Every man out of his humour

The VVorkes of Benjamin Jonson, printed in London by Richard Bishop, 1640. 

Lower Library, L.34.1-3


Every Man in his Humour and The Workes title pages

Ben Jonson (ca. 1572– ca. 1637) served as an apprentice bricklayer, then as a soldier in the Low Countries, before trying his hand as an actor when he returned to England in 1592. He wrote and performed with varying degrees of success, eventually abandoning acting once his presence as a playwright became established. His first major stage triumph was in 1598 with Every Man in his Humour starring both William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage (who are listed as ‘principal comedians’ in this volume). 

Under the patronage of James I Jonson enjoyed particular success with Volpone, or, The Fox (acted 1606) and The Alchemist (acted 1610). He wrote and produced a number of masques for the King and his Consort, including Oberon : the faery prince, in which the Prince of Wales took the principal role. Around the same time Inigo Jones, another Court favourite, was asked to design the sets for royal masques, including Jonson’s, and it is recorded that the two clashed.

He fell foul of the law on many occasions. He almost lost his ears and nose after Eastward Ho!, which he co-wrote, upset many of the King’s favourites. He was imprisoned in the Tower and branded on the thumb to identify him as a known felon after murdering one of his own actors during a duel. His various associations with Catholicism placed him under increasing surveillance and suspicion as anti-Catholic laws were tightened. Jonson and his wife were even ordered to provide written proof that they took Anglican Communion regularly. 

The first folio of Johnson’s selected works appeared in 1616, preceding the first Shakespeare folio by seven years. This three-volume set from 1640 is the second, expanded, edition. It includes most of Jonson plays, masques and epigrams. For some reason, perhaps to placate his enemies, Eastward Ho!, was omitted from all seventeenth century editions. The prologue to Volpone is addressed to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In later life Oxford awarded him an honorary M.A.

The Library holds also a 1709 edition of Jonson’s Epicene, or, The Silent Woman (Aa.1.22) and his complete works from 1716. (L.34.41–46).