Ben Jonson is possibly the only English dramatist of his day who may claim to rank with Shakespeare. A superbly gifted writer with intellectual energy, literary acumen, and command of language, much of his energy was consumed in literary wrangles with contemporary writers, most of whom he despised as uneducated hacksters, including, sometimes, Shakespeare.
Born in Westminster, England, in 1572, he studied under William Camden at Westminster School where he learned the classics, before he was deprived of continuing the university education he desired when his stepfather apprenticed him to this own trade of bricklaying. Finding this intolerable, he rebelled and instead went off as a soldier in the Netherlands. Upon his return in 1597, Jonson joined the London stage as an actor and part-author for one show, then found his niche as a writer. His first comedy to be presented at the Globe Theatre had Shakespeare in the cast, playing Knowell, in Every Man in His Humour. This play, presented in 1598, established Jonson's reputation, and he followed it with a series of satiric comedies which left an enduring mark upon the development of English dramatic literature.
Jonson's best work was done in the ten years from the production of Volpone in 1606 to that of The Devil Is an Ass in 1616, the failure of the latter causing his retirement from the public stage for some years. It was not until 1625, when he had lost court patronage, that Jonson again wrote for public presentation, but the subsequent works were not on a level with his previous works and are little known.
There is a further aspect of Jonson's dramatic work which cannot be ignored the fine series of court masques, an entertainment which in his hands reached the summit of its excellence. The young Price Henry appeared in the title role of one of these Oberon, the Faery Prince, shortly before his death in 1611.
Jonson was continually in trouble because he was hot-headed and quarrelsome and was sent to prison three times. Isle of Dogs in 1597, in which Jonson was an actor and part-author, so incensed the authorities that they closed the theatres and put Jonson in prison. He found himself in trouble again in 1603 over his first tragedy, Sejanus, which the authorities judged seditious. Reflections on James I's Scottish policy in Eastward Ho! in 1605 again resulted in Jonson landing in prison.
Jonson died in 1637 and is buried in Westminster Abbey, where his stone bears the famed epitaph reflecting the high opinion in which he was held: "O Rare Ben Jonson."