born in London of Border descent. He was educated at Westminster School under Camden. During the early 1590s he worked as a bricklayer in his stepfather's employ, and saw military service in Flanders. In 1597 he began to work for Henslowe's companies. His first important play, Every Man in his Humour, with Shakespeare in the cast, was performed by the Lord Chamberlain's company in 1598, and Every Man out of his Humour at the Globe in 1599. Cynthia's Revels (1600) and Poetaster (1600–1, attacking Dekker and Marston), were performed by the Children of the Queen's Chapel. His first extant tragedy, Sejanus, was given at the Globe by Shakespeare's company, 1603; his first court masque, The Masque of Blacknesse, written to accommodate Queen Anne's desire to appear as a Negress, was given on Twelfth Night, 1605. In that year he was imprisoned for his share in Eastward Hoe, and gave evidence to the Privy Council concerning the Gunpowder Plot. Then followed the period of his major plays: Volpone, acted at both the Globe and the two universities, 1605–6; Epicene, or The Silent Woman, 1609–10; The Alchemist, 1610; and Bartholomew Fair, 1614. In 1612–13 he was in France as tutor to Ralegh's son, and in 1618–19 journeyed on foot to Scotland, where he stayed with Drummond of Hawthornden, who recorded their conversation.
Though not formally appointed the first poet laureate, the essentials of the position were conferred on Jonson in 1616, when a pension was granted to him by James I. In the same year he published a folio edition of his Works, which raised the drama to a new level of literary respectability, and received an honorary MA from the University of Oxford. After The Devil is an Ass (1616), he abandoned the public stage for ten years, and his later plays. The Staple of News (1626), The New Inn (1629), The Magnetic Lady (1631), and A Tale of a Tub (1633), show a relatively unsuccessful reliance on allegory and symbolism. From 1605 onwards Jonson was constantly producing masques for the court, with scenery by I. Jones. This form of entertainment reached its highest elaboration in Jonson's hands. He introduced into it the ‘antimasque’, an antithetical, usually disorderly, prelude to the main action which served to highlight by contrast the central theme of political and social harmony. There are examples of this in The Masque of Queens (1609), Love Restored (1612), Mercury Vindicated from the Alchemists in Court (1616), Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618, which gave Milton his idea for Comus), and Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion (1624). After Chloridia (1631), his collaboration with Jones ended with a famous quarrel, which Jonson treated in several vituperative poems, concerning the relative priority of verbal and thematic content and spectacle. His non‐dramatic verse includes Epigrammes and The Forest, printed in the folio of 1616, and The Underwood and a translation of Horace's Ars Poetica, printed in 1640. His chief prose works are The English Grammar and Timber, or Discoveries, printed in 1640.