“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (2023)

Table of Contents
The World of Shakespeare’s Humors Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498 Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library Henry Peacham,“ Melancolia,” Minerva Britanna, 1612 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498 Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library Henry Peacham, “Sanguis,” Minerva Britanna, 1612 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498 Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library Henry Peacham, “Phlegma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498 Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library Henry Peacham, “Cholera,” Minerva Britanna, 1612 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Aristotle, De Animalibus (On Animals), 1235–ca. 1245 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Hippocrates, Octoginta volumina, quibus maxima ex parte, annorum circiter duo milia Latina caruit lingua,… (Eighty Small Works, which for the most part have not been available in Latin for approximately two thousand years…), 1525 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Galen, De temperamentis libri tres (On Temperament in Three Books), 1545 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Thomas Walkington, Optick Glasse of Humors, 1639 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Thomas Elyot, Castel of Helth, 1541 Courtesy National Library of Medicine David Bogue, Angry face of Katharine Minola, 1847 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Louis Rhead, Petruchio bears off his bride, ca. 1918 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Quarto, 1631 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Louis Rhead, Petruchio entertains his wife at dinner, ca. 1918 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Louis Rhead, Katharine and music master, ca.1918 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Melancholy Virgins: The Case of Ophelia John Hayter, Melancholy face of Ophelia,1846 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Anonymous, Ophelia in Hamlet, late 19th–early 20th century Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Quarto, 1637 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Rembert Dodoens, A Niewe Herball, 1578 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Felix Darley, Shylock and Jessica, 1885 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Felix Darley, Shylock with Antonio and Bassanio, 1884 William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ca. 1598 Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1624 Courtesy National Library of Medicine Marsilio Ficino, De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), 1529 Courtesy National Library of Medicine

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (1)

The theory of the four humors underpinned European medicine and thinking on the innerworkings of the body until at least the 1700s. According to humoralism, four bodily fluids—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—determined a person’s temperament and an imbalance led to certain sicknesses dependent upon which humors were in excess or deficit. The humors were connected to celestial bodies, seasons, body parts, and stages of life.

The World of Shakespeare’s Humors

The four bodily humors were part of Shakespearean cosmology, inherited from the ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen.

Organized around the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire; the four qualities of cold, hot, moist, and dry; and the four humors, these physical qualities determined the behavior of all created things including the human body.

In the human body, the interaction of the four humors explained differences of age, gender, emotions, and disposition. The influence of the humors changed with the seasons and times of day and with the human life span. Heat stimulated action, cold depressed it. The young warrior’s choler gave him courage, but phlegm produced cowards. Youth was hot and moist, age cold and dry. Men as a sex were hotter and drier than women.

“The mind ’s inclination follows the body’s temperature.”

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (2)

Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498

Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library

A medieval German woodcut depicts the temperaments of the cold and dry qualities of the melancholic disposition, which were associated with old age, retentiveness, and scholarship, like the old man depicted here with his head resting on a table.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (3)

Henry Peacham,“ Melancolia,” Minerva Britanna, 1612

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (4)

Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498

Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library

The hot, moist man representing the sanguine temperament is depicted as an active wooer embracing a woman.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (5)

Henry Peacham, “Sanguis,” Minerva Britanna, 1612

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (6)

Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498

Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library

A cold, moist phlegmatic couple prefer retirement and leisure, signified here by music.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (7)

Henry Peacham, “Phlegma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Image from Deutsche Kalendar (German Calendar), 1498

Courtesy Pierpont Morgan Library

A medieval German woodcut shows a hot dry man who furiously beats the woman kneeling helplessly at his feet.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (9)

Henry Peacham, “Cholera,” Minerva Britanna, 1612

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (10)

Aristotle, De Animalibus (On Animals), 1235–ca. 1245

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE) used observation to gather evidence about the biological world. He identified the classic four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—as the building blocks of the universe.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (11)

Hippocrates, Octoginta volumina, quibus maxima ex parte, annorum circiter duo milia Latina caruit lingua,… (Eighty Small Works, which for the most part have not been available in Latin for approximately two thousand years…), 1525

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460 BCE–370 BCE) is often credited with developing the theory of the four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—and their influence on the body and its emotions.

His treatise on Airs, Waters, and Places describes the influence of geography on the body and its humoral makeup.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (12)

Galen, De temperamentis libri tres (On Temperament in Three Books), 1545

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Born in Pergamon, Roman physician and philosopher Galen (ca. 131–ca. 201) described the four temperaments as determined by a balance of the qualities of hot, cold, moist, and dry. He was revered as a great clinician.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (13)

Thomas Walkington, Optick Glasse of Humors, 1639

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The “glasse” in the title of University of Cambridge cleric Thomas Walkington’s Optick Glasse of Humors is a mirror.The reader is promised greater self-knowledge through understanding the role of the four bodily humors in determining individual human behaviors and overall disposition. For readers of Walkington’s text, “temperament” (what we would call personality) was literally a matter of temperature—the result of the action of cold, hot, wet, and dry in governing behavior.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (14)

Thomas Elyot, Castel of Helth, 1541

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Tudor humanist Thomas Elyot (1490–1546) writes The Castel of Helth as an accessible introduction to the basic concepts of ancient Greek and Roman medicine. Here he describes sickness as an imbalance—or distemperature—in the quantity or quality of one of the four bodily humors. Blood has “preeminence” over the other humors because it was in the blood that melancholy, phlegm, and choler were delivered to the other parts of the body.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (15)

David Bogue, Angry face of Katharine Minola, 1847

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

In an era when women were enjoined to be silent and obedient, Katharine Minola is an outspoken, angry young woman—a “shrew” in Elizabethan parlance. Kate is hurt by her father’s clear preference for her younger sister, the pliant Bianca, and by his desire to marry her off as quickly as possible.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (16)

Louis Rhead, Petruchio bears off his bride, ca. 1918

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Petruchio’s taming of Kate begins with his disorderly behavior at their wedding when he arrives late and poorly dressed and interrupts the wedding feast by dragging her off to his home far away.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (17)

William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Quarto, 1631

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Petruchio's harsh program of “taming” his bride is a calculated intervention in her living conditions. He intends to change her humor by removing the accumulation of hot, dry choler in her body.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (18)

Louis Rhead, Petruchio entertains his wife at dinner, ca. 1918

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Petruchio denies his wife dinner, claiming that roasted meat is too hot and dry for her nature. He deprives her of the pleasure of new clothes and of female companionship. All these deprivations have the effect of wearing her out, both physically and emotionally, until by the end of the play she is willing to submit to his humor, no matter what it might be.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (19)

Louis Rhead, Katharine and music master, ca.1918

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Here, in a scene described in Shakespeare’s play, Katharine refuses to accept the music lessons that early modern affluent families would have deemed appropriate for female instruction and socialization in the domestic arts.

Melancholy Virgins: The Case of Ophelia

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

“They are apt to loathe, dislike, disdaine, to be weary of every object, each thing almost is odious to them, they pine away, void of counsel, apt to weep and tremble, timorous, fearful, sad, and out of all hopes of better fortunes.”

Robert Burton

Anatomy of Melancholy, 1632

Melancholy is the most complex of emotions for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as it was for the ancients. The cold, dry temperament was considered the least desirable of the four, yet melancholy was also traditionally associated with genius and the life of scholarship.

In Hamlet, Ophelia becomes a classic case of the melancholy virgin because of her isolation at court, her overbearing father's commands, and Hamlet's withdrawal of attention from her.

“They are apt to loathe, dislike, disdaine, to be weary of every object, each thing almost is odious to them, they pine away, void of counsel, apt to weep and tremble, timorous, fearful, sad, and out of all hopes of better fortunes.”
The Tragedy of Hamlet

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (20)

John Hayter, Melancholy face of Ophelia,1846

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (21)

Anonymous, Ophelia in Hamlet, late 19th–early 20th century

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

William Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood the madness to which Ophelia succumbs after being cast out by Hamlet as an overheating of the brain resulting directly from her social circumstances.

Note her slumped posture and downward gaze. Instead of looking after the departing Hamlet, who has just angrily ordered her to “get thee to a nunnery,” she looks at the floor sadly.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (22)

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Quarto, 1637

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

The pathos of Ophelia’s situation is clear even before her father’s murder at Hamlet’s hands. Lacking activity and the hopeful future symbolized by marriage, Ophelia succumbs to despair and eventually madness.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (23)

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

English Renaissance cleric and scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640), who wrote about the different types of melancholy, described the female melancholic—represented by virgins and widows—as special cases. According to Burton, unmarried gentlewomen with little to do are afflicted with a “torrent of inward humours.” Above all, they lack the social purpose conferred only by marriage.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (24)

Rembert Dodoens, A Niewe Herball, 1578

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The healing powers of violets described by Flemish physician and botanist Rembert Dodoens (1517–1585) were well known to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Madness of the kind Ophelia suffers after her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection of her would have been understood as a drying and overheating of the brain. The cooling properties of violets and their sweet scent—what we would call aromatherapy—would have been prescribed in her case. But there is no one in the Danish court to befriend and care for Ophelia. So it is ironic when in her madness she distributes flowers to the court and tells them, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.”

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (25)

Felix Darley, Shylock and Jessica, 1885

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

Cautioning daughter Jessica to lock up his doors as he goes out unwillingly to a feast, Shylock displays the retentiveness and lack of sociality associated with the cold, dry temperament.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (26)

Felix Darley, Shylock with Antonio and Bassanio, 1884

William Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have identified Shylock’s traits—his occupation as moneylender, his calculating disposition, his suspiciousness of others, his long memory, and his cruelty in demanding a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio as repayment of a debt—as a melancholic.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (27)

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, ca. 1598

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

The publication of inexpensive editions of Shakespeare's plays, like this ca. 1598 quarto of The Merchant of Venice, suggests that there was an audience of readers as well as theatre goers interested in Shylock and Shakespeare's Venice.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (28)

Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1624

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Renaissance culture generally associated old age with melancholy. English scholar Robert Burton wrote “Old age, being cold and dry, and of the same quality as melancholy is, must needs cause it, by diminution of spirits and substance.”

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and The Four Humors (29)

Marsilio Ficino, De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), 1529

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

The Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), himself a melancholic by birth, was interested in warm, moistening therapies to prolong life and counteract the cold dryness of old age.

In his De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), he recommends that old people drink the warm milk of a young woman “who is healthy, beautiful, temperate, and cheerful.” He would have the elderly take spicy cordials to keep them “in a state of natural greenness” and walk among green fields because “a certain youthful spirit flows to us through the odor, sight, use, and habitation of and in them.”

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