The ‘comedy of umers’

Although it is now generally accepted that Henslowe’s record of a box office hit called the ‘comedy of umers’ is Chapman’s printed play, An Humorous Day’s Mirth, it is less widely accepted that Chapman was the instigator of the genre entitled ‘comedy of humours’. Despite a steady voice amongst Chapman scholars attributing him with the creation of the first play of this type, Chapman is often accredited with little more than putting the idea in Jonson’s head, and producing work with much room for improvement. Baskervill points out that although in simplistic terms either of the aforementioned playwrights might be credited with inventing the comedy of humours genre, really the development sprang from numerous sources of dramatic and medical literature.[27] As far back as 1567 Baskervill finds extensive use of the word ‘humour’ in Geffraie Fenton’s translation of Bandello as Certain Tragical Discourses (1567).[28]

The Four HumoursIn the Elizabethan period, the order and machinations of the earthly world received scholarly and theological scrutiny based on ancient and medieval studies. The pyramidal ordering of the created universe placed God at its apex, his authority filtering through the monarch, as head of created society, to the lords, gentry and the lower classes. Extensive study of astronomy and astrology charted the impact of the universe on men’s lives, in the correct timings for the planting of vegetables and herbs, government by the seasons and the cyclical pattern of the moon’s orbit. Study was also made of the organization and operation of the body, and it is here that humoural theory was employed.

In the Induction to Every Man out of His Humour, Asper describes ‘humour’ thus:

Why, humour (as ’tis, ens) we thus define it
To be a quality of air or water,
And in itself holds these two properties:
Moisture and fluxure.
(Induction, ll. 86-89, Revels edition)

Thus, humour was a constantly flowing bodily fluid. Galen’s theory of humours describes four bodily fluids: black bile, yellow bile or choler, blood and phlegm. These humours were not equally present within the body, but existed in specific proportions, blood being the predominant. If one humour was present to a greater or lesser degree than the perfect balance, imbalance would present itself in a temperamental manifestation, rendering the person melancholic, choleric, sanguine or phlegmatic, thus lucidly described by Asper:

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 confluxions all to run one way:
This may truly said to be a humour.
(Induction, ll. 103-07, Revels edition)

30Thus humoural theory was a physiological and psychological explanation for a person’s temperament, also called ‘humour’. Usage of the word increased throughout the second half of the sixteenth century.

Chapman had experimented with humoural differences when writing The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1596), the doctored text of which exists in a quarto dated 1598, which strips down the romance plot, preserving mainly the comic interludes. The title page boasts that the blind beggar in question, known as Irus, will be ‘most pleasantly discoursing his variable humours in disguised shapes full of conceit and pleasure’. Chapman used the stock plot ingredient of disguise to explore duplicity, aided by humoural traits. Irus plays not only the part of the blind beggar, but also three other characters: Count Hermes, Duke Cleanthes, and Leon the usurer. Chapman made use of garments and humoural disposition to distinguish between the characters played by Irus. Long before Nym was proudly using the new catchword ‘humours’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597-8), Bragadino in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria was doing exactly the same thing.

Overt use of humours in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria has led Robert S. Miola to call it Chapman’s trend-setting humours play.[29] However, while Chapman indeed uses humoural temperament as an accessory to characterisation, sketches stressing a character’s vice of folly were already popular in the work of Nashe and Lyly.[30] Chapman’s innovation in An Humorous Day’s Mirth was to increase the emphasis on temperament in characterisation, and use this as the basis of the entire plot. Lemot announces ‘this day let’s consecrate to mirth’ (2.59) and the resulting action pivots on ‘the underlying premise that people are in themselves funny enough to sustain a comic action’.[31] Chapman does not rely heavily on the medical or theoretical aspects of humours, preferring instead to focus on temperamental differences. Shakespeare, and, to a greater extent, Jonson, were innovators of the new comedy, including references to medicinal humoural theory to increase comic characterisation. In a paper entitled ‘Shakespeare’s Comedy of Humors’, Northrop Frye begins: ‘The phrase “comedy of humors” belongs to Ben Jonson, so that a paper with such a title has to begin with the relation of Jonson’s comedy to Shakespeare’s.’[32] This introduction argues that since the phrase rightly ‘belongs’ to George Chapman, any discussion of Ben Jonson’s humoural drama should begin with the former playwright.

Chronologically, Chapman precedes Jonson by experimenting with humours in The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, performed in 1596. At a similar time as Chapman offered An Humorous Day’s Mirth to the Admiral’s Men, Jonson is thought to have produced The Case Is Altered for Pembroke’s Men.[33] The repetitious catchphrase for the latter play provides its title, and the alteration of characters’ states perhaps fed Jonson’s more brutal idea for Every Man out of His Humour‘s systematic purgation of humours. Jonson’s well-known response to Chapman’s invention, Every Man in His Humour (1598), was probably not the first, nor can The Case Is Altered pose any claim as first humours play.

The text of Jonson’s first surviving comedy, The Case is Altered, was not printed until 1609 and bears evidence of revision, which is thought to have occurred in 1601. This revision principally involves the addition of the character Antonio Balladino, who represents Anthony Munday and rails against the established genre of humours comedy. Jonson’s revisions self-consciously attempted to modernize his first play with additional references that cannot have been included in the first performed version, because the genre attacked had yet to be established.

35It seems that Shakespeare was the first to respond to Chapman’s humours play by offering The Merry Wives of Windsor to the Chamberlain’s Men, followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1598). Jonson, who had joined the Admiral’s Men after the disastrous fall-out over The Isle of Dogs (1597; co-written with Nashe), now had access to, and perhaps contact with, Chapman and his work. Indeed, when the theatres reopened, having escaped threatened demolition in response to Jonson and Nashe’s lost but presumably seditious play, Chapman’s humours comedy was chosen, along with Doctor Faustus and ‘Joroneymo’, to encourage audiences back to the Rose.[34]

Andrew Gurr points to the influence on comedy of An Humorous Day’s Mirth, among other plays, as ‘possibly the clearest single indicator of the power and intensity of the commercial incentive in company repertories through the whole period.’[35] The Chamberlain’s Men benefited from Shakespeare’s development of the humours genre in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Much Ado About Nothing, and Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Every Man out of His Humour (1599). Henry Porter offered Henslowe The Two Angry Women of Abingdon (1598), while Chapman apparently continued his satire of sartorial affectation in his lost play, The Fountain of New Fashions (1598). The events of summer 1597 might have almost forced the end of lawful drama in London, but without it, and the amalgamation of Pembroke’s and the Admiral’s Men, forcing Jonson’s association with Chapman, the genre of comedy might not have received such a radical overhaul at the latter playwright’s hands.

Suddenly, plays containing references to humours on their title pages abounded: The History of Henry the Fourth ... With the humorous conceits of Sir John Falstaff (1598); The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, most pleasantly discoursing his variable humours in disguised shapes full of conceit and pleasure (1598); A pleasant Comedy entitled: An Humorous Day’s Mirth (1599); The Pleasant History of the Two Angry Women of Abingdon, with the humorous mirth of Dick Coomes and Nicholas Prouerbs, two Servingmen (1599); The Comical Satire of Every Man out of his Humor (1600); The Shoemakers’ Holiday, Or the Gentle Craft, with the humorous life of Simon Eyre, shoemaker, and Lord Major of London (1600). As Jason Scott-Warren astutely observes, ‘Humor rapidly became a marketable commodity’.[36] The dramatic tide had turned.