Every Man In His Humour – Ben Jonson

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

R.S. Knox: “It has been said that Jonson’s chief aim in his comedies is the satirical portraiture of character. This is certainly the truth in EMIAH. The interest lies, for the most part, in a series of capital situations which permit the chosen victims – Stephen, Matthew, Bobadill and Kitley, to disport themselves, each “in his humour”. In a secondary way, it is a comedy of intrigue as well as a comedy of character.”

Into the plot Jonson has woven three well-worn threads. The first is a theme familiar to a Latin comedy, dealing with the relations of the old father and the rakish son: the elder kno’well, by means of the misdelivered letter, becomes suspicious of his son’s conduct, follows him into the London haunts, and through the trickery of the roughish servant, Brain-worm, is inveigled into a compromising situation at Cob’s house. The second thread is the insensate jealousy of Kitley for his wife, his determination to find her out, and his ultimate awakening to the foolishness of his fears. These two threads are tied together in the meeting and misunderstanding outside Cob’s house. The third is the very thin love intrigue between Bridget and young Kno’well. This is the one conventionally romantic aspect of the play. But Jonson characteristically makes little of it. It is introduced in Act IV Sc iii with no preparation; but it is slenderly elaborated.

Regarded as a comedy of intrigue, the play has its evident weaknesses. The element of the plot are rather commonplace, and none of them has in itself sufficient strength to hold our interest. In the first half the action moves forward but slowly.

The characters in the play naturally range themselves in three fairly distinct groups: the normal people, those held up to ridicule, the minor characters who fill in the play who are not satires but some of whom are interesting side-studies.

The first group is the small band of conspirators who carry through the series of practical jokes, which forms the plot and who are the exploiters of the various victims of ‘humours’….There is little attempt to individualise the pair of friends. They are alike in ironic wit and in their attitude of easy superiority to their victims. Brain-worm, the third of the conspirators, is the most magnetic character in the play – but, of course, he is little else. He is the necessary instrument for setting in motion carrying to a head the various schemes. He is a lively revival of the trickster servant of Latin comedy, who fooled the father and sided with the son.

The “Humours”: Old Kno’well is left merely a type, and an old-fashioned type at that, which Jonson knew well in classical comedy. Kitley, the victim of the second intrigue, is one of Jonson’s most striking ‘humours’… he must not be placed beside Shakespeare’s Othello. Shakespeare is working in the more exacting realm of tragedy. He presents the complete man, a noble and open nature suddenly wrought up to a momentary madness. Jonson’s intention is satiric comedy; he eliminates from Kitley all but the one idea of foolish jealousy, which, after the manner of ‘humour’, becomes an obsession, and ridiculously colours all his thoughts and conduct.

Babadill is Jonson’s masterpiece in comic character and is easily the dominant figure in the play. The braggadacio soldier, whose deeds belie his brave words, has been a traditional butt of comedy. He is indeed, far more than a mere ‘humour’. There is life in this lean, hungry figure who, despite his arrogant and condescending airs and all his bravery, can never rise above his cup of small beer. The two most effective moments in the play are with Babadill. The first is our introduction to him, when he is surprised in his lodge by Matthew, excuses his residence on the grounds of privacy, and proceeds to parade himself by giving his admirer, who has politely accepted the excuses, a fencing lesson with the landlady’s broomstick. One can understand from the satire of such a scene why the Babadills of London showed such a dislike for Jonson. The second is the grand scene of Babadill’s discomfiture in Act IV, when, in the midst of his boasts and fiery threats, he is caught by downright and trounced; “struck with a planet,” he protests, and leaves to seek pusillanimous remedy in a summons for assault. If we compare this portrait of Babadill with that of the genial roistering Falstaff , we amy again measure the difference in the comis attitudes of the dramatists – Shakespeare with his sympathetic humour; Jonson seeing the fun but relentlessly pointing the satire.

Justice Clement is the “deux ex machina” of the comedy, sorting out the knots, and bringing the “humours” to a perception of their folly.

In the ‘Preface’ to his Every Man in His Humour, Ben Jonson finds fault with the then current tragedies, comedies and historical plays. In the tragedies and histories, he deplores the neglect of unities time and place. The ludicrous setting of the plays is also deplored along with the bombast of the writers. In comedy, he deplores the lack of reality and also the confusion between the purpose of comedy and that of farce. Jonson felt that comedy, as distinguished from tragedy, had lost its touch of reality through romantic extravagance. The so-called ideal of the comic dramatist had blurred the dramatic purpose. Jonson’s constitutional habit of satire had compelled him to turn to realism as the only medium of comedy. He was helped in this conclusion by the scholars’ despair over the romantic comedy. His classical training had encouraged him on the path. He was an admirer of the Latin comedy for its quickness. When he borrowed the Latin form, he transformed it to suit contemporary purposes. To Jonson must belong the credit he has given that he has given to the stage an accepted doctrine of comedy based on classical stage. He recognizes comedy as an independent literary from which should not be merely treated in contrast to tragedy. He found comedy to be based on the method that he himself framed for the fuller expression of life. In the later Renaissance criticism, comedy is defines as one whose purpose is to create laughter with the ultimate aim that the follies of men should be laughed at as ridiculous. Tragedy works out its morality through the display of pity and horror. Likewise comedy achieves its ethical objective by mockery of human baseness. “it is meant to sport with follies, but not with crimes.” Jonson’s theory is based on this definition. But Jonson goes further to say that the chief aim of comedy is not laughter. Laughter is only a means to an end, delight being the primary consideration. He, therefore, deplores the havoc that the comic stage has done with laughter as the chief instrument. In the second place, in the importance given to laughter, there is the danger of exaggeration, and laughter is the undoer of comedy.

“We may not overstep the modesty of Nature; for, anything overdone is far from the purpose of the play.” It is for this reason that Jonson bases his theory of comedy on ‘humours’. In the olden physiology, the four major humours corresponding to the four elements are found in proportion in a normal man. This medical tradition was misapplied in literature during renaissance and it is this which led Jonson to reform comedy. According to Jonson, the purpose of comedy is to note these different human elements dominant in each character. Comedy should embody these elements in a number of characters and must bring them to a clash of contrast which produces a pleasant laughter and stresses the moral of the disorders. The difficulties arise when we decide what are the true humours in a comedy. Jonson forgets that an excess of humour may be affected or artificial material for a comedy. But Congrave thinks that it is the excess that qualifies a comed. Jonson’s problem , therefore, was to strike a balance between a reasonable excess and the required reality. Because he considers excess as reasonable for comedy, he lays stress on real life too. The more the humours are paraded and the finer the difference between the characters, the greater is the temptation to be extravagant. Jonson tries to protect himself from this by denouncing clowning in the English comedy. Jonson, however, ultimately fails to notice the serious difficulties involved in humour comedy. In the first place, the presentation of certain humours throughout a long play involves the playwright in certain dangers. For example, such characters become rigid; too uniform in habit, so they give the impression of the puppets of the morality stage. They defeat his dramatic purpose of realism. The second danger is that in trying to escape from this uniformity of character, the dramatist is likely to be extravagant. But, as far as possible, Jonson is vigilant against these dangers and this is why he protests against over-emphasis. He rejects accidents and tries to have a close attention to life as a corrective artifice. Characters uniform in habit tend to become too simple. Even when the humour is not the study of a single folly, it is very hard to sustain unity throughout the action. The characters are prevented from self-development. In this connection, the romantic comedy is to be sharply contrasted and these characters are given ample opportunity to develop. If we ignore these dangers, some say that Ben Jonson is to be compared with Shakespeare. But the essential difference between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson is that Jonson’s comedies are superficial; his characters have only the ‘stage significance’ and there is no display of the psychological currents. But in suitable expressiveness, he is on a par with Shakespeare.