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The Comedy of Humours is a type of comedic play that explores the idea of characters being dominated by a particular “humour” or temperament. Humours were a concept derived from ancient Greek and Roman medical theory, which posited that the human body was governed by four fluids or humours —blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile —believed to determine a person’s physical and mental qualities by their relative proportions in the body. Each humour was associated with specific personality traits and temperaments. For example, an excess of blood was thought to produce a sanguine temperament characterised by optimism and exuberance. In contrast, an excess of black bile was associated with a melancholic temperament characterised by sadness and introspection.

This dramatic form is associated with playwrights such as Ben Jonson, often credited with perfecting the genre. It was popularised in English Renaissance theatre, particularly during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Comedy of Humours had a significant impact on the development of character-based comedy. It influenced the portrayal of characters in subsequent literary works, encouraging writers to depict more dimensionality and consistency in their character’s traits. The genre is one of the key developments in the evolution of comedy, especially in English literature, paving the way for exploring complex and nuanced characters in comedic storytelling.

Origins and Development

    • The theory of humours was popularised by ancient Greek physicians like Hippocrates and Galen.
    • It was revived and became widespread in Europe during the Renaissance.
    • English playwright Ben Jonson is most famously associated with the Comedy of Humours. He believed each character should be driven by a singular overriding humour that could be either a personal trait or a social type.

Characteristics

    • Each character’s behaviour would be predictably dictated by this dominant humour, which would become exaggerated to the point of obsession or folly.
    • The humour would effectively skew their view of the world, often leading to conflict, misunderstanding, and comedic situations.
    • The intention was to entertain and offer a moral lesson by criticising overindulgence in any characteristic.
    • Jonson aimed to represent more inwardly consistent characters rather than changing according to circumstances. He described this approach in the prologue to Every Man in His Humour.

Notable Works by Ben Jonson

    • Every Man in His Humour, where he first applied his theory of humours.
    • Volpone, a dark comedy of humours that focuses on greed.

Plot

The plots of Comedy of Humours plays often revolve around the interactions between characters with different dominant humours. These interactions lead to humorous misunderstandings, conflicts, and revelations as characters navigate their way through social and romantic entanglements. The resolution of these conflicts typically involves a recognition of the absurdity of the characters’ behaviour and a restoration of balance and harmony.

Characterisation

In Comedy of Humours, characters are often depicted as being dominated by one particular humour, which dictates their behaviour and drives the plot forward. These characters are typically exaggerated and larger-than-life, embodying extreme personality traits associated with their dominant humour. For example, a character dominated by sanguine humour might be depicted as overly cheerful and impulsive, while a character dominated by melancholic humour might be depicted as brooding and pessimistic.

Satire and Social Commentary

Comedy of Humours plays often serve as vehicles for satire and social commentary, offering humorous critiques of contemporary society and its conventions. Through exaggerated character types and absurd situations, playwrights like Ben Jonson lampooned the vices and follies of the society where they lived, highlighting the absurdity of human behaviour and the quirks of human nature.

Legacy

While the Comedy of Humours fell out of fashion by the mid-17th century, its influence can still be seen in later comedic works, particularly in the characters of commedia dell’arte and the stock characters of modern comedy. The emphasis on exaggerated character types and humorous situations resonates with audiences today, making the Comedy of Humours an enduring and influential genre in the history of theatre.

The Comedy of Humours is a form of comedic drama that explores the quirks and foibles of human nature through exaggerated character types and humorous situations. With its emphasis on satire, social commentary, and exaggerated characterisation, it remains an important and influential genre in the history of theatre.

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