When the fresh-faced youth, William Shakespeare, arrived in the great city of London from the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon to pursue his ambition to be an actor, he fell in with two young men who were working in the theatre. One was Christopher Marlowe, the same age as Shakespeare, who was already writing plays, and the other was the older Ben Jonson.
Jonson was an experienced man of the world – a poet and soldier, who had fought in several campaigns in Europe. First and foremost a writer of poems, Jonson was now turning his talent to the lucrative business of writing plays for the theatre.
Taken under the wing of these two writers the young William Shakespeare was invited to collaborate with Marlowe in writing plays, thus enjoying a valuable apprenticeship as a playwright. He may have performed in one of Marlowe’s plays but there is evidence that he did in at least one of Jonson’s plays. He took a role in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour, a play full of comic characters. Unfortunately, we do not know which of them he played. Marlow was murdered soon after Shakespeare’s arrival in London but the friendship between Shakespeare and Jonson developed and remained solid for the duration of Shakespeare’s life. In fact, Jonson visited Shakespeare in Stratford a week before his Shakespeare’s death.
It is possible that if Shakespeare had never existed Ben Jonson’s plays would be regarded as the great examples of Elizabethan drama. He was a very different kind of writer, though. Whereas Shakespeare’s texts are baroque in their elaborations Jonson’s have a more sparse, cut-down, quality, with far more prose than Shakespeare’s, making them seem more modern to the twenty-first century ear.
The plays are lively and mainly comic: they reflect the author’s interest in current affairs and the new sciences like geography. In one of his comedies, Bartholomew Fair, two characters are discussing the tobacco that’s being sold at one of the stalls at the fair. Tobacco, used by the indigenous tribes of America had recently been introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh and was a great talking point. Justice Overdo advises his companion against smoking it. He doesn’t like its colour and texture. Moreover, he says, ‘who can tell if, before the gathering and making up thereof, the alligator hath not pissed thereon?’
While continuing to write poems, Jonson produced several plays, twenty of which have survived. He was more prolific, though, in the masque form that was taking the Jacobean theatre by storm with its multi-media presentations – poetry, drama, comedy, music, dance and colourful sets. Thirty-six of those have survived.
The masques are not much performed today but the regular performance of the most famous of his plays makes him a giant of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, second only to Shakespeare.
Here is a list of Ben Jonson’s plays:
- A Tale of a Tub, 1596
- The Isle of Dogs, 1597
- The Case is Altered, 1597–98
- Every Man in His Humour, 1598
- Every Man out of His Humour, 1599
- Cynthia’s Revels, 1600
- The Poetaster, 1601
- Sejanus His Fall, 1603
- Eastward Ho, 1605
- Volpone, 1605-6
- Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, 1609
- The Alchemist, 1610
- Catiline His Conspiracy, 1611
- Bartholomew Fair, 1614
- The Devil is an Ass, 1616
- The Staple of News, 1626
- The New Inn, or The Light Heart, 1629
- The Magnetic Lady, or Humors Reconciled, 1632
- The Sad Shepherd, 1637
- Mortimer His Fall, 1641
The most performed of Ben Jonson’s plays are: Every Man in His Humour,Volpone,The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair