Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 3. Production of Every Man in His Humour

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

I. Ben Jonson

§ 3. Production of Every Man in His Humour

In the same year, 1598, and according to a letter of Sir Toby Matthew to Dudley Carleton, just before the duel with Spencer, Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour was acted with great success by the Chamberlain’s men, Shakespeare’s company. The tradition, preserved by Rowe, that the play was accepted through Shakespeare’s efforts, may be founded on truth, but, manifestly, is erroneous in particulars. The play marks the beginning of a revolutionary movement in dramatic methods and the institution of a new species, the comedy of “humours.” It is an important turning point in the course of the Elizabethan drama, and furnishes an announcement of Jonson’s programme for the rest of his dramatic career. In the half-dozen years, however, which immediately followed its production, Jonson failed to write any comedy of comparable merit or of equal popular success. He seems to have been a sort of free lance, writing now for one company and now for another; and the carrying out of his programme for reforming the drama was hindered both by the necessity of suiting the immediate stage demand, and by quarrels with his fellow dramatists Munday, Marston, Dekker and, possibly, Shakespeare. Every Man out of His Humour, acted 1599 by the Chamberlain’s men, carries on the comedy of humours without dramatic success; Cynthia’s Revels and Poetaster, both acted in 1600 and 1601 respectively by the children of the chapel, are interesting as satires rather than as dramas. They were concerned with the famous stage quarrel between Jonson and his foes. Probably, there was some personal satire in the earlier of these plays, and its successor attacked Marston and Dekker, calling forth Dekker’s rejoinder, Satiro-mastix. Jonson seems to have replied to Dekker only in his Apologetical Dialogue, withdrawn after it had been once on the stage, and appended to the first edition of Poetaster. In this, Jonson refused to carry the quarrel further, and promised to forsake comedy for tragedy. In 1598–9, he was also writing for Henslowe’s companies, both in collaboration and alone, on plays not now extant, and, in 1600–1, he prepared for Henslowe additions to The Spanish Tragedie, presumably those of the edition of 1602. Two other plays, The Case is Altered and A Tale of a Tub (in an early form), belong to this period.