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Ironically, although "William Shakespeare" is by far the better-known name today, we know a great deal more about the life of his fellow Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson. Our knowledge of his personal life comes mainly from personal conversations conducted between the playwright and William Drummond, the Laird of Hawthornden, in 1619, which Drummond later wrote down. But it also reflects the fact that whereas Shakespeare chose solely to express himself through his plays and poems, Jonson was more of a public figure, prone to dramatic commentary on literature and philosophy, highly personalized poems (as opposed to the mystery of Shakespeare's sonnet cycle), as well as heavy involvement in the royal entertainments of both King James I and Charles I. In his lifetime, he was more honored than Shakespeare and served as an advisor to young poets until the time of his death on August 16, 1637, at the age of sixty- five.
Despite this popularity, the facts surrounding Jonson's birth remain, for the most part, obscure. Based on evidence gathered later in his life, historians believe his birth date to be June 11, 1572, a month after his biological father's death. His birthplace and the names of his parents remain unknown. What is known is that he grew up in the village of Charing Cross, which was then a mile outside the walled City of London. Charing was home both to the townhouses of courtiers (nobles who attended at the court of Queen Elizabeth) as well as masses of the urban poor, living in close proximity. Though Jonson's family was by no means wealthy, it also was not extremely poor, since the man usually identified as Jonson's stepfather, Robert Brett, was a moderately prosperous bricklayer. As David Riggs notes, Jonson was "surrounded by extremes of poverty and wealth from the earliest years of his life."
A "friend," whose name is lost to history, paid for Jonson to attend Westminster school, one of the elite schools of Elizabethan England, where Elizabeth herself attended the school's Christmas play regularly. Attending the school greatly widened Jonson's social and intellectual horizons, as it was the place where England's future ruling classes were trained. Its students were either on scholarship for academic ability, or they were sons of the nobility. As a result, Jonson friends in later life would include many lawyers and a good share of nobility. At the age of sixteen, he was forced to leave the school and tried his hand at soldiering—he joined the English forces camped in the Netherlands—before becoming apprenticed to a bricklayer in London.
The apprenticeship was terminated when Jonson decided to marry Anne Lewis. In an era where marriage meant the termination of an apprenticeship and was expected of men only when they had achieved some sort of economic independence, this was an extremely rash move. But it may very well be related to another decision Jonson made in the mid 1590s, which was a decision to devote his life to the theater. Jonson became known as an hilariously bad actor, as well as a violent ruffian who once killed a fellow actor without provocation, and it was only when he tried his hand at writing plays instead of performing in them that he began to have success.
The profession of playwriting hadn't existed at the time of Jonson's birth. It was a product of a change in the activity of acting companies; whereas companies had previously toured, beginning in the 1570s and 1580s they began to station themselves in the ever-growing city of London, fast becoming the most important city in Great Britain. Since the audience would now consist of repeat customers, a great demand for new plays was created. As the theatre grew into an ever more profitable industry, thanks to more and more Londoners' demands for more and more entertainment, one began to be able support oneself by writing plays, and playwriting became a profession (though one without a name; "playwright" wasn't used officially until 1682, and Jonson actually used the term as one of abuse).
Jonson, with a string of popular plays such as Every Man in His Humour (and some unpopular ones, such as Every Man out of His Humour) gradually began to make a name for himself, establishing a reputation as a witty, intellectual playwright, who was less romantic and more cerebral than Shakespeare (by now a personal friend of Jonson's). He became famous and well respected even though he had converted to Catholicism during his first time in jail (being a Catholic in Protestant England at the time was quite dangerous and unpopular). But in 1605, he was arrested for co-writing a play titled Eastward Ho, which the censors interpreted (probably correctly) as a derogatory statement on the newly crowned King James. That year, he had also separated from his wife.
Volpone was written at the end of this extremely trying period, in the early months of 1606. It was one of Jonson's biggest hits, and it firmly re-established him as an important literary figure. Around the same time, he re-united with his wife. With this wealth of personal and situational information about Jonson's life, many scholars have made attempts to interpret the writing of Volpone as a psychological way of resolving a fundamental conflict that we know existed within him. This conflict was between Jonson's violent past and his fairly conservative view of life and art, which was grounded in his classical education at Westminster.
Jonson idealized the countryside in such poems as To Penshurst and saw much of the city life around him as grasping, brutish, and nasty. He viewed his art as being a sort of moral corrective to this "publicke riot." But, as was seen in 1606, he still had some fairly rough character traits, which were inappopriate for the voice of classical moderation and reason. So, according to critics such as Riggs, Volpone serves as the repudiation of what Volpone the character symbolizes: Jonson's rambunctious, reckless side, which had nearly cost him his marriage, livelihood, and respectability. This interpretation does not tell us everything about Volpone, but it may help us understand Jonson's seeming delight in portraying his quick-witted, tricky types, which may have been characters he identified with on an emotional level. But intellectually, he identified with Celia and her value system. The conflict between the two value systems—one full of desire and greed and another based on Christian morality and reason—is central to Volpone and seems to have been a conflict with which Jonson dealt personally.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Volpone!