The theme of parenthood appears in the play through the relationship between Old Knowell and his young, aspiring gallant of a son, Edward Knowell. It is, by and large, a tension that takes hold because of generational differences. Old Knowell sees himself in his son, but also, being older, thinks he knows better. This creates the starting point for the play and reoccurs sporadically throughout. Through their father-son relationship, Jonson brings to life the complications of parenthood, showing it to be a constant pull between the urge of parents to protect their young from the world and, conversely, to come to terms with their children as being their own independent selves.
Jonson introduces the complicating process of parenting from the play’s beginning. Act One opens with Old Knowell showing that he is fully aware that his son is growing up and building his own world. Old Knowell is a rich man and wants the best for Edward, whom he is pleased to see is taking well to his education. However, Old Knowell has deep concerns about the company Edward keeps and the things he seems to be interested in. The set-up of the play stems from Old Knowell’s conflicted state when it comes to his son. When a messenger arrives with a message for Edward, Old Knowell cunningly takes it for himself to read. The letter is from Wellbred, inviting Edward to spend time with him in the Old Jewry (a street in London frequented by gallants at the time). The contents of the letter—its risqué wit especially—make Old Knowell fear the moral corruption of his son: “why, what unhallowed ruffian would have writ / In such a scurrilous manner to a friend!” But Old Knowell is self-conscious about his concerns, observing that “affection makes a fool / Of any man, too much the father.” This sets up gives the audience insight into Old Knowell’s state of mind, and more generally brings to life the thorny issue of how a parent should best prepare their child for the world.
This expresses itself as a kind of duality in conflict within Old Knowell’s thoughts and behavior. On the one hand, Old Knowell wants to give Edward space and not try too hard to govern his life. This expresses one way of parenting—the hands-off approach. “I am resolved, I will not stop his journey; / Nor practice any violent mean, to stay / The unbridled course of youth in him.” He believes that, if he exercises restraint, Edward will develop into a more rounded man and respect him the better: “There is a way of winning, more by love, / And urging of the modesty, than fear.” Old Knowell at this early stage in the play, then, seems to give expression to this particular way of parenting, espousing the virtues of letting his child make his own mistakes.
But in keeping with Jonson’s practice of exposing foolishness in his characters, Old Knowell’s commitment to keeping his distance shows to be a hollow promise. He actually resolves to spy on his son, attempting to follow him to the Old Jewry and observe his behavior. In Act Two Scene Five, Jonson adds nuance to Old Knowell by having him speak at length about the nature of fatherhood. In this lengthy speech, Old Knowell reflects on the way that any bad traits he sees in his son must have been passed down by him: “The first words / We form their tongues with are licentious jests!” That is, parents are responsible for what their children become. Ultimately, Old Knowell is confused. He wants to do well by his son, and also is aware of the complexity of the relationship between a parent and their child—and between that child’s young life and their development into adulthood.
As part of the relatively forced resolution of the play’s closing scenes, Edward Knowell marries the respectable Bridget Kitely. This seems to bring an element of security to Old Knowell’s state of mind, who is further assuaged by Justice Clement’s insistence that he need not worry, but the overall impression left with the audience is that Old Knowell will never truly let go of his concerns for his son’s well-being, keeping him in a kind of limbo which perhaps suggests the nature of parenting itself. Like the other central questions of the play, then, parenthood is left unresolved and unreduced into a simple moral message. Jonson is more interested in exploring the complexity of such issues, and the way they express themselves in people’s behavior—particularly behavior that is contradictory and, at times, nonsensical. Jonson, then, offers no answers, but tries to get his audience to revel in the difficulties and absurdities of what it meant—and what it still means—to be alive.
Parenthood Quotes in Every Man in His Humour
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.