Every Man in His Humour Ben Jonson
English playwright, poet, masque writer, and critic.
The following entry presents critisim on Jonson's play Every Man in His Humour. See also Ben Jonson Poetry Criticism and Ben Jonson Literary Criticism.
Every Man in His Humour is one of Jonson's best-known and most influential plays. Initially staged in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men (which included William Shakespeare in the cast), the play was first printed in 1601. Jonson made significant revisions to the play for publication in his Works (1616). Much of the contemporary critical discussion of the play analyzes the changes made to the 1598 Quarto version, which were incorporated into the 1616 Folio revision. Considered a comedy of intrigue, the play chronicles the efforts of a young, well-born man to wed his true love, despite his well-intentioned father's attempts to prevent the wedding. Every Man in His Humour also popularized the theory of humours and is regarded as a major work of comic realism.
Plot and Major Characters
The central plot of Every Man in His Humour concerns the adventures of a young, upper-class man, Edward Knowell, who visits the city both to visit his friend, Wellbred, and to seek the hand of Bridget, who is from a lower economic and social class. Edward's father regards the match as ill-advised and resolves to follow to the city to prevent the marriage. Realizing that his father is following him and intent on sabotaging his attempts to wed Bridget, Edward solicits the help of his father's clever servant, Brainworm, who assumes several disguises to trick the elder Knowell and foil his pursuit. The characters encounter various eccentrics, such as the braggart soldier Bobadill, the jealous husband Kitely, the country fool Stephen, and the city fool Matthew, all of whom are exemplars for particular personality traits based on the theory of humours. The play closes in the courtroom of the eccentric Justice Clement, where the young couple is wed. Edward's father accepts his son's marriage and the play ends with the classic ritual of the wedding feast.
Every Man in His Humour popularized the “comedy of humours.” Originally a medical term, “humours” were the fluids believed to regulate the body and by extension the human temperament. The theory, which can be traced to ancient times, is that there are four distinct bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. An imbalance of these fluids, or humours, causes a personality disturbance. In Every Man in His Humour Jonson worked these theories into his drama to great effect—the characters in the work show clear evidence of their individual imbalances of humours. Although Jonson was not the first to employ the idea of humours in a drama, his use of the conceit in Every Man in His Humour is considered exemplary, and such characterization continued to be a feature of his work. Commentators contend that key features of the play are derived from classical drama, particularly from Plautus's comedies in form and structure. Like those plays, the plot centers on an unlikely couple overcoming obstacles—particularly familial and social opposition—to marry. In addition, the concept of a pair of stately, elderly people outwitted by a pair of clever young men can be traced back to Plautine comedy, as can the characters of the cunning servant and the braggart soldier. The work is also considered a predecessor of comic realism on the English stage—Jonson's London audiences recognized the play's characters as fellow citizens, even before Jonson's 1616 revision changed the setting from Florence to London.
Critics assert that Every Man in His Humour was Jonson's first successful play and established his playwriting career. Moreover, the play is considered influential because it laid the groundwork for comic realism on the English stage and popularized the comedy of humours. Most critical analyses of the play focus on the extensive revisions Jonson made to the 1598 Quarto version for publication in his 1616 Folio revision of Every Man in His Humour: commentators note that Jonson changed the setting of the play from Florence to London; characters were given English names; the concept of humours was strengthened; and a notable speech was excised from the end of the play. In addition, in the Folio version of the play Jonson added a prologue that presents the essential dramatic theory for all his comedies. Other commentators have discussed Every Man in His Humour in the context of Jonson's oeuvre and laud his mastery of form, his utilization of classical elements, his vivid and expansive depiction of London life in the 1600s, and his successful blend of the serious and comic, the topical and the timeless.