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Jonson, Ben

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

(1572-1637) UK poet, actor and playwright, after Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and William Shakespeare the pre-eminent dramatist of his era, active from the late 1590s till the year of his death. He was most famous for his astute and often highly satirical comedies, most notably Volpone (1605-1606), The Alchemist (1610) which satirized the gullibility of a public ready to accept any pseudoscientific nostrum, and Bartholomew Fair (1614). Though these comedy-of-manners Satires were so sharp that he was often in trouble with the authorities, he was nevertheless granted a pension by James I in 1616 which effectively made him the first poet laureate.

Jonson wrote a number of masques for the court of James I, in one of which, Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone (performed 7 January 1620 "at Court", London; in The Workes of Benjamin Jonson 1640) [for full title see Checklist], he became perhaps the first writer to make dramatic use of Galileo's discovery that the Moon had a landscape. Part one of the masque presents gossip about Moon society, information gained by using the newly invented telescope. It is a world similar to ours, with Cities, parks, forests, markets and the like; though debtors are surreally able to buy clouds in which they conceal themselves from creditors, and there is no spoken language. Inter alia a subtle message is conveyed that James should stick to his plans not to interfere in the Thirty Years War. In the second part of the masque (technically known as the "anti-masque"), bird-men from the Moon, almost certainly based directly or indirectly on the vultures from Lucian's True History, perform a dance.

Jonson also presided over a literary circle which met regularly at the Mermaid Tavern and which included John Donne (1572-1631), but not Shakespeare, tales of whose presence there are legendary. [PKi/JC]

Benjamin Jonson

born Westminster [ie London]: 11 June 1572

died London: mid-August 1637 [6 August has also been given]

works (selected)

  • The Workes of Benjamin Jonson: The Second Volume (London: Printed for Richard Meighen, 1640) [coll: a publication date of 1641 has also been given: containing Newes from the New World Discover'd in the Moone: A Masque: As it was Presented at Court Before King James: binding unknown/]


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