What's your humor?
The sense of the word “humor” in this play is not so far from our own, when we say things like “humor me.” Humor roughly means “disposition” or “temperament,” and Every Man in His Humor has characters of all sorts: introverts and extroverts, the serious and the rambunctious, mild-mannered and bossy, level-headed and ready to fly off the handle at the drop of a pin.
One of the salient features on this play is its placement in a vividly imagined London, full of all sorts of characters, from high to low, but difficult to keep orderly and separate: the theatre itself was of course a force for class mixing, and in the view of some, a catalyst for the sorts of disorders that Kitely fears: reveling, unsanctioned socializing, fraternizing, lechery, drunkenness and general debauchery. Thus it's quite appropriate when Jonson ironically has him claim that his house is being turned into a “theatre” or “tavern” or “stews” (brothel). In the minds of some Londoners, they were all alike places of vice and sin.
Ben Jonson wrote his first comedy that included poetry about ten years after Shakespeare had starting writing plays, and wrote for Shakespeare's theatre company, so the standard was pretty high. In fact, arguments about what is good poetry and what is bad, and whether poetry writing is a legitimate hobby for young people, is one of the play's extended debates. The play's Prologue takes aim at the proliferation of mediocre poets and wannabes in London in 1598, and in the play we see a number of characters who try their hand at poetry with, at best, uneven results. These include, especially, Master Stephen, the country gull, or “suburb-humor,” and Master Matthew, the city gull. Young Edward Knowell seems a writer of actual promise, though we never get to hear his poems. Poetry from the play has been posted on various fliers around campus and elsewhere.
READ ADDITIONAL POETRY FROM THE PLAY
What shall I swear by?
“By the foot of Pharaoh”—this is only one of the numerous oaths that are bandied about in Every Man in His Humor . The central source of all is Captain Bobadil, whose oaths leave his companions speechless with envy and admiration (or disgust).
Even the makers of poetry magnets have figured out that Elizabethan cursing is a lot of fun. This play is no exception. Some of the highlights include “Hang ‘em, scroyles,” and a number of plays on intimations that one's mother is a prostitute (whoreson scanderbag rogue).
Coming to blows over tobacco
As Jonson demonstrates, smoking tobacco (in pipes) was as controversial in 1598 as it is today, though the forces on the side of smoking made much more extravagant arguments in its favor than smokers dare to these days. Smoking was quite new however in Elizabethan London, a fad started by Sir Walter Ralegh, but it had already become a fashionable habit, demonstrating affluence and sophistication—which is why some of the gentleman-wannabes in the play are so intent on “drinking” (as they put it) as much tobacco as possible.