The tumultuous life of Ben Jonson began in London on June 11, 1572. His clergyman father died before he was born, but his mother remarried to a bricklayer. Jonson attended Westminster School before joining his stepfather in the bricklaying trade.
Bricklaying did not suit Jonson, so after a stint in the army he joined a theatre company run by Philip Henslowe. Misfortune dogged him in his new profession, and Jonson was arrested for acting in a seditious satire called The Isle of Dogs.
In 1598 Jonson killed an actor named Gabriel Spencer in a duel, and he was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey on a charge of murder. He escaped hanging only by claiming benefit of clergy, and was imprisoned. It was after his release from prison that Jonson's first play was performed at the Globe Theatre.
Every Man in His Humour had a cast including William Shakespeare, and the play made Jonson an instant celebrity. He followed it up with Every Man Out of His Humour (1599) and Cynthia's Revels (1600), both satirical comedies.
The volatile Jonson made enemies among his fellow playwrights, and his The Poetaster satirised the work of rivals Dekker and Marston. They responded with the vitriolic play Satiromastix, attacking Jonson and his work.
That was the least of Jonson's concerns, however, as his next two plays, Sejanus, His Fall (1603) and Eastward Ho! (1604) both landed him in trouble with the authorities. Jonson, a Catholic, was forced to appear before the Privy Council to answer charges of "popery and treason".
Despite the evident and understandable mistrust of Jonson by the authorities, he was appointed court poet in 1605, and produced a number of highly successful court masques. Many of his early masques were created in partnership with architect Inigo Jones, who designed elaborate stage sets for the performances. Personal rivalry between Jones and Jonson led to an inevitable falling out.
It was during his period at court that Jonson wrote some of hois most successful comedies, notably The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1614). He was created poet laureate in 1616.
Although several of his later plays were commercial disasters, Jonson found himself at the centre of a literary group that met at the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside. His companions included the young poets Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew.
Ben Jonson died on August 6, 1637 and was buried under a plain slab in Westminster Abbey. The slab was later inscribed with the words, "O rare Ben Jonson".