The poet, essayist, and playwright Ben Jonson was born on June 11, 1572 in London, England. His father, a minister, died shortly before his birth and his mother remarried a bricklayer.
Jonson was raised in Westminster and attended St. Martin’s parish school and Westminster School, where he came under the influence of the classical scholar William Camden. He left the Westminster school in 1589, worked briefly in his stepfather’s trade as a bricklayer, then served in the military at Flanders, before working as an actor and playwright for Philip Henslowe’s theater company.
In 1594, Jonson married Anne Lewis and began to work as an actor and playwright. Jonson and Lewis had at least two children, but little else is known of their marriage.
In 1598, Jonson wrote what is considered his first great play, Every Man in His Humor. In a 1616 production, William Shakespeare acted in one of the lead roles. Shortly after the play opened, Jonson killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried for murder. He was released by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e., by proving he could read and write in Latin, he was allowed to face a more lenient court). He spent only a few weeks in prison, but shortly after his release he was again arrested for failing to pay an actor.
Under King James I, Jonson received royal favor and patronage. Over the next fifteen years many of his most famous satirical plays, including Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610), were produced for the London stage. In 1616, he was granted a substantial pension of one hundred marks a year, and is often identified as England’s first poet laureate.
Jonson’s circle of admirers and friends, who called themselves the “Tribe of Ben,” met regularly at the Mermaid Tavern and later at the Devil’s Head. Among his followers were nobles such as the Duke and Duchess of Newcastle, as well as writers, including Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, James Howell, and Thomas Carew. Most of his well-known poems include tributes to friends, notably Shakespeare, John Donne, and Francis Bacon.
Ben Jonson died in Westminster on August 8, 1637. A tremendous crowd of mourners attended his burial at Westminster Abbey. He is regarded as one of the major dramatists and poets of the seventeenth century.