Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 715
With Every Man in His Humour (1598) having been a tremendous success, Ben Jonson—possibly urged on by his fellow investors in the theater—wrote Every Man out of His Humour as a companion piece to his earlier play. In this play, produced the following year, Jonson overreaches himself: There are too many characters and the plot seems to ramble pointlessly. One explanation for the comparative weakness of the play lies in the fact that at the time of its composition Jonson was actively engaged in the so-called war of the theaters, a controversy in which rival playwrights employed the stage to satirize each other and to ridicule actors of the rival companies. As a play, Every Man out of His Humour is a hodgepodge that manages somehow to work out; as personal satire it no longer holds meaning for the modern audience. Its subject and treatment, however, make it a work of particular interest to historians of literature.
Although intended as a battle in the war of the theaters, particularly as an attack upon Thomas Dekker and John Marston, Every Man out of His Humour is more than that. Jonson’s comedy of humors conceived of stage personalities on the basis of a ruling trait or passion, much as Charles Dickens later gave his fictional characters certain dominant traits or characteristics. By placing these typified traits in juxtaposition, the spark of comedy is struck in their conflict and contrast. The result, in Every Man out of His Humour, is often funny. Jonson possessed an arrogant, self-righteous personality and he smarted under the satire of his competitors, seeking to get back at them with this play. The satirical picture of contemporary manners, vivid caricatures, and the witty dialogue carry the play beyond any mere personal attacks. Every Man out of His Humour not only satirizes individuals but also levels a general attack upon corruptions.
Jonson could not resist lampooning his enemies, and he raised dramatic lampooning to an art. Marston probably was intended as the character Carlo Buffone, that “public, scurrilous, and profane jester.” Asper is undoubtedly meant to be a comic idealization of Jonson himself—wholly admirable and just, “an ingenious and free spirit” and “one whom no servile hope of gain or frosty apprehension of danger, can make to be a parasite.”
While John Lyly and others were perfecting the filigree of their prose for courtly audiences, another kind of prose was beginning to be heard in the popular theater, a rough-and-tumble language based on the vernacular. Jonson was among the writers adopting a more abrupt, staccato language, truer to life than the oratorical speeches of most of his contemporaries. The speeches of Carlo and some of the other characters in Every Man out of His Humour simulate the real language of Jonson’s time much more closely than had been done before. Carlo’s spiteful disposition is chiefly revealed in his penchant for coining scurrilous likenesses, and he leaps in a single speech from the figure of a starved dog to that of scalding oil and fire to that of gunpowder, all to describe Macilente. His speech rhythms trip, stumble, and flicker back and forth between metaphoric and literal abuse.
The characters in this play remain isolated, blocked off from one another, immobilized in their humors. The plot is a kaleidoscopic series of characteristic poses adopted by the personalities; each individual pursues his or her humor, oblivious of everything else. For example, Fungoso, eyes greedily fastened on Fastidious Brisk’s suit, makes half-answers to his uncle, while privately calculating how much it will cost him to duplicate the suit. Sogliardo, at the same...
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time, is too engrossed by the prospect of vulgar pleasures in London to notice Fungoso’s inattention. Sordido, scarcely aware of the others, gazes into the sky for signs of rain that will raise the value of his wheat.
Jonson’s characters rail at one another in a scorching indictment of folly, but they are not mere mouthpieces for their author. Even during the war of the theaters, Jonson was too much of an artist to use the satiric speeches of his characters merely as clubs. Falling victim to their own imbalance of humors and distempered view of the world, they nevertheless always have their place in a larger design.