Reference > Cambridge History > The Drama to 1642, Part Two > Ben Jonson > Early life
  Ben Jonson’s character and friendships Production of Every Man in His Humour  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson.

§ 2. Early life.

The events of his life, 3  apart from his writings, can here be traced only in meagre outline. He was born in Westminster in 1572 or 1573, and “poorly brought-up,” working, probably, at the trade of his step-father, a bricklayer. In spite of poverty, however, he was sent to Westminister school, where Camden, his life-long friend, was master. He did not enter either university, 4  although, later, he received honorary degrees from both; and the details of his life for a decade after he left school are unknown. He married, possibly in 1592, a wife “curst but honest”; had several children, none of whom survived him; enlisted and served a time in Flanders; and, in 1597, is found employed as both actor and playwright by Henslowe. He must have already won considerable reputation as a dramatist, for, in 1598, Meres, in his Palladis Tamia, mentions him as one of the six most excellent in tragedy. On 22 September, 1598, he killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel. His goods were confiscated and he was branded with a T; but he escaped capital punishment by pleading benefit of clergy. While in prison, he became a Roman Catholic; but, twelve years later, he returned to the church of England.   4

Note 3. The chief recent authorities for the life of Jonson are Fleay, F. G., English Drama, 1559–1642, 2 vols. 1891; Ward, A. W., vol. II, pp. 298 ff.; Herford, C. H., art. in Dict. of Nat. Biogr.; Castelain, M., Ben Jonson, l’Homme et l’(Euvre, 1907. See, also, Small, R. A., The Stage Quarrel between Ben Jonson and the so-called Poetasters, 1899. A life by Gregory Smith is promised in the English Men of Letters Series. [ back ]
Note 4. Certain indications—they cannot be called evidence—in favour of the supposition that Jonson, about 1590, was resident for a short time at St. John’s college, Cambridge, are discussed by J. Bass Mullinger in The Eagle, vol. XXV (1904). [ back ]

  Ben Jonson’s character and friendships Production of Every Man in His Humour  

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