In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ben Jonson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Editions
  • Journals
  • Literary Authority and Authorship
  • Rivalry and Collaboration
  • Patronage
  • Politics and Religion
  • Humanism
  • Theater and Popular Culture
  • Manuscript and Print
  • Censorship
  • The City and Commerce
  • Body, Self, and Gender
  • Style
  • Influence and Afterlife

Renaissance and Reformation Ben Jonson
James P. Bednarz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0293


Until the 18th century, the literary achievements of Ben Jonson (b. 1572–d. 1637) were frequently considered to equal or exceed those of his friend and rival William Shakespeare. Yet even though his reputation has been permanently eclipsed, he remains one of the most significant literary figures of his age. Best known for two satirical comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, Jonson was an ambitious, versatile, and eloquent writer of drama, poetry, entertainment, and masque, who blended classical learning with an independent voice. A man of often unresolved contradictions, he merged ethical idealism with realistic cynicism and a clear moral vision with relentless self-promotion. He delighted in trickery and combined extravagant hyperbole with stinging criticism. Known for his commitment to “poetry” (his word for literature) as a vital force for affecting social change, he cultivated a wide circle of friends and admirers as well as incurring numerous enemies and detractors. Fascinated by Antiquity yet attuned to current political events, he thrived in a Jacobean court culture that applauded his genius, while (with a few notable exceptions) tolerating his “honest” censure.

General Overviews

Scholars continue to debate the extent to which he compromised his principles for professional advantage. His 1616 folio of Works, comprised of his plays, entertainments, masques, and poetry, is a testament to the prestige he brought to English vernacular dramatic and nondramatic literature. Harp and Stewart 2000 assesses the poet-playwright in the context of his time through essays on his life, career, major works, and a series of special topics. Most overviews emphasize Jonson’s role as a dramatist. Barton 1984 offers reliable and perceptive readings of the plays from his early Elizabethan comedies to the so-called dotages, suffused with Elizabethan nostalgia. Enck 1957 and Dessen 1971 represent an earlier tendency in Jonson studies to emphasize didactic purpose, while Leggatt 1981 shows a more recent sense of the contradictions that inform Jonson’s work. McEvoy 2008 is the most recent attempt to represent both the continuity and the change that characterizes Jonson’s approach to drama and his greatest success in comedy. The separation of drama from poetry endemic to most of these studies is overcome on the Ben Jonson page found on the Luminarium website, which offers a biography, texts of the plays, poems, and masques, along with critical essays. For the best short biography and guide to the canon, however, consult The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson Online (Bevington, et al. 2014, cited under Editions).

  • Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson: Dramatist. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511518836

    Barton’s illuminating study is the best comprehensive survey of Jonson’s dramatic canon. Her re-dating of A Tale of a Tub as a late rather than an early comedy has found general acceptance.

  • Dessen, Alan C. Jonson’s Moral Comedy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    Focusing on the connection between Jonsonian comedy and the medieval morality tradition, Dessen demonstrates how a strong native influence informs its structure and meaning.

  • Enck, John. Jonson and the Comic Truth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.

    Enck emphasizes Jonson’s courageous effort to confront the realities of life in his comedies. Jonson’s refusal to write romantic comedy was, he argues, an act of moral heroism.

  • Harp, Richard, and Stanley Stewart. The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521641136

    These fourteen essays by major Jonson scholars provide the necessary background to understanding his life and career. Organized in terms of key categories (including “Jonson and the Court,” “The Major Comedies,” “Jonson’s Late Plays,” “Jonson’s Poetry,” and “Jonson’s Classicism”), this is a reliable introduction to Jonson’s work in its artistic, social, and political contexts.

  • Leggatt, Alexander. Ben Jonson, His Vision and His Art. London: Methuen, 1981.

    Aware of the shifting positions and inconsistencies that Jonson shows in different works throughout his career, Leggatt sees Jonson as dedicated to the ideal but conscious as well that it rarely inhabits the real world. In his chapter on “The Poet as Character,” Leggatt notes the range of self-referential figures in Jonson’s work and their significance as reflections of his sense of his vocation.

  • Luminarium.

    This site’s page devoted to Jonson can be useful. But be careful: some information is out of date and the quality of the assembled material is uneven.

  • McEvoy, Sean. Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

    This book is comprised of a chronological examination of the major dramatic works. Grouping the early comedies and tragedies as well as the late comedies in opening and closing essays, its core chapters are on Volpone, Epicoene, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, and The Devil Is an Ass.

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