At the end of the sixteenth century, as part of the general trend toward formal satire, a new form of comedy, known as “humors comedy,” began to appear on the Elizabethan stage. The chief practitioner of this new form was Ben Jonson. Drawing upon a view of human nature that dated back to the fifth century, b.c., Jonson wrote plays and developed a comic theory based on a character's predominating trait or “humor,” which was adopted by other dramatists of his time, including William Shakespeare, John Marston, and Nathaniel Field. The characteristics of humors comedy are also seen to a lesser extent in works by European writers, most notably the French dramatist Molière.
The idea of humors was first introduced by the Greek physician Hippocrates and later extended by Galen in the second century. “Humors” referred to the four chief fluids of the body—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—and it was thought that when these fluids or “vapors” were in proper proportion, they maintained good health in a person. When they were out of balance, they caused disease. The humors also determined a person's basic mental qualities and disposition, and an excess or deficiency of one of the four fluids manifested itself in particular character traits. The theory of humors was popularized in Renaissance England by writers such as Thomas Linacre, Thomas Elyot, and Robert Burton. Jonson drew upon this tradition when he developed his humors comedies. In his plays of this genre, characters are dominated by certain overriding preoccupations that upset their psychological balance, just as an excess in one of the four fluids would upset their bodily health. The emphasis on these comedies, then, is on characters rather than plots. Jonson describes the humors in one of the most important works of humors comedy, Every Man out of His Humour (1599): “As when some one peculiar quality / Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw / All his effects, his spirits, and his powers, / In their confluctions, all to run one way, / This may truly be said to be a humour.”
Jonson's humor comedies marked a new development in English theater, as his works moved away from the glamour of Renaissance high culture and introduced peculiarly English attitudes and values. Contemporary life and situations were often portrayed in humors comedies. However, the genre's characteristic emphasis on character types and allegorical figures also has its roots in classical sources and earlier English morality plays. There is a strong ethical component to the works, as they denounce certain types of vice and folly. Because of Jonson's influence in theater circles, other dramatists were drawn to his new form of satire, and evidence of his influence was soon seen in their works. Although it is difficult to determine to what extent Shakespeare was influenced by Jonson's theory, his use of the idea of humors is clear in several of his comedies, most notably The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), All's Well that Ends Well (1598), and Twelfth Night (1600). Other, younger, writers such as Field and Richard Brome more consciously followed Jonson's lead, and humors characters are seen in a number of their works. Although Jonson's disciples and other dramatists continued to write humors comedies until the 1650s, Jonson himself quickly moved on to more complex forms of satire. Indeed, only four of his plays, The Case is Altered (1597), Every Man in His Humour (1598), Every Man out of His Humour, and Cynthia's Revels (1601) are considered true humors comedies. However, the emphasis on character and other characteristics of humors comedy are apparent even in his later works.
Critics have written about humors comedy as an important phase and aspect of Jonson's dramatic output. Jonson's development of the form, they have argued, showed him immediately as a writer and dramatic theorist of originality and power, and the adoption of the genre by others is evidence of Jonson's influence among his contemporaries. Some scholars have claimed that too much is made of humors comedy in discussions of Jonson, and that it was not as significant an aspect of his career as an artist as has been suggested. Critics have also been interested in humors comedy because of its classical roots and the insights it offers into Elizabethan notions of physiology, psychology, and morality.
Every Woman in Her Humour (play) 1602
The Fair Maid of the Exchange (play) 1602
The Woman Hater (play) 1607
The Scornful Lady (play) 1616
The Northern Lass (play) 1632
The City Wit (play) 1653
The Damoiselle (play) 1659
The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (play) 1598
A Humourous Day's Mirth (play) 1599
A Woman is a Weathercock (play) 1609
Amends for Ladies (play) 1611
The Case is Altered (play) 1597
Every Man in His Humour (play) 1598
Every Man out of His Humour (play) 1599
Cynthia's Revels (play) 1601
Midas (play) 1589
The Woman in the Moon (play) 1591-93
The Fawn (play) 1606
What You Will (play) 1607
The City Madam (play) 1632
A New Way to Pay Old Debts (play) 1625
Le Tartuffe [Tartuffe] (play) 1664
Le Misanthrope [The Misanthrope] (play) 1666
L'Avare [The Miser] (play) 1668
The Merry Wives of Windsor (play) 1597
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SOURCE: Harris, M. A. “The Origin of the Seventeenth Century Idea of Humours.” Modern Language Notes 10, no. 2 (February 1895): 44-6.
[In the following essay, Harris examines the history of the concept of humors as used by Jonson, Molière, and other seventeenth-century writers.]
Symonds, writing of Ben Jonson's time, says: “At this date humour was on everybody's lips to denote whim, oddity, conceited turn of thought, or special partiality in any person”; and again, “The word had become a mere slang term for any eccentricity.” Jonson, annoyed by the inexact popular use of the word defines it—:
So in every human body, The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood, By reason that they flow continually In some one part, and are not continent, Receive the name of humours. Now thus far It may by metaphor, apply itself Unto the general disposition: As when some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his effects, his spirits, and his powers In their confluctions, all to run one way, This may be called a humour.
To fix the source and trace the growth of this use, now practically obsolete, has the difficulty common to all such study; first, lack of material bearing directly upon the history of humours and second, the necessity for a wide view of the times in order to fix this subject...
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SOURCE: Baskerville, Charles Read. “A Study of Humours.” Bulletin of the University of Texas 178, no. 12 (April 8, 1911): 34-75.
[In the following essay, Baskerville discusses the meaning of “humors” as used by Jonson; examines Jonson's predecessors' use of the term; explores the connections between humors comedy, morality, and psychology; and considers the treatment of humors in works by John Lyly, Gabriel Harvey, Thomas Nashe, and others.]
Jonson's celebrated definition of humour has fixed the meaning of the word for us in connection with the comedy of manners. As Jonson defines the term, it is fairly inclusive and may represent almost any decided moral inclination or mental attitude. Beginning with the broadest definition of the term in the physical sense, he proceeds to the figurative meaning of the word (Every Man out, Induction, p. 67):
Whatsoe'er hath fluxure and humidity, As wanting power to contain itself, Is humour. So in every human body, The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood, By reason that they flow continually In some one part, and are not continent, Receive the name of humours. Now thus far It may, by metaphor, apply itself Unto the general disposition: As when some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his effects, his spirits, and his powers, In their confluctions, all to run one way, This may be truly...
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SOURCE: Kerr, Mina. “The Character of Jonson's Comedy,” “The Influence of Jonson's Comedy on That of His Immediate Contemporaries,” and “Nathaniel Field and Richard Brome in Relation to Jonson.” In Influence of Ben Jonson on English Comedy, 1598-1642, pp. 1-75. New York: Phaeton Press, 1967.
[In the following excerpts from a work originally published in 1912, Kerr outlines the distinguishing features of Jonson's comedy of humors and discusses his influence on other playwrights.]
THE CHARACTER OF JONSON'S COMEDY
The purpose in the present study is to follow but one of the lines along which the work of Ben Jonson affected English literature, to determine where, how, and to what extent, his influence was felt in comedy as written by contemporaries and later “Sons” between 1598, when Every Man in His Humor was first acted, and the closing of the theaters in 1642. It is helpful, first of all, to consider what in Jonson gave him the power of attaining the position of importance which he holds in English dramatic history, and necessary to define clearly what were the distinguishing characteristics of his comedy, in order to set up criteria by which to judge the presence or absence of his influence.
The nature of Jonson's personality and the character of his art were both such as would inevitably draw to him many loyal followers. His first essay...
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SOURCE: McGalliard, John C. “Chaucerian Comedy: The Merchant's Tale, Jonson, and Molière.” Philological Quarterly 25, no. 4 (October 1946): 343-70.
[In the following essay, McGalliard maintains that Chaucer's characterization in The Merchant's Tale anticipates techniques of humors comedy used by Molière.]
The Merchant's Tale is neither an allegory (despite the names of its major characters) nor a débat (notwithstanding a few passages that fit the genre) nor a psychomachy (though it includes much psychography).1 It is not, further, merely or primarily a fabliau, although the latter part of it employs a fabliau plot. It is unique among Chaucer's works. There are, however, approaches or approximations.
John, the old carpenter of the Miller's Tale, not familiar with Cato's instruction that like should wed like, had married a young wife. We are told that, being jealous, he kept her “narwe in cage.” (His jealousy could not have been too extreme, however, or he would scarcely have had the bright young Oxford student as a lodger.) He is doubtless uxorious—if the term be not too pretentious—as well as credulous. But it is the credulity, unconnected or only incidentally connected with the uxoriousness or the jealousy, that leads him to act on Nicholas's prediction of the flood. In this tale stupidity is...
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Criticism: Major Figures: Ben Jonson
SOURCE: Snuggs, Henry L. “The Comic Humours: A New Interpretation.” PMLA 42, no. 1, part 1 (March 1947): 114-22.
[In the following essay, Snuggs contends that previous critics have misunderstood Jonson's notion of humors in his comedies, and suggests that Jonson used the concept not in a strict scientific manner but in the more popular sense of affectation and eccentricity.]
The Induction to Every Man out of his Humour, which contains Jonson's most significant statement about humorous characterization, has been universally interpreted by critics as follows: Jonson rebelled against the “abuse of this word Humour,” which had come to be used popularly to denote whim, affectation, or eccentricity. That spectators and readers of his comedies might understand the basis of his own comic characterization, he carefully defined humour in the strictly psychological sense:
As when some one peculiar quality Doth so possesse a man, that it doth draw All his affects, his spirits, and his powers, In their confluctions, all to run one way, This may be truly said to be a Humour.
He ruled out as “more than most ridiculous” the portrayal in comedy of affected or eccentric humours in the popular conception of the term.1
Yet some of those who interpret the Induction thus are uneasily aware that Jonson's actual depiction of humours does not always...
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SOURCE: Enck, John J. “The Streame of Humour.” In Jonson and the Comic Truth, pp. 44-69. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.
[In the following essay, Enck claims that the Jonsonian concept of humors has been misinterpreted and misapplied, and maintains that the humors are less prevalent in Jonson's plays than critics have claimed.]
With Every Man out of His Humour Jonson unveiled his decisive exercise in what a play with a singleness of purpose throughout ought to be. As such, it remains one of those focal points which reinforce all an author's undertakings. Its strengths, further refined, run as supports through most later achievements; its weaknesses may account for collapses where undue weight burdens a slight prop. The danger of taking the crucial work itself as a mere elevation from which to trace forth designs or of judging all ensuing plays by this single standard can be avoided once one recognizes the threat. All this apology does not champion the view that Every Man out of His Humour quite succeeds as drama.
Jonson took elaborate pains in preparing this, his first published volume, for the press. By it he bid to be both learned and popular, the diametric qualities which he strove to unite and which, even under his urgings, pulled always in opposite directions. The failures perplexed him. This time he undoubtedly went out of his way to dazzle...
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SOURCE: Redwine, James D., Jr. “Beyond Psychology: The Moral Basis of Jonson's Theory of Humour Characterization.” ELH 28, no. 4 (December 1961): 316-34.
[In the following essay, Redwine contends that Jonsonian humors characterization, whether considered as an account of human behavior or a form of dramatic characterization, has its basis not in psychology or aesthetics but in morality.]
One critic has recently averred that Jonson's humours are among the most stifling subjects in literary history.1 That is very stifling indeed. Nevertheless, it is with his humours that an analysis of Jonson's theory of characterization must begin. As Enck himself goes on to point out, “no other psychology prevails” in the comical satires, or at least in the first two of the three comical satires. Whether Jonsonian humours actually constitute a “psychology” and whether they prevail in two or four or all of Jonson's plays are problems that must be taken up in due course.
The place to begin an investigation of Jonson's theory of humours is neither the work of Hippocrates nor the work of Galen, but the induction to Jonson's first comical satire, Every Man out of His Humour. The locus classicus is not at all stifling, and it ought to be quoted in full:
In faith, this Humour will come ill to some,
You will be thought to...
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SOURCE: Gottwald, Maria. “Every Man in His Humour: Classical and Native Elements in the First Comedy of Humours.” In Satirical Elements in Ben Jonson's Comedy, pp. 25-33. Wroclaw: Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinskich Wydawinctwo, 1969.
[In the following essay, Gottwald analyzes the structural content of Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, traces its classical and English roots, and explores its own distinctive features.]
The 1616 Folio of Jonson's works is headed by the two so-called humour comedies, Every Man in his Humour (1598) and Every Man out of his Humour (1599). Though the titles sound very much alike the two plays differ so much that they cannot be placed in one row.1 The significant subtitle of the later, “a comicall satyre” suggests that Every Man out of his Humour is rather related to the two subsequent works, Cynthia's Revels and Poetaster. It would, therefore, be bore expedient to treat Every Man in his Humour as a category by itself.
Our discussion will be based on the English version of the play, the one that Jonson prepared for the Folio. A full comparative study of two versions, that of the 1601 Quarto, or the Italian, and a later one, or the English, was provided by the editors of the Oxford Jonson,2 and a more recent paper by A. J. Bryant deals with modifications in the plot...
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SOURCE: Shenk, Robert. “The Habits and Ben Jonson's Humours.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 8, no 1 (spring 1978): 115-36.
[In the following essay, Shenk responds to critic James Redwine's analysis of Jonsonian humors characterization as primarily moral, but goes further and shows that the notion of habit or custom, the backbone of seventeenth-century morality, played a key role in Jonson's dramatic theory.]
Ill habits gather by unseen degrees,— As brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas.
In 1961, ELH published an article by James D. Redwine, Jr., entitled “Beyond Psychology: The Moral Basis of Jonson's Theory of Humour Characterization,” which argued rather convincingly that Jonson's emphasis in characterization by humour was not so much psychological or aesthetical as instead primarily moral.1 Many things that are known about Jonson and his art support such a view. However, despite the service which this critic performed in opening or widening the field for ethical consideration of Jonson's work, he did not go to the heart of his subject. At the very first of his article Redwine drew attention to the locus classicus of the theory of humour characterization, which is the speech by Asper in the Prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour, but according to Redwine's own exegesis, Asper's...
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SOURCE: McCabe, Richard. “Ben Jonson, Theophrastus, and the Comedy of Humours.” Hermathena, no. 146 (summer 1989): 25-37.
[In the following essay, McCabe argues that the Greek writer Theophrastus was the dominant influence on Jonson's theory of humors as displayed in Every Man in His Humour.]
The Characters of Theophrastus were tolerably well known throughout the sixteenth century, but their popularity was greatly enhanced in 1592 by the publication at Lyons of Isaac Casaubon's scholarly edition, Characteres Ethici, sive Descriptiones Morum, in which the Greek text was complemented by a Latin translation of notable concision and eloquence.1 Reissued in 1599 in a slightly enlarged form and with the translation running parallel to the original, Casaubon's edition was destined to supplant its predecessors as the most authoritative and accessible text available. It inspired the first formal English character-book, Joseph Hall's Characters of Virtues and Vices (1608), and served as the basis for the first English translation of Theophrastus by John Healey (better known for his celebrated version of St. Augustine's City of God) in 1616.2
Any assessment of Casaubon's impact, however, must come to terms not merely with his establishment and translation of the Theophrastan text, but also with the highly influential...
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Criticism: Major Figures: William Shakespeare
SOURCE: Mueschke, Paul and Fleisher, Jeannette. “Jonsonian Elements in the Comic Underplot of Twelfth Night.” PMLA 48, no 3 (September 1933): 722-40.
[In the following essay, Mueschke and Fleisher point out Shakespeare's indebtedness to Jonson's humors comedy in the complex subplot of Twelfth Night, noting the adaptation of the Jonsonian humors character in the person of Malvolio.]
The present study purposes to establish a direct relationship between the comic underplot in Twelfth Night and the Jonsonian comic method as first developed in Every Man in His Humour and Every Man out of His Humour.1 Shakespeare's name appears first in the list of actors for the former play in the Jonson Folio (1616). This is almost the only indubitable instance of Shakespeare's acting, attested by written evidence on the authority of Jonson2 rather than based on tradition or hearsay. His thorough familiarity with this play is, consequently, a certainty, and the production of Every Man out of His Humour by his company in the following year is sufficient evidence that his knowledge of both plays was intimate and detailed.
Shakespeare's indebtedness may be indicated through a consideration of the following points of similarity: (1) the strikingly similar relationship between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew and that of the Jonsonian victimizer and...
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SOURCE: Cacicedo, Alberto. “‘A Formal Man Again’: Physiological Humours in The Comedy of Errors.” The Upstart Crow 11 (1991): 24-38.
[In the following essay, Cacicedo argues that the language of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors can be read not only in psychoanalytic terms, as most critics have done, but also in relation to the comedy of humors.]
Recent readings of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors take as their starting point the psychological text most clearly inscribed in Syracusan Antipholus' first soliloquy:1
I to the world am like a drop of water That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, (Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
(I. ii. 35-40)2
The text underscores the double-edged character of Antipholus' search. He seeks to rediscover relationships in order to find his own identity, and yet in doing so, he recognizes he is threatened with the loss of all identity. But then, as Barbara Freedman says, “The confusion of identity is … a necessary step in the recreation of identity.”3 To validate a conception of one's own selfhood one must first recognize that there is a distinct self to validate: to have experienced a loss of identity is the most direct route to such...
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SOURCE: Tiffany, Grace. “Falstaff's False Staff: ‘Jonsonian’ Asexuality in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Comparative Drama 26, no. 3 (fall 1992): 254-70.
[In the following essay, Tiffany contends that Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor is an early experiment in Jonsonian humors comedy, and that Shakespeare participated in the formation of the genre.]
The Folger Shakespeare Theater's use of a female actor as Falstaff in its 1990 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, besides its witty reversal of the Elizabethan convention of all-male casting, had this to recommend it: the “distaff” Falstaff, an embodiment of sexlessness, confronted audiences with the curious absence of regenerative possibility which distinguishes Merry Wives from “Shakespearean” romantic comedy. Unlike, for example, A Midsummer Night's Dream, which creates a world capable of transformation and renewal by means of a sexual energy that dominates language and fuels action, The Merry Wives of Windsor presents a static community for which transformation is a threat, language lacks creativity, and a dearth of real sexual desire parallels the characters' linguistic barrenness. In bourgeois Windsor, the unsavory characters—Ford and Falstaff—are impelled by jealousy or greed masquerading as sexuality, while the heroes—Mistresses Ford and Page—are motivated to protect rather...
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SOURCE: Reid, John. “Double Heresy and Bourgeois Humours in Windsor.” Shakespeare Studies 30 (1992): 35-55.
[In the following essay, Reid argues that Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor employs humors in its burlesque of Christopher Marlowe's plays and in particular his bourgeois characters.]
Is there not a double excellency in this?
The germ of this essay lay in my inability, as a director, to answer the questions of an actor playing Sir Hugh Evans during rehearsals of an amateur production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. My subsequent efforts to make good this initial failure, forced me to rethink the handling of burlesque, particularly in relation to key roles like Evans and Ford. No one would want to dissent from G. R. Hibbard's claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is “a most consummate piece of burlesque”.1 Aside from the play's obvious targets of burlesque—such as Jonson and ‘humours comedies’ generally—Hibbard draws attention to the structural importance both of the burlesque of revenge tragedy and the travesty of Ovidian myth. However, while agreeing that burlesque is at the heart of the comedy in Merry Wives, I found that Marlowe became a key figure in appraising the force and range of that burlesque in its contemporary rhetorical situation: a situation that involved significant interplay between the theatrical and the...
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Baum, Helena Watts. The Satiric and the Didactic in Ben Jonson's Comedy. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971, 192 p.
Study of the development of Jonson's comedy from The Case is Altered to Volpone, including consideration of his theory of humors comedy.
Beaurline, L. A. Jonson and Elizabethan Comedy. San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1978, 351 p.
Analysis of the rhetoric of Jonson's comedies that includes discussion of humors comedy.
Danson, Lawrence. “Jonsonian Comedy and the Discovery of the Social Self.” PMLA 99, no. 2 (March 1984): 179-93.
Compares the sociological and psychological versions of the self in Jonson's comedies, offering comments on Jonson's humors comedy.
Green, William. “Humours Characters and Attributive Names in Shakespeare's Plays.” Names: Journal of the American Name Society 20, no 3 (September 1972): 157-65.
Examines Shakespeare's contribution to the humors comedy genre and discusses his linking of names and humors characterization in Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
McDonald, Russ. Shakespeare and Jonson/Jonson and Shakespeare. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988, 239 p.
Compares the works of the two dramatists; includes...
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