Jonson was a charismatic person who fascinated his contemporaries. His work was scholarly, the result, perhaps of several years of classical schooling he received as a boy and many years of self-tutelage in later life. He never went to university (though both Oxford and Cambridge later awarded him honorary degrees). Instead he took up his stepfather's trade, bricklaying, and then entered the army. During service in Flanders he killed a Spaniard in single-handed combat as both English and Spanish armies looked on.
On his return to London in 1595 he became an actor and a playwright. He produced his first successful play Every Man in His Humour, in 1598 (Shakespeare, a friend, acted in it). Shortly after this, Jonson, always hotheaded, was imprisoned and nearly executed for killing a fellow actor in a duel. Once released, he continued his career in the theatre, gained the favour of James I, and became a writer of court masques - elaborate spectacles that involved music, dancing, and pageantry. During this period he also wrote a number of satiric comedies, two of which - Volpone and The Alchemist - are still considered among the supreme satiric achievements of the English stage.
After the death of James I, Jonson was neglected by both the public and the court, for Charles I patronised painters rather than writers. Nevertheless, he became the centre of a circle of young poets who dubbed themselves "The Tribe of Ben" and regularly joined him at the Mermaid Tavern for feasts of wine and wit. At his death Jonson was widely mourned as the last of the great Elizabethans. He lies buried in Westminster Abbey under the inscriptions "O Rare Ben Jonson".
contributed by Gifford, Katya
15 March 2002