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  • Title: An Humorous Day's Mirth: Critical Introduction
  • Author: Eleanor Lowe

  • Copyright Digital Renaissance Editions. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Eleanor Lowe
    Peer Reviewed

    Critical Introduction

    Ingestion and Egestion

    Humoural theory describes the four humours within the body and advises that a proportional balance of these humours is the ideal healthy state. Any imbalance causes one humour to dominate the others, thus affecting the temperament of the person concerned. Each humour possessed distinguishable properties of temperature and moisture: black bile was cold and dry, producing melancholy; blood, producing a sanguine temperament, hot and wet; hot, dry, yellow bile produced choler; the final category, phlegm, was unsurprisingly thought cold and wet. Popular medicine believed that to help rebalance the humours, one should identify the properties of the predominant humour and balance it by ingesting medicines and foods with oppositional characteristics.

    The link between the stomach and humoural theory apparently goes back to its creator: ‘Galen allegeth a proverb which saith, A gross belly makes a gross understanding, and that this proceeds from nothing else, than that the brain and the stomach are united and chained together with certain sinews, by way of which they interchangeably communicate their damages’.[53] Therefore if a temperamental imbalance can result from bodily substances, the stomach, chief recipient of external factors affecting the body, could cure it. As Paster notes: ‘Bodies were always filled with humors, but the quantity of humors not only depended on such variables as age and gender but also differed from day to day as the body took in food and air, processed them, and released them’.[54] So diet could be thought of in medicinal terms, particularly since foods and ingredients themselves were thought to contain similar thermal properties as the humours.

    Henry Buttes’s diet book, Diet’s Dry Dinner (1599), contains eight ‘courses’ of food, focusing on fruit, herbs, meat, fish, whitemeats, spice, sauce and tobacco. Each individual entry is allocated one page explaining where to acquire it and which part to use, what is benefited or provoked, and how it should be prepared. On the facing page are a series of facts, quotations, and odd pieces of information concerning the individual item. While leeks ‘breed melancholious humours’ and are ‘unfit nourishment for any but rustic swains’,[55] cream is ‘hot and moist’ in the first degree and ‘fitter for youth, choleric and strong stomachs, then [than] the old and rheumatic’.[56] Buttes advises that spice is generally not good for those of a choleric temper since it enflames hot constitutions.

    The modern editor of Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615), Michael R. Best, draws attention to the importance of diet to general health in his introduction, and comments on the consecutive chapters on medicine and cookery. Best notes that: ‘Markham’s division of the two subjects into different chapters is uncharacteristic of cookery books of the period, which habitually introduce medical remedies into the midst of recipes of a purely culinary nature’.[57] He also notes that the opposite is true, with culinary recipes often finding their way into books discussing medicinal preparations.[58]

    60Baskervill provides several examples of the use of ‘humour’ in Fenton’s Certain Tragical Discourses, which is the first work he finds using the term freely. Among the examples given, it is noticeable that the verb ‘to feed’ occurs in connection with ‘humour’, so that the humours are depicted as a hungry stomach whose appetite requires satisfying: ‘Wherein, I fed the hungry humour of my affection with such alarums and contrariety of conceits, that having by this mean lost the necessary appetite of the stomach and usual desire for sleep’.[59] Just as the psychological humour requires feeding to satisfy its desire, the physiological humoural imbalance can be treated by harnessing physical appetite as a method of righting the imbalance and restoring good health of mind and body. Fenton, once again, makes the point, and links both food and humours: ‘Meats ... albeit ... good of themselves, yet, being swallowed in gluttonous sort, they do not only procure a surfeit with unsavoury indigestion, but also, converting our ancient health and force of nature into humours of debility distilling thorough all the parts of the body, do corrupt the blood which of itself afore was pure and without infection’.[60] So the advice when it comes to appetite and diet, familiar even to today’s health professionals, is ‘a little bit of everything in moderation’. Excess of one food causes imbalance not only because it provides a surfeit of one food’s properties, but also because this means the diner is neglecting other health-promoting foods.

    At the beginning of Every Man out of His Humour‘s tavern scene (5.3), Carlo Buffone sings the praises of pork because he argues that man is most like a pig and therefore will gain strength more quickly from eating pork, a point promoted by Galen’s writings.[61] However, Macilente points out to the rather inebriated Carlo another less appealing similarity between pigs and drunken men. When Fungoso has been released both from debt at the ordinary by Deliro and his humour of hankering after the latest fashion, he first wishes to eat ‘a capon’s leg’ (5.3.445). In Diet’s Dry Dinner, Buttes explains that his choice ‘procureth an equal temperature of all the humours’, thus providing physical confirmation of humoural rebalance in Fungoso’s body. [62] Ken Albala also explains that chicken was easier to digest and therefore good for a delicate system.[63]

    A further example of the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ is more literally expounded by Carlo Buffone in 2.1, when he supposes Puntarvolo feeds his Lady porridge, for ‘She could ne’er have such a thick brain else’ (l. 350). This coincides with Macilente’s conclusion concerning Carlo’s theory of pork: if a man eats pork, he may behave like a pig, a point unwittingly illustrated by Carlo at the exact moment of Macilente’s criticism.

    In Miola’s Revels edition of Every Man in His Humour he comments in 1.1 on the first appearance of the word ‘humour’ in conjunction with the verb ‘to feed’ (l. 16) and describes this phenomenon as ‘a common locution’ (1.1.16n). Later, in 3.1, Cob and Piso discuss this newly fashionable word ‘humour’, what it is and how it must be fed:

    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.
    Cob. How? Must it be fed?
    Piso. Oh, ay, humour is nothing if it be not fed. Why, didst thou never hear of that? It’s a common phrase, ‘Feed my humour’.

    Words concerning food and consumption are frequently associated with an excess of yellow bile, or the choleric temperament. In Every Man in His Humour, Thorello’s brother-in-law, Prospero, is staying at his house, and Thorello complains to his half-brother, Giuliano, about the lodger’s revelry. News of this bad behaviour incenses the choleric Giuliano to exclaim proverbially: ‘I could eat my very flesh for anger’ (1.4.67-8). Miola comments that here Giuliano ‘displays the volatility, irrationality, and potential self-destructiveness of the choleric humour’.[64] Bobadilla compounds association of Giuliano with appetite later in the scene by referring to him as a ‘scavenger’ (l. 118), implying that Giuliano is feeding off his prosperous relative, Thorello. The word also applies to the way Giuliano’s hungry choler is fuelled by others. Thorello, trying to calm down an irate Giuliano, bids him temper his ‘devouring choler’ (l. 144). However, Giuliano does not heed Thorello and becomes carried away by his humour in 4.2, when he storms onto the stage in search of Matheo and Bobadilla in such a rage that he does not see them, furiously muttering as he leaves that he cannot find ‘these bragging rascals!’ (ll. 99-100).

    65With so much talk of appetite and ingestion of material, it is unsurprising that these humours plays also comment on and use the language of egestion. Complaining about overuse of the word ‘humour’, Tucca in Poetaster comments: ‘I would fain come with my cockatrice one day and see a play, if I knew when there were a good bawdy one: but they say you ha’ nothing but humours, revels and satires, that gird and fart at the time, you slave’ (3.4.192-5). Tucca’s comments suggest that the humours plays merely blow bad air back at the audience, engulfing them in their own odiferous affectations. In Every Man in His Humour, the knowledge that those of a melancholic disposition were often prone to constipation enables a joke involving reference to a close-stool at 2.3.91-2. When Matheo offers the self-proclaimed melancholic Stephano his study for the writing of sonnets, Stephano enquires, almost as unnecessary confirmation of his melancholic state, whether the study has a close-stool, presumably to be used while the sonnet-writing eases his constipation.

    Appropriation of alimentary discourse allows the whole of the digestive system to be referred to, not just the mouth and stomach. In Every Man in His Humour, Bobadilla refers in his rage to the recently fled water-bearer, Cob, as ‘a turd, an excrement!’ (3.2.119). Cob meanders through the day, carrying water to the various dwelling places of the city, working his way through its streets with his fluid load. In Every Man out of His Humour, Asper provides a clear definition of humour as ‘Moisture and fluxure’ (Induction, ll. 87-89). As often as humour is referred to in conjunction with the verb ‘to feed’ it is also described in its fluid state, or ‘stream’. Humoural liquids course through men’s bodies just as Cob carries water through the city’s streets.

    Given the connection between humoural theory and the alimentary system, it is perhaps unsurprising that the characters in two humours comedies, An Humorous Day’s Mirth and Every Man out of His Humour, end up in a public eating house. When Sogliardo expresses interest in visiting an ordinary in Every Man out of His Humour, Carlo Buffone launches into a monologue of advice from which Rowley, another novice of the ordinary, might have benefited. The ordinary in An Humorous Day’s Mirth becomes the focal mid-point of the play, since Lemot has contrived for all the characters to converge on it, either within, for a meal, or without, to call their various relatives away. In balance, the celebratory festivity suggested by the King at the end of play smoothes over all tensions, promising reconciliation, and offers feasting as a way of spreading social and humoural equilibrium. This royal patronage ensures that normal societal boundaries will be observed, in direct opposition to the chaos caused by Lemot’s organisation of a similar meal.

    While it might be perfectly acceptable for married and single men to congregate at the local alehouse or ordinary, respectable women could visit only within the boundary of social convention. Attendance with one’s husband was acceptable, as was a visit to break a journey, as part of a family celebration, or in a group.[65] Suitable company was the key to a woman’s acceptable visit to the alehouse. The furtiveness and hypocrisy with which Florila plans her trip to the ordinary is therefore all the more scandalous. She lies to her husband, pretending she and Martia are going to fast in her private garden, when actually they are going to the ordinary to meet the King and Lemot in private. Of equally low reputation is the woman who allows her husband to go to the ordinary, as the Countess does, only to retrieve him later. Peter Clark observes that ‘A woman who went to the tippling house to call her husband home was likely to meet an extremely hostile reception’.[66]

    When Lemot informs the Countess that her husband is associating with women, and in particular ‘that light hussy Martia’ (TLN 1364-1365), he is highlighting the other sort of women who frequent ordinaries, namely prostitutes. In some alehouses, Clark argues, a sociable female partner boosted a host’s business.[66] She might even be required to satisfy more than her customer’s dietary needs. The uneasiness with which Verone’s Maid, carrier of his child, fills this role is obvious from her exchange with Catalian. When he advances for a kiss, she shyly protests, ‘Away, sir, fie, for shame’ (TLN 1155), and it is at this point he notes from close contact that she is pregnant.

    70The new fashion for smoking tobacco could frequently be observed in ordinaries and alehouses both on and off stage.[67] More than simply a popular pastime, tobacco was noted and advocated for its medicinal properties. Bobadilla describes it as an antidote to the most deadly poison in Florence, good for gangrenous wounds, and the dispelling of bad humours and badly digested foods (3.2.71-90). Despite impressing the eager Stephano, Bobadilla prompts a very different response from Cob, who comments that tobacco is ‘good for nothing but to choke a man and fill him full of smoke and embers’ (ll. 99-100). One unlucky smoker ‘voided a bushel of soot yesterday, upward and downward’ (ll. 103-04). Cob’s objections prompt an outburst from Bobadilla, and in the following scene nearly get him jailed by Doctor Clement, such is the feeling in favour of this wonder drug.

    Chapman introduces tobacco to the ‘ordinary’ scene in An Humorous Day’s Mirth, when Berger asks Verone for some (TLN 1105-1106). Verone in turn delegates the task of drying a leaf to his son, which enables a delightful joke. The boy replies that they haven’t got any tobacco, despite Verone assuring Berger that he had ‘The best in town’ (TLN 1107). In response, Verone desperately hisses his aside, ‘Dry a dock leaf’ (TLN 1109), at which point the boy exits and returns with a pipe. There are no directions for Berger to light the pipe onstage: perhaps he will have to wait for the ‘tobacco’ to dry.

    A great deal of fuss surrounds the use of tobacco as designator of status and securer of a woman’s admiration in Every Man out of His Humour. Fastidius Brisk insists on smoking in front of Saviolina, puffing on his pipe as a form of punctuation (3.3). Despite this fashionable affectation, Saviolina protests that she loves ‘not the breath of a woodcock’s head’ (ll. 132-33), referring to the smoker’s bad breath and also possibly the pipe’s carved bowl. Bellafront, in 1 Honest Whore, more emphatically claims that tobacco ‘makes your breath stink like the piss of a fox’ (TLN 830-31). Instead of impressing Saviolina, Fastidius’ smoking causes her to exit.

    Jonson’s plays make plain the importance for any would-be gentleman to be seen smoking. Thus, in Every Man out of His Humour, Shift is hired in 3.1 to give Sogliardo, the aspiring gent, smoking lessons. Just as going to an ordinary is considered by Sogliardo the mark of a gentleman, for ‘they say there resorts your most choice gallants’ (3.1.495-6), smoking is also imperative. Hence reference to it by the brash Berger, and the more timid Rowley’s confession that for him this is the first time he has visited an ordinary, in Scene 8 of An Humorous Day’s Mirth.

    The fashion for tobacco wasn’t simply thought to be affectation. When it was first introduced, writers such as Buttes advocated its medical blessings:

    It cureth any grief, dolor, oppilation, impostume, or obstruction proceeding of cold or wind, especially in the head or breast. The leaves are good against the migraine, cold stomachs, sick kidneys, toothache, fits of the mother, naughty breath, scaldings or burnings ... The fume taken in a pipe is good against rheums, catarrhs, hoarseness, ache in the head, stomach, lungs, breast; also in want of meat, drink, sleep, or rest.[68]

    75In particular, smoking was thought to aid phlegmatics, since it caused the expulsion of excess phlegm. That smoking caused the production of phlegm, rather than simply encouraged its ejection, was unknown at the time. In 3.1 of Every Man out of His Humour, Shift explains St Paul’s is his private phlegm-spitting place, after ‘taking an ounce of tobacco hard by here with a gentleman’ (ll. 26-27).

    However, an overabundance of phlegm was not the key complaint in humours characters. Thomas Mark Grant points out that the main obstacles to mirth in An Humorous Day’s Mirth are jealousy and melancholy.[69] More generally these humours are of recurring importance in humours comedy and are discussed at greater length below.