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The Tribe of Ben:

Most of the Elizabethans themselves viewed Jonson as a more prominent literary figure than Shakespeare. To understand this situation, it is necessary to consider the differences between the two men in their own day First, Jonson has a longer career-about forty years, as compared with about twenty five for Shakespeare. Jonson also led a more controversial life, which drew notoriety and commentary from nobles, politicians, writers and literary critics whereas the public knew relatively little about Shakespeare’s private life, which was apparently more or less quiet and uneventful. So both circumstances and the passage of time established Jonson as the more distinctive social and theatrical character. Also, although a playwright Shakespeare certainly enjoyed a popular following in the public theaters, “serious” writers of philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences did not view his plays or those of other dramatists with being called literature.

The younger, bolder Jonson challenged this state of affairs, insisting that his plays should be looked on as legitimate literature. And to emphasize the point, in 1616 he published a collection of his plays under the title The Works of Benjamin Jonson. Scholars and many others ridiculed his use of the word “Works,” which they felt gave too much credit to mere plays. But Jonson ignored the critics; his careful oversight of both editing and presentation set new standards for the publication of plays and their acceptance as literature. In this way, his biographer David Riggs points out, he “created an ‘authorized’ text that could be shared again and again with an educated readership". This example inspired friends of the now dead collect and publish his plays seven years later in the First Folio, saving many as yet unpublished masterpieces for posterity.

In addition, unlike Shakespeare, Jonson developed a loyal following of young, highly educated playwrights and other writers who proudly came to call themselves “the tribe of Ben”; their works as well those of many later English writers, show his influence. In fact, Jonson actually saw himself as a sort of pioneer or reformer of the drama of his time. Specifically, he was deeply concerned that many plays lacked good form, followed few accepted literary rules, and were filled with boring cliches and lowbrow humor. In his view, as one modern scholar explains, most were

badly written, stuffed with stale jokes and endless bombast (long declarative speeches), marred by obscenity and blasphemy. . . .their plots were absurd, full of improbabilities and coincidences. . .their characters were incredible and there were too many clowns and they contained far too many violent, pointless, and noisy incidents like battles, storms, shipwrecks, and so on.

Jonson sought to establish, through the example of his own plays, correct rules for writing drama, especially for comedy, his forte. And in that regard he succeeded admirably. “No praise can be too high for the construction of his comedies,”writes another of his biographers, L.B. Bamborough.

Nothing in them happens by chance and no “loose ends” are ever left dancing, it is not too much to say that every character who appears is given an intelligible motive for his actions, and his every entrance and exit is accounted for. Alongside the plays of his contemporaries, which often seem like heaps of broken parts. Jonson’s plays resemble well-oiled, smoothly running machines.

The Reluctant Bricklayer:

Jonson’s path to the position of preeminent dramatist of his day was long and strewn with obstacles that would surely have deterred men of lesser ambition and talent. About a month before his birth in London in June 1572, his father, a minister whose name is unknown, died. This apparently left the family destitute; so young Ben’s mother, wasted no time in finding a second husband. The stepfather, whose name may have been Robert Brett, was a successful bricklayer who, as a matter of course, expected the boy to become an apprentice in that profession.

Even as a child, however, Jonson who must have been a good deal smarter and more sensitive than the average boy, had no desire to become a laborer. Luckily for him, when he was seven, a family friend, whose identity is unknown, helped enroll him in the prestigious Westminster School. There, his school master was William Camden, one of the leading educators and scholars in all England. Jonson gained a strong foundation in and love for 'fine literature' that stayed with him the rest of his life

Whoever Jonson’s financial mentor was, he could not or would not provide the necessary money for him to attend college. And since the family could not afford to help, the young man was forced to leave school at, age sixteen. He reluctantly took a job building masonry walls with his stepfather. But as Jonson later recalled, he “could not endure” this avocation and ran away and joined the British army. In a military campaign in the Netherlands, he saw action and killed an enemy soldier in hand-to-hand combat.

First Foray into the Theater:

Exactly when Jonson returned to London from the service is uncertain. The next documented incident in his life was his marriage in November 1594 to a young woman named Anne Lewis. Supporting a wife required an income, of course, but there were few respectable career opportunities for a young man without a college degree who also rejected the idea of manual labor. Perhaps this was his motivation for becoming an actor with a group of strolling players that same year. Contemporary playwright Thomas Dekker later claimed that Jonson played the lead role in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. The company was likely the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, since evidence shows that that group performed Kyd’s play on a 1595-1596 tour.

In the summer of 1597, Jonson encountered his biggest obstacle. He clearly felt he was destined to be a dramatist and had found an opportunity to make the transition from acting to writing, namely finishing a play the Isle of Dogs begun by Thomas Nashe. The play opened at The Swan in July But the authorities felt its content was offensive, closed it down, and arrested the actors, as well as Jonson. Released from prison in October, the aspiring writer had to borrow money to make ends meet.

Refusing to be defeated, Jonson persevered, wrote another play, and this time scored big. In 1598, Every Man in His Humor, a comedy, peaked the interest of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company partially owned by Shakespeare. Jonson had the thrill and honor of seeing the work performed that year with Shakespeare and renowned actors Richard Burbage and Will Kempe all taking roles.

Every Man in Humor remains one of Jonson’s finest plays and exemplifies his approach to comedy, which was then fairly unique. He summed up his theory in the prologue (added later), in which he expresses the hope that the audience will be pleased to see a funny play without a lot of violence and special effects. No chorus of actors would wax eloquent to “waft you over the seas,” he said, nor would a loud drum be played “to tell you when the storm doth come”. Instead, his comedy would “show an image of the times, and sport with human follies, not with crimes.” In other words, he would poke fun at everyday human foibles- “I mean such errors as you’ll all confess; by laughing at them, they deserve no less.” These follies, displayed by the characters as they make their way through a series of zany twists and turns reminiscent of those in television situation comedies, include excessive jealousy, conceit, suspicion, and stupidity.

Imprisoned Again:

No sooner had Jonson made a name for himself when he once more found himself in trouble. This time he got into a duel with and killed another actor, Gabriel Spencer, a former member of Pembroke’s Men. Johnson was found guilty and imprisoned. Luckily, he managed to escape the death penalty by falling back on an archaic law that allowed male felons who were literate to have their case referred to a bishop’s court. In Jonson’s case, the judge asked him to translate a passage from a Latin Bible, and when he did so with ease, the authorities freed him.

For some reason, while in prison Jonson converted to Catholicism. It is difficult to understand why he would do so, considering that he desired to continue a very visible career in the public theater. After all, Catholics were extremely unpopular in this England at this time and were often the targets of hatred and persecution. “Catholics who declined to attend Anglican services,” Riggs explain,

Incurred a fine of twenty pounds a month and if they were unable to pay it the property was confiscated. They could not hold public office. It was a felony to receive a priest and Felony to take the sacrament [Holy Communion] from him Catholic were subject to arbitrary imprisonment and excruciating torture at the hands of their captors; those suspected of plotting against the crown could expect to have their intestines removed in public.

At the Top of His Form:

After his release, Jonson was penniless again. Hoping to make money, he turned out another comedy Every Man Out of His Humor, which The Lord Chamberlain’s Men staged at the new Globe theater in 1599. This was not as well received as Every Man In His Humor, however, so he tried his hand at writing for the boy’s schools. About 1600, the Boys of St. Paul’s Choir staged his Cynthia’s Revels, a fantasy set in the court of Cynthia, the moon goddess. With its mythological framework and tribute to the queen through the character of Cynthia, it was reminiscent of Lyly’s Endymion.

The following year Jonson received an invitation from the master of revels to present Cynthia’s Revels for Queen Elizabeth. The piece did not go over well at court, though, because the author, in his usual attempt to expose human follies, referred to courtiers as arrogant and ignorant. Jonson was much more successful as a court writer after Elizabeth’s death in 1603. For her successor, James 1, and his queen, the playwright composed several masques, light entertainments combining acting, singing, and dancing. These included The Masque of Blackness (1605), Hue and Cry After Cupid (1608), and The Masque of Queens (1609).

Jonson did not abandon the public theater, however between 1606 and 1614 he was at the top of his form and turned out most of his greatest plays Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair. All of these comedies like Every Man In Humor, express his marked dislike of human vice and excess and his delight in exposing them. The characters who demonstrate these vices are often made to look ridiculous, but the author draws them in such detail that they become almost realistic portraits of the people and habits of his age. This careful attention to detail remains one of the most enduring strengths of these works Thomas Parrott elaborates:

(Jonson’s) comedies are invaluable social documents, since they present an unequalled picture of life in England during the great Elizabethan Age. To take one example out of many. Shakespeare never so much as mentions the new fashion of smoking; Jonson’s comedies are (filled with references to) the pipe. Tobacco may be trivial, but there is more than stoke in Jonson’s plays. There is not a folly, an affectation, or a fraud of his day that is not castigated by his satire, it ranges from new fashions in dress and speech to the proposed transmutation of base metals into gold and to grandiose schemes for reclaimed drowned lands. And all this matter is presented in “language such as men do use”, in prose for the most part, or in verse that has little of the flowery artificial style of poetry.

The Twilight of Elizabethan Drama:

After a long period of critical and financial success and few if any personal problems, to his dismay, Jonson suddenly began to experience setbacks. In 1623, his entire library, collected over the course of his adult life, was destroyed in a fire. Two years later, his longtime patron, James I, died. That monarch’s son, Charles I, was cool toward the dramatist, who was no longer asked to supply masques for the royal court. Compounding matters, the playwright suffered a stroke in 1628 and was thereafter confined to his home. He continued to write plays from his bed, but they were not nearly as incisive and successful as those penned in his prime. After a second stroke, on August 6, 1637, Jonson died, lonely and debt-ridden. He was buried not far from his old friend William Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Despite Jonson's considerable talents and contributions to Elizabethan drama in its fading twilight, Shakespeare’s star eventually rose higher than his in the literary firmament. Jonson was certainly as smart, educated, and ingenious as his rival. Yet his corpus of plays does not come close to matching Shakespeare's in sheer size and variety not to mention poetic beauty, emotional power, and insight into the human condition. The great seventeenth century English dramatist John Dryden echoed the judgment of later generations when he said:

If I would compare (Jonson) with Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil (the ancient Roman author of the epic poem the Aeneid), the pattern elaborate writing. I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.


Great Elizabethan Playwright

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