Humors Comedy Essay - Critical Essays

Humors Comedy


Humors Comedy

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.

Principal Works

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

All's Well That Ends Well (play) 1598

Twelfth Night (play) 1600

Love Tricks (play) 1625

The Humourous Courtier (play) 1640

Criticism: Overviews

M. A. Harris (essay date 1895)

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—:


(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Charles Read Baskerville (essay date 1911)

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...

(The entire section is 17178 words.)

Mina Kerr (essay date 1912)

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 purpose in the present study is to follow but one of the lines along which the work of Ben Jonson affected English...

(The entire section is 22165 words.)

John C. McGalliard (essay date 1946)

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...

(The entire section is 11524 words.)

Criticism: Major Figures: Ben Jonson

Henry L. Snuggs (essay date 1947)

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...

(The entire section is 3703 words.)

John J. Enck (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 10294 words.)

James D. Redwine, Jr. (essay date 1961)

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...

(The entire section is 7514 words.)

Maria Gottwald (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 3026 words.)

Robert Shenk (essay date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 8884 words.)

Richard McCabe (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 4983 words.)

Criticism: Major Figures: William Shakespeare

Paul Mueschke and Jeannette Fleisher (essay date 1933)

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...

(The entire section is 8647 words.)

Alberto Cacicedo (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6036 words.)

Grace Tiffany (essay date 1992)

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,...

(The entire section is 6450 words.)

John Reid (essay date 1992)

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,...

(The entire section is 6385 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 181 words.)