Born in London in 1573, Ben Jonson would be no stranger to tragedy. His Protestant father--who had been imprisoned and deprived of his estate during the Catholic reign of Mary Tudor--had died only a month earlier, and his mother, left penniless and with no means of supporting her young son, was forced to marry a bricklayer. But despite these tragic beginnings, it was for his humor that Ben Jonson would be known.
At Westminster school, the scholar Camden recognized Jonson's exceptional literary gifts and took the young man under his tutelage. Though Jonson never received a university education, Camden's instruction proved more than adequate. He became one of the most learned men of Elizabethan times and eventually received honorary degrees from both universities.
Perhaps in remembrance of his father, Jonson enlisted with the English supporters of the Protestant Hollanders who were defending their religious and political liberties against Catholicism and Spanish rule. The fiery young poet proved to be as formidable with the sword as he was with the pen. In one particular act of bravado, he advanced before the English volunteers, challenged a Spaniard to single combat, slew him, and then--in classic Homeric tradition--stripped the corpse of its armor.
In 1592, he returned to London and married a woman whom he would later describe as "a shrew, yet honest." In 1596, she gave birth to a son whom Jonson called his "best piece of poetry." He was devestated when the young boy was struck down with the plague at the age of seven.
Jonson plunged himself into the bohemian life of the city, drank alot, acted (badly), doctored Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy for Phillip Henslowe, and adapted two Roman comedies in The Case Is Altered. But it was not until 1598 that he finally emerged from the crowd of unrecognized playwrights with Every Man in His Humour. Dedicated to Master Camden, Every Man in His Humour is a masterpiece of its kind. It draws a telling portrait of the follies of the time--one huge canvas of the Elizabethan age.
But disaster quickly followed. Jonson fell into a quarrel with the actor Gabriel Spencer and, in a duel, killed the man, though his blade was ten inches shorter than Spencer's. He was imprisoned and very nearly put to death. At the last moment, he was granted a reprieve and released, but his property was confiscated, and he was branded on the thumb. His release was celebrated by the performance of his new play Every Man Out of His Humour.
Although often guilty of petty quarrels with his fellow playwrights, Jonson collaborated with John Marston and George Chapman on Eastward Ho!, a script which would land them all in prison once again. The play contains an unflattering reference to Scottish royalty to which the new king, James I, took offense. Chapman and Marston were thrown into prison, and Jonson joined them there voluntarily, claiming equal responsibility for the play. In the end, they were spared--probably because of the new-found popularity Jonson was beginning to enjoy as a writer of masques for the court.
The next year, Jonson produced what is generally considered to be his masterpiece. In Volpone, a rich merchant hits upon the scheme of faking his own death in order to swell his coffers with gifts. Sickened by the greed which was becoming a predominant feature of the economic system, Jonson is no longer simply drawing an amusing picture of Elizabethan times, he is flatly assailing the morals of the age.
Jonson lived on long after his friend Shakespeare had passed away. He continued to write, piling comedy on comedy, and although he fell prey to illness and obesity in later life--weighing at one time nearly "twenty stone"--he remained the unquestioned literary dictator of England until his death in 1637.