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Jacobean & Caroline Drama II

The Comedy of Humours

The Comedy of Humours
• Dramatic genre (Plautus and Terence )<<
medieval medical theory of humours
• humours = bodily fluids that permeated
body & influenced its health/ personality
(eucrasia/dyscrasia )

– blood  'sanguine'
– phlegm  'phlegmatic'
– choler (yellow bile)  'choleric'
– black bile  'melancholic'

c. 400 B.C. Hippocrates's four yellow bile black bile phlegm blood

season summer autumn winter spring

element fire earth water air

organ liver brain/lungs gall bladder spleen
quality dry & hot dry & cold wet & cold wet & hot
characteristic easily angered, despondent, calm, unemotional courageous,
bad tempered sleepless, irritable hopeful, amorous

c. 325 B.C. Aristotle's four hedone (sensuous propraitari ethikos (moral dialogike (logical
sources of happiness pleasure) (acquiring assets) virtue) investigation)

c. 190 A.D.' Galen's four choleric melancholic phlegmatic sanguine

Paracelsus's four changeable industrious inspired nymphs curious
totem spirits salamanders gnomes sylphs

Source: Keirsey, David [1978] Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, 1st Ed., Prometheus Nemesis Book
3 Co
Comedies of Humour
“To the Renaissance critic and satirist, satire is a scourge, a
whip, a surgeon’s scalpel, a cauterizing iron, a strong cathartic –
all in one; its mission is to flay, to cut, to burn, to blister and to
purge; its object is now a culprit, a victim, a criminal and now
an ailing, submissive patient, a sick person bursting with
contagion; and the satirist himself is a whipper, a scourger, a
barber-surgeon, an executioner, a ‘doctour of physic’”
(Mary Clare Randolph, ‘The Medical Concept in English
Renaissance Satire’, 135)

Comedies of Humour
CORDATUS: ... now if an idiot ASPER: ... my strict hand
Have but an apish or fantastic strain, Was made to seize on vice
It is his humour.
ASPER: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a
mirror, ASPER: And therefore I would give
As large as is the stage whereon we act; them pills to purge,
Where they shall see the time's And make them fit for fair societies.
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage and contempt of (Prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour)
Ben Jonson, c. 1573—1637
• > 35 masques & 14 comedies (satires,
comedies of manners, comedies of
humours, farces)
• drama - legitimate literary form
• 1616 The Workes of Benjamin Jonson
(folio collection of plays, masques &

John Dryden, Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668)
“As for Jonson, […] I think him the most learned and judicious
writer which any theatre ever had. […] He was deeply
conversant in the Ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he
borrowed boldly from them […] If I would compare him with
Shakespeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet,
but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the
Homer, or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil,
the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love
• Stuart drama – playwright and theorist

• low birth
• formidable learning – classical, English languages & literatures
• bricklayer, soldier, travelling actor
• twice imprisoned
»1597 – The Isle of Dogs
»1598 – killed Gabriel Spencer in a duel – capital offence – “benefit
of clergy”

• Poet – classicism (clarity of form and phrase) elegies, epistles, homilies,

Pindaric odes, epigrams, love-poems, epitaphs
– Epigrams (1616)
– The Forest (1616)
– The Underwood (1640–1641)
• Horatian dicta (parabases)

For, if men will impartially, and not asquint, look toward the offices and function of a poet,
they will easily conclude to themselves the impossibility of any man's being the good poet,
without first being a good man. He that is said to be able to inform young men to all great
virtues, keep old men in their best and supreme state ... that comes forth the interpreter and
arbiter of nature, a teacher of things no less than human, a master in manners; and can alone
(or with a few) effect the business of mankind . . .
. . . and last the doctrine, which is the principal end of poesy: to inform men in the best reason
of living . . .
(Epistle to Volpone)
“Only a little salt remaineth,
Wherewith he'll rub your cheeks, till red with laughter,
They shall look fresh a week after.”
"In all his poemes, still, hath been this measure,
To mixe profit, with your pleasure"
(Prologue to Volpone)
Neoclassicism of Jonson's comedies
classical unities of time, place & action + sense of decorum
“I see not then but we should enjoy the same license, or free power to illustrate and heighten
our invention, as they did; and not be tied to those strict and regular forms which the
niceness of a few, who are nothing but form, would thrust upon us.”
(Prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour)

“The laws of time, place, persons he observeth,

From no needful rule, he swerveth.”
(Prologue to Volpone)

Dryden, Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668):

“[Shakespeare] needed not the spectacles of books to read Nature; he looked inwards
and found her there”
“I will take the pattern of a perfect play from Ben Jonson, who was a careful and learned
observer of the dramatic laws” – Jonson’s Epicoene or the Silent Woman
Every Man in His Humour (1598)

“COB: Humour? ... what is this humour?

it's some rare thing I warrant.
PISO: Marry, I'll tell thee what it is (as 'tis
generally received in these days): it is a
monster bred in a man by self-love and
affectation and fed by folly.”

“Why, humour, as ‘tis ens, we thus define it
To be a quality of air and water,
And in itself holds these two properties,
Moisture and fluxure: as, for demonstration,
Pour water on this floor, 'twill wet and run:
Likewise the air, forced through a horn or trumpet,
Flows instantly away, and leaves behind
A kind of dew; and hence we do conclude,
That whatsoe'er hath fluxure and humidity,
As wanting power to contain itself,
Is humour. So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,
By reason that they flow continually
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when 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 may be truly said to be a humour.” 12
Induction, Every Man Out of His Humour
“I will scourge those apes
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act,
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomized in every nerve and sinew
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.”

• 1601 - turned to satire : Cynthia’s Revels; The Poetaster
• 1603 - 2 classical historical dramas / tragedies
• Sejanus His Fall
– failure – lack of action & great number of similar characters
• Catiline
– studies - effects of ambition, corruption and power-lust in the State
– characters - powerfully & clearly drawn, but verbose & static
– classical background - closely follows Latin models - subject matter & style
• Epicoene (1609)
• The Alchemist (1610)
• Bartholomew Fair (1614)
• The Devil Is an Ass, The Staple of News, A Tale of a Tub (1633)

Volpone, or The Fox

the King’s Men company 15

• published in quarto in 1607 • Volpone: Or, The Fox
• prefaced by verse-eulogies from John • Species of satiric comedy
Donne, George Chapman, Francis • Typical mixture of savagery
Beaumont, and John Fletcher and humour
• dedicated “To the Most Noble and
Most Equal Sisters, the Two Famous • moral judgment: the evil (vice,
Universities for their Love and deceit and greed) one commits
Acceptance Shown to his Poem in the brings with it a suitable
Presentation” punishment
• printed in the Folio Workes in 1616 • characters in the grip of
an obsessions
• regularly staged in London (17th and • farcical build-up of the ---
18th centuries) climax of deceit and trickery

- old, dying man, the Venetian
magnifico – Volpone (“fox”)
- imminent death (feigns gout,
catarrh, palsy, and consumption -
no heirs)
- ruse to attract expensive gifts
- accomplice, Mosca (fly), skilled
- lawyer Voltore (vulture, ruthless
and voracious scavenger)
- Corbaccio (the crow, aged miser,
feeble, deaf, pathologically greedy)
- Corvino (the raven, insanely
jealous of his beautiful wife, greed

• Venetian magnifico - Volpone ("fox") - imminent death
(feigns gout, catarrh, palsy, and consumption - no heirs) -
mental agility and showmanship
• accomplice, Mosca (fly) - convinces each victim that he is
favored above all others in Volpone’s will - delight in
perpetrating perversities - malicious and witty parasite -
frequent instigator of additional pranks, keeps the plot
• three birds of prey stumble over one another in their
haste to devour the supposed carcass - Mosca and
Volpone simply bring out the worst in them; they do not
plant evil
– lawyer Voltore (the vulture, ruthless and voracious
– elderly Corbaccio (the crow, aged miser, feeble, deaf,
pathologically greedy)
– merchant and husband of Celia, Corvino (the raven, insanely
jealous of his beautiful wife, greed - sufficient to counteract
his jealousy)

For, if men will impartially, and not asquint, look toward the
offices and function of a poet, they will easily conclude to
themselves the impossibility of any man’s being the good
poet without first being a good man. He that is said to be
able to inform young men to all good disciplines, inflame
grown men to all great virtues, keep old men in their best
and supreme state, or, as they decline to childhood, recover
them to their first strength; that comes form the interpreter
and arbiter of nature, a teacher of things divine no less than
human, a master in manners; and can alone, or with a few,
effect the business of mankind.
But, my special aim being to put the snaffle in their mouths
that cry out: We never punish vice in our interludes, &c., I
took the more liberty, though not without some lines of
example drawn even in the ancients themselves, the goings-
out of whose comedies are not always joyful, but oft-times
the bawds, the servants, the rivals, yea, and the masters are
mulcted, and fitly, it being the office of a comic poet to
imitate justice, and instruct to life, as well as purity of
language, or stir up gentle affections.
Now, luck yet sends us, and a little wit
Will serve to make our play hit; Yet thus much I can give you as a token
(According to the palates of the season) Of his play's worth, no eggs are broken,
Here is rhime, not empty of reason. Nor quaking custards with fierce teeth affrighted,
This we were bid to credit from our poet, Wherewith your rout are so delighted;
Whose true scope, if you would know it, Nor hales he in a gull old ends reciting,
In all his poems still hath been this measure, To stop gaps in his loose writing;
To mix profit with your pleasure; With such a deal of monstrous and forced action,
And not as some, whose throats their envy failing, As might make Bethlem a faction:
Cry hoarsely, All he writes is railing: Nor made he his play for jests stolen from each table,
And when his plays come forth, think they can flout But makes jests to fit his fable;
them, And so presents quick comedy refined,
With saying, he was a year about them. As best critics have designed;
To this there needs no lie, but this his creature, The laws of time, place, persons he observeth,
Which was two months since no feature; From no needful rule he swerveth.
And though he dares give them five lives to mend it, ‘ All gall and copperas from his ink he draineth,
Tis known, five weeks fully penn'd it, Only a little salt remaineth,
From his own hand, without a co-adjutor, Wherewith he'll rub your cheeks, till red, with laughter,
Novice, journey-man, or tutor. They shall look fresh a week after.
• Roman fortune-hunting theme
(Horace, Juvenal, Pliny, Lucian,

• medieval beast fable - tale of the

death-feigning fox = primordial
trickster figure - 12th-century
Latin bestiary

• fox - portrayal of greed in

contemporary society 23
Fable/beast epic (Reynard the fox)
“In fact, as one examines the texts and iconography of the many Reynard
versions, it becomes clear that certain incidents were much more popular
than others, both to writers and to visual artists; and it is precisely these
most popular aspects which seem relevant to Volpone: the two trials of the
fox, accused of attempted rape and of feigning death to catch predators;
the venality of the court, the mock pathos of an apparent funeral
procession, and the birds’ attempted punishment of the fox from which he
escapes jeeringly at the last minute; the fox’s liaison with imitation apes,
who aid him while he is sick but turn later into rivals; the fox as false doctor
and false preacher; and the fox as seducing musician.”
(Brian Parker, ed., Volpone, or The Fox, qtd. In Richard Dutton, “Volpone and Beast Fable,” 348)


Reversal/transvaluation of values
• Volpone’s gold-centered world - victims include
– Bonario
– Celia

– underlying the gold-centered world is ugliness

– under Volpone’s dashing personality is bestiality
– under Mosca’s wit is spiritual paucity
• Volpone - pretends to be physically degenerated,
yet the pretense mirrors the spiritual reality – his
performance becomes more extreme; eventually,
he pretends to be nearly a corpse - trapped in his
world of gold
– his feigned physical degeneration emerges in his
spiritual self

• gold turns the world upside down

• a husband gives his wife to another man
• a father displaces his son
• the just are made to look false
• a servant becomes master
Volpone's opening speech
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine, that I may see my saint. . . .
Hail the world's soul, and mine! More glad than is
The teeming earth to see the long'd-for sun
Peep through the horns of the celestial Ram,
Am I, to view thy splendour darkening his;
That lying here, amongst my other hoards,
Show'st like a flame by night; or like the day
Struck out of chaos, when all darkness fled
Unto the centre . . . 26
• perversion of religious imagery (saint, adoration, & soul)
1. Christian & humanistic values
• exalts the eternal over the temporal
• the spiritual over the worldly
2. debased world in which these values are reversed
• disproportion, transvaluation of values
• main pursuit of men = acquisition of riches
• Volpone's morning hymn -- new metaphysic and a new ethic = point
for point the reverse of the Christian
– Gold = new god, the world's soul, and its own saint

Political allegory
“In the case of Volpone, everything is deniable—yet wide open to view. The unrelenting prosopopoiea
of the central character inevitably echoes the constant questioning of the Cecils’ social credentials: is
this a magnifico playing a mountebank, or a mountebank playing a magnifico? The breathtaking
blasphemy of the opening lines, in which Volpone worships at the shrine of his “saint”, the gold he has
amassed, immediately conflates religion and the accumulation of wealth—reminding us of the
resentment of recusants like Jonson over what they saw as the venal hypocrisy of the Cecils’ religious
policy. The Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath were construed as yet more cynical turns of the same
screw: Robert Cecil was widely credited with manipulating the plot and its discovery, if not actually
instigating it—and certainly with profiting most from what followed. The fundamental plot of Volpone,
in which the great and the good of Venice vie with one another to outbid their rivals in gifts in the hope
of their own eventual greater reward, is a grimly sardonic projection of the patronage system over
which the Cecils presided, clients fawningly filling the coffers of those who promised much but
delivered (malcontents complained) little. The fact that wives, clients, and families are all systematically
betrayed in the process only enacts the fundamental undermining of the state, in the interest of
promoting one man and his family, the regnum Cecilianum” (Richard Dutton, “Volpone and Beast Fable,”

Performance versus reality
• Voltore wears public mask of
• Corbaccio acts the part of the kindly
old gentleman
• Corvino plays the honest merchant
• Volpone’s exuberant exterior covers a
decayed spirit

Double plot
• Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action
– only one day (the unity of time)
– entirely in contemporary Venice (place) – the city's dual nature

• Subplot = comedy of humours in miniature - ameliorate the tension of the major plot
– expatriate English couple, humour characters (pretenders to that which they do not
• Sir Politic Would-Be – gullible, naïve traveller, eager to be thought a member of
the inner circle of state knowledge, ridiculous English tourist on the Continent,
full of assumed dignity, self-importance
• Lady Politic Would-Be , shallow-brained Englishwoman - beauty, intelligence,
and fashion - ridiculousness - havoc she wreaks on her mother tongue
– Peregrine sophisticated traveller, amusement & contempt - credulities and foibles
of Sir Politic

Jacobean City Comedy
“City Comedies were sharply observed satires, almost always
set in a ‘realistic’ London. The main characters were from the
merchant middle class, and trickery and deception were
important parts of the plot. There was usually a sub-plot where
the action of the main plot was echoed or parodied by
characters of a lower social class, and the play ended with
marriage; often the chaste and beautiful merchant’s daughter
married the morally reformed aristocrat.” (Sean McEvoy, Ben
Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist, 53)

Volpone’s Venetian settings
“The Italy of English playwrights from the 1580s on was not a
geographer’s record but a fantasy setting for dramas of passion,
Machiavellian politics, and revenge – a landscape of the mind.
What kind of landscape and whose mind? Historically, Italy was a
collection of city-states, each with a civic identity defined by local
sovereigns or councils and conflicting political interests, each also
a collection of monuments and social customs observable by
English tourists. But what Italy mainly signified in Renaissance
England was another country, a country of others, constructed
through a lens of voyeuristic curiosity through which writers and
their audiences explored what was forbidden in their own
Ann Rosalind Jones, “Italians and Others,” 101

Gasparino Contarini’s De Magistratibus et Republica Venetorum

(1589) translated into English in 1599 by Lewis Lewkenor
Celia’s seduction (Volpone’s speech)
my dwarf shall dance, Brave Tuscan lady, or proud Spanish beauty;
My eunuch sing, my fool take up the Sometimes, unto the Persian Sophy’s wife;
antic. Or the Grand Signior’s mistress; and, for
Whilst we, in changed shapes, act Ovid’s change,
tales, To one of our most artful courtesans,
Thou, like Europa now, and I like Jove, Or some quick Negro, or cold Russian;
Then I like Mars, and thou like Erycine, And I will meet thee in as many shapes:
So, of the rest, till we have quite run Where we may, so, transfuse our wandering
through souls,
And wearied all the fables of the gods. Out at our lips, and score up sums of
Then will I have thee in more modern pleasures …
forms, (III.vii)
Attired like some sprightly dame of
France, 33
“These devices of trickery are brilliant in
their variety and in cleverness of
execution. Part of our admiration goes to
Jonson, the inventive playwright, who
knows how to plot such a richly
complicated narrative; part of it is
directed to Volpone and Mosca, the
architects and executors of this ingenious
chicanery. Yet their names are a warning:
Volpone is the fox and Mosca is the fly
(meaning a flying insect, not just a house-
fly). Can such personifications of
craftiness and parasitism be admirable?”
(David Bevington, “The major comedies,” 75)
This is a comedy which seduces its audience into admiring
outrageous fraudsters, and which morally disorientates and
challenges from its first scene; but its aim is to educate, by
making the audience think hard both about their delight in the
play, and about their moral response to its characters and
action” (Sean McEvoy, Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist, 52-

[VOLPONE comes forward.]
VOLPONE: The seasoning of a play is the applause.
Now, though the Fox be punished by the laws,
He yet doth hope there is no suff’ring due
For any fact which he hath done ’gainst you.
If there be, censure him; here he doubtful stands.
If not, fare jovially, and clap your hands.

A writer of power and intelligence, Jonson endeavoured to promulgate, as a formula and programme
of reform, what he chose to do himself; and he not unnaturally laid down in abstract theory what is in
reality a personal point of view. [...] Remembering this, we turn to Mr. Gregory Smith’s objection—that
Jonson’s characters lack the third dimension, have no life out of the theatrical existence in which they
appear—and demand an inquest. The objection implies that the characters are purely the work of
intellect, or the result of superficial observation of a world which is faded or mildewed. It implies that
the characters are lifeless. But if we dig beneath the theory, beneath the observation, beneath the
deliberate drawing and the theatrical and dramatic elaboration, there is discovered a kind of power,
animating Volpone, which comes from below the intellect, and for which no theory of humours will
account. And it is the same kind of power which vivifies Trimalchio, and Panurge, and some but not all
of the “comic” characters of Dickens. The fictive life of this kind is not to be circumscribed by a
reference to “comedy” or to “farce”[...]. It is not merely Humours: for neither Volpone nor Mosca is a
humour. No theory of humours could account for Jonson’s best plays or the best characters in
them. [...] Now, we may say with Mr. Gregory Smith that Falstaff or a score of Shakespeare’s characters
have a “third dimension” that Jonson’s have not. This will mean, not that Shakespeare’s spring from the
feelings or imagination and Jonson’s from the intellect or invention; they have equally an emotional
source; but that Shakespeare’s represent a more complex tissue of feelings and desires, as well as a
more supple, a more susceptible temperament. [...] It is obvious that the spring of the difference is not
the difference between feeling and thought, or superior insight, superior perception, on the part of
Shakespeare, but his susceptibility to a greater range of emotion, and emotion deeper and more
obscure. But his characters are no more “alive” than are the characters of Jonson.
(T S Eliot, Ben Jonson (The Sacred Wood), 1921)
In studying ironic comedy we must start with the theme of driving out the
pharmakos from the point of view of society. This appeals to the kind of relief we
are expected to feel when we see Jonson’s Volpone condemned to the galleys,
Shylock stripped of his wealth, or Tartuffe taken off to prison. Such a theme,
unless touched very lightly, is difficult to make convincing, for the reasons
suggested in connection with ironic tragedy. Insisting on the theme of social
revenge on an individual, however great a rascal he may be, tends to make him
look less involved in guilt and the society more so. This is particularly true of
characters who have been trying to amuse either the actual or the internal
audience, and who are the comic counterparts of the tragic hero as artist. The
tendency of comedy is to include as many people as possible in its final society:
the blocking characters are more often reconciled or converted than simply
repudiated. Comedy often includes a scapegoat ritual of expulsion which gets rid
of some irreconcilable character, but exposure and disgrace make for pathos, or
even tragedy. [...]Volpone ends with a great bustle of sentences to penal servitude
and the galleys, and one feels that the deliverance of society hardly needs so
much hard labor; but then Volpone is exceptional in being a kind of comic
imitation of a tragedy, with the point of Volpone’s hybris carefully marked.”
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism.Four Essays, 1957
Is Volpone a tragi-comedy?
• T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays - "No
theory of humours could
account for Jonson's best plays"

• Northrop Frye, Anatomy of

Criticism - Volpone "is
exceptional in being a kind of
comic imitation of a tragedy,
with the point of Volpone's
hybris carefully marked"

1. Barton, Anne. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp.
2. Bevington, David. “The major comedies.” In Richard Harp (ed.), The Cambridge
Companion to Ben Jonson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 72-89.
3. Dutton, Richard. “Volpone and Beast Fable: Early Modern Analogic Reading.” Huntington
Library Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3 (September 2004), pp. 347-370.
4. Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Italians and Others: Venice and the Irish in Coryat’s Crudities
and The White Devil,” Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 101–19.
Loxley, James. The Complete Critical Guide to Ben Jonson. London & New York:
Routledge, 2002, pp. 69-73.
5. McEvoy, Sean. Ben Jonson, Renaissance Dramatist. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 2008, pp. 52-75.


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