To delight and instruct (and instruct, and instruct).

You, dear reader, may have deduced by now that I like Ben Jonson, the early modern dramatist, somewhat. The following article may come, then, as a bit of a shock.

Working on my argument for Chapter Three, I spent the weekend re-reading Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels (1600), one of Ben’s four Elizabethan plays (the others being Every Man In His Humour [1598], Every Man Out of His Humour [1599], and Poetaster [1601]). Trying to develop any lengthy argument concerning the play, however, has left me tired and more than a little frustrated. [i]

Cynthia’s Revels is, like Jonson’s other Elizabethan plays, a humours comedy, a genre which is related to both early morality dramas in which vices and virtues (for example, Pleasure, Iniquity, or Temperance) strolled the stage for edifying purposes, and the court masque, in which more complex allegorical/emblematic* figures (for example, Fortune, or Love, or gods like Britannia, or Janus) again strolled the stage for edifying purposes (or so Ben hoped).[ii] The Jonsonian humours play is often discussed as portraying more “realistic” allegories: that is, it portrays ordinary courtiers and citizens, characters who are vice-filled or virtuous depending on the mixture of bodily humours which composes their body: blood (a combination of hot and moist fluids, and producing a “sanguine” personality), black bile (cold and dry fluids, producing melancholy), yellow bile (hot and dry fluids, producing choler), and phlegm (cold and moist fluids, producing, well, phlegm).

As early modern comedy develops, conventional socio-dramatic roles become associated with certain humours: an active lover, or a (respectable) soldier, for example, is usually a “sanguine” character; ranters and (low-quality) soldiers are “choleric,” while passive lovers and scholars are often melancholic[iii].

Cynthia’s Revels is a mixture of early Jonsonian humours comedy and the Jonsonian masque. The play offers the melancholic scholar-poet, Crites (the critic, and the only moderate male courtier in the play), the choleric Amorphus (the changeable, one whose ambition leads him to alter his manners to fit with the other courtiers), and the sanguine Hedon (hedonism, an irresponsible and extreme indulgence in the excesses of court). The play also includes more complex emblematic figures (for example, the goddess Cynthia, herself, signifying chastity and moderation) which one would find in a court masque.

If I’ve spent considerable space describing the characters of the play this is because in many ways, the characters are the play: outside these characters, there’s not much plot. 1.1 opens with Cupid informing Mercury that Cynthia, in order to appease the slander visited on her since her harsh judgment of Acteon, has declared a revels in the region of Gargaphie, “in which time it shall be lawful for all sorts of ingenious persons to visit her palace, to court her nymphs, to excercise all variety of gracious and ignoble pasttimes” (156). Shortly following Cupid’s announcement, Mercury, at Jove’s behest, raises Echo from the earth, giving her voice long enough to make one final lament for her beloved Narcissus — and to curse his “murdering spring,” so that “who but taste / A drop thereof, may, with the instant touch, / Grow dotingly enamour’d on themselves” (159). The remainder of the play (until 5.3, the final scene) depicts the ignoble courtiers who have come to take part in the revels aimlessly passing the time as they wait for the delivery of the waters from Narcissus’s spring (of which they have heard a rumour). In the final scene of the play, the courtiers hold two masques for the entertainment of the newly-returned Cynthia, in which they pretend to be virtues exactly the opposite of the vices/humours that they really are (Philautia, or self-love, plays Storgé, or “the love of a friend”; Hedon plays Eupathes, or moderation); the masques end with these pretended virtues being unmasked and the true vices of the characters revealed.

In an 80-page play[iv], then, nearly 60 pages are devoted to depicting courtiers wooing and fighting with their loves, engaging in nonsense word games to pass the time, gossiping about other courtiers, commenting on each other’s clothing, and generally idling about. According to their humours, of course.

The play is, to put it kindly, a bit dull. Perhaps this is the point: Cynthia’s Revels was meant to both reflect and critique the superficiality of court [v]. This critique is certainly valid (and how better to affect the critique than by staging, as fully as possible, the emptiness of court?) What irritates me about Cynthia’s Revels, however, is the sheer repetitiveness with which it makes its critique. Unlike the prologues to The Staple of News and The New Inn (and most of Jonson’s plays), Cynthia’s Revels does not simply demand (even several times) that its audience pay attention [vi], but devolves almost immediately into demonstrating its utter lack of faith in the audience’s ability to understand even the basics of the alphabet.

In his other humours plays (both the earlier Every Man productions, and the later Magnetic Lady), Jonson indicates his characters’ humours or vices a bit more indirectly: he names them through their occupation (the Lawyer, Practice, in The Magnetic Lady), by telling physical descriptions (Biancha in Every Man In), or by adjectives sometimes opaquely, sometimes obviously indicative of their personalities (Knowell and Asper in Every Man In and Out, respectively). In Cynthia’s Revels, the characters’ names (especially to an audience more familiar with Latin, or with stock Roman humours characters, as Jonson’s Court audience likely was) are fairly indicative of the humours they embody: Crites, Amorphus, Hedon, Argurion, Philautia, Phantaste. Once the reader knows what these names stand for (the critic, the changeable, hedonism, money, self-love, fantasy), the vice for which they are critiqued also becomes obvious.

When these self-involved superficial courtiers actually drink the waters of Narcissus’s spring, and become convinced they are each the best and most virtuous figure at court, I don’t think we are meant to be (or can be) taken in by their immodest assertions: their failings, which have been exposed since their first entrance on stage, outweigh any self-described good. The final scene of the play, then, in which the courtiers are forced to unmask in front of Cynthia, thus exposing how performed their supposed virtues are, is, to me, an unneccessary emphasis of the play’s critique. I can, however, tolerate the scene to an extent: a masque, however redundant, would at least have been interesting to watch, and a change from the monotony of four and a half acts of nothing but courtiers lolling about.

Jonson, however, provides us with two masques. He also provides, immediately following the unmasking, commentary (by Cynthia) on how shocking and ironic the juxtaposition of each vice to its complete opposite virtue (Who would have thought that Philautia durst / Or have usurped noble Storgé’s name?” 229). Then, to ensure we “get” the moral commentary of the situation, Crites runs through each of the eight masquers and the virtue they played in Cynthia’s masque. As final assurance that we comprehend the scene, the courtiers are forced to make pilgrimage to the Well of Knowledge, to wash off “Midas […] gold” and gain the virtues they “fain would seem” (231).

I think the courtiers might be superficial. [vii]

Apparently the play was not successful at Elizabeth’s court, a revealing piece of knowledge when one considers that (according to Orgel’s analysis of the court masque in The Illusion of Power, and Gurr’s account of the public stage in Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London) the entitled and well-to-do often attended theatrical productions in order to watch other courtiers dancing, flirting, and gossiping in fashionable clothes. That a play which dramatised these very features could not sustain the interests of its target demographic suggests an audience response similar to the one I had as I forced myself thorugh all five acts: that while the matter itself (a critique of court life) might be interesting, repetitions of the play’s “moral” annul the delight of the revels and drag the instruction out too too long.

End Notes:

[i] frustrated. Which explains why there have been no weekend articles here.

[ii] morality dramas […] and the court masque. The humours comedy is also related to earlier Latin plays like those of Terrence and Plautus, who used the same allegorical-typifying naming structure.

[iii] often melancholic. While Jonson developed and perfected the humours comedy, the genre as it originally existed, rapidly went out of fashion: “humours” characters continued to exist in early modern comedy, but in more complex forms.

Drawing from Shakespearean characters might provide useful examples here: Falstaff (sanguine), Twelfth Night’s Malvolio (choleric) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (phlegmatic), and, of course, the melancholic Hamlet. There are, of course, variations on humours types, and characters can embody more than one humour: Jonson’s The Magnetic Lady, for example, offers both a choleric and the sanguine soldier in the characters of Ironsides (whose anger scatters the other humours in the play) and Compass, (whose military calm draws the scattered humours up again). Compass, however, is also a “scholar,” and is thus a combination of sanguine and melancholy (thus embodying a balance of all the humours: no wonder he “wins” the play).

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is undoubtedly the most authoritative text on the subject of humours, and is quite entertaining. Unfortunately, it is more than 1300 pages long. If you ever make it through, be sure to notify me: I’ll buy you coffee while you help me with my notes. [End of ridiculously long footnote.]

[iv] an 80-page play. Cynthia’s Revels is about ten pages longer than all of Jonson’s Caroline plays, and only ten pages shorter than his average city comedies, that is, plays where events actually happen.

[v] superficiality of court. In some cases, the play mocks the superficiality and vices of real people: the affected “rimer,” Anaides, critics strongly suspect, was meant to be a caricature of either John Marston or Thomas Dekker, with whom Jonson was engaged in a critical argument (or name calling) at the time of the play’s writing; Cynthia’s Revels is one of the plays in the “poetomachia” or “theatre wars” of the early 17th century.

[vi] pay attention. Which he also does here, both in a prologue that asks us to place “Words, above action; matter, above words” (154), as well as an induction in which a boy actor reveals to us the action of the play scene by scene, that we are about to view/read.

[vii]. superficial. And also, perhaps, a little self-involved.

Works Cited

Jonson, Ben. Cynthia’s Revels. Ben Jonson: The Complete Plays. Vol. 1. London: JM Dent, 1915. 149-232.

17 June 2008 ~ St. Catharines.

Glossary of Terms:

Emblematic. adj. (obs.). Concerning “emblems” a form of poetry or text in which complex allegories or moral stories are synecdochically condensed into a single unified image whose many components symbolise the parts of the whole lesson.


4 thoughts on “To delight and instruct (and instruct, and instruct).

  1. Does the play become more interesting when seen as a salvo in the infamous “War of the Theatres?” I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to read all those plays as a group.

  2. For sure, and that’s how most critics read the play. It is a lot of fun to imagine these mature, intelligent dramatists using their (considerable) Classical knowledge for what amounts to high-class name-calling. Cynthia’s Revels, though, does pale in comparison to Poetaster (the delicious malevolence of which utterly delights me).

    Cynthia’s Revels is not without its literary/entertaining merit: I actually quite enjoy the little word games the courtiers play in act 4. Too, as I was writing this post, I found myself appreciating the care with which Jonson develops and sustains his humours. I do think, however, the whole thing could have been shorter: those last twenty pages are always painful to get through, and I honestly can’t imagine having too much fun watching a performance.

    I suppose this was mostly a post written out of frustration over the difficulties I’ve been having creating a coherent argument (rather than loose observations) linking gender/genre in connection to The Magnetic Lady. I do wonder if this is partly due to my attempt to read the play in a different sort of context than the satirical one for which it was written (a feat I worry I may not be able to pull off). That’s no reason, however, to lash out at dear Ben (though it’s probably what he would have done… )

  3. Hello – stumbled onto your blog while googling for some possible leads to the alleged connection between Menander and Plautus to humours comedies (which seems to only receive passing references in the sources I’ve come across). Would you happen to know how deeply the debt runs from Jonson to Menander and Plautus with regards to the actual appropriation of the medical theory of humours for comedy (and not simply character comedies) ? Did Menander or Plautus ever directly invoke the four humours in their comedies the way Jonson did ? And would it be fair to credit Jonson for the comic sense of the word “humour” as we commonly understand it today ?

    • Certainly Jonson is indebted in the structure of his comedies to Plautus and Terrence: both would have been on the syllabus for the typical grammar school that Jonson attended when young — and he refers to both dramatists in The Magnetic Lady. I’m not too certain of his knowledge of Menander. Plautus uses a lot of the stock characters that Jonson (and later critics) would identify as being more or less humours characters — and of course Plautus is working in a context in humours medical theory is commonplace. Plautus, though, doesn’t identify his plays as “humours” plays: so while there are similarities in the dramatic structure and characters, and the theoretical underpinnings of both Jonson’s and Plautus’s comedies, the term “humours comedy” itself may be somewhat anachronistic when talking about Plautus’s work.

      I do recall looking up the etymology of the “humours” comedy in the OED: it’s until slightly after Jonson that critics/audiences make the association between “humour” as the physiological force behind a character’s behaviours, and the “humourous” effect these behaviours have (restoration drama uses the term to indicate funniness in conjunction with the physiological meaning).

      Jonson does play a big role in articulating what a “comedy of humours” means, and the Restoration dramatists (Dryden was especially familiar with Jonson) probably would have had Jonson in mind (along with Shakespeare, and their own contemporary dramatists) as they began to make the connection between “dramatic structure” and “comic effect” (tho’ it’s difficult to definitively track the causes behind etymological shifts). So some of the credit goes to him. He’d probably like to think so anyways.

      The tentative connections are all there between the three dramatic periods, but it would take some good close reading to draw them out.

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