Ben Jonson. Every Man In His Humour. Ed. Robert Miola. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000. xviii+282pp. ISBN 0 7190 1565 0.
Ben Jonson. Every Man Out of His Humour. Ed. Helen Ostovich. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. xvi+400pp. ISBN 0 7190 1558 8.

Matthew Steggle
Sheffield Hallam University

Steggle, Matthew. "Review of Ben Jonson, Every Man In His Humour and Every Man Out of His Humour." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 8.1-9 <URL:

  1. Two bold new additions to the Revels series offer a new perspective on the early stages of Jonson's career. Both return to early quartos of the plays in question, bypassing Jonson's magisterial--perhaps too magisterial --reworkings of them in his 1616 Folio: the plays that emerge are fresh, exuberant, and distinctly unfamiliar.

  2. Every Man In stands first in Jonson's notorious Folio Works, although in a heavily adapted form, and it is the Folio version, with its London setting, that went on to have the most influence in the play's subsequent history. It formed the basis for Garrick's successful and long-running adaptation, and has informed most of the criticism of the play. Although both versions have been edited, Herford and Simpson print the Folio version in their seminal twentieth-century edition of Jonson. However, Robert Miola's edition of the play is based on the quarto version set in Florence rather than the later Anglicization. The text is modern-spelling, with in-page apparatus and heavy in-page annotation.

  3. In a long introduction to the edition, Miola discusses the plotting--such as it is: as Eliot noted, Jonson's acheivement here "is not so much skill in plot as skill in doing without a plot" (qtd. 52). What is left is a babel of talk, of contrasting idiolects delineating the diverse characters, again well illustrated by Miola. He convincingly locates the play in the late-Elizabethan culture in which it participates: he especially clarifies the allusions to material culture aspects such as clothing and weapons, and the play's "precisely calibrated instance[s] of impecuniousness" (22). The introduction is also a mine of information on the play's critical history and its numerous stage revivals.

  4. While Every Man In His Humour, then, has received a fair amount of literary and theatrical attention, the same cannot be said for its successor Every Man Out of His Humour. Jonson's first "comical satire" has no stage history to speak of, and has never been edited individually, so that up till this year, anyone interested in the play has needed to tackle it in Volume III of Herford and Simpson. In order to work with the play in this edition, readers require a Zen-like calm in the face of old spelling and unhelpful speech-prefixes, a fluent knowledge of Latin and Greek for the notes, and all too often, a paper-knife to cope with pages as yet uncut in the seventy-year life of the volume. Helen Ostovich's edition makes this play far more accessible, and presents, lumbering out of the scholarly twilight, a very strange piece indeed.

  5. Ostovich, like Miola, differs from Herford and Simpson in going back to the quarto. The quarto's "profanities and stylistic eccentricities" (8) are thus preserved, while the 1616 revisions are relegated to the apparatus. Going further, Ostovich's text uses what Jonson claims was the original, masque-like ending to the play, although printing all the others as an appendix. The result makes clear the sheer shock of the original ending in which Macilente expels the last of the gulls, and instantly without warning is confronted by the Queen herself. Naturally, her presence "strikes Macilente to the earth, dumb, and astonished": it is a transformation that sits uneasily with the preceding restless satire.

  6. Ostovich, again like Miola, uses in-page apparatus and commentary and modern spellings. Thin grey lines mark out the interruptions of the "Grex" or on-stage chorus, which assists greatly in working out who is saying what to whom. The annotation pays particular attention to issues of social context, and to staging: it is more than just an extended exercise in lexicography. I can't imagine Herford and Simpson bothering about the comic dynamics of individual exchanges, or describing Carlo's role as that of a "malign second banana" (161). The acid test of the commentary is that it makes visible jokes which may previously have passed the reader by, and that has to be a good thing.

  7. A long introduction contextualizes the play. For Ostovich, the question of the genre of "comical satire" has a lot to do with the Renaissance reception of Aristophanes, and she convincingly demonstrates the extent of Jonson's debt to an idea of vetus comedia, Old Comedy, as something oppositionally different from the tidying and reunifying plots of New Comedy. Furthermore, the play's affinities to Inns of Court satire are explored, with extensive reference to the Inns of Court revels. Ostovich is also very interested in the play as a dramatic experience rather than an intellectual game: she is particularly shrewd on the play's crowd scenes, framing devices, and inset narrations. In this account, the centre of the play is the Paul's Walk scene, where the host of characters circulate around one another in a strange stylized dance of competition, exploitation, and display.

  8. Ostovich's fresh eye also privileges such previously neglected figures as Puntarvolo's doomed dog. At the centre of much of the comic business, and indeed at the centre of a web of dog-related imagery spreading through the play, the dog also confounds the already tangled framing devices by its utterly unselfconscious performance. Every Man Out has generally been treated as a literary manifesto, a document in Jonson's development, more than as a drama. Ostovich's edition tells us that the play is worth reading, and perhaps even staging, on its own merits, as a surreal urban comedy containing some vigorously nasty comic invention.

  9. In recent years, critical attention has turned increasingly to Jonson's late plays as not just "dotages," or shadows of his earlier success, but as worthy of critical interest in their own right. These two editions, though, suggest that a similar reassessment is due for Jonson's early plays as well.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).