Five Fascinating Facts about Ben Jonson
Fun facts about the poet and playwright
1. Ben Jonson courted controversy on a number of occasions during his writing career. Jonson (c. 1572-1637), the adopted son of a bricklayer, was originally apprenticed to his stepfather’s trade, before going off to enlist in the English army (he later claimed he had killed a Spanish champion in single combat). He started writing for the London theatre in his mid-twenties, and his first play to make a real splash was The Isle of Dogs, in 1597. However, this play – co-authored with Thomas Nashe – made its mark for the wrong reason. The play was suppressed for its seditious content, all copies of it were ordered to be burned, and so it was never printed. Nobody at the time recorded the precise nature of the ‘sedition’ contained in the play, so we can only speculate. In 1598, the following year, Jonson killed an actor, Gabriel Spenser; he escaped execution by pleading ‘benefit of clergy’, i.e. he could read and write so he was allowed to get off with a branding on his thumb rather than a noose round his neck. Jonson landed in trouble again in 1605 for co-writing Eastward Hoe!, a play containing seven lines which King James I appears to have found offensive to the Scots.
2. Ben Jonson was considered by one of his contemporaries to be the greatest tragedian of the day, though many of his tragic plays have – tragically – not survived. Although he is now best-known as the author of city comedies such as Bartholomew Fair, Volpone, Every Man in His Humour, and The Alchemist, Jonson started out writing tragedies for the London theatre, but unfortunately such titles as Robert II of Scotland, Hot Anger Soon Cold, and even Richard Crookback (compare Shakespeare’s Richard III) have not survived. Francis Meres, an invaluable source of information about Elizabethan theatre, called Jonson ‘our best in tragedy’ – this was at a time when Shakespeare had also made his name on the London stage – but most of these tragedies with which Jonson made his name have not survived. Jonson also left his last play, a pastoral work called The Sad Shepherd – featuring Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and a Witch named Maudlin – only half-finished at the time of his death in 1637.
3. Jonson’s The Alchemist has been called one of the three perfect plots in all of literature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge opined, ‘Upon my word, I think the Oedipus Tyrannus [by Sophocles], The Alchemist, and [Henry Fielding’s novel] Tom Jones the three most perfect plots ever planned.’ Jonson was also the first person to use the word ‘palindrome’ in English. The phrase ‘my arse!’, expressing incredulity and dismissal, is first recorded (as ‘mine arse’) in his 1602 play The Poetaster.
4. ‘Father Christmas’ first appeared in a 1616 play by Ben Jonson. As well as writing both tragedies and comedies, Jonson also wrote masques. Christmas, His Masque is not exactly a ‘play’ in the usual sense: a ‘masque’ was something slightly different, like a play but with more dancing and musical content. It was specifically a courtly entertainment. Jonson’s Christmas masque was first performed at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland) during the Christmas season of 1616. ‘Christmas’ in the title is, of course, Father Christmas – and when we say ‘father’, we mean it: he has ten children in the play. Their names are Carol (of course), Gambol, Wassail, Misrule, Mumming, Offering, Post and Pair, New-Year’s-Gift, Baby-Cake, and Minced-Pie. (Carol is actually a boy, by the way.)
5. Ben Jonson was buried standing up in Westminster Abbey. Because he could only afford to buy a tiny amount of space in the abbey, Jonson was buried in an upright position. Nor is he buried in Poets’ Corner where so many other famous English writers are interred (such as Edmund Spenser, 38 years before, who was buried beside Chaucer), but nearby. His tomb misspells his name.
If you enjoyed these facts about Ben Jonson, you might also enjoy our fascinating Shakespeare facts, our myths and misconceptions about Shakespeare, and our analysis of Jonson’s elegy for his son Benjamin. For more interesting literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: English playwright, poet, and actor Ben Jonson (1572-1637) by George Vertue (1684-1786) after Gerard van Honthorst (1590-1656); Wikimedia Commons.