Chapman apart, the dramatists we now turn to were born later than Shakespeare and their mature work belongs to the Jacobean and Caroline periods. Throughout the seventeenth century Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was considered by some to be England’s leading dramatist and by many to share an equality with Shakespeare. It is sometimes said that he has now been unjustly overshadowed by Shakespeare; but his plays lack certain qualities which have made Shakespeare’s appeal a lasting one. In particular Shakespeare’s poetry makes a profound exploration of the connotative, associative and symbolic power of words and consequently operates at a level of human interest that transcends historicity and topicality. No one would claim this gift for Jonson to anything like the same degree.
Jonson was educated at Westminster School and worked briefly in his stepfather’s trade of bricklaying, then served as a soldier in the Netherlands, but was soon back in England, acting and writing plays. He seems to have been a man of great self-assurance, confident in his own learning and in his own ability to instruct his fellows and lash the follies of the age. He spent some time in prison after killing a man in a duel. The picture we have of him—immensely competent and intellectually fertile, effervescent and prickly but generous and fundamentally large-minded—is a commanding one.
Jonson’s best works are his comedies. He wrote many of them according to a prescription that has earned them the label ‘comedy of humours’. The ‘humours’ of which a man’s body was supposedly compounded, according to their relative predominance, determined his disposition—choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic or sanguine.