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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

§ 12. Every Man out of His Humour

The comedy of humours was carried on in Every Man out of His Humour. A vainglorious knight, a public jester, an affected courtier, a doting husband and others exhibit their humours and are finally forced out of their affectations through the agency of Macilente, who, also, is cured of his besetting envy. In the induction, Asper, representing Jonson himself, presents the play in a long conversation with two friends, who remain on the stage to serve as an expository chorus. Jonson announces a highly satirical and moral purpose, akin to that of Vetus Comoedia:

  • I will scourge those apes
  • And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
  • As large as is the stage whereon we act;
  • Where they shall see the time’s deformity
  • Anatomised in every nerve and sinew,
  • With constant courage, and contempt of fear.
  • Jonson’s induction and comments show how conscious was his art, and how carefully considered his aims. He exhibits his knowledge of the history and rules of classical comedy; but, at the same time, he declares,
  • I see not then but we should enjoy the same license, or free power to illustrate and heighten our invention, as they did; and not be tied to those strict and regular forms which the niceness of a few, who are nothing but form, would thrust upon us.
  • To this extent, he declares for the national tradition; but he rejects the conventions of romantic comedy,
  • of a duke to be in love with a countess, and that countess to be in love with the duke’s son, and the son to love the lady’s waiting maid; some such cross-wooing with a clown to their servingman.
  • He succeeds in removing all elements of romance from his plot; but what remains, while “familiarly allied to the time,” has little dramatic merit. The comedy is long-winded, and didactic, rarely either rapid or amusing. The faults that beset all Jonson’s subsequent comedies, even the best, are manifest: an over-elaboration of uninteresting characters, and a too detailed exposure of folly.

    Cynthia’s Revels resembles Every Man out of His Humour in its general plan of a group of would-be gallants and ladies whose follies are exposed to ridicule and shame through the efforts of a censor representing the author’s attitude. The devices of gods, a masque, an echo dialogue, the fountain of self-love and—to some extent—the gallants and pages, remind one of the plays of Lyly, which had recently been revived. Apparently, it was with these suggestions from Lyly and his Aristophanic scheme that Jonson set at work on his court entertainment. He also introduced personal satire (perhaps already used in Every Man out of His Humour), though the only part that can with much confidence be identified is that of Anaides, which Dekker promptly took to himself. In spite of the evident care taken in construction and phrasing, the play is inordinately tedious, with the exception of the lively induction. All the persons bathe in the fountain of self-love, but, in the end, find restoration in the well of knowledge. In the epilogue, Jonson forestalls the obvious taunt that he has mistaken the fountain, and proclaims of the play:

  • By God ’t is good, and if you like ’t, you may.
  • Jonson’s arrogance had occasioned enmities with his fellow dramatists. In Poetaster, he undertook their castigation. The scene is placed in Rome; the story of Ovid’s love for Julia is introduced; and the satirical scheme is not unlike that in the preceding comedies—a voluble captain, an actor, a beggar poet and an affected gallant come in for exposure, and Vergil and Horace (Jonson) are the censors. In the end, Demetrius (Dekker) and Crispinus (Marston) are tried for calumniating Horace, and to Crispinus is administered a purge which causes him to vomit up a prodigious vocabulary. Probably, other personal references were intended in addition to those indicated, but they are not discernible now. Jonson seems to have been attempting a further extension of comedy on Aristophanic lines, satirical allegory, praise of himself and direct personal satire.