Drayton’ (Underwoods, No. 16), which he prefixed to Drayton's ‘Works’ (vol. ii.) in 1627. He was also very intimate with John Donne [q. v.], whom he thought ‘the best poet in the world in some things’ (Conv. § 7; cf. Epig. 96), while he freely taxed him with his faults (Conv. § 3). His best friends among the dramatists were probably Chapman and Fletcher. Both were ‘loved of him’ (ib. § 11); with both he occasionally collaborated in dramatic work; and ‘next himself’ he held that only they could ‘make a mask’ (ib. § 3). Chapman's method as a translator was antithetically opposed to his own rigid fidelity, and he thought Chapman's long Alexandrines ‘but prose’ (ib.); but he considered parts of his work well done, and ‘had a piece of his 13th Iliad by heart’ (ib. § 7). His relation to Shakespeare was probably less intimate. The theory of his ‘jealousy,’ sedulously evolved by the Shakespearean scholars of the last century, was exploded, with unnecessary violence, by Gifford. His glowing verses prefixed to the ‘First Folio’ (Underwoods, No. 12) are fairly conslusive against such jealousy, a passion of which there is elsewhere no trace in Jonson. At the same time, their bent of mind, acquirements, and conceptions of dramatic art were profoundly unlike. It is significant that both in the ‘Conversations’ and the ‘Discoveries,’ where high praise is given to others, Jonson only notes in the case of Shakespeare his deficiency in qualities on which he himself set a very high value (Conv. §§ 3, 12; Discov. § ‘De Shakspeare nostrat.’). Among the younger writers Jonson enjoyed, during the latter half of his life, a position of unique authority. Beaumont, though Jonson declared him ‘too fond of himself and his own verses,’ was the most ardent of disciples, and was well loved in return (Epig. 55; Beaumont's letter to Jonson). An idle tradition, reported by Dryden (Essay on Dramatic Poesy), asserts that Jonson ‘submitted all his plays to his judgment.’ In later days the young poets who thus gathered round him were known as his ‘sons;’ his epistle to ‘one who asked to be sealed of the Tribe of Ben’ (Underwoods, No. 66; cf. Epig. 86, ‘To a Friend and Son’) attests the high standard of friendship, ‘square, well-tagg'd, and permanent,’ which he demanded from them. Among these were the dramatists Randolph, Shakerley Marmion, Nathaniel Field, who as one of the children of the queen's chapel had acted in ‘Cynthia's Revels,’ and R. Brome his servant (cf. Underwoods, No. 28; and, for his accomplishments, Epig. 101), who in some sort form the ‘Jonsonian school’ in drama; the lyric poets Herrick, Suckling, Cleveland, Cartwright, Joseph Rutter (Underwoods, No. 22); James Howell, of the ‘Letters;’ Thomas May, the translator of Lucan (ib. No. 21); J. Wilson; and several men of rank, Lord Falkland and his friend Sir H. Morison (ib. No. 88), Bishop Morley and Sir Kenelm Digby (ib. No. 97). Numerous contemporary allusions enable us to realise with great vividness the life of this inner circle of Jonson's friends. For the Shakespearean period, when the Mermaid tavern was his habitual haunt, the locus classicus is Beaumont's ‘Letter;’ to which may be added Fuller's imaginary picture, doubtless based on tradition, of Jonson's disputations with Shakespeare. For the later period, when he presided among his sons at the Dog, the Sun, the Triple Tun, and the Devil, we have Herrick's ‘An Ode for Ben Jonson’ (Hesperides) and Jonson's own ‘Leges Conviviales.’ The tradition of these gatherings was still vigorous a century after his death, and was prolonged by apocryphal collections of anecdotes such as Penkethman's (1721) and ‘Ben Jonson's Jests’ (1760).
Among the cultivated aristocracy Jonson had a large number of friends with whom, as his ‘Epigrams’ and ‘Forest’ show, he lived on terms of frank intimacy. Conspicuous among these were the Sidneys and their kindred and connections; Sir Robert Sidney of Penshurst, where Jonson was a frequent guest (it is felicitously described in For. 2); Sir William Sidney (Sir Philip Sidney's nephew), whom he addressed in ‘For.’ 14; Lady Mary Wroth, his niece (Epig. 103, 105; Underwoods, No. 47), whose seat of Durance he celebrates in ‘For.’ 3, and to whom he dedicated the ‘Alchemist;’ the Countess of Rutland, Sidney's daughter (Epig. 79; For. 12); the Earl of Pembroke, who presented him annually with 20l. to buy books with (Discov. § 13), and who was indirectly the occasion of the graceful song, ‘For.’ 7 (cf. ib. § 14). Of the rest it is sufficient to mention the Countess of Bedford, ‘Lucy the bright,’ whom he thrice addresses in his choicest and most delicate vein (Epig. 76, 84, 94), Lord D'Aubigny (ib. 127; For. 13), for whose daughter he in his last years wrote an epithalamium (Underwoods, No. 94), and the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle (ib. Nos. 72, 89).
Jonson's literary position among his fellow-dramatists is quite unique. In passion, in buoyant humour, in spontaneous felicity of touch, he was inferior to most of them; but he had constructive imagination in an extraordinary degree, a force of intellect and memory which supplied it at every point with profuse material, and a personality which stamped with distinction every line he wrote. He lacked charm, and he failed altogether in drawing fresh and native forms of character; but no one equalled him in presenting the class-types of a highly organised or decadent society, with all their elaborate vesture of custom, manner, and phrase. While most of his fellow-dramatists, moreover, worked on the basis of existing stories, Jonson's plots, though full of traces of his curious reading, are as wholes essentially his own. As a masque-writer he gave lasting worth by sheer poetic force to an unreal and artificial genre. As a literary critic he had no rival.
Jonson's voluminous writings fall under the four heads of dramas, masques, poems, and miscellaneous prose. Works in which he collaborated with others are included with his own in the following list:—
I. Dramas. The following are extant in print: 1. ‘Every Man in his Humour, a Comœdie,’ acted in 1598, 4to, 1601; fol. 1616. Stated by Jonson to have been first acted in 1598. A ‘Comodey of Umers’ had been acted at the Rose since 11 May 1597, but there is no authority for attributing it to Jonson. The quarto version, where the names are Italian, was probably that acted in 1598. It alone contains Knowell's (Lorenzo's) defence of poetry (cf. also Englische Studien, i. 181 f.). This delightful comedy has always been popular. Congreve is said to have copied his Captain Bluff (‘Old Bachelor’) from Bobadil. Garrick revised it, and Kitely became one of his best rôles. It was the last of Jonson's plays to quit the stage. The prologue, his first critical manifesto, appears only in the folio. 2. ‘The Case is Altered,’ 1598–9; 4to, 1609; fol. 1692. Its date is fixed within narrow limits by allusions in it to Meres's eulogy of Munday (here ‘Antonio Balladino’) as the ‘best plotter’ (Palladis Tamia, 1598), and allusions to it in Nash's ‘Lenten Stuff,’ 1599, as ‘that witty play of “The C. is A.”’ It may, however, have preceded 1. Its plot is a combination of motives from Plautus's ‘Aulularia’ and ‘Captivi,’ treated with concessions to the current romantic drama which have been connected by Mr. Symonds with his work in 6. Jonson clearly disapproved the result in 1616, and it has never been popular since his own day. The careless quarto edition was doubtless pirated. 3. ‘Every Man out of his Humour, a Comicall Satyre,’ 1599; 4to (two editions), 1600; fol. 1616. Not so much a counterpart to No. 1 as a more elaborate version of the same motive, with a more satirical purpose. Its brilliant ridicule of current fashions, which made it popular in its own day, lacked permanent attraction, and it is not known to have been acted since 1682. The Theophrastean analyses of the characters prefixed to it found few imitators. 4. ‘Cynthia's Revels, or the Fountayne of Selfe-Love, a Comicall Satyre,’ 1600; 4to, 1600; fol. 1616; the latter edition with large additions, which reflect the tastes of the court of James, and were doubtless composed after Jonson had begun to write masques. Although highly popular in its day it was rapidly forgotten. 5. ‘Poëtaster, or His Arraignement, a Comicall Satyre,’ 1601; 4to, 1602; fol. 1616. The ‘Apologetic Dialogue’ was first printed in the latter. 6. Additions to ‘Jeronymo,’ 1601–2; 4to, 1602. Henslowe, 25 Sept. 1601, refers to ‘adicions,’ and on 24 June 1602 to ‘new adicyons,’ by Jonson. The undoubted tragic passion shown in one scene has led most critics to doubt Jonson's authorship of it. Mr. Symonds has insisted on his possession of a ‘romantic vein,’ habitually suppressed. The loss of all his early tragedy renders the question insoluble. 7. ‘Sejanus, his Fall, a Tragœdie,’ 1603; 4to, 1605; fol. 1616. The original version is not extant. ‘In this,’ says Jonson in preface to quarto, ‘a second pen had good share, in place of which I have rather chosen to put weaker, and no doubt less pleasing, of mine own, than to defraud so happy a genius of his right by my loathed usurpation.’ The ‘happy genius’ was assumed before Gifford to be Shakespeare; it was more probably Chapman, but the cancelled scenes being lost, conjecture is idle. As this was the first tragedy which Jonson published, it doubtless differed in method fundamentally from its lost predecessors. ‘The Favourite,’ a satirical tragedy, in which Bute is intended by Sejanus, was founded on it in 1770. 8. ‘Eastward Ho,’ 1604; 4to (in three editions), 1605, by Chapman, Marston, and Jonson. Jonson's contribution was doubtless very slight. 9. ‘Volpone, or the Foxe, a Comœdie,’ 1605; 4to, 1607; fol. 1616. Jonson here returned to comedy, but to comedy both simpler in conception, stronger in action, and more ethical in aim than its predecessors. He allowed his catastrophe in the interest of morals to swerve from ‘the strict rigour of comic law,’ ‘my special aim being to put a snaffle in their mouths that cry out, we never punish vice in our interludes’ (Dedication to the two universities). Received with great applause, it held the stage till the end of the eighteenth century. 10. ‘Epicœne, or the Silent Woman, a Comœdie,’ 1609; 4to, 1609 and 1620; fol. 1616. Of all Jonson's comedies the richest in comic invention. The farcical conception of Morose was early criticised; Dryden's tradition (Essay of Dram. Poes.) that Jonson had actually known such a person is immaterial. The scene between La Foole, Daw, and Truewit (act iv.) was probably influenced by ‘Twelfth Night;’ it suggested one in Hausted's ‘Rival Friends,’ 1631. Its popularity was from the first, in spite of the trifling epigram reported by Drummond, great, and steadily grew. Dryden chose it for a detailed ‘Examen’ as the best of English comedies. It was revived by Garrick in 1776. 11. ‘The Alchemist, a Comœdie,’ 1610; 4to, 1612; fol. 1616. In constructive mastery and prodigal intellectual power supreme among Jonson's plays. A droll, the ‘Empiric,’ was founded on it, 1676, and a farce, the ‘Tobacconist,’ in 1771. It was revived by Garrick, who made Drugger one of his best parts. 12. ‘Catiline his Conspiracy, a Tragœdie,’ 1611; 4to, 1611, 1635; fol. 1616. Jonson's second tragedy, composed on precisely the same principles as his first (No. 7), appealed like it to the few. It nevertheless acquired some popularity, and in Langbaine's time was still ‘always presented with success.’ 13. ‘Bartholmew Fayre, a Comedie,’ 1614; fol. 1631. Of all Jonson's plays moves most entirely within the horizon of the London populace. Its satire on puritanism, however, roused hostility, and it appears to have been little performed during Charles I's reign. At the Restoration it was revived with enthusiasm. Pepys, who saw it 7 Sept. 1661, says it had not been acted for forty years. An ‘Apologie’ for this play was prefixed by Jonson to his translation of Horace's ‘Ars Poetica,’ but perished with his library. 14. ‘The Divell is an Asse, a Comedie,’ 1616; fol. 1631. Jonson here handled in his own way an obsolescent motive to which Marlowe and Green had given vogue, and which was still worked by Dekker. The latter's ‘If this be not a good play, the Divell is in it,’ Jonson clearly had in view. It was revived with success after the Restoration. 15. ‘The Staple of Newes, a Comœdie,’ 1625, licensed April 1626; fol. 1631. A characteristic combination of symbolic figures from Aristophanes's ‘Plutus’ and topics of the day. The news-office of N. Butter had already been glanced at in the masque ‘News from the New World.’ 16. ‘The New Inn, or the Light Heart,’ 1629; 8vo, 1631; fol. 1692. Jonson's failing powers are betrayed rather by the extravagance of the plot than by the execution. Lovell's speeches strike the highest note of his later poetry. Some passages (ii. 2) recur with slight changes in Fletcher's ‘Love's Pilgrimage.’ They were probably added to the latter by the reviser, Shirley. 17. ‘The Magnetick Lady, or Humors Reconcild,’ licensed October 1632; fol. 1640. 18. ‘A Tale of a Tub, a Comedy,’ licensed May 1633; fol. 1640. Collier assigns it to Elizabeth's reign, on the ground of allusions; Fleay to 1603–4, on the ground of metre. 19. ‘The Sad Shepherd, or a Tale of Robin Hood’ [fragment], fol. 1641. The singular freshness of this piece, which wholly refutes the motto prefixed to 18, ‘Inficeto est inficetior rure,’ suggests that it was composed earlier; and Mr. Symonds would identify it with the lost pastoral ‘The May Lord,’ which he ascribed to Drummond in 1618. Yet the effect is partly due to the lyrical style, which, as the abundant rhymes show, was here deliberately adopted. The prologue, in any case, is referred to the years 1635–7 by its first line: ‘He that hath feasted you these forty years.’ It was ‘continued’ by F. G. Waldron, 1783. 20. ‘Mortimer his Fall, a Tragedie’ [fragment], fol. 1640. The ‘Argument’ and part of i. 1 were alone finished. It was ‘completed’ by W. Mountfort, 1731, with satirical intentions it was supposed towards Walpole and Queen Caroline. A new dedication was subsequently written by Wilkes in derision of Bute.
There remain two plays with which Jonson is traditionally connected: 1. ‘The Widdow, a Comedie’ (circ. 1616), attributed on the title-page to Jonson, Fletcher, and Middleton, 4to, 1652. It probably belongs to Middleton alone. 2. ‘The Bloody Brother,’ 4to, 1639, by ‘B. J. F.,’ 4to, 1640, by ‘John Fletcher.’ One scene, iv. 2, is Jonsonian in character.
Four other plays known to have been written by Jonson are no longer extant. They are: 1. ‘A Hot Anger soon Cool'd.’ Recorded by Henslowe as the joint work of Porter, Chettle, and Jonson, 18 Aug. 1598. 2. ‘Page of Plymouth,’ written in conjunction with Dekker (Henslowe, August 1599). 3. ‘Robert II King of Scots' Tragedy,’ written in conjunction with Dekker, Chettle, ‘and other jentellmen’ (ib. September 1599). 4. ‘Richard Crookback Tragedy’ (ib. 24 June 1602).
II. Masques, Barriers, Entertainments.—Jonson throughout distinguished three classes of festive performance, those of which the nucleus was a masqued dance, a mock tournament, and a speech respectively. The first is in his hands the most, the last the least akin to drama. His masques show development in range of motive and in the use made of contrast. In the masques 1606–18 he relied chiefly on the ‘antimasque,’ which while designed to ‘precede and have the place of a foil or false masque’ (Pref. to M. of Queens), nevertheless arose out of and accorded with the subject of the masque. From about 1618 he began to employ the more drastic contrast of a preliminary scene of low comedy, identical in character with his work for the stage, while the antimasque shrank to a rudiment. Thus his later masque and later comedy converge. The following list gives entertainments on the one hand, the masques and barriers on the other, in chronological order. The later entertainments hitherto classified with the masques are here restored to their place. 1. Entertainments. (1) ‘A Particular Entertainment of the Queene and Prince … at Althrope (sic),’ &c. (Commonly referred to as ‘The Satyr.’) Acted 25 June 1603; 4to, 1603; fol. 1616. A graceful out-of-door performance. (2) ‘Part of the King's Entertainment in passing to his Coronation,’ 15 March 1604, 4to, 1604; fol. 1616. Jonson's ‘part’ consisted of the first and last of five separate shows, the rest being by Dekker, who published his own work separately. Merely a series of speeches. (3) ‘A Panegyre on the Happy Entrance of James … to his first High Session of Parliament’ … 19 March 1604. (4) ‘A Private Entertainment of the King and Queene … at Sir William Cornwallis his house at High-gate,’ 1 May 1604; fol. 1616. (Commonly known as ‘The Penates.’) Abounds in graceful lyric writing and in genial personalities. (5) ‘The Entertainment of the two Kings of Great Britaine and Denmarke at Theobalds,’ 24 July 1606; fol. 1616. A single brief speech of welcome in English and Latin. (6) ‘The Entertainment of King James and Queene Anne at Theobalds’ … 22 May 1607; fol. 1616. Performed at the surrender of the house by the Earl of Salisbury to the queen. Like all Jonson's work inspired by or destined for the queen, this is very felicitous of its kind. (7) ‘Love's Welcome. The King's Entertainment at Welbeck,’ 1633; fol. 1640. Nearly the whole series of masques lies between this and (6). The result is apparent in its freedom and realism. It leads up to an impressive address to Charles. (8) ‘Love's Welcome. The King and Queen's Entertainment at Bolsover.’ Performed 30 July 1634; fol. 1641.
2. Masques and Barriers.—Some of the following, though first printed in the fol. 1616, were contained in ‘Certayne Masques at the Court never yet printed, written by Ben Jonson,’ licensed 20 Jan. 1615. (1) ‘The Queenes Masques. The first, of Blacknesse.’ Performed at Whitehall Twelfth Night, 1605, 4to, with (4), 1609; fol. 1616. A manuscript copy, signed by Jonson, and dedicated to the queen, is in the British Museum. Jonson's first masque, like his first entertainment, was thus destined for the queen. Collier also connects it with the marriage of Sir P. Herbert to Lady Susan Vere. In character it differs little from the entertainments, the element of conflict being yet hardly perceptible. (2) ‘Hymenæi, or the Solemnities of Masque and Barriers at a Marriage.’ Performed Twelfth Night, 1606; 4to, 1606; fol. 1616. The above is the title of the folio. The quarto explicitly states the marriage to have been that of the Earl of Essex. The germ of the antimasque appears, though the term is not used, in the unruly ‘humours’ and ‘affections’ which finally yield to the sway of ‘reason.’ The Barriers is a simple dialogue between Truth and Opinion. (3) ‘The … Masque … at the Lord Viscount Hadington's marriage at Court.’ (Commonly known as ‘The Hue and Cry after Cupid.’) Founded on Moschus Idyll i. Performed Shrove Tuesday, 1608; 4to, 1608; fol. 1616. Cupid and his ‘antics’ form what Jonson later, in the notes to (5), refers to as an antimasque, but the term is not yet used. An attempt in 1774 to revive the masque (‘The Druids’) was mainly derived from this piece. (4) ‘The [Queen's] Second Masque, which was of Beautie.’ Performed on the Sunday after Twelfth Night, 1609; 4to, with (1), 1609. (5) ‘The Masque of Queenes, celebrated from the house of Fame.’ Performed 2 Feb. 1609; 4to, 1609; fol. 1616 is among Jonson's richest inventions. The antimasque of Witches, ‘the opposites to good Fame,’ accords with ‘the current and whole fall of the device,’ and is superbly written. Its exact relation to the witch-scenes of ‘Macbeth’ is obscure, and, as regards Jonson, of little moment. He coincides only in technical details, which he did not need to borrow, and the best things are his own. The elaborateness of the antimasque is due to a special hint of the queen. (6) ‘The Speeches at Prince Henries Barriers.’ Performed 1 Jan. 1611; fol. 1616. The most dramatic of the ‘Barriers.’ This was the first Christmas after Henry's creation as Prince of Wales. (7) ‘Oberon, the Faery Prince,’ 1610–11; fol. 1616. Devoid of dramatic motive, but full of lively action. (8) ‘Love Freed from Ignorance and Folly,’ 1610–11; fol. 1616. The plot is genuinely dramatic, and the execution throughout felicitous. (9) ‘Love Restored,’ 1610–11; fol. 1616. This ‘vindication’ of love from wealth is a defence of the court revels against the strictures of the puritan city. ‘Bartholomew Fair’ followed in the autumn. (10) ‘A Challenge at Tilt, at a Marriage.’ Performed 27 Dec. 1613, and New-year's day, 1614; fol. 1616. The marriage was that of Carr and the divorced Countess of Essex. Hence the inexplicit title, as in (2). The prose has a lyric eloquence rare in Jonson. (11) ‘The Irish Masque at Court,’ 29 Dec. and 10 Jan. 1613–14. The realistic induction, in Irish dialect, anticipates the manner of the later masques. (12) ‘Mercurie Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court,’ 1614; fol. 1616. A playful variation on the theme of the ‘Alchemist,’ under the limitations of a masque. The term antimasque is here first used in the body of the piece. (13) ‘The Golden Age Restor'd,’ 1 and 6 Jan. 1616; fol. 1616. The subject lent itself eminently to masque treatment. Conspicuously well written, though of slight dramatic effect. (14) ‘Christmas his Masque,’ Christmas, 1616; fol. 1631–40. Not a serious work, but a burlesque of city festivities. The key to it lies in the opening speech (Christmas, loq.), ‘I have brought a masque here out o' the city … It was intended, I confess, for Curriers' Hall.’ (15) ‘A Masque Presented in the House of … Lord Haye … for the Entertainment of M. le Baron de Tour,’ … (Called ‘Lovers Made Men’ in the 4to, but commonly known as ‘The Masque of Lethe,’ after Gifford; Mr. Swinburne has revived the older title.) Performed 22 Feb. 1617; 4to, 1617; fol. 1631– 1640. Here, as in (3), the effect of contrast is gained by transformation. (16) ‘The Vision of Delight.’ Christmas, 1617 [so fol.]; fol. 1631–40. The traditional date, Twelfth Night, 1618, cannot be right (cf. No. 17), nor yet 1619, which Nichols (iv. 499) hesitatingly proposes. The half articulate rhapsody of Phant'sy is originally conceived, and the speeches of Wonder contain some rich descriptive poetry. (17) (a) ‘Pleasure Reconciled to Vertue.’ Twelfth Night, 1617–18, and again at Shrove-tide, with the addition of (b), it having ‘pleased the king so well as he would see it again,’ fol. 1631–40. The traditional date 1619 is wrong. The masque was witnessed by the Italian Busino on the date stated (cf. Harrison, Descr. of Engl. iii. 56*, ed. Furnivall). It is felicitously conceived and gracefully written. Milton's ‘Comus’ owes to it little but the epilogue. (b) ‘For the Honour of Wales.’ An induction to the above, fol. 1631–40. A lively skit. The dialect shows insight into the Welsh language. (18) ‘Newes from the New World discover'd in the Moone.’ Performed Twelfth Night, 1621; fol. 1631–40. The induction now begins to be the chief feature. (19) ‘A Masque of the Metamorphos'd Gypsies.’ Performed at Burleigh, Belvoir, and Windsor, August 1621; fol. 1631–40; 12mo, 1640. A manuscript copy in Jonson's hand was in the Heber collection. The fortune-telling motive of Entertainment (4) is here worked out with greater elaboration and realism. It abounds in homely but effective lyric writing. (20) ‘The Masque of Augures.’ Performed Twelfth Night, 1622; 4to, 1621 ; fol. 1631–40. (21) ‘Time Vindicated to Himselfe and to his Honors.’ Performed 19 Jan. 1623; fol. 1640. The satire upon Wither, as ‘Chronomastix,’ gives piquancy to the otherwise somewhat abstract motive. (22) ‘Neptune's Triumph for the Returne of Albion.’ Written 1623–4; performed with (25) Twelfth Night, 1626; fol. 1640. Celebrates the failure of the Spanish marriage and the return of Prince Charles. The antimasque of personified dishes accords with the more prosaic conception of Jonson's later masques. (23) ‘Pan's Anniversarie, or the Shepherd's Holy-day.’ Performed New Year, 1625; fol. 1631–40. (24) ‘The Masque of Owls, at Kenilworth.’ Presented by the Ghost of Captain Cox, mounted on his Hobby-horse, 1626; fol. 1631–40. The title shows the looseness with which the term masque was now used. It is merely a string of speeches. (25) ‘The Fortunate Isles and their Union.’ Performed Twelfth Night, 1626; 4to, n.d.; fol. 1631–40. An elaborate and varied work which, like (13), illustrates Jonson's attitude to previous poets. (26) ‘Loves Triumph through Callipolis.’ Performed 1630; 4to, 1630; fol. 1631–40. (27) ‘Chloridia. Rites to Chloris and her Nymphs.’ Performed at Shrove-tide, 1630; 4to [1630?]; fol. 1631–40. To these may be added (28) ‘An Interlude;’ performed at the house of the Earl of Newcastle, which was first printed by Gifford. The only instance among Jonson's entertainments of the celebration of a birth.
III. Poems (a).—First published in the fol. 1616. 1. ‘Epigrammes, I. Booke.’ Licensed 1612. Jonson used the term in the ancient (the ‘old and true’) sense (Epig. 2, 18), and criticised his fellow-epigrammatists who did otherwise (cf. Conv. § 3, on Harrington, § 12 on Owen). 2. ‘The Forrest.’ This collection contains his choicest epistles and songs up to 1616. (b). Subsequently published. The majority of these ‘lesser poems of later growth’ were arranged by Jonson, under the general name of ‘Underwoods,’ ‘out of the Analogie they hold to the Forrest in my former booke, and no otherwise.’ They were first printed after his death in fol. 1640. Two selections appeared in the same year: (1) … ‘Execration against Vulcan. With Divers Epigrams’ … 4to, 1640. (2) ‘Q. Hor. Flaccus his Art of Poetry, Englished by B. J.,’ with other works of the author. Several obituary and complimentary pieces had already been published in the works of other authors (e.g. the lines to the memory of Shakespeare, prefixed to the fol. 1623), and were first included in Jonson's works by Gifford. A few were added by Cunningham. The ‘Leges Conviviales’ were first published in the fol. 1692.
IV. Miscellaneous Prose.—1. ‘Timber; or Discoveries made upon Men and Matter,’ … fol. 1641. The 171 detached paragraphs approach the type of the Baconian Essay, though Jonson deprecates the name (§ 72). The matter chiefly consists of translated extracts from Seneca, Quintilian, and other Latin writers (cf. editions by Prof. Schelling, Boston 1892, and by Maurice Castelain, Paris 1907; art. ‘Jonson's Method in the “Discoveries”’ by Percy Simpson in Mod. Lang. Rev. April 1907). 2. ‘The English Grammar, made by Ben Jonson for the benefit of all Strangers’ … fol. 1640. A description of ‘the English language now spoken and in use,’ with glimpses of philological insight. A lost translation of Barclay's ‘Argenis’ (Stat. Reg. 2 Oct. 1623) was probably unpublished.
Jonson's ‘Works’ were first collected in the folio edition, of which the first volume, carefully revised by himself, appeared in 1616, the second in a succession of fragments from 1630–41. A later later folio, 1692, included for the first time plays Nos. 2 and 16. Whalley's edition (7 vols. 1756) was the first attempt to edit Jonson; this was superseded in 1816 by the memorable edition of W. Gifford. Gifford's faulty text and faultier notes were reprinted, with slight improvement, by Col. Cunningham in 1875.
Jonson's portrait, by Gerard Honthorst (engraved by Vertue), is at Knole Park, Sevenoaks, the property of Lord Sackville. A copy is in the National Portrait Gallery. A miniature by Isaac Oliver is in the possession of S. E. Shirley, esq. A third portrait, by an unknown artist, belonged to the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a fourth was placed in the Bodleian in 1732.
An engraved portrait by R. Vaughan was prefixed to the folio edition of the 'Works' of 1616 and 1640, and another, by W. Marshall, prefaced the 'Poems,' 1640. A presentation copy of Jonson's 'Volpone,' 1607, with an inscription addressed by the author to Florio, as well as a copy of Florio's translation of Montaigne's 'Essays,' containing Jonson's autograph, is in the British Museum Library.[Fuller's Worthies, Langbaine's Dramatick Authors; Gifford's Memoir of Ben Jonson, revised by Cunningham, 1875; Mr. J. A. Symonds's Life of Ben Jonson in English Worthies Ser.; Conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden, ed. Laing; Jonson's Works, passim; Nichols's Progresses of James I; Dryden's Essay of Dramatick Poetry; Hazlitt's Bibliographical Collections; Corser's Collectanea; Extracts from the Office-book of Sir H. Herbert, quoted in Malone's Historical Account and George Chalmers's Supplemental Apology; Ellis's Original Letters, 2nd ser. iii. 307; J. C. Jeaffreson in Athenæum, 6 March 1886; The Non-such Charles, 1651, p. 170; Collier's Hist. of Stage; Athenæum, 22 April 1865; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23; Quarterly Rev. vol. cii.; On the Masques, Soergel, Die englischen Maskenspiele; J. Schmidt, Herrig's Archiv, xxvii. 55 f.; Elze, Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shaksp. Gesellschaft, iii. 150, iv. 112; Fleay's English Drama, 1891; City of London Records, 2 Sept. 1628, 10 Nov. 1631, 18 Sept. 1634; Harl. MS. 4955; Howell's Letters; Aubrey's Letters; The Return from Parnassus; Henslowe's Diary; Selden's Titles of Honour, p. 93; the Duchess of Newcastle's Life of her husband; Englische Studien, i. 181 f.; Wheatley's Introduction to Every Man in his Humour; Anglia, x. 361; Herford's Studies in the Lit. Relations of England and Germany, pp. 318 f.; Mr. Swinburne's Study of Ben Jonson, 1889, is full of ripe and suggestive criticism. Principal Ward's chapter on Jonson, in his Hist. of Engl. Drama, is perhaps the most valuable part of the work.]