Define Comedy of humours, Its Characteristics

Comedy of humours is a form of drama which became fashionable at the very end of the 16th c. and early in the 17th. It is called ‘comedy of humours’ because it presented ‘humorous’ characters whose actions (in terms of the medieval and Renaissance theory of humours, that the human body held a balance of four liquids, or humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (choler), and black bile (melancholy). When properly balanced, these humours were thought to give the individual a healthy mind in a healthy body) were ruled by a particular passion, trait, disposition or humour.

Basically this was a comedy of ideas physiological interpretation of character and personality. Though there were ample precedents for this in allegory Tudor Morality Plays and Interludes, Ben Jonson appears to have been the first person to have elaborated the idea on any scale.

Jonson’s characters usually represent one humour and, thus unbalanced, are basically caricatures. Jonson distinguished two kinds of humour: one was true humour, in which one peculiar quality actually possessed a man, body, and soul; the other was adopted humour, or mannerism, in which a man went out of his way to appear singular by affecting certain fashions of clothing, speech, and social habits.

His two outstanding works in this kind of comedy are Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man Out of His Humour (1599); plus minor works like The Magnetic Lady: or Humours Reconciled (1632). Following the practice of the Moralities and Interludes, Jonson named dramatis personae aptronymically: Kitely, Dame Kitely, Knowell, Brainworm and Justice Clement (in Every Man in His Humour); Fastidious Brisk, Fungoso, Sordido, and Puntarvolo the vainglorious knight, and so forth (in Every Man Out of His Humour). The indication of character in this fashion became a common practice and continued to be much favoured by dramatists and novelists in the 18th and 19th c.

John Fletcher, a contemporary of Jonson’s, wrote a number of ‘humour’ comedies, and other plays of note from the period are Chapman’s All Fools (c. 1604), Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), and Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625). Shadwell revived comedy of humours late in the 17th c. with The Squire of Alsatia (1688) and Bury Fair (1689).