Ben Jonson was born in 1572 or 1573, a month or so after his father's death. His father was a minister and his stepfather a bricklayer. Someone financed Jonson's education at Westminster School, where the historian William Camden introduced him to the classics. After a few weeks at Cambridge, Jonson was forced to take up bricklaying. Later he is found soldiering in the Netherlands, fighting a duel with an enemy soldier, killing him, and returning home with heroic tales to enlarge upon.
Swiftly, he married, begot and buried several children, fought and reconciled with his wife, and began a theatrical career. Almost at once he wrote with Thomas Nashe a play entitled The Isle of Dogs (1597). Both playwrights were charged with seditious and slanderous matter, but only Jonson was captured and clapped in irons. Upon release, Jonson joined Philip Henslowe's theatrical company. A year later, at the Globe theater, Jonson had his first stage success with Every Man in His Humour.
The Latins used the word humour to mean moisture or fluid; the tradition of the medical profession used the word regarding four fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Depending on whichever of the four fluids was dominant, the person possessed of the humour was said to be sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, or choleric.
The popularity of this "play of humours" caused Jonson to leave acting for writing. He collaborated on court masques with the famed scene designer Inigo Jones, enjoying much success. But his hot temper found him an argument which precipitated a duel with the actor Gabriel Spencer. He killed his opponent and was jailed for murder (1598). Jonson eventually won his release, pleading benefit of clergy because he could read the Latin Psalter like a clerk, but not without punishment: the letter T was branded on his thumb. Later, after two more comedies, he was satirized by another playwright, Thomas Dekker, in Satiromastix, which called him puny, pockmarked, conceited pedant, murderer, and bricklayer. Undaunted, Jonson turned out the static and moralistic Sejanus, which flopped on the stage but won him the support of Lord Aubigny upon publication.
Jonson collaborated on Eastward Ho!, which insulted the Scots and the king, and placed the authors behind bars. In 1606, Volpone put its author at the top on London's comic stage. In 1610, The Alchemist appeared, and in 1614, the attack on London Puritans, Bartholomew Fair. These plays cemented Jonson's reputation as the great poet of English comedy. He received subsidies from the Crown for his work and continued to write court masques until a quarrel with Jones returned him to full-time work in the commercial theater.
Jonson gathered many young poets and playwrights around him, and they were eventually called the "Tribe of Ben." Among their number could be included James Shirley, Thomas Carew, and Robert Herrick.
Ben Jonson was never a provident man. By 1629, he lived alone, bedridden with paralysis and without funds. After eight years of pain and penury, he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey (1637). Jonson's great critic and editor, C. H. Herford, thought the playwright was powerful but without charm; Jonson seemed impressive, though he was unattractive to posterity. At any rate, Jonson possessed a belligerent and quarrelsome personality, but he was a faithful friend, fearless, and intellectually honest. One of his contemporaries summed up his person for the epitaph on his tomb in Westminster Abbey: "O Rare Ben Jonson."