Every Man in his Humour, arguably Ben Jonson’s most famous play, is ironically one of his works for the stage in which the least action actually takes place. The plot is tenuous and disorientating to a modern reader, with disparate parts and an artificial wrapping-up in the conclusion. To focus too intently on this aspect of the play, though, would be to mischaracterize Jonson’s intentions and to miss what makes it still worth reading. Rather than a tightly woven plot of the sort found in Shakespeare’s work, Jonson was more concerned with giving what he felt to be an accurate rendering of the language and mannerisms of the time and place—Elizabethan London (Jonson revised an earlier version of the play to make London the setting rather than the more conventional Italy). Ultimately, it is language and attitudes toward language that provide the play’s beating heart in lieu of any obviously gripping action, conflict, or adventure. Jonson’s play shows the power of language—how it can accurately record and depict time, people, and places—while also demonstrating to hilarious effect the way language can be abused by people seeking to portray themselves as especially in command of their words.
Jonson clearly aims to bring sixteenth-century London to life through his language. In fact, the prologue that begins the play very keenly stresses the realism of what follows. In this, Jonson seeks to draw a link between his play and those of his contemporaries. He tells his audience that no “Chorus” or “thunders” “from any “tempestuous drum” will make an appearance—that is, the play will eschew the fashionable theatrical elements of the time. Instead, it will employ “deeds, and language, such as men do use: / And persons, such as Comedy would choose / When she would show an image of the times.” The play’s express aim, then, is to give its audience an honest account of the life and language of its characters and their environment. That said, Jonson’s insistence that Every Man in his Humour is a comedy reminds the audience that, within his overall project of realism, the playwright will exercise his license for exaggeration, parody, and satire in the service of capital-c Comedy (that is, in keeping with the long-running traditions of Greek and Roman theater).
Jonson use the play’s form to demonstrate the power of language to accurately depict a time and place. He makes frequent use of prose as opposed to the more fashionable iambic pentameter—metrically organized verse—to bring London and his characters to life in a realistic way. This makes much of the play sound fresh and unstilted even now: if people don’t talk in iambic pentameter, goes the logic, then neither should most of the characters in the play. In this, Jonson takes a different approach to his writing than his contemporary, William Shakespeare. The Elizabethan era was an interesting time for the English language, with Shakespeare making brilliant use of the malleability of the English language by yoking together the different influences exerting themselves on the language and making up words when he needed them. Jonson’s play functions as a kind of counterpoint to this overall project.
With the above in mind, one of the most interesting elements of the play is the way in which Jonson depicts its characters’ attitudes to their own language. In particular, Jonson’s stylistic choices and the characters’ different attitudes showcase the dynamism and diversity that characterized poetry as a much-debated topic of the time. Many of the characters in the play—Old Knowell and his son, Edward Knowell; the two foolish “gulls,” Stephen and Matthew; the water-carrier Cob; even the legal authority Justice Clement—seem to have strong opinions about poetry and its merit (or lack thereof).
For the younger characters like Edward and the roguish Wellbred, poetry seems to have a kind of currency in the world—it’s an indicator of “the cool,” fashionable, desirable, and refined. This attitude worries Old Knowell, who frets that his son is “dreaming on naught but idle poetry / that fruitless and unprofitable art.” Cob laments the way the gallants of the town use “rascally verses” and “poyetry” (his pronunciation) to entertain and seduce women. Poetry is thus shown to be a powerful force in sixteenth-century London, for better or for worse depending on an individual’s attitude towards the art. Some characters even pass off other writer’s lines as their own in an effort to win the respect of their peers. Overall, then, Jonson conjures a world in which poetry—and language more generally—is a living, breathing force in everyday life.
Language, then, is at the heart of Every Man in his Humour. Close to the end of the play, Justice Clement remarks that poets “are not born every year […] There goes more to the making of a good poet, than a sheriff.” That is, one of Jonson’s closing thoughts—Clement’s remark paraphrases a favorite aphorism of the playwright—is that a good poet is a rare thing that ought to be cherished. In the space of his play, then, Jonson manages both to take aim at “false” poets, praise those who write authentically, and, crucially, make the case for an attentiveness in writing that must be paid to the contemporary moment and environment.
Language 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.
How happy yet should I esteem myself,
Could I, by any practice, wean the boy
From one vain course of study he affects.
He is a scholar, if a man may trust
The liberal voice of fame in her report,
Of good account in both our Universities,
Either of which hath favoured him with graces:
But their indulgence must not spring in me
A fond opinion that he cannot err.
Myself was once a student, and indeed,
Fed with the self-same humour he is now,
Dreaming on nought but idle poetry,
That fruitless and unprofitable art,
Good unto none, but least to the professors;
Which then I thought the mistress of all knowledge:
But since, time and the truth have waked my judgment.
And reason taught me better to distinguish
The vain from the useful learnings.
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.
Nay, would ourselves were not the first, even parents,
That did destroy the hopes in our own children:
Or they not learned our vices in their cradles,
And sucked in our ill customs with their milk.
Ere all their teeth be born, or they can speak,
We make their palates cunning! the first words
We form their tongues with, are licentious jests!
Can it call, whore? cry bastard? O, then, kiss it!
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.
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?
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.
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.