Every Man in his Humour is a city comedy by Ben Jonson first performed in 1598. It begins with a prologue,
Though need make many poets, and some such
As art and nature have not bettered much;
Yet ours, for want, hath not so loved the stage
As he dare serve th'ill customs of the age,
Or purchase your delight at such a rate,
As, for it, he himself must justly hate.
To make a child, now swaddled, to proceed
Man, and then shoot up, in one beard or weed,
Past threescore years; or, with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot-and-half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster's long jars,
And in the tiring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleased to see
One such, today, as other plays should be.
Where neither Chorus wafts you o'er the seas;
Nor creaking throne comes down, the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen, to make afeared
The gentlewoman; nor rolled bullet heard
To say it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;
But deeds, and language, such as men do use;
And persons, such as Comedy would choose,
When she would show an image of the times,
And sport with human follies, not with crimes,
Except we make 'em such by loving still
Our popular errors, as you'll all confess
By laughing at them, they deserve no less;
Which when you heartily do, there's hope left, then,
You, that have so graced monsters, may like men.
Jonson goes on to introduce Old Knowell, quite probably played by William Shakespeare when it was first performed, who is concerned about the morals of his son Edward, who shows a keen interest in poetry, and his nephew Stephen who has taken up falconry. His worries are compounded when he receives a letter from Wellbred meant for Edward inviting him to re-join his chums in London. Brainworm is instructed to bring Edward to Knowell's study and open the letter, and not to tell him the letter has already been read. Brainworm immediately disobeys the orders and tells Edward Knowell has in fact read the letter, and Edward shows great excitement at the prospect of a trip to London: so far, it's reading very much like the New Comedy of Terrance and Plautus. Jonson goes on to introduce a variety of characters living in London, all caricature-like and often almost grotesque, all linked somehow to the dissolute and highly disrespectful Wellbred, and many trying to avoid any repercussions from Wellbred's somewhat cruel sense of humour.
It's a fun play, but it's not an easy one: I struggled from start to finish. I enjoyed that New Comedy element I mentioned, and it does read like a standard Elizabethan comedy: misunderstandings, disguises, utter confusion, and a cheery resolution at the end. There's a sequel too - Every Man Out of his Humour (1599). Should it turn up, I will probably read it, but for now I was more relieved just to finish the first one! Still, these city comedies are intriguing and I'm looking forward to reading The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton over the weekend.