Every Man in His Humour is a 1598 comedy by the English playwright, Ben Jonson, who is particularly famous for his satires. In the play, every major character is defined by an over-riding obsession, known as a humour. Humours were four bodily fluids–black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood–which formed the basis of early sytems of medicine. Each of these four fluids were associated with particular characteristics that were thought to influence a person’s temperament, as well as their health.
In the prologue, the speaker announces that the play was written due to the popularity of the theater. The goal of playwrights is to please their audience. This play, the prologue continues, will not take the audience to a place far away, but will show a current time and place that will make people laugh. The opening scene finds Knowell, an old man, at his house. He tells Brainworm, his servant, to fetch his son, Edward. The father is happy that Edward is a scholar, as he himself once was, but he does not approve of his son’s taste for the “fruitless” arts. Master Stephen, an easily duped countryman, then arrives to visit relatives. Knowell gives him advice on how to be a better man. Shortly thereafter, Stephen departs. A servant then gives Knowell a letter meant for Edward. When he reads it, he realizes it is not for him and takes offense at the impolite, informal tone of the letter. He has the letter given to his son and decides he will encourage him, but not force him, to try to be a good man.
The next scene of Act 1 finds Edward receiving the letter and learning that his father has read it. Stephen enters and asks about the man who delivered the letter, who is now long gone. Stephen and Edward, who are cousins, talk and then go to the city to meet the man who sent the letter. Scene three introduces the characters Mathew and Cob at the latter’s house. Cob talks about respectable ancestors and Mathew asks about locating a man named Captain Bobadill, whom Cob says is his guest. Mathew does not believe this. Cob tells him the man slept on his bench the previous night. Cob ends the scene with a monologue that tells of the drama in his house and of Bobadill owing him money. Scene four, the final scene of Act I, unfolds in Cob’s house, where Bobadill lies on the bench. Mathew and Bobadill talk and Mathew agrees not to mention that Bobadill spent the night there. Mathew shares a new play, which they discuss before leaving for a tavern.
Act 2 opens in another part of the city. Kitely, a merchant, enters, along with his cashier, Cash, and Kitley’s brother-in-law, Downright, who is a squire. Kitely tells the squire that Wellbred, his brother, has been disrespectful. Wellbred is angered. Bobadill and Mathew look for, but do not find Wellbred. Next, in the moorfields of London, Brainworm is disguised as a soldier. He wants to stop Knowell’s pursuit of his son. Stephen and Knowell enter. Stephen has lost a purse containing a ring from his mistress. As the act continues, Knowell delivers a monologue about his youth and the way parents often influence their children in negative ways. He is happy that he has not been a bad influence on his son, although he believes his son has gone down the wrong path.
In Act 3, Mathew, Bobadill, and Wellbred are in a tavern. While Mathew and Bobadill talk of disliking Wellbred’s brother, Downright, Edward and Stephen arrive. Wellbred, it turns out, is the one who wrote the letter to Edward. They go on to discuss Stephen and Bobadill’s military experiences. Cash and Kitely are engaged in a shady exchange of money. Kitely sends Cash on another job and asks to be informed if Wellbred or anyone else comes to his house. An upset Cob enters and Cash tells him it is his “humour” that is making him feel distressed. The next scene is at Justice Clement’s house. Cob tells Kitely that some men have arrived at his house and Kitely worries about his wife and sister giving in to their desires. Cob attempts to put his mind at ease. Cob also wants revenge, as Bobadill has used his wife. Justice Clement and Roger his clerk arrive. Cob asks the Justice to punish Bobadill, but the Justice orders Cob jailed for his character and previous actions.
Further complications and interactions continue to drive the story until the final act, which takes place at the home of Justice Clement. Clement, Knowell, Kitely, Dame Kitely, Cash, Cob, and some servants enter. They are trying to sift through the sequence of false messages they have received. Bobadill and Mathew join the group and announce they have a warrant for Downright. Stephen, Downright, and Brainworm, who is in disguise, also arrive. Clement wants Brainworm jailed for not serving warrants in the right way. Brainworm reveals himself and his deceitful actions are exposed. In attempting to bring closure to everything, Justice Clement instructs every person to rid themselves of the emotions that are weighing them down and they start to celebrate.