Digital Renaissance Editions

About this text

  • 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

    ‘Pens as scalpels始: The Anatomization of Humours

    Humours shaped not only a genre but, more specifically, a mode of characterization. Gail Kern Paster notes that the language of humoural theory was common currency: ‘Every subject grew up with a common understanding of his or her body as a semipermeable, irrigated container in which humors moved sluggishly始.[37] The humoural imbalance provided dramatists with a way of augmenting the stock characters inherited from classical drama, and facilitated the development of a more individualistic and varied character palette from which to choose. As Madeleine Doran notes, ‘Humour characters of this sort are unlike the broad types of classical comedy; they are narrower and sharper始.[38] This specificity heightens realism, and also conveniently ‘makes for quick recognition on the part of reader and spectator始, arousing ‘expectations that can easily be satisfied始.[39]

    But there was another subject that fascinated Renaissance minds, one which links the theatrical event with humoural theory in an even more ‘realistic始 dramatization. In the Induction to Every Man out of His Humour, Asper scorns popularization of the word ‘humour始 and its affectation. Cordatus agrees: ‘Now if an idiot/ Have but an apish or fantastic strain,/ It is his humour始 (Induction, ll. 113-15). As remedy, Asper promises to use the play as a mirror,

    As large as is the stage whereon we act,
    Where they shall see the time始s deformity
    Anatomized in every nerve and sinew,
    With constant courage and contempt of fear.
    (ll. 117-20)

    40Anatomised Body Later in the play, the affected courtier Fastidius Brisk promises to introduce an appropriately attired Macilente to Saviolina, ‘the most divine and acute lady of the court始 (3.1.113-4). Fastidius holds her up as an ‘anatomy of wit始, here applied satirically to Saviolina, whose wit can be ‘sinewized and arterized始 (l. 117), i.e. dissected and examined in detail and held to be ‘the goodliest model of pleasure that ever was to behold始 (ll. 117-18). Perhaps Asper could be accused of taking his promised anatomization to extremes when the character he plays, Macilente, is described by Carlo Buffone as ‘A lank raw-boned anatomy始 (4.3.136-7), that is, a lean skeleton, devoured by his own envy and bitterness at the fortune and possessions granted others. A similar description is provided of Doctor Pinch in The Comedy of Errors, where Antipholus of Ephesus recalls him as ‘a hungry lean-faced villain,/ A mere anatomy ... / A needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch,/ A living dead man始 (5.1.238-242). Although this account depicts Pinch as a living skeleton, a dramatized memento mori, fascination with the body as machine is also contained within these and Asper始s words.

    Frontispiece The frontispiece to Burton始s Anatomy of Melancholy Baskervill records a significant increase in the occurrence of ‘anatomy始 in the titles of printed works, 1556-1595. The following provides a brief selected list: John Lyly始s Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), Philip Stubbes始s Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Thomas Nashe始s Anatomy of Absurdity (1589), and Robert Burton始s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Devon L. Hodges observes that ‘with violent determination, writers of anatomies used their pens as scalpels to cut through appearances and reveal the mute truth of objects.始[40] The anatomization of character and the vogue for satirical drama and literature was spawned by the increased popularity of medical dissection.

    Although public dissections began in the late fifteenth century, by the mid-sixteenth century, popularity of the spectacle had forced the building of amphitheatres in Europe to seat two or three hundred spectators. Tickets were sold for the event, which could last for up to five days.[41] In London, dissections were carried out in Barber-Surgeons始 Hall by the Company of Barber-Surgeons, who were allowed, by license of Parliament, four criminal bodies for anatomical investigation.

    Anatomy Theatre Drawings of anatomy theatres of the time reveal similarities between the spectacles of anatomization and drama. For example, in the engraving on the title-page of Vesalius始 anatomical study, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1543), the gaze is focused on a central object, a displayed body, which no longer ‘belongs始 to its owner, while, surrounding the central spectacle, the thronging crowd are boisterous and distracted. Similarities between anatomy theatres and playhouses are not lost on scholars. Michael Neill urges that anatomy theatres ‘deserve to be recognized ... not merely for their scientific significance but as “important chapters in the historical development of the stage”始.[42] To this end, Richard Wilson advocates the Anatomy Theatre at Padua of 1594 as the ‘best preserved Renaissance playhouse始.[43] Perhaps it is unsurprising therefore that both Jonathan Sawday and Neill refer to public anatomization in dramatic terms, in Neill始s words, the ‘drama of dissection始.[44]

    Scott-Warren more specifically names the dramatic genre most similar to anatomization as humours comedy: ‘The way it dissects personality clearly aligns this comedy with the early modern anatomy theaters始.[45] Basing his theory on this Renaissance pre-occupation with the voyeuristic exposure of physical and physiological bodies, Scott-Warren also suggests similarities between humours comedy and animal baiting, a rival theatrical entertainment. He points out that the focus of interest in first-hand accounts of such blood sports is not the violence or gore of the spectacle, but the appraisal of characteristics exhibited by each animal as they fight. In fact, the animals are ‘regularly anthropomorphized by way of their surprising qualities始.[46]

    45Similarly, although Jonson is often accused of terrible cruelty to his characters, the purpose of presenting such characters onstage is didactic. Just as dissections contained an instructive element to satisfy the curiosity of a public fascinated with order, Asper promises that characters will be ‘Anatomized in every nerve and sinew始 (Every Man out of His Humour, Induction, l. 119). In a similar process of theatrical dissection, but perhaps more literally, ‘bearpits and cockpits enabled animals to become objects of knowledge, exposing their inner natures to outward view始.[47] The audience is distanced from the cruelty of tricks and treatment of characters because they are witnessing an anatomization of character, a medical procedure, rather than the torment of individual humans, onstage.

    Thus, corpse, character and animal become the object of the paying public始s gaze. Just as a visitor to a bear-baiting event might expect to derive some insight into the nature of bears or dogs, humours comedy also offered to remove superficial layers, permitting ‘privileged glimpses into private selves始.[48] Satiric portraiture takes for granted the notion of specific types and is based, as was the trend for anatomy, on the ‘observation of vitalizing and individualizing detail始.[49] The audience is privileged because the satire enables them to disengage from the characters on stage, leading to critical distance and feelings of superiority. It is no surprise, therefore, that humours comedy enjoys playing with notions of spectator and spectacle. Jonson most obviously does this in Every Man out of His Humour, by including a classical Grex, or onstage audience, in the shape of Cordatus and Mitis, whilst also employing Asper as one of the actors. These characters offer multiple frames to the way the audience views the play.

    The theatre, like an operating theatre, promises a glimpse inside a private world: not simply its characters始 private walks, houses and local taverns, but inside their very selves. Thus Lemot becomes a doctor of dissection as well as intriguer of action. Or perhaps he is the officiating medic, overseeing the procedure, as his patients, when prompted, dissect themselves and each other through their own folly. The idea of the stage as operating theatre is manifested in Scene 7, where, before the King and his assembled friends, Dowsecer enters on cue and instantly begins to display his humour, like an animal let into the baiting arena. The provision of hose, sword, picture, and codpiece by Lavel serves to remind Dowsecer of the world from which he absents himself. The prompts are also intended to act as a sort of whip, provoking Dowsecer始s humour.

    Lemot implies animal cruelty at the end of Scene 10 when he promises to ‘jerk the horse you ride on始, referring to whoever tries to mend his humour. His words are reminiscent of Alessandro Magno始s account of a baiting match in 1562, which begins with the baiting by dogs of a cheap horse ‘and a monkey in the saddle始. Magno clearly enjoys this spectacle:

    In this sport it is wonderful to see the horse galloping along, kicking up the ground and champing at the bit, with the monkey holding very tightly to the saddle, and crying out frequently when he is bitten by the dogs.[50]

    It seems logical to assume that Lemot is similarly referring to the other characters as monkeys aboard horses, which he is ‘jerking始 by use of a whip or dogs. Asper also makes reference to animals when describing the way that ‘humorous始 or affected characters react: ‘And like galled camels kick at every touch始 (Induction, l. 132). The physiological and psychological body thus becomes one in both the arenas of animal and human theatre.

    50There is a culture of observation at work throughout An Humorous Day始s Mirth: not only is Dowsecer spied on, but Lemot始s wooing of Florila is watched attentively by her jealous husband, Labervele. Jonson experiments most overtly with watching and overhearing in Every Man out of His Humour: throughout the play, characters onstage are observed by Cordatus and Mitis, who sit as privileged commentators, their criticisms in turn informing the Globe audience始s response to the action. Just as Lemot describes the amusement provided by an objectified Blanvel, so too does Carlo Buffone question Fastidius Brisk of Sogliardo: ‘How like you him, signor?始 (2.1.91), as if presenting an amusing specimen in animal, rather than human, form.

    Within the play proper there are several occasions in which characters hide themselves to witness other action onstage. A case in point is 2.1, in which Carlo Buffone, Sogliardo, Fastidius Brisk and Cinedo hide themselves at the sound of Puntarvolo始s hounds, heralding the Knight始s return. The thought of the Knight始s ridiculous fantasy, in which he pretends to woo his own wife, elicits pure mirth in Sogliardo: he cannot speak he is so consumed with it. The characters hide to observe this courtly ritual, while the Knight and his Lady unwittingly oblige. Yet when the Lady notices their fantasy is being enacted before witnesses (including Fungoso and Sordido, who have since entered) she exclaims and turns indoors (l. 365).

    Further observation occurs after Macilente始s initial railing speech, when, at the beginning of 1.2 he lies down on the stage and overhears the action subsequently played upon it, not leaving until he has witnessed Sordido, the grain-hoarding farmer, checking weather predictions in the prognostication. This exit is too early for Mitis, who feels Macilente should have stayed to hear Sordido confess his villainy. Cordatus upbraids Mitis for his misunderstanding of Macilente始s envy and, thus, his humour. Throughout the play, Cordatus, who claims to have seen a preview of rehearsals, guides Mitis, and, by implication, the audience, in their appraisal of the characters and action. Mitis is a singled-out audience member, his own musings anatomized by Cordatus for the benefit of the audience proper.

    Not only do these ‘characters始 provide commentary and criticism but herald the entrance of characters and inform the audience of scenic locations. At the beginning of the lengthy 3.1, Cordatus advises Mitis, ‘we must desire you to presuppose the stage the middle aisle in Paul始s, and that [Pointing to the door on which Shift is posting his bills] the west end of it始 (ll. 1-4). The physicality of St. Paul始s is thus translated onto the space of the Globe stage.[51]

    The critical and observational role performed by Mitis and Cordatus in Jonson始s play can also be identified in Scene 8 of Chapman始s comedy of humours. Once the male characters have assembled in Verone始s ordinary and are engaged in a game of cards, Lemot and his sidekick Catalian, fresh from an energetic tennis match, begin to discuss the other characters onstage. It is assumed that they occupy a different part of the stage space, or perhaps simply rely on the unrealistic dramatic conventions that permit certain characters to be overheard only by the audience, while the remainder continue oblivious. Helen Ostovich describes the dance-like structure of the Paul始s walk scene in Every Man out of His Humour, and suggests that in order for the scene to function ‘It is understood that each group of strollers mimes private chat when not delivering lines, and overhears only snatches of other conversations in passing始.[52]

    55Paul's Walk Similarly in An Humorous Day始s Mirth, Lemot and Catalian circle and observe the other characters, only interrupting the card game to prompt certain characters to respond as predicted to Lemot始s carefully phrased statements. This is another example of Lemot始s skill in provoking characters to respond verbally in a way that provides him with ‘excellent sport始 (TLN 1215). Lemot and Catalian also provide useful information about Rowley, the new character onstage, whose response gives Lemot the idea to predict what each character will say before prompted to do so. As soon as this jest is exhausted, Jaques enters to announce the arrival of a new set of diners. Imagining the sport they will provide him causes Lemot great satisfaction and he falls to the task of engineering the final accumulation of characters at the ordinary with predatory relish.