Every Man in His Humour Essay - Critical Essays

Ben Jonson

Critical Evaluation

Ben Jonson substantially revised Every Man in His Humour for his 1616 folio publication and added a famous prologue that defends his sort of comedy. He changed the setting of the play from exotic Italy to everyday London, renamed the characters, eliminated extraneous speeches, and particularized general and high-flown speeches of several characters. He writes in the prologue that the play will not utilize the marvelous or the mechanistic such as thunder machines, “But deeds and language such as men do use.” He also explains that his comedy will “sport with human follies, not with crimes.” Every Man in His Humour is thus a lighthearted portrayal of human stupidity, and the medieval theory of the four humors is not very important to the play. For Jonson, the humors were simply the exaggerated and often caricatured manners of people, so that the comedy of humors is really a comedy of manners.

Perhaps more than any other comedy by Jonson, Every Man in His Humour is a comedy of noninteraction—in structure and plot, in character and language. By contrast, Shakespearean comedy thrives on close consequence; for example, the resolution of subplot and main plot always results in the plotlines crossing. What resolution there is at the end of Every Man in His Humour is artificial, imposed by Justice Clement, and not strongly felt by the audience to be genuine. The traditional concluding symbols of judgment, marriage, and banquet are arbitrarily imposed on an ending that would otherwise seem hopelessly fragmentary.

Structurally, noninteraction is here very apparent, because the subplots that serve to make up plot seem to be accidental rather than mutually necessary. Meetings between members of different subplots are coincidental and suggest disorder rather than resolution; the meetings in Moorfields and outside Cob’s house are good examples. In addition, Jonson’s characters are each extremely individualistic, almost solipsistic in their belief in the importance of their own existence. This subjectivism produces mazes of misapprehension and nonunderstanding when characters try to communicate. This condition is compounded by the disguises of Brainworm, who casts himself as manipulator of much of the action.

Most of the characters seem unable to practice directness; they resort to communication through go-betweens, thus increasing the possibilities of mistakes and misperceptions. Knowell deals with Edward through Brainworm, who also mediates for Edward with his father. Wellbred conducts Edward’s...

(The entire section is 1052 words.)