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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

I. Ben Jonson

§ 11. His Programme of Reform; Every Man in His Humour

What Jonson intended was to recall comedy from its romantic entanglements and to restore it to its ancient province. In 1598, he was a playwright seeking success on the public stage, and trained in its conventions and practices. Neither at that time nor at any other did he plan plays that should break from the popular theatres and become academic or closet affairs. His purpose was to alter his own practices, and to reform the stage; and he represented the critical tendencies already existing: first, a reaction from the absurdities of current forms secondly, a recourse to classical standards as a cure for law lessness; and, lastly, the establishment of a realistic and satirical comedy on a rational plan. The first two positions were those of Sidney’s Apologie, which must have potently influenced Jonson; the third was being promoted by contemporary dramatists, especially by the comedies of his friend Chapman. Chapman’s earliest romantic comedy The Blinde begger of Alexandria, 1598, acted about 1596, was immediately followed by An Humerous dayes Myrth, realistic in matter and, apparently, preceding Every Man in His Humour, and then by his Al Fooles (acted about 1599), a play both Terentian and Jonsonian. Similarly, Middleton’s early romantic comedies, The Old Law and Blurt Master-Constable were soon followed by a series of realistic comedies of manners; and the romance of Marston’s Antonio and Mellida (acted 1598 or 1599) was followed by the satire of his Malcontent (acted 1601). Moreover, a series of formal satires by Marston, Donne and Hall had vogue in the years 1597–9. But, to whatever extent Jonson was anticipated by Chapman, and to whatever extent his attitude was due to the same immediate influences that acted on his fellows, there is no doubt that he was leader in a movement which gave to realistic and satirical comedy a new importance, or that, of the early representative plays of this class, Every Man in His Humour was the masterpiece. Its famous prologue sets forth a definite programme. It protests especially against chronicle history plays, discards tragedy and romance, implies an observance of the proprieties and promises

  • deeds, and language, such as men do use:
  • And persons, such as comedy would choose,
  • When she would show an image of the times,
  • And sport with human follies, not with crimes.
  • The play, happily, is free from the laboriousness that often results from devotion to a theory. The plot, of Jonson’s own invention, deals with tricks played upon the elder Knowell and the jealous Kitely, involving the exposure of various humours and ending happily with the marriage of young Knowell and Kitely’s sister. The term “humour,” then applied to any oddity of manner, is used to designate the prevailing traits of a number of distinctly defined characters, illustrative of London manners. The braggart soldier, the clever servant, the avaricious and jealous husband, the gay young men and even the gulls, are all, obviously, suggested by the common types in Plautus; to whom; also, are due the plot of tricks and the device of disguises. Nevertheless, both plot and persons are developed with abundant originality and represent Jonson at his best. Bobadill, indeed, is almost the very greatest of Jonson’s creations, and is distinct from the other representatives of miles gloriosus which preceded and followed him in the Elizabethan drama. Whenever he appears, there is more than mere satire or farce—an amazing and sustained vis comica that reaches its culmination in the great scene in which he meets with discomfiture. The play is written mainly in terse and pointed prose, only the two old men and the ladies using blank verse. One superb purple patch, the defence of poetry, Jonson ruthlessly cut out in the revised edition.

    In comparison with Every Man in His Humour, Jonson’s comedies for the next few years do not exhibit any advance. A large portion of his work, including the additions to The Spanish Tragedie and other plays for Henslowe, shows a return to old ways. The comedy entitled The Case is Altered hardly belongs to the class of humoristic comedies. Never admitted by Jonson among his collected works, it may be a revision of an earlier play; at least, it was not approved by his later standards. Though Plautian in plot and introducing personal satire on Munday, it is romantic in tone, with its scene in Milan and its element of averted tragedy.