Poet Biographies

Ben Jonson: The Master of Wit and Satire

Ben Jonson, the 17th-century English playwright and poet, was a towering figure of the Jacobean literary era.

Ben Jonson Portrait

Ben Jonson is a celebrated 16th-century British poet who made an impact on English literature and the literary world as a whole. His poetry and plays are well-known for their witty approach, and he has written a number of successful satirical comedies that show his strong sense of artistic form and craftmanship. 

He would go on to excel in his satirical genre. He is largely considered one of the most impactful dramatists of his generation and the originator of English literary criticism. Poet Alexander Pope would go on to say that Jonson turned “critical learning into vogue.” According to scholars, he was the first English writer to refer to his plays as ‘works.’ Among many scholars and poetry lovers, Jonson is considered to be the second most important English dramatist behind William Shakespeare.

Despite his success, his personal life was eventful. He was known for being involved in public feud after public feud. Playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker were some of the most famous of these. He would also kill a man in a duel, which nearly resulted in his execution.

Early Life

Ben Jonson was born in June 1572 in London, England. His father, who worked as a minister, died before his birth, and his mother remarried. Jonson’s mother would marry a bricklayer. The death of his father, a minister who was rumored to be from the gentry class of Scotland, was an important event in his upbringing.


As a young boy, he was educated at Westminster School by the scholar and historian William Camden. Under his tutelage, Jonson began being exposed to different works and the classics. His eyes were opened to legendary writers and thinkers. He would study the works of Horace, Aristotle, and many other Latin thinkers alike. Jonson’s stepfather, who was trained as a bricklayer, employed Jonson alongside him. His stepfather’s trade did not stick to Jonson, and the arrangement did not suit the writer. He ended up joining the army and serving England in Flanders.

Early Career

After Jonson finished his time in the Netherlands, he returned to England and worked as an actor and playwright. He was well-respected within the circle of playwrights, as he would make additions to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy in 1592. He joined the company belonging to Philip Henslowe, and in 1597, he was imprisoned for a short time in Fleet prison for alleged seditious content. Jonson had been involved in a satire entitled ‘The Isle of Dogs.’ Over the following years, His life took somewhat of a turn; he killed fellow actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel and was tried at the Old Bailey for murder. He was able to escape execution by gallows by turning himself over to the church and claiming the benefit of clergy. He briefly converted to Roman Catholicism during this time period whilst at Newgate prison and lost all of his possessions.

Jonson is best-known today as a playwright, and it was in 1598 that one of his most popular plays, Every Man in His Humourwas performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe. William Shakespeare himself was a member of the cast and held one of the lead roles. This was his first great success and was followed by Every Man Out of His Humour, which was not nearly as popular. The next years of his life were filled with controversy as he spoke out against fellow poets and boasted about his own abilities. 

Some of his most notable works during this period were Cynthia’s Revells and Poetaster, both created in 1601.

Jonson was soon to fall in trouble with the authorities once more over his classical tragedySejanus, His Fall, in 1603. The Privy Council once more charged him with treason, and he was imprisoned. These incidents cast a veil of suspension over the writer in 1605 after the Gunpowder Plot. He had attended a dinner in which the conspirators were all present, but after Jonson revealed all he knew to the police and he was cleared. He would go on to create Volpone in 1606, which turned out to be one of his most successful comedies. From 1606-1614, Jonson wrote The Silent Woman in 1609, The Alchemist in 1610, and Bartholomew Fair in 1614. Jonson produced four plays during the reign of Charles I.

Later Life

Over the following years, Jonson wrote a number of different masques for King James’ court. Some of these included The Satyr and The Masque of Blackness. The latter was one of his elegant masques. He would work in collaboration with Inigo Jones, the poet, architect, and stage designer, on a number of his masques. Jonson’s most popular works were written and performed between 1605 and 1614. One, in particular, The Fox, is considered his masterpiece. In 1616, Jonson was given a pension from the crown. This unofficial positioning of the poet led some to consider him England’s first poet laureate. He would also be awarded the honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University during this time.

The poet and playwright continued to work throughout the ’20s and ’30s. He was named the City Chronologer in 1828, which occurred early in the year. Later that year, Jonson suffered a sequence of strokes that condemned him to his bed for a number of years. He died in August of 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in an upright position (due to his reduced financial circumstances). Instead of ending up in Poets’ Corner, he was buried in the Nave.

Remarkably, despite his success, it was in the 20th century when his reputation began to really gain traction. In the modern day, Jonson is more aptly compared to John Donne, rather than William Shakespeare, to whom he had been tied for many years.

Famous Poems

Ben Jonson’s poems include tributes to friends, notably William Shakespeare, John Donne, and Francis Bacon. Here are some of his most famous poems:


Ben Jonson took great inspiration from poets that came before him and those that he surrounded himself with. These included the likes of Horace, Virgil, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and John Donne. In fact, Shakespeare’s company produced a number of Jonson’s plays.


What is Ben Jonson Famous for?

Ben Jonson was famous for his poetry, satirical plays, and masques. His most famous plays include Every Man in His Humour, Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair.

What is Ben Johnson’s most famous poem?

Ben Jonson’s most famous poem is ‘To Celia,’ a love poem that is often quoted and anthologized. It was first published in 1616 in Jonson’s collection of poems, The Forest. The poem is a celebration of love and beauty, and it is full of vivid imagery and metaphors.

Why was Ben Jonson imprisoned?

Ben Jonson was imprisoned on two separate occasions. In 1598, he would kill actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. He would be released due to ‘benefit of clergy’, or the fact that he could read and write in Latin. In 1605, Jonson would go to prison for the second time for his alleged role in the Gunpowder Plot. However, the allegations would not stick, and he was released a few weeks later.

Did Ben Jonson know Shakespeare?

Yes, Ben Jonson knew William Shakespeare. They were both members of the same acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men). They are said to have been friends, although there is some evidence that they may have had a rivalry.

What was Ben Johnson’s writing style?

Ben Jonson’s writing style was characterized by its classical learning, wit, and satire. He was a master of satirical plays. He also wrote masques, which were elaborate court entertainments that combined music, dance, and poetry.

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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