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.