17th Century Character Writings

Sir Thomas Overbury (1581? to 1613) is nowadays better known to us for the scandal that surrounded his death.

Unnatural Murder:Poison at the Court of James I by Anne Somerset is a very good account of the sensational Overbury murder by poisoning.

NPG 3090(1), Sir Thomas Overbury

In his time, though, Sir Thomas was a poet and essayist and in 1614, a year after his murder aged 32, Characters, or Witty Descriptions of  the Properties of Sundry Persons by Sir Thomas Overbury was published.

His style is distincive. Witty, yes, but also cutting and uncompromising…


To all men’s thinking, is a man, and to most men the finest; all things else are defined by the understanding, but this by the senses; but his surest mark is, that he is to be found only about princes. He smells, and putteth away much of his judgment about the situation of his clothes. He knows no man that is not generally known. His wit, like the marigold, openeth with the sun, and therefore he riseth not before ten of the clock. He puts more confidence in his words than meaning, and more in his pronunciation than his words. Occasion is his Cupid, and he hath but one receipt of making love. He follows nothing but inconstancy, admires nothing but beauty, honours nothing but fortune: Loves nothing. The sustenance of his discourse is news, and his censure, like a shot, depends upon the charging. He is not, if he be out of court, but fish-like breathes destruction if out of his element. Neither his motion or aspect are regular, but he moves by the upper spheres, and is the reflection of higher substances.

If you find him not here, you shall in Paul’s, with a pick-tooth in his hat, cape-cloak, and a long stocking.

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