Comedy of Humors: in Literature

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      The term Humor derives from Latin word humor that means liquid. Humor lubricates the mind. It is the salt of life. It sweetens the heart. When humor issues out as a physical phenomenon, it manifest itself as laughter; and when it is found in literature we recognize it as comedy. The idea of humors was first introduced by the Greek physician Hippocrates and later extended by Galen in the second century. ‘Humors’ referred to the four chief fluids of the body - blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. It was thought that when these fluids or ‘vapors’ were in proper proportion, they maintained good health in a person. Each of these liquids represents a different type of humor affecting the types of characters represented in the drama. When they were out of balance, they caused disease. The humors also determined a person’s basic mental qualities and disposition, and an excess or deficiency of one of the four fluids manifested itself in particular character traits. The theory of humors was popularized in Renaissance England by writers such as Thomas Lin acre, Thomas Elyot, and Robert Burton. Comedy of Humors is a historical comedy linked to Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637). Jonson drew upon this tradition when he developed his humor comedies.

      Comedy of Humour is a form of drama typical at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century; based on the medieval and Renaissance belief that people’s actions are governed by their dominant bodily humor. Here characters are ruled by a particular passion or trait. This comic technique may be found in Aristophanes but the first and most significant playwright of the genre was Ben Jonson, especially in his Every Man in His Humour and Every Man out of His Humour. George Chapman is another playwright to practice this dramatic genre. Jonson distinguished two kinds of humor: one was true humor, in which one peculiar quality actually possessed a man, body and soul; the other was an adopted humor, or mannerism, in which a man went out of his way to appear singular by affecting certain fashions of clothing, speech, and social habits.

      In Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (acted 1598), which made this type of play popular, all the words and acts of Kitely are controlled by an overpowering suspicion that his wife is unfaithful; George Downright, a country squire, must be “frank” above all things; the country gull in town determines his every decision by his desire to “catch on” to the manners of the city gallant. Jonson describes the humors in one of the most important works of humors comedy, Every Man out of His Humour (1599):

“As when someone peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his effects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their conflictions, all to run one way,
This may truly be said to be a humour.”

      The comedy of humors owes something to earlier vernacular comedy but more to a desire to imitate the classical comedy of Plautus and Terence and to combat the vogue of Romantic Comedy, as developed by Shakespeare. The satiric purpose of the comedy of humors and its realistic method lead to more serious character studies with Jonson’s The Alchemist. The humors had been associated with physical and mental characteristics; the result was a system that was quite subtle in its capacity for describing types of personality. In his plays of this genre, characters are dominated by certain overriding preoccupations that upset their psychological balance, just as an excess in one of the four fluids would upset their bodily health. The emphasis on these comedies, then, is on characters rather than plots. Jonson’s humor comedies marked a new development in English theater, as his works moved away from the glamour of Renaissance high culture and introduced peculiarly English attitudes and values. Contemporary life and situations were often portrayed in humors comedies.

      However, the genre’s characteristic emphasis on character types and allegorical figures also has its roots in classical sources and earlier English morality plays. There is a strong ethical component to the works, as they denounce certain types of vice and folly. Because of Jonson’s influence in theater circles, other dramatists were drawn to his new form of satire, and evidence of his influence was soon seen in their works. Although it is difficult to determine to what extent Shakespeare was influenced by Jonson’s theory, his use of the idea of humors is clear in several of his comedies, most notably The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), All's Well that Ends Well (1598), and Twelfth Night (1600). Other, younger, writers such as Field and Richard Brome more consciously followed Jonson’s lead, and humor characters are seen in a number of their works. Although Jonson’s disciples and other dramatists continued to write humor comedies until the 1650s, Jonson himself quickly moved on to more complex forms of satire. Indeed, only four of his plays, The Case is Altered (1597), Every Man in His Humour (1598), Every Man out of His Humour (1616), and Cynthia’s Revels (1601) are considered true humor comedies. However, the emphasis on character and other characteristics of humor comedy are apparent even in his later works.

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