What does Jonson mean by "Comedy of Humours?"
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But deeds, and language, such as men do use;
And persons, such as Comedy would choose,
When she would show an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes --
Except, we make 'em such by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they're ill.
I mean such errors, as you'll all confess
By laughing at them, they deserve no less;
Which when you heartily do, there's hope left, then,
You, that have so graced monsters, may like men.
The lines quoted above are from the Prologue of Ben Jonson's comedy "Everyman in his Humour" (1598). In the Prologue Jonson clearly explains his concept of the Comedy of Humours.
1. "an image of the times." The Comedy of Humours deals with contemporary issues. It is a reflection of the historical, political, and social condition of England during the latter half of Queen Elizabeth's England.
2. "deeds, and language, such as men do use." It is realistic and not romantic. It does not deal with the life of fairies but with the life of the men and women of Elizabethan England in the language of everyday use.
3. "sport with human follies, not with crimes." Jonson emphasizes the satirical intent of the Comedy of Humours." The target of Jonson's satire was not some serious crime - say for instance regicide like in Shakespeare's "Macbeth" - but human weaknesses like greed or lust.
4. "laughing at them, they deserve no less." The tone of Jonson's satire was mild and light hearted, not harsh and abusive like that of Swift. The human vices that he exposed and ridiculed were not serious crimes so they merited only a mild rebuke in a jesting manner.
Ben Jonson's concept of 'humour' was an extension of the medieval theory of humours which was related to the psychological belief that the physical, mental and emotional health of a person was controlled by the four elements namely earth, air, fire and water. If all these four elements were in the right proportion and in harmony then a person's health was perfect. However, if one of these four elements was in excess then that person's health was affected and he would be classified accordingly as sanguine [air], phlegmatic [water], choleric [fire] and melancholic [earth]. Various forms of treatment were in force during Ben Jonson's time to set right the imbalance.
Ben Jonson extended this theory of 'Humours' to his Comedy of Humours. According to him all human beings suffered from some minor vice or the other - lust, self righteousness, greed etc. So he personified these vices as characters and exhibited them on the stage so that his audience could see these "human follies" like their own reflections in a mirror laugh at themselves and correct themselves.
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