Introduction to Ben Jonson: Poems, Plays and Shakespeare

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  • 0:03 Introduction
  • 1:40 Plays
  • 4:20 Courtly Life
  • 7:12 Poetry
  • 9:02 Shakespeare
  • 10:46 Conclusion
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

To a great deal of people, for a great deal of time, English playwright and poet Ben Jonson was known merely as a rival (and inferior) to William Shakespeare. But there's more to the story than that! Watch our video lesson to get the skinny on Jonson's life and work.


Nowadays if there's a really famous person and they have hanger-on friends, we typically know about the famous person and we don't know about the friends. This was true even back in Renaissance times, and this kind of had the negative effect of making Ben Jonson someone that we don't really have such great name association with. We do have great name association with his more famous buddy William Shakespeare. Ben Jonson was a contemporary friend and rival of Shakespeare's; unfortunately, his work and life have been a bit eclipsed by the man we call the Bard. Things weren't always that way, though; this is kind of a modern thing. There was a point in time where Jonson's fame was even greater than Shakespeare's, if you can imagine that, and critical revision in the centuries since his life ended changed that a bit. But there's importance to his skill, and he has a massive catalog of plays and poems that are not insignificant; he's still a talented guy that we should know about. We shouldn't just cast him into the annals of history and say 'he wasn't as good as Shakespeare.' He's an interesting dude in his own right.

He was born in London in 1572. By the age of 25, he's already deeply entrenched in the city's burgeoning dramatic culture. In particular, he's taken up a position with a theater company called The Admiral's Men. He's an actor and a writer just like Shakespeare - he kind of did both; most reports we get from this time show that he didn't really have that much success as an actor, but he tried, and his plays are starting to bring him some real attention.


His first major success came not with The Admiral's Men but with another company called The Lord Chamberlain's Men - if you're wondering, it's because pretty much all the actors back then were men. That's a plot point in Shakespeare in Love - Gwyneth Paltrow dresses up as a dude to be in a play, and then she dresses up as a woman. That's how things were back then.

In 1598 The Lord Chamberlain's Men put up his comedy, Every Man in His Humour, which is a play that exhibits several really important Jonson traits. We're going to pause for a second here and talk about some of these traits so that we can see them as we describe some more of his plays.

He loved classical style. He took his plotting cues more from Aristotle and other Greeks and Romans rather than his English contemporaries, especially because his stories tended (more so than his contemporaries) to really emphasize dramatic unity. So he would try to follow the rules set down by Greek and Roman theatre.

He was really into farcical characters, which are just people who are defined by their really exaggerated traits. Like if you've got a drunkard with a huge red nose or something like that - that would be a farcical character.

He's into absurdity kind of along those lines - over-the-top, unreal comic situations. Kind of like anything you might see on Adult Swim late at night.

He's also into presenting contemporary life. That's a real goal of his. This last one is really central to his mission statement, and a lot of where he finds success is in doing this. He explicitly states in his prologue for the published edition of Every Man in His Humour that he intends to use 'deeds, and language, such as men do use:/And persons, such as comedy would choose,/When she would show an image of the times,/And sport with human follies, not with crimes.' That's sort of his take on what he's doing with this.

Every Man in His Humour is notable not just for its form but also for its production - a young William Shakespeare was cast to act in this comedy. Recorded details of their relationship are kind of spotty, but people generally assume that this is when they got to know each other and when they started working together. That's kind of how they encountered each other.

By the way, a year later, Jonson released a follow-up to the play called Every Man out of His Humour, which seems to be a pretty clear attempt to cash in on the success of the prior one. It's kind of nice to know that people still did that back then; it's not just a modern phenomenon that we release Shrek 6 or whatever. Jonson did it too. Does that make it more legitimate? I don't know.

Courtly Life

Jonson had a certain amount of success, and a few years after he really gets going. Beginning with the reign of James I in 1603, - so Elizabeth I dies and is succeeded by James I - Jonson actually enjoys a certain amount of royal favor, and he gets a yearly stipend from the English court essentially. His position really gets some people calling him England's first poet laureate. There wasn't really a term for it then, but that was kind of what he was. It also led to a new, interesting direction in Jonson's career. His interest was now also invested in writing royal masques, which were basically just elaborate stage productions that include acting, dancing and music that are performed at court. This paid a ton better than being a public playwright.

In the course of doing this Jonson produced two dozen masques. He produced a whole bunch. Some of them are really considered to be premiere examples of the form. He does a masque really well. These are things like The Satyr, which is a celebratory exploration of English folklore, and also The Masque of Blackness, which is about African ladies arriving at court so James could cleanse them of their dark skin, which is problematic to say the least. Though it actually went over pretty well at the time because they had different understandings of what was okay. Anyway, The Masque of Blackness is one of his legacy pieces.

Even though that one was surprisingly not that controversial, other works that he did did land him in hot water. There were many times before he got this patronage that he was arrested and jailed for offensive material. He even had information about the Guy Fawkes plot, the plot to blow up parliament - 'remember, remember, the fifth of November,' all that V for Vendetta stuff. He had to reveal all that he knew in order to avoid punishment, so he was kind of in the thick of all this stuff. At any rate, the middle period of Jonson's life was free of legal trouble, and it was generally pretty much his most successful time. He produced work really considered his best, like 1605's Volpone, which is kind of a combination beast fable/comedy thing. This is his most-performed play. In 1614 he publishes Bartholomew Fair and also the hilariously named 1616 The Devil is an Ass; that just gets right to the point. 1610 has The Alchemist - not the novel by that guy recently. This last effort is really an examination of destructive greed; it's especially notable in that Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it one of the three most perfect plots in literature, so Coleridge liked it.

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