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Ben Jonson Biography | Poet

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Ben (Benjamin) Jonson (June 11, 1572 – Aug. 6, 1637) was a noted English poet, literary critic, and playwright during the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. He was born in Westminster, London, England on June 11, 1572. Jonson died in England on Aug. 6, 1637, at the age of 65.

Jonson had meager beginnings as his clergyman father was killed shortly before his birth. His mother married a master bricklayer 2 years later. His relationship with his stepfather was tumultuous and full of conflict. This trait carried over into the artist's personality. He was well-known for his combative and volatile nature. This trait would follow him throughout his life.

Jonson's combative nature landed him in hot water more than once. He killed at least two men in duels and was spared from hanging due to the benefit of clergy. This meant Jonson was granted a lenient sentence by proving he could read and write in Latin.

Jonson attended St. Martin’s parish school during his early years. Then, thanks to a family friend who recognized his potential, the young man moved on to the prestigious Westminster School. During this time, he developed some long lasting ties with mentors including William Camden, who was a well-regarded historian, topographer, and scholar of the age.

Once he completed the Westminster school in 1589, Jonson intended to attend the University of Cambridge to continue his education. However, his plans were waylaid when he undertook an unwilled apprenticeship with his bricklayer stepfather. Alas, his work with his stepfather was short-lived. Instead, Jonson served in the military at Flanders in the Netherlands for a short time before moving back to London, where he worked as a writer, actor, and playwright for Philip Henslowe’s theater company.

Regarding his marriage to Anne Lewis in 1594, Jonson described his wife to fellow contemporary and confidante William Drummond as "a shrew, yet honest." Details regarding the marriage and family of Anne Lewis and Ben Jonson are vague and incomplete. It is believed that they had at least three children, Mary Jonson, who was their eldest daughter and died in November 1593, at six months of age. In 1603, Benjamin Jonson, their eldest son, died of Bubonic plague when he was seven years old. Then, 32 years later, another son, who was also named Benjamin Jonson, died in 1635. During that period, it is also believed that Ann Lewis and Ben Jonson were separated for five years. The circumstances surrounding the separation are unknown. However, the death of their children might have played a role in their rift.

Jonson was considered the most learned poet of the age and he was regarded by many as England's first Poet Laureate. He was known to immerse himself in his work and there was no subject too dense or controversial for the playwright to tackle.

The height of Jonson's popularity came upon King James I's ascension to the throne in 1603. Under King James I, Jonson became a royal favorite. His work with the Royal Court brought Jonson into intimate association with the leading men of the day. In 1616, Jonson was granted a yearly stipend of 100 marks, which is the equivalent of 60 pounds or approximately $100 in U.S. dollars.

He was considered a well-regarded English dramatist whose talents were in league with and rival to The Bard himself, William Shakespeare. His talents as a poet and actor exerted a lasting impact upon English poetry and stage comedy. He popularized the genre of humor, introduced the concept of satire, and made stage comedy relevant. Some of his best known satirical plays include Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone (aka The Foxe) (1605), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fayre: A Comedy (1614). 

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