Two distinct character traditions are followed in this play. The first, from classical Roman comedy (Plautus and Terence) is represented in the major characters who drive the plot. These are the Senex (an old man, head of a household, representing tradition and order), the young upstart, disobedient and pleasure-seeking, and the wily servant who acts as a messenger and intervener seeking to please both and to keep them from conflict. In Jonson’s play, these characters are Knowell Senior, Knowell the son, and Brainworm, the servant. During the plot they pretty much keep their traditional roles, the father fretting that the son is leading a dissolute life in London where he is a student, and the servant, supposedly keeping an eye on Knowell, although actually aiding and abetting his excesses. The second group of characters, each assigned a “humourous” personality according to the medieval division of personalities represented by the fluids of the body, are agents in the mischief; they are
Sanguine (amorous, happy, generous, optimistic, irresponsible)
Choleric (violent, vengeful, short-tempered, ambitious)
Phlegmatic (sluggish, pallid, cowardly)
Melancholic (introspective, sentimental, gluttonous)
The theatre-goer or the reader assigns these four “humours” to character personalities in Jonson’s play: Mr. Stephen, Downright, Well-bred, Justice Clement, Kitely, etc. As the play moves forward and as each character is introduced, the Elizabethan audience, who knew these conventions well, recognizes the “humour” represented by each character – Knowell helps by criticizing each entrant as he meets them.
(Continuation of my first answer)
He is clearly, however, a comic figure. His paternal ‘humour’ has become a reflex and he spends his fatherly wisdom and advice unseasonably on the first corner, delivering his best speech to a fool, obviously incapable of profit. It is a speech that inevitably recalls the advice of Polonious to Laertes and comparing the two figures, we measure almost the whole difference between the method of Jonson and that of Shakespeare. Polonious is a complete humour character, he can be both wise and foolish; he can have dignity and yet be ludicrous. However, there can be no inconsistency in a character by Jonson. Kno’well must run true to his humour in every scene. He can have no holiday from being the anxious father as Polonious when he listens to the players or discourses of the madness of Hamlet. There is, however, no exaggeration or improbability of feature. Kno’well is comic merely because he is unseasonably consistent.
That Jonson avoiding enlargement of motive, nevertheless fell into another kind of excess is more clearly shown in his presentation of characters whose humours are less engaging or definitely abnormal. Kitely, that jealous husband of the play, is a striking illustration. Kitely is first cousin to Master Ford, the jealous husband of Windsor. Ford, however, as presented by Shakespeare is more than a jealous humour. He is a normal human creature, mystified and stimulated into a normal passion. Kitely, on the contrary is an automation, mechanically suspicious from the start, and his suspicion is systematically developed until it passes all belief. In any logical process there is an element of farce, for logic leads the fancy to extremes where of necessity it loses touch with the normal world.
Such excess is the necessary consequence of Jonson’s method (or theory of humour). Jonson’s characters, supremely rational in their follies, ignore or transgress all laws of probability which are valid in an irrational world.
(Made the answer myself)
The chief merit of Jonson’s comedies is their delineation of character which is limited by the observance of the rules and models of classical comedy (unlike Shakespeare) and also by Jonson’s own purpose to make each person the illustration of a single trait of humour. Due in part to his “theory of humour”, are the long monologues, the extended depictions of persons, the disgusting coarseness of language, the tendency to exaggerate fact into satire and satire into farce. Jonson will not let go of a character or speech until he has wrung it dry. Yet in spite of these limitations, his comic characterisation remains among the greatest achievements of the English drama because of its clearness and certainty, its richness of humour and its dramatic veracity.
Jonson catches each of his persons at a moment when they appear most expressive for his purpose. So caught, they remain. They do not grow up or change; and perhaps do not degenerate. They never explain themselves as Shakespeare’s men and women do; and some variety is affected in their presentation by a device Jonson made his own. In the second place, when we compare Jonson with Shakespeare we must ask ourselves why so few, if any, of his characters are self-sustained (can exist apart from their setting and are individual and lively) unlike Shakespeare’s. The explanation must be sought in the method which Jonson ingeniously chose to compensate for the loss of dramatic interest entailed by his choice of fixed and simple characters. He makes his stock humourists explain themselves by placing them in a variety of situations that he throws upon them and by this artifice (ruse, deceit) he gives life to his characters, and would make us believe that the person representing the miser, or braggart, or gull, and so referred to throughout the play, such as in Every Man In His Humour, is a real miser, or braggart or gull. He seeks his effects by working from the outside, by picking out the contours of character in the changing limelight of circumstances. He intensifies the image in and by the contrast of other humours, and makes the dialogue of the other characters draw attention to points in the delineation that must be missed. In this last respect, Jonson is using something more than the device common in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, that of giving clues to an audience who had none of the stage advertisement of the modern theatres. With Jonson it was used less as a guide to the action and more as a supplementary and necessary explanation of character.
Two examples from Every Man in His Humour will suffice to show how carefully Jonson avoided the kind of exaggeration which is so often assumed to be necessary on the stage, and yet fell into another kind of excess by presenting his types too consistently. The elder Kno’well is a comic figure, but he is drawn with such moderation that he might easily be taken as a foil to the follies of the rest. His humour consists in his being excessively a parent, over anxious for the welfare of his son, zealous to retain the respect due to his years and office, prompt to take offence at the levity and wilfulness of the younger generation. Nothing could be more restrained than his presentation. There is no exaggeration or concession to the law of enlargement accepted by Congreve – Kno’well is an illustration of Jonson’s method at its best.
(Continued in the next post)