Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1052

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.

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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 courtship; Kitely tells Cash of his fears about his wife, and Cash then sends Cob with the message to Kitely. Bobadill insults Downright for Matthew, and Justice Clement even relates to a client who is standing before him by means of his assistant. A desire to avoid encounters motivates much of the action: Kitely and Dame Kitely do not speak their minds to each other; Knowell is worried about Edward’s and Wellbred’s friendship; Brainworm tries to keep apart those he is manipulating. Direct, emotion-filled conversation usually does not occur. Bridget and Edward utter not a single word to each other either before or after marriage, nor does Knowell congratulate Edward. Kitely’s feeble remarks to his wife after their reconciliation suggest their essential estrangement. The only place for protestations of real feeling is in soliloquy. The characters are incapable of genuine dialogue.

Noninteraction comes to its logical conclusion in the events that take place before Cob’s house (act 4). Instead of creating a recognition and discovery scene, the characters misunderstand the action and one another because they refuse to go beyond their ossified solipsisms. Thus, Knowell “recognizes” Dame Kitely as Edward’s lover; Kitely believes Knowell to be his wife’s lover; and Knowell mistakes Kitely for Edward. Justice Clement’s plea for reconciliation is not met by any real change in the characters.

In this early Jonson comedy, the debate about poetry that frames the play (Knowell’s opening speech and Clement’s closing one) does not provide the unity that similar debates do in later Jonson works. The ideal of poetry seems unlikely here to do more than achieve an arbitrary connection with the unity dictated by Clement. Although the characters often speak about poetry, they do not seem to be particularly concerned with it.

As in most Jonsonian comedy, characters’ names—be they serious, satiric, or comic—disclose ideas about personality. Justice Clement, as his name suggests, tempers his justice with mercy, but Knowell usually acts the opposite of a knowledgeable father. Some of the characters are recognizable types deriving from Roman comedy, especially that of Plautus: Brainworm, the witty servant; Kitely, the jealous husband; Knowell, the strict father; Wellbred, the man-about-town; Bobadill, the miles gloriosus, or braggart soldier. Although Jonson borrows these typed characters, he makes them thoroughly English and assimilates them to his ideas of human follies.

The characters are often connected by contrasts, so that those who appear similar are shown to be different, while those who seem opposed are linked. Thus Matthew, the town gull, supposedly different from Stephen, the country gull, is actually the same sort of person. Both ape fashions in sport (rapier dueling or hawking) and praise a particular fashion in dress; the difference is that the town gull is in style and the country gull is out of style. Similarly, Edward is shown to be essentially different from his friend Wellbred—the one serious and temperate, the other frivolous and extreme. There are also sets of characters that seem to parody each other’s behavior: Cob’s jealousy burlesques Kitely’s, and both reflect Knowell’s spying on his son; the relationship of Edward to Wellbred is mimicked by that of Matthew to Bobadill. These contrasts and distorted mirrors help to give a structural balance to the play but do not change its nonrelational quality. Each character is set on a particular course by his personality, a course that is not altered by any collision with another person.

Every Man in His Humour portrays a multiplicity of human aberrations, although here they are more lighthearted follies. Jonson’s favorite satiric targets can be found—illusions about education, love, poetry, social place—as a group of characters reiterates each issue. Justice Clement’s plea “to put off all discontent” marks the necessary illusion of change and unity at the end. Only the later Ben Jonson (of Bartholomew Fair, 1614) can accept these follies and aberrations as part of human nature.

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Every Man in His Humour, Ben Jonson