Contemporary Playwright: Ben Jonson

By Katie Bennett

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Introduction to Ben Jonson

Video on Ben Jonson

Life of Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson was born in London, England on June 11, 1572. He never knew his biological father as he died shortly before Jonson was born, and his mother remarried. He became a bricklayer for a short time in 1589 after his schooldays were over, and then joined the military in the Netherlands. Once his service was up, he attempted acting at Philip Henslowe’s theater company. He was arrested twice, once for not paying an actor and once for killing a man in a duel. During this period, he began writing plays. In 1954, he married Anne Lewis, and he had two children. He began actually working as a playwright around then. Several of his plays grew to be very popular. He wrote plays and poems over the course of his life, and died on August 6, 1637. He is buried in Westminster Abbey and his grave reads, "O Rare Ben Jonson."


Jonson's plays were greatly influenced by other classical works. He was said to have borrowed many bits and pieces of other great author's works and incorporated them into his own. He was popular for his comedic plays, such as The Alchemist and Volpone. He became so popular, that King James I employed him to write for him, allowing Jonson to get to know other established writers.


Every Man in his Humor was one of Jonson's first well-known plays. In one of the productions of this play, William Shakespeare, author of The Merchant of Venice, played one of the leading roles. This is thought to have been when Jonson and Shakespeare first met and became acquaintances. They often bickered, throwing snide jabs at each other often, making fun and criticizing each other and their work. Despite this, they became good friends and truly admired the other's work, drawing inspiration from some of their pieces. Their writing styles of comedic plays were similar, incorporating classical style, writing by older forms of theatre rather than the contemporary style of their day. Also, their characters had exaggerated traits in order to make the play humorous and appealing to the audience.

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio, best friend of the main character Antonio, is most likely a representation of Shakespeare's best friend, Ben Jonson. Shakespeare wrote his and Jonson's friendship into his play, presenting it through Antonio and Bassanio. Some character traits of Bassanio mirror Jonson. For example, Bassanio enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, yet he couldn't handle money for the life of him. This parallels Jonson because he never was able to achieve financial stability.

Synopsis of The Merchant of Venice

A merchant named Antonio's friend, Bassanio, asks Antonio for money so that he can travel to a wealthy woman named Portia in hopes of courting and eventually marrying her. Antonio doesn't have the money, so he suggests a Jewish loaner, Shylock. Shylock agrees to loan the money, but on the condition that if it is not paid, he gets a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio succeeds in courting Portia, and she gives him a ring as a token of love. Antonio's ships, filled with his items for trade, might have sunk, leaving him unable to pay his debt. Shylock goes to court, unwilling to change his mind about their deal. Portia steps in, posing as a lawman, attempting to save Antonio's life. She succeeds when she mentions that, though Antonio's flesh was entitled to Shylock, he must get it without drawing blood, as that was not a part of their previous agreement. Shylock is charged with conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen. In the end, Antonio's life is spared and his cargo makes it back safely. Bassanio gets married to his lover and everyone goes home happy, except for Shylock who had to give away his land and convert to Christianity to not end up in prison.

Works Cited

"Ben Jonson." Academy of American Poets. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Ben Jonson." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <>.

"Introduction to Ben Jonson: Poems, Plays, and Shakespeare." Education Portal. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <>.

Mabillard, Amanda. "Ben Jonson - His Life, Work, and Relationship with Shakespeare." Shakespeare Online. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <>.

"The Merchant of Venice." SparkNotes. SparkNotes. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <>.