Every Man in his Humour examines what it means to be authentic. Some of the characters try to occupy particular roles, arrogantly performing what they think is expected of them. Like many of the other personality traits on display, Jonson takes great pleasure in showing these up as a sham. Likewise, the playwright employs disguise and deception to suggest that identity—specifically, how people like to see themselves—is inherently unstable and unreliable. That is, there is a gap between what people think of themselves and how they are actually are.
Many of the characters in the play try to present idealized versions of themselves, often to their discredit. They desperately try to show themselves to be authentic, and in doing so, demonstrate exactly the opposite. One of the best examples of the above is provided by the character of Captain Bobadil. He is a boastful braggart soldier and tells tall stories of his military escapades. These impress the simple mind of Master Matthew, who takes a lesson in swordsmanship from Bobadil early in the play. But Bobadil’s tales of combat grow increasingly fantastical over the course of the play—he seems to have fought in every battle of recent times. Ultimately, Bobadil is shown up to be presumptuous and dishonest when he chickens out of a duel with Downright, who disarms him with ease. There is a vast difference, then, between the personality Bobadil wishes to portray and the reality—in a word, he is inauthentic.
Similar to Bobadil, Matthew wishes to be seen as a mysterious, alluring poet. He, too, discredits himself, revealing the disparity between how people think of themselves and how they actually are. Matthew constantly tries to impress those around him by quoting verse, attempting to pass off misremembered quotes as his own work. Wellbred and Edward Knowell find great sport in teasing Matthew, encouraging him to recite his poetry. They have too much knowledge of poetry for Matthew to get away with pretending his quotations are his own. When Matthew quotes, loosely, from Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, his words indicate the desired effect he would like his poetry to have: “Would God my rude words had the influence, / To rule thy thoughts, as thy fair looks do mine.” He longs for authentic powers of seduction, but only embarrasses himself. This reinforces two overall points made by Jonson: firstly, that people are, in general, inauthentic. Secondly, that true artistry is rarely found but often impersonated. Matthew’s false artistry echoes the wider argument that people often try to impersonate others to raise themselves above their given stations.
The final important way that Jonson employs his characters to make his case for the overall instability of people’s identities is through Brainworm, the servant of Old Knowell and Edward Knowell. Brainworm is a deliberate deceiver from the very beginning of the play. When Old Knowell intercepts a letter from Wellbred intended for his son, Brainworm promises to deliver the letter to Edward without informing him that his father has read it. He immediately reneges on this promise. His motivations for the above are not instantly obvious, but as the play progresses it becomes evident that Brainworm delights in disguise and deception—he has an anarchic streak that contributes to the exposure of inauthenticity. For example, he disguises himself as a vagrant soldier and sells Matthew a bad sword, playing on the latter’s desire to be accepted by Bobadil and seem brave and gallant. Likewise, Brainworm uses his disguise to glean Old Knowell’s intentions from him with regard to following and spying on his son. Though Old Knowell outwardly wishes to let Edward live his own life, Brainworm exposes this to be inauthentic. As if to validate Brainworm’s actions, Jonson has Justice Clement approve of them when, in the final scene, all of his deception is exposed. This suggests that Brainworm serves an important function—not just in furthering the action (or inaction) of the plot, but in drawing inauthenticity from the shadows and into the light.
Overall, then, the characters of Every Man in his Humour are deeply inauthentic. The women, perhaps, are less so, but then they arguably play a minor role in what takes place. Inauthenticity, Jonson seems to suggest, is practically the natural state in Elizabethan society. Identity is thus shown to be destabilized and highly performative, which for some characters functions to their detriment and to others is used to further their own aims.
Authenticity Quotes in Every Man in His Humour
He rather prays you will be pleased to see
One such, today, as other plays should be.
Where neither chorus wafts you o'er the seas;
Nor creaking throne comes down, the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor rolled bullet heard
To say it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But 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.
Except, we make ‘em such by loving still
Our popular errors, when we know they're ill.
I mean such errors, as you'll all confess,
By laughing at them, they deserve no less:
Which when you heartily do, there's hope left, then,
You, that have so graced monsters, may like men.
I am resolved, I will not stop his journey;
Nor practise any violent means, to stay
The unbridled course of youth in him; for that,
Restrained, grows more impatient; and, in kind,
Like to the eager but the generous greyhound,
Who ne'er so little from his game withheld,
Turns head, and leaps up at his holder's throat.
There is a way of winning, more by love,
And urging of the modesty, than fear:
Force works on servile natures, not the free.
He that's compelled to goodness may be good;
But 'tis but for that fit; where others, drawn
By softness and example, get a habit.
Then, if they stray, but warn ‘em, and the same
They should for virtue have done, they'll do for shame.
He useth every day to a merchant's house (where I serve water), one master Kitely's, i’ the Old Jewry; and here's the jest, he is in love with my master's sister, Mrs. Bridget, and calls her mistress; and there he will sit you a whole afternoon sometimes, reading o’ these same abominable, vile (a pox on 'em, I cannot abide them), rascally verses, poyetry, poyetry, and speaking of interludes; 'twill make a man burst to hear him. And the wenches, they do so jeer, and tee-hee at him.
STEPHEN: Ay, truly, sir, I am mightily given to melancholy.
MATTHEW: Oh, it's your only fine humour, sir: your true melancholy breeds your perfect fine wit, sir. I am melancholy myself, divers times, sir, and then do I no more but take pen and paper presently, and overflow you half a score, or a dozen of sonnets at a sitting.
COB: Humour! Mack, I think it be so indeed; what is that humour? some rare thing, I warrant.
CASH: Marry I'll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentlemanlike monster, bred in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed by folly.
Bane to my fortunes! what meant I to marry?
I, that before was ranked in such content,
My mind at rest too, in so soft a peace,
Being free master of mine own free thoughts,
And now become a slave? What? never sigh;
Be of good cheer, man; for thou art a cuckold:
'Tis done, 'tis done! Nay, when such flowing-store,
Plenty itself, falls into my wife's lap,
The cornucopiae will be mine, I know. But, Cob,
What entertainment had they? I am sure
My sister and my wife would bid them welcome! Ha?
No harm done, brother, I warrant you: since there is no harm done, Anger costs a man nothing: and a tall man is never his own man, till he be angry. To keep his valour in obscurity, is to keep himself, as it were, in a cloak bag. What's a musician, unless he play? What's a tall man, unless he fight? For, indeed, all this, my wise brother stands upon, absolutely: and that made me fall in with him so resolutely.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Nay, keep out, sir; I know not your pretence. You send me word, sir, you are a soldier: why, sir, you shall be answered, here, here be them that have been amongst soldiers. Sir, your pleasure.
BOBADIL: Faith, sir, so it is, this gentleman, and myself, have been most uncivilly wronged, and beaten, by one Downright, a coarse fellow, about the town, here, and for mine own part, I protest, being a man in no sort given to this filthy humour of quarrelling, he hath assaulted me in the way of my peace; despoiled me of mine honour; disarmed me of my weapons; and rudely, laid me along, in the open streets: when I not so much as once offered to resist him.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Oh God's precious! Is this the soldier? Here, take my armour off quickly, ‘twill make him swoon, I fear; he is not fit to look on't, that will put up a blow.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Why, Master Downright, are you such a novice, to be served, and never see the warrant?
DOWNRIGHT: Sir. He did not serve it on me.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: No? how then?
DOWNRIGHT: Marry, sir, he came to me, and said, he must serve it, and he would use me kindly, and so—
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Oh, God's pity, was it so, sir? He must serve it? Give me my longsword there, and help me off; so. Come on, sir varlet, I must cut off your legs, sirrah; nay, stand up, I'll use you kindly, I must cut off your legs, I say.
And I will consider thee in another cup of sack. Here's to thee, which having drunk off this my sentence: Pledge me. Thou hast done, or assisted to nothing, in my judgment, but deserves to be pardon'd for the wit of the offence.
EDWARD: We are the more bound to your humanity, sir.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Only these two have so little of man in ‘em, they are no part of my care.
They are not born every year, as an alderman. There goes more to the making of a good poet, than a sheriff.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Good complement! It will be their bridal night too. They are married anew. Come, I conjure the rest, to put off all discontent. You, master Downright, your anger; you, master Knowell, your cares; Master Kitely and his wife, their jealousy.
'Tis well, 'tis well! This night we'll dedicate to friendship, love, and laughter. Master bridegroom, take your bride and lead; everyone, a fellow. Here is my mistress, Brainworm! To whom all my addresses of courtship shall have their reference. Whose adventures, this day, when our grandchildren shall hear to be made a fable, I doubt not, but it shall find both spectators, and applause.