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Benjamin Jonson 1572 - 1637

English dramatist and poet, perhaps still best known as the dramatic rival of his more famous contemporary, Shakespeare. His most renowned works are the two comedies Volpone (1605-6) and The Alchemist (1610) and the satirical tragedy Sejanus (1603). Other important works include the satirical The Devil is an Ass (1616), Epicone, or The Silent Woman (1609) and Bartholomew's Fair (1614). The first and perhaps most enduring of the famous comedies of humour, with which Jonson's name is chiefly associated today, was his Every Man in his Humour (1598).

Other dramatic works include Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), Cynthia's Revels (1600), The Poetaster (1601), Catiline (1611), The Staple of News (1625), The New Inn (1629) and The Magnetic Lady (1632). Perhaps the most important of his non-dramatic works is his collection of prose pieces Timber; or Discoveries Made Upon Men and Matters (1640). He also wrote non-dramatic poetry that influenced the form of the later lyric verse, in particular the verse of Andrew Marvell and of the Cavalier poets.

Biography

Born in London of Border descent, Jonson was the son of a clergyman who died before his son's birth. He was educated at Westminster School and then, embarking upon a life that would be characterised throughout by great diversity and outlandish events, worked for a time as a bricklayer for his stepfather. This was followed by military service in Flanders, some acting in a strolling company of actors, and marriage, in 1594, to Anne Lewis, prior to being imprisoned in 1597 for his involvement, as playwright and player, in a satire entitled The Isle of Dogs. One year later he killed another actor in a duel but escaped execution by pleading benefit of clergy. During his subsequent imprisonment he converted to Roman Catholicism only to convert back to Anglicism over a decade later in 1701.

In the same year his most important play, the comedy Every Man in His Humour, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The cast included Shakespeare. His first court masque, of which he produced several in the following years, was produced in 1605 - the same year in which he was, once again, imprisoned for his part in a satire, this time entitled Edward Hoe , and also gave evidence concerning the infamous Gunpowder Plot. The period of his major plays followed with the publication and production of Volpone (1605-6), Epicene (1609) and Bartholomew's Fair (1614), by which time he had also worked as a personal tutor in France and had travelled to Scotland where he recorded his famous conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden. In 1616 he published his complete Works - poems, plays and masques - and received, in 1919, an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University and began to lecture on rhetoric at Gresham College, London. Two disasters followed: a fire, in 1623, that destroyed many of his belongings , and a stroke in 1628 from which he never fully recovered.

Jonson was a massive man - he spoke of his "mountain belly" - and a massively prolific writer. As well as his many plays and non-dramatic verses, his numerous masques include The Masque of Queens (1609), Love Restored (1612), Mercury Vindicated From the Alchemists at Court (1616), Pleasure Recounted to Virtue (1618)and Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion (1624). His friends - Shakespeare, Donne, Francis Bacon, George Chapman and so on - were, and those he influenced remain even today, numerous. His tombstone in Westminster Abbey bears the apposite inscription "O rare Ben Jonson".

Available Poems
Have You Seen But a Bright Lily Grow
It is Not Growing Like a Tree
Song to Diana
Song, from The Silent Woman
That Women are But Men's Shadows
To Celia; Drink to Me Only
To the Memory of My Beloved

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