An Image of the Times: An Irreverent Companion to Ben Jonson’s Four Humours and the Art of Diplomacy – Nils-Johan Jørgensen

19 May

TimelyHere is a witty and learned literary excursion into the world of humour and comic literature as revealed inter alia by the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Oliver Goldsmith and Henry Fielding leading in the second half to some glorious insights and observations provided by author s life experience in the world of diplomacy. It is a rich and fascinating mix of literary idiom, the theatre of the absurd and the comic element of the human condition. Importantly, it does speak to the difficulties and dilemmas facing today s diplomatic missions as much as it has ever done the necessary dance between reality and pragmatism, how the art of diplomacy often hinges on the quality of humour brought to bear in any particular context. As such, this thought-provoking text by a retired Norwegian ambassador could be said to offer a clever bridge between history, literature and diplomacy, creating a fascinating link between his prime sources and the world of the diplomat.

Having greedily devoured the author’s children’s books, a change of pace and a leap into the scholarly beckoned this time around.  Using Jonson’s skill and invention as a poet to link into the world of diplomacy is effective and Jørgensen’s own experiences in such places as Harare, Bonn, Dar El Salaam and Tokyo amongst others make for a very diverse and entertaining book.

Part one is a wide-ranging study of history and literature and how various ideas and innovations have contributed to the play and the theory behind them.  It’s also an underlining of Jonson’s enduring genius (although Shakespeare seems to have eclipsed him in popularity for the moment), his influence on 17th and 18th century comedy plays and literature and the wide range of sources from which his works are derived.

Jonson’s characters are formed through a mixture of sources,  from the fields of scientific, psychological, medicinal and philosophical exploration and how they are linked to the humours and the rules (decorum) of the play.  The humours I should explain are a blend of characteristics – personality types, that formed a foundation on which to base ideas and played a significant part in the above fields.

Despite the rigid rules of what was expected in the theatre at that time, Jonson and others managed to constantly reappraise and innovate their characters in order to create richer and more layered persona, allowing the masterful renaissance works of Elizabethan era to be created. 

Finally there is an attempt to define the meaning of the Comic which rounds off the first part perfectly and is a neat bridge into the second with its lighter tone which is a great advert for the job of ambassador, where a sense of humour seems to be a key qualification.  Jørgensen’s personal anecdotes from the world of diplomacy are not only wonderfully funny but derived from many places and like Jonson so many sources (as diverse as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and 11th Century letters about territorial disputes over the Shetland and Orkney Isles between Britain and Norway) .  It make for a rewarding an eye-opening read into the mysterious world of the ambassador, where one has to play a role and say all the right things, it is a neat mirroring of the stage.

I really enjoyed this book, not only did I learn new things but it also allowed me to piece together the evolution of some of the theories I have come across through my reading over the years.  The world of the theatre has always fascinated me, the manipulation of space and so forth but seeing how characters are created and the internal rules and logic of a play and its interpretations are fascinating and encourage the study of the stage and the ideas they were based upon.

Not only is this a good primer for the psychology of Elizabethan plays – as well as a welcome reminder of the Medieval mystery plays – but also brings about an understanding of the technical aspects of a play much less considered by the lay reader such as myself.  Not only is this book a timely showcasing of Jonson’s capabilities as a writer but also a reminder of the parts that we all play in our daily lives.


Posted by on 19/05/2016 in Essays, Plays


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22 responses to “An Image of the Times: An Irreverent Companion to Ben Jonson’s Four Humours and the Art of Diplomacy – Nils-Johan Jørgensen

  1. Jill Weatherholt

    19/05/2016 at 13:25

    When you learn and enjoy the book, that’s always a bonus. Thanks for the review Ste J!


    • Ste J

      19/05/2016 at 13:29

      It’s always a pleasure to travel in search of informative books to share. Not only did it tell me about the plays but also a fascinating look into the burgeoning sciences of medicine and psychology. Finding those links in unexpected places that settle into the fabric of our consciousness like Jonson and Shakespeare’s plays is really encouraging for the study of just about everything!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah

    19/05/2016 at 16:25

    I love books like this. Sometimes the very premise of a book can explode your world view – in a good way – and that’s before you’ve even opened the cover. This is definitely one for the wish list!


    • Ste J

      20/05/2016 at 09:01

      There were so many things I hadn’t connected together but have been hidden there in plain sight (in some cases) and the world of diplomacy seems a right laugh at times as well. We should go into business as the comedy division and just send out knock knock jokes all day translated via Google for even more intentional hilarity.


  3. Theanne aka magnoliamoonpie

    19/05/2016 at 16:41



  4. clarepooley33

    20/05/2016 at 01:01

    This sounds such a good book! A multi-layered feast! I will add this to my list!


    • Ste J

      20/05/2016 at 09:26

      I love books that make connections and give the reader a whole new view of things and teach said reader to be more observant of things and observe and research more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Resa

    20/05/2016 at 01:22

    A great review, and I am tired beyond tired so won’t comment. However, I voted for you “Best Book Reviews” on some site I went to, to vote for Aquileana. Yay! for Ste J!


    • Ste J

      20/05/2016 at 08:48

      Thank you very much, I appreciate the advertising! Just having you pop around is enough to bring a smile my friend.


  6. Alastair Savage

    20/05/2016 at 07:35

    You really loves this guy, don’t you? I’m starting to think I should pick up some of his work.
    That Holbein picture on the cover, The Ambassadors, once really bothered me because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what that long white object was on the floor. In those pre-internet days, it was impossible to find out. It was only when I saw it in the National Gallery in London that I discovered it was a skull, drawn so that you can see it perfectly when viewing the picture from the side.


    • Ste J

      20/05/2016 at 09:48

      After enjoying West of the West Wind, the author was kind enough to send me four other books, so I perhaps have more access to him than I usually would due to my aversion to internet shopping. Nevertheless I find that whatever Jørgensen writes to be immersive and layered which more than makes Ste happy.

      Helbein would have loved those magic eye pictures, he would have been prolific with those and give him some 3D glasses and it would have blown his mind. The skull is one of those things that for all its weirdness is not always noticeable to begin with then looking at it oddly.


    • Jeff

      21/05/2016 at 11:42

      Possibility of a book there: a historical survey of writings about the painting.


    • shadowoperator

      21/05/2016 at 16:41

      Good for you, Alastair! Though you have stolen my thunder! I did my Ph.D. on Henry James’s “The Ambassadors,” and of course he was well-versed in art, and I suspected took his title from this picture. It has certainly been seen on copies of many books, but I don’t know if it’s been on James’s book or not. I was about to do a reveal of the fact about the skull, but you’ve beat me to it! Now all we have to do is meander around amongst philosophical explanations about why diplomacy is tied with death, and we’ll have it!


  7. Jilanne Hoffmann

    23/05/2016 at 06:07

    This sounds fascinating and perhaps shades of Stephen Greenblatt?


    • Ste J

      23/05/2016 at 09:52

      I have yet to come across Greenblatt yet, he is in the list as are so many others, it’s tough this prioritising of reading business!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Christy B

    12/09/2016 at 04:14

    The theatre is certainly intriguing and there is a lot I don’t yet know about that world.. I’m thinking this one would be a good read for answering some of my questions 🙂


    • Ste J

      14/09/2016 at 17:21

      There is a lot about Jonson and Shakespeare, with a side order of Bacon as well and after this one you could try Greek Theatre performance by David Wiles, that was an interesting read too.

      Liked by 1 person


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