British and Irish Literature Ben Jonson
Brandon Schneeberger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0143


Perhaps eclipsing even his friend and contemporary William Shakespeare in popularity, Ben Jonson was one of the most popular and prolific authors during and after his lifetime and one of England’s first literary critics. He wrote in nearly every genre, including drama, masques, poetry, and prose. His drama includes the popular city comedies, Volpone and The Alchemist, and his masques for the Jacobean and Caroline court include The Masque of Blackness and Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue. Jonson’s numerous books of poetry influenced an entire generation of poets known as the “Sons of Ben,” and his prose works of literary criticism and composition led him to be seen as the founding father of English letters. His life was nearly as prolific and complex as his work. Twice charged for murder, Jonson was also at times a strict moralist heavily interested in and influenced by religion, converting to Roman Catholicism for twelve years at a time when doing so was both unpopular and dangerous. Though coming from humble means as a bricklaying laborer, Jonson was also very well read, and his works display a heavy influence of classical thought and allusion. Critics have emphasized a wide range of topics regarding Jonson, including his classicism, religion, politics, and criticism. Others have focused on Jonson’s craft, both from the standpoint of prose or verse composition and plot. Both critics and biographers have stressed the complexity, and sometimes seeming contradictory nature, of one of the most prolific and popular writers in English literary history.

General Overviews and Critical Studies

General overviews on Jonson’s work may be divided into monographs and essay collections. The works in this section typically approach broader aspects of Jonson as poet, playwright, intellectual, or literary critic. More-detailed studies on particular aspects are placed elsewhere under their appropriate subheadings.

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