Benjamin Johnson1 was born in the first half of 1573, probably 11 June, somewhere in England2. We know he wasn't born in Westminster, although that's where he went to school. His father had been a Protestant minister who died very shortly before Ben's birth. At some point, Ben's mother moved to the city of Westminster and married a bricklayer3. Ben attended the free parish school when he was very young, and it was only because of the intervention of some kindly soul4 that he was able to afford to go on to Westminster Grammar School5. He tried for a scholarship, the only way he could possibly have continued his schooling....and failed6. Ben's stepfather arranged for him to be apprenticed to another bricklayer for the seven years it would take for Ben to receive his guild membership and become a free, full citizen of London. There's no real record of his opinion of all this (naturally), but we do know that he read a lot. I mean a LOT. Pretty soon he could hold his own with any formally-educated person, though in Ben's own frequently-expressed opinion, he could more than hold his own with anybody7.
Ben married a woman named Ann Lewis on 14 November 15948, which was odd because the wedding took place while Ben was still an apprentice and not really free to marry. Ann9 must have been an unusually tolerant woman, since she let Ben go into acting rather than bricklaying once his apprenticeship ended. Acting (then and now) was an iffy profession at the best of times, and Ben started out in about the worst acting job there was: travelling with a touring company10. But three years later, we find Ben's name on the list of actors at the Swan, a theatre used by Pembroke's Company. One of his first assignments was to help an established playwright, Thomas Nashe, write a play called Isle of Dogs. The play was banned almost instantly on the grounds that it was seditious11. Both playwrights and most of the leading actors were arrested and thrown into Fleet Prison. Ben was in prison for a few months, and he was out of a job when he was released: the Swan Theatre was never allowed to reopen after the scandal. Undaunted, he started working for the Admiral's Company at the Rose Theatre. In 1598, he wrote a play called Every Man in His Humour, a comedy in the classical style which Ben so admired12. This play was actually performed by a rival company called the Chamberlain's Men, which featured Richard Burbage (the Elizabethan Brad Pitt) and William Shakespeare13. The play was a great hit, and Ben was on his way.
On 22 December 1598, Ben fought a duel with an actor named Gabriel Spencer. We don't know what the fight was about14, but Ben won, unfortunately killing Gabriel in the process. Ben found himself promptly back in prison and under sentence of death. He got off by pleading benefit of clergy, an ancient law which allowed ministers to escape executions on the grounds that they were touched by God and therefore above human laws. He wasn't a clergyman, of course, but he could read Latin and that was all that ancient law required him to do. Ben was branded at the base of his thumb with a T and released15. In any case, Ben started writing for the Company again, apparently forgiven for Gabriel's death. In 1599, Every Man out of His Humour was first performed16. This was the first of his plays to be printed, and it was fairly popular. It was a very unusual thing for plays to be printed at all back then, and Ben made it even stranger by printing this play in an expensive format instead of the usual cheap quarto style.
Ben also wrote several plays for the Children of the Chapel Royal, a newly-established boy acting troup. Cynthia's Revels was one of those plays, a very informed satire of the Court. So informed was it that two other playwrights of the time, John Marston and Thomas Dekker, were convinced they recognized themselves in two of the less-likeable characters. They promptly collaborated on a play satirizing Ben, which the Chamberlain's Men performed, to the great delight of the London theatregoing public17. Ben just as promptly fired back with Poetaster, or The Arraignment, whose main character was the image of Marston, with Dekker in a more minor role. Horace (the Roman playwright and one of Ben's biggest heroes) was also there, spouting the Classical theories of playwriting. So Dekker also put Horace into his next play, Satiromastix, which translates to "the satirist whipped." The feud ended there, though. Poetaster had attacked the law and the military as well as Dekker and Marston. Ben was saved by the intervention of one Richard Martin, a lawyer with an actual sense of humor, and after that, Ben decided that tragedies were safer. He wrote several over the next two years.
In February 1603, Ben finally got himself a patron18. Sir Robert Townsend supplied the necessary funds for Ben to live on while writing Sejanus, a Roman tragedy. Though it was performed, it was only the highly educated minority who really liked it. Fortunately, the newly-crowned Queen Anne, wife of James I, loved plays and masques. Ben was about to hit the big time.
To be Continued... or possibly edited... or both.
Chute, Marchette. Ben Jonson of Westminster. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1953.