Hardly anyone in Every Man in his Humour comes across well. Jonson was interested in displaying human folly on stage—celebrating it, even—and made sure to fill this play to the brim with strange behavior, crossed purposes, and satire. In fact, the play established the “comedy of the humours” genre on the English scene, and is imbued with an absurdist wit throughout that seems to show humanity at its most foolish. Jonson focuses on human folly for two primary reasons: firstly, he aims to satirize the society Elizabethan society and show that, for all its mores and mannerisms, foolishness is never far from the surface. Secondly—and importantly—this isn’t an attempt to merely disparage his society; he actively wants his audience to enjoy the human folly that he draws out of his characters and recognize themselves in the play. As he states in the prologue, this constitutes a kind “hope” that may help his audience to “like men” (with men meaning mankind, rather than just the male sex).
Jonson’s approach to writing Every Man in his Humour was to think of each character as the embodiment of a particular trait. This allows him to show that a wide range of such traits, when taken to their extremes, lead their proponents into foolishness. Perhaps the best summary of Jonson’s aims is found in the sequel to Every Man in His Humour, the much less popular Every Man out of his Humour. In this, Jonson sets out the terms of the comedy genre: “Some one peculiar quality / Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw / All his affects, his spirits, and his powers, / In their confluctions, all to run one way.” This is linked to the popular medical theory of the four humors, which was dominant at the time of the play’s writing. Put crudely, the four humours—blood, phlegm, choler/yellow bile, and black bile—were conceived of as liquids within the body that needed to be in harmony in order for a person to be in good health. All were linked to different personality traits (and also to the natural elements), and an excess of any humour would lead to an imbalance in a person’s harmony and express itself in an undesirable form. For example, an excess of yellow bile could lead to a person being “choleric”—a word still used today to denote bad-tempered and angry.
Jonson’s play, though, is not slavishly wedded to the medical idea of the humuors, but more to the idea of character traits being taken to extremes—and the ensuing consequences. For example, Kitely, a married merchant, is obsessed with the idea that his wife, Dame Kitely, is cuckolding him, or having an affair. Despite no evidence to support his claim, the idea consumes him entirely. Likewise, Matthew’s desire to be one of the city gallants—one of the fashionable men about town—gets him into trouble when he annoys the fiery-tempered—choleric—country squire, Downright. There’s no character in the play with anything especially redeeming about them—everyone has their flaws. This is part of the form of Jonson’s play, and allows him to comically highlight the different facets of human folly. This folly doesn’t just define the individual characters, but the interactions between them too. Jonson avoids tying the different strands of the tenuous plot too closely together, with them bound only by the relatively unified time and place. The play is dominated by misunderstanding and misrepresentation, suggesting that people are too self-obsessed to notice their own folly and its effects on the world around them.
It’s fair to say that practically nothing happens in Every Man in his Humour. Instead, the play revolves more around characters thinking that something has happened, showing them to be at cross purposes and fundamentally misunderstanding of one another. For example, Wellbred orchestrates a scenario in which both Kitely and his wife rush to Cob’s house thinking that they will catch the other in the act of adultery. Neither Kitely nor his wife had any real evidence that the other was unfaithful—they were just gullible and jealous. They fundamentally misunderstand the intentions of one another and are unable to see clearly their own foolishness. Likewise, characters are frequently getting into squabbles, or even physical fights, with one another because of misunderstandings. One character will mishear another’s words, take offense, and then try to redress the situation. There’s very little common sense throughout the play, in keeping with Jonson’s project to satirize the manners of the society he lived in.
The overall effect of the above, then, is that the play ends with the sense that it has all, essentially, been pointless. This “pointlessness” is Jonson’s way of poking fun at the human folly exhibited by his characters—they expend all this energy for nothing. Jonson concludes the play at Justice Clement’s house. He resolves the characters’ differences, pardons them for their foolishness, and invites them to celebrate the craftily organized wedding of Edward Knowell and Mistress Bridget (Kitely’s sister). This artificial conclusion, in which all conflict is waved away, highlights Jonson’s overall approach. Like Clement, he delights in observing the foolishness of human beings—in a way even celebrating mankind’s capacity for self-trickery, embarrassing behavior and misunderstanding.
Human Folly ThemeTracker
Human Folly 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.
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.
A new disease? I know not, new, or old,
But it may well be called poor mortals' plague;
For, like a pestilence, it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the fantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air,
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence,
Sends like contagion to the memory:
Still each to other giving the infection.
Which, as a subtle vapour, spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensive part,
Till not a thought, or motion, in the mind,
Be free from the black poison of suspect.
Ah, but what misery is it, to know this?
Or, knowing it, to want the mind's erection
In such extremes? Well, I will once more strive,
(In spite of this black cloud) myself to be,
And shake the fever off, that thus shakes me.
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.
EDWARD: Ay, by his leave, he is, and under favour: a pretty piece of civility! Sirrah, how dost thou like him?
WELLBRED: Oh, it's a most precious fool, make much on him: I can compare him to nothing more happily than a drum; for every one may play upon him.
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?
Your cares are nothing: they are like my cap, soon put on, and as soon put off. What! your son is old enough to govern himself: let him run his course, it's the only way to make him staid man.
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: I see, rank fruits of a jealous brain, mistress Kitely: but did you find your husband there, in that case, as you suspected?
KITELY: I found her there, sir.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Did you, so? that alters the case. Who gave you knowledge of your wife's being there?
KITELY: Marry, that did my brother Wellbred.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: How? Wellbred first tell her? then tell you, after? Where is Wellbred?
KITELY: Gone with my sister, sir, I know not whither.
JUSTICE CLEMENT: Why, this is a mere trick, a device; you are gulled in this most grossly, all!
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.