The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Comedy of humors (comedy of humours)
Comedy of humors (comedy of humours): A satiric form of comedy, developed in the late sixteenth century by the English playwrights George Chapman and Ben Jonson, that presents characters with personality types dominated by one quality that leads them to behave in a ridiculous way. The word humor in the phrase comedy of humors does not refer to humor as we understand it today. Rather, the comedy of humors is based on a physiological theory of human behavior, current during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that held that personality was determined by the relative amounts of four fluids, or humors, in the body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. According to this theory, as long as the humors were in balance, an individual would have a perfect temperament and no illness, but an imbalance would affect behavior in a very specific way: an excess of blood would produce a sanguine (happy) personality, phlegm a phlegmatic (cowardly, passive) personality, yellow bile a choleric (argumentative, stubborn) personality, and black bile a bilious (melancholy) one. The comedy of humors influenced comedies of the Restoration Age.
EXAMPLES: Chapman’s An Humorous Day’s Mirth (1597), Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour (1598). Molière’s (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin’s) comedy Le misanthrope (1666) features the melancholy Alceste, who continuously rails against humankind. The subtitle of the work — L’atrabilaire amoureux — overtly evokes the theory of humors, “L’atrabilaire” meaning (according to the Dictionnaire de l’Académie), “Qui est plein d’une bile noire et aduste. Visage atrabilaire, humeur atrabilaire” (One who is full of black, burnt bile. Peevish countenance, peevish disposition).