He was a posthumous product, being born in Westminster a month after his father’s death. He was christened Benjamin Johnson; he dropped the h to distinguish himself, but the printers continued to use it, over his dead body, till 1840; it still appears in the plaque on Westminster Abbey’s walls. The mother, having had a minister for her first husband, took a bricklayer for her second. The family was poor; Ben had to scrape for an education; only the kindness of a discerning friend financed his entry into Westminster School. There he had the luck to come under the influence of its “under-master,” the historian and antiquarian William Camden. He took to the classics with less than normal animosity, made intimates of Cicero, Seneca, Livy, Tacitus, Quintilian, and later claimed, apparently with justice, to know “more in Greek and Latin than all the poets of England.”38 Only his excitable “humour” and the rough-and-tumble of the London world kept his learning from ruining his art.
After graduating from Westminster, he attended Cambridge, “where,” says his earliest biographer, “he continued but a few weeks for want of further maintenance.”39 His stepfather needed him as apprentice bricklayer, and we picture Ben sweating and fretting for seven years as he laid bricks and meditated poetry. Then suddenly he was off to the wars, caught in the draft, or rushing to them as livelier than bricks. He served in the Netherlands, fought a duel with an enemy soldier, killed and despoiled him, and came home to tell expanding tales. He married, begot many children, buried three or more of them, quarreled with his wife, left her for five years, rejoined her, and lived with her incompatibly till her death. Clio herself knows not how he buttered the family’s bread.
The mystery deepens when we learn that he became an actor (1597). But he was bursting with bright ideas and happy lines, and merely reciting other men’s thoughts could not long contain him. He rejoiced when Tom Nash invited him to collaborate on The Isle of Dogs, and doubtless he contributed his share to the “very seditious and slanderous matter” that the Privy Council found in the play. The Council ordered the performance stopped, the theater closed, the authors arrested. Nash, an old hand at such scrapes, lost himself in Yarmouth; Jonson found himself in jail. As the custom of the prison required him to pay for his food, his lodging, and his shackles, he borrowed four pounds from Philip Henslowe, and, released, joined Henslowe’s (and Shakespeare’s) theatrical company (1597).
A year later he wrote his first important comedy, Every Man in His Humour, and saw Shakespeare act in it at the Globe. Perhaps the great dramatist did not relish the prologue, which proposed, despite current example, to follow the classic unities of action, time, and place, and not
To make a child, now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard and weed,
Past threescore years … You will be pleased to see
One such today as other plays should be,
Where neither chorus wafts you o’er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down, the boys to please …
But deeds and language such as men do use,
And persons such as comedy should choose
When she would show an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
So Jonson turned his back upon the aristocratic badinage of Shakespeare’s early comedies, and upon the miraculous geography and chronology of the “romantic” drama; he brought the slums of London to the stage, and concealed his erudition in a remarkable reproduction of lower-class dialects and ways. The characters are caricatures rather than complex philosophical creations, but they live; they are as worthless as in Webster, but they are human; they are mentally unkempt, but they are not murderers.
The Latins had used umor to mean “moisture” or “a fluid”; the Hippocratic medical tradition had used humor to designate four fluids of the body—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile; according to the predominance of one or another of these in a person, he was said to be of a sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, or choleric “humour,” or temperament. Jonson defined his own interpretation of the term:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man that it doth draw
All his affects [feelings], his spirits, and his powers,
In their conflutions, all to run one way—
That may be truly said to be a humour.40
The word came to life in the hilarious portrayal of Captain Bobadil, a direct descendant of Plautus’ miles gloriosus, but reeking with his own peculiar “humour” and unconscious humor—always brave except in peril, bursting to fight except when challenged, a master of the sheathed sword.
The play was well received, and Ben could sow his wild oats less niggardly. He was now bouncy with confidence, proud as a poet, talking to lords without servility, standing his ground stubbornly, absorbing life hurriedly at every chance and pore, relishing forthrightness and rough humor, seducing women now and then, but finally (he told Drummond) preferring “the wantonness of a wife to the coyness of a mistress.”41 He left off acting and lived rashly by his pen. For a time he prospered by writing masques for the court; the light fantastic lines he wrote fitted well the scenes that Jones designed. But Ben, hot-tempered, quarreled widely. In the year of his first success he fell out with Gabriel Spencer, an actor, dueled with him, killed him, and was jailed for murder (1598). To make matters worse for himself, he was converted to Catholicism in prison. Nevertheless he received a fair trial, and he was allowed to plead “benefit of clergy” because he read the Latin psalter “like a clerk”; he was released, but only after having the letter Tstamped with a hot iron on his thumb so that he might be readily identified as a second offender if he killed again; all the rest of his life he was a branded felon.
After a year of liberty he was returned to jail for debt. Henslowe again bailed him out, and in 1600 Jonson wooed solvency by writing Every Man out of His Humour. He weighted the comedy with classical tags; added to the dramatis personae three characters who served as a commenting chorus; rained invectives upon Puritans who had “religion in their garments, and their hair cut shorter than their eyebrows”; and brandished his lore at playwrights who were wrecking the Aristotelian unities. Instead of impossible romances about incredible lords, he proposed to show London mercilessly to itself, to
oppose a mirror
As large as is the stage whereon we act,
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomized in every nerve and sinew
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.42
The play made more enemies than royalties, and it is not recommended reading today. Dissatisfied with the noisy audience at the Globe, Jonson wrote his next comedy, Cynthia’s Revels (1601), for a company of boy actors and a smaller, choicer audience at the Blackfriars theater. Dekker and Marston felt themselves satirized in the play; in 1602 the Chamberlain’s company, angered by the competition of the Blackfriars’ boys, produced Dekker’s Satiromastix (i.e., the satirist flogged), which pilloried Jonson as a puny, pockmarked, conceited pedant, murderer, and bricklayer. The quarrel ended in an exchange of eulogies, and for a time fortune smiled. A prospering lawyer took Ben into his home, and the Earl of Pembroke sent the poet twenty pounds “to buy books.”43 So fortified, he tried his hand at tragedy. He took as his subject Sejanus, the evil favorite of Tiberius. He based his narrative carefully upon Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, and Juvenal; he achieved a scholarly masterpiece, some moving scenes (e.g., V, x) and stately lines; but the audience resented the long speeches, the tedious moralism of lifeless characters; the play was soon withdrawn. Jonson printed the text and in the margin gave his classical sources, with notes in Latin. Lord Aubigny, impressed, gave the sorrowing author asylum for five years.
He returned to the arena in 1605 with his greatest play. Volpone, or The Fox attacked with burning satire the money lust that raged in London. As usual with comedies—from Plautus to The Admirable Crichton—a clever servant is the brains of the plot. Mosca (Italian for fly) brings to his miser master, Volpone, who pretends to be seriously ill, a succession of legacy hunters—Voltore (vulture), Corbaccio (crow), Corvino (raven)—who leave substantial presents in the hope of being named Volpone’s heir. The “fox” accepts each gift with grasping reluctance, even to borrowing Corbaccio’s wife for a night. Mosca finally deceives Volpone into making the servant sole legatee. But Bonario (good nature) exposes the trick, and the Venetian Senate sends nearly all the cast to jail. The play at last brought the Globe audience to Jonson’s feet.
He moved hurriedly from success to adversity. He collaborated with Marston and Chapman on Eastward Ho! (1605); the government arrested the authors on the ground that the comedy insulted the Scots; the prisoners were threatened with circumcision of their noses and ears, but they were released intact, and such dignitaries as Camden and Selden joined in the banquet given by the liberated triumvirate. Then, on November 7, 1605, Ben was summoned to the Privy Council as a Catholic who might know something about the Gunpowder Plot. Though he had dined with a chief conspirator, Catesby, a month before, he escaped implication; but on January 9, 1606, he was hailed to court as a delinquent recusant. Since he was too poor to be profitably fined, the charge was not pressed. In 1610 he re turned to the Anglican fold, and “with such enthusiasm that he drank all the wine in the cup when he attended” Communion.44
In that year he staged his most famous play. The Alchemist satirized not merely alchemy, which was a flagging quest, but half a dozen impostures that harried London with quackery. Sir Epicure Mammon is sure that he has found the secret of alchemy:
This night I’ll change
All that is metal in my house to gold,
And, early in the morning, will I send
To all the plumbers and the pewterers,
And buy their tin and lead up, and to Lothbury
For all the copper … I’ll purchase Devonshire and Cornwall,
And make them perfect Indies … For I do mean
To have a list of wives and concubines
Equal with Solomon, who had the stone
Alike with me; and I will make me a back,
With the elixir, that shall be as tough
As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night
… And my flatterers
Shall be the pure and gravest of divines
That I can get for money …
My meat shall all come in in Indian shells,
Dishes of agate set in gold, and studded
With emeralds, sapphires, hyacinths, and rubies;
The tongues of carps, dormice, and camel’s heels …
Old mushrooms, and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off …
For which I’ll say unto my cook, “There’s gold;
Go forth, and be a knight.”45
Sir Epicure is a rare morsel, but the others of the cast are dregs, and their talk is sticky with scatological filth; it is a pity to see scholarly Ben so erudite in scum and in the argot of the slums. The Puritans forgivably attacked such plays. Jonson retaliated by caricaturing them in Bartholomew Fair (1614).
He produced many more comedies, full of life and lees; non ragionam di lor. At times he rebelled against his own coarse realism, and in The Sad Shepherd he let his imagination roam quite recklessly.
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass
Or shake the downy blowball from his stalk,
But like the soft west wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sowed them with her odorous foot.46
But he left the play unfinished, and, for the rest, confined his romanticism to pretty lyrics scattered in his comedies like jewels set in dross. So, in The Devil Is an Ass (1616), suddenly he sings:
Have you seen but a bright lily grow
Before rude hands have touched it?
Ha’ you marked but the fall o’ the snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Ha’ you felt the wool of beaver,
Or swan’s down ever?
Or have smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar,
Or the nard in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!
Still finer, of course, is the song “To Celia,” which he pilfered from the Greek of Philostratus and transformed, with perfect scholarship and skill, into “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”
After Shakespeare’s death Jonson was the acknowledged head of the poetic guild. He became the uncrowned poet laureate of England—not officially so named, but most often recognized by the government, and receiving from it a pension of one hundred marks a year. The many friends who gathered round him at the Mermaid Tavern saw his rough good nature behind his bad temper and sharp tongue; they fed on his juicy speech and let him play the lead almost as presidentially as his namesake of the next century. Ben was now as corpulent as Samuel would be, and no handsomer; he mourned his “mountain belly” and “rocky face” pocked with scurvy; he could hardly visit a friend without breaking a chair. In 1624 he moved his dais to the Devil Tavern in Fleet Street; there the Apollo Club, which he had founded, met regularly to feast on victuals, wine, and wit; and Jonson, at one end of the room, had a raised seat, with a handrail that guided his magnitude into the throne. Tradition called his followers the Tribe of Ben, and numbered among them James Shirley, Thomas Carew, and Robert Herrick, who called him “Saint Ben.”47
He needed a saintly and uncongenial patience to bear with the poverty and sickness of his disintegrating years. He reckoned that all his plays had brought him less than two hundred pounds. He spent in haste and starved at leisure; he had none of the financial sense that had made Shakespeare an expert in realty. Charles I continued his pension, but when Parliament stinted the royal funds the pension was not always paid. Charles, however, sent him one hundred pounds in 1629, and the dean and the chapter of Westminster Abbey voted five pounds for “Mr. Benjamin Johnson in his sickness and want.”48 His last plays failed, his fame waned, his friends disappeared, his wife and children were dead. By 1629 he lived alone, bedridden with paralysis, with only one old woman to take care of him. He lingered in pain and penury for eight years more. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and John Young carved, upon the stone that faced the grave, a famous epitaph:
O RARE BEN JOHNSON
Only the first two words remain, but every educated Englishman can fill out the rest.