On this day in 1598, playwright Ben Jonson is indicted for manslaughter after a duel.
Jonson’s father, a clergyman, died before Jonson was born, and he was raised by his mother and stepfather, a master bricklayer at Westminster. Jonson attended Westminster school, where he was educated by great classical scholars. He tried his hand at bricklaying, then joined the army and traveled to Flanders, where he killed a man in single combat.
Back in England by 1594, he became an actor and playwright. In the fall of 1598, he killed another actor in a duel and was arrested. He was very nearly hanged, but his ability to read and write saved him. He claimed “benefit of clergy,” which allowed him to be sentenced by the lenient ecclesiastical courts.
Jonson was also jailed twice for his writing and viewed with some suspicion for his conversion to Catholicism. However, he became a successful playwright with his comedy Every Man in His Humor, which was performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, featuring William
Shakespeare in a leading role. After several less successful plays, he again scored a hit with Volpone (performed in 1605 or 1606), a comedy about a wealthy Venetian who falsely informs several greedy relations and associates that each is sole heir.
In 1605, Jonson wrote the first of his many masques, a popular form of court entertainment involving elaborate and elegant spectacle. He won favor at court and in 1616 was given a royal pension, becoming England’s first unofficial poet laureate. Jonson was friends with William Shakespeare, John Donne, Francis Bacon, tutor to the son of Sir Walter Raleigh, and acquainted
with most of the important court figures of 17th-century England. His poetry was much admired by younger writers, including Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew, who called themselves “sons of Ben.” Known for his clever remarks and witty verbal battles at pubs like the Mermaid Tavern, Jonson was as famous in his time as Shakespeare. He died in 1637.