Last night Mr. R. G. Moulton of Cambridge, England, delivered his talk on the Humour of Ben Jonson to a good audience in Sever 11. Professor Barrett Wendell introduced the speaker with a graceful allusion to the pleasure of new Cambridge in listening to a visitor from the old.
Mr. Moulton began with the definition of the word humour and its derivation. It was derived from the Latin root meaning moistur and during the Middle Ages came to be applied in the plural to the moistures or juices which on old medical authority made up the constitution of a human being, as bile or phlegm. So a bilious or phlegmatic humour came to mean a certain character or state. This was the sense in which Jonson used "humour," in the play "Every Man out of his Humour."
A humourist was a character painter because peculiarities of character were generally laughable. Ben Jonson was a humourist but he was especially a caricaturist and must be criticised as such. Caricature is a legitimate method of getting effect by overloading. This method is especially evident in the three following plays: "Cynthia's Revels," "The Poetaster" and "Every Man out of his Humour."
In the last of these plays the exaggerated and labored characteristics stand out with especial clearness. Mr. Moulton compared their action to the batter in a cricket match. They stand up and exhibit their peculiarities till they are bowled out and disappear to make room for the next. Form and plot in these plays are sacrificed to the satire. They are not plays but dramatic satires. The Elizabethan age was suited to this literary form as it abounded in characters who courted conspicuousness.
Mr. Moulton then proceeded to illustrate by reciting and condensing parts of "Every Man out of his Humour," how each labled humour had its innings and then was put out. First he gave Jonson's Sordido, the farmer whose avarice culminates at the point where he upbraids the men who cut him down for not untying the new halter. Then followed the sketch of Sir Puntarvolo who united two humours. The first, his fad for reviving the elaborate manners of chivalry is destroyed by being caught in an absurd "make believe" situation. The second, his proclivity for dealing in "returns" and "marine insurances" ends equally disastrously.
In conclusion the lecturer showed how the characters who are primarily scene shifters and are continually used to exhibit the ridiculous humours of other people and finally to put them out, themselyes have humours which they continue parading until checked. So it was with Carlo Buffone whose tastes for teasing and good living were both extinguished when Sir Puntarvolo filled up his mouth with hot sealing wax. Mr. Moulton received enthusiastic applause after he had finished, which testified to his success in delighting his audience.