Ben Jonson was born in 1572 in Westminster, and grew up with his stepfather, a bricklayer. That line of work kept with Jonson, but he eventually turned to a much different career. During his education at Westminster school, he was taught by William Camden, a humanist and antiquarian. Camden’s views deeply affected Jonson and gave him a “grounding in the classics” (Harp 164). In 1594 he married Anne Lewis. Little is known about their marriage or their family, but it is known that his daughter Mary died in 1600 in infancy and his first born son Benjamin died in 1603. Over the course of his career he was a poet, playwright, bricklayer, translator, scholar, literary critic and actor. Ben Jonson died in 1637 in Westminster.
Of Jonson's works, his satires are some of his most well-known, even today. Every Man in His Humour was written in 1598 and was the first of his many "humour plays". Following Every Man in His Humour was Ben Jonson's sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour. Though the first of the two plays was recieved well by audiences, the sequel was not such a success.
The idea of humour plays was not original to Jonson. His contemporary, George Chapman, wrote a play centered around the bodily humours at that time as well. Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood were the four "humours" believed to control a person's temperment and health. Since the ancient Greeks and Romans, those basic fluids were a basis for medicine and many other ideas. Ben Jonson utilized that strong belief in his play by making each character dominated by a certain humour. References to that theme are made throughout the play such as when Bobadill confesses to having a "filthy humour of quarrelling", or when Cash blames "thy humour" for Cob's distress.
Though the humours are an essential theme to the play, Jonson's deeper love of parodying his own culture is also shown in Every Man in His Humour. Originally, it was set in Florence, but Jonson later revised it to be set in London. This is significant because it allowed the audience to be familiar with the types of people and places that were being parodied. It brought the social satire close to home, and also used particular fashion trends and manners to engage and mirror the audience. Additionally, the urbanism of London helped create a moral center that Jonson may have wanted to point to. Urban centers were the heart of religious reform and it could be morally important for the characters to live in such a bustling place.
The audience was also supposed to admire, or understand at the very least, the language of the play. Jonson stayed away from innovative vocabulary, and aimed to mainly capture the world around him, and the language of the lower class. Keeping the language “low” was also an important part of decorum for Jonson. His education and interest in the humanist movement gave him a love for the classics that deeply influenced his writing style. Though he did not necessarily follow Neoclassical ideals strictly, he nonetheless appreciated them, and applied them when possible. His work has, at times, been called imitative, but that is part of maintaining the cultural authority of humanism.
Ben Jonson's satires are looked on fondly now, but he was taking a risk by publishing them. Just after Every Man in His Humour was published, there was a band on satires in England. Jonson published the sequel nonetheless, and though it did not get him in too much trouble, some of his later shows did. Eastward Ho! was a satire co-written with George Chapman and John Marston that poked fun at the Scots. This angered the Scottish King James which landed Jonson and Chapman in jail. Despite that and some other legal blunders, Ben Jonson went on to write many other memorable plays like Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair that no doubt were grown from his humour plays.