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Shakespeare and the Four Humors

By Erika Mills ~

English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood personality and health in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors. The belief that blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm within a body determined a person’s temperament and proclivity to disease pervaded society. Shakespeare’s works reflect this conception of the inner workings of the body and their connection to disposition. “And there’s the humor of it”: Shakespeare and the four humors, an online exhibition from the National Library of Medicine (NLM), explores the language of the four humors and their influence in Shakespeare’s plays.

Chart detailing the Theory of the Four Humors

“And there’s the humor of it” is a refresh of a 2012 exhibition of the same name, guest curated by Theodore Brown, PhD, a historian at the University of Rochester and Gail Kern Paster, PhD, a Shakespeare scholar and historian. The online exhibition features rare books from from the historical collections at NLM and the Folger Shakespeare Library and includes one university level and K-12 class resources for middle school and high school, as well as a digital gallery of NLM collection items on humoralism dating back to the 13th century.

Here are some highlights from the exhibition:

An open book with an illustrated page of 8 vignettes
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton, 1628
National Library of Medicine #8909832
Petruchio with a sword on his right hand and drags his wife Katherine who is on her knees, with his left hand
Petruchio entertains his wife at dinner, drawing by Louis Rhead, ca. 1918
Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

English Renaissance cleric and scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640) explored different forms of melancholy through a humoral lens in this medical and philosophical text. According to Burton, unmarried gentlewomen lacked the social purpose conferred by marriage and were afflicted with a depressive “torrent of inward humours” thusly.

Ophelia’s arc from Hamlet serves as an example of such a predicament. Her isolation at court, her overbearing father’s commands, and Hamlet’s withdrawal of attention from her drive her to virginal melancholy.

In Taming of the Shrew, headstrong protagonists Kate and Petruchio, both quick to anger, are described as being choleric by nature. “Choler” refers to yellow bile, an excess of which was thought to cause irascibility and irrational behavior. In this illustration, Petruchio denies Kate dinner, claiming that roasted meat is not good for her. He deprives her of the pleasure of new clothes and of female companionship, wearing her down until by the end of the play, she is willing to submit to him.

An open book showing two pages of text
Marsilio Ficino, De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), 1529
National Library of Medicine #2236046R

The middle-aged character Shylock from The Merchant of Venice exhibits melancholic characteristics, like suspicion of others, a lack of sociality, and a long memory. Shakespeare and his contemporaries saw aging as a gradual cooling and desiccating of the humors—a progression toward melancholy. Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) was interested in warming, moistening therapies for vitality. In his De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), he recommended that older people drink the warm milk of a young, cheerful woman and take spicy cordials to maintain a youthful spirit.

To see more of “And there’s the humor or it!”: Shakespeare and the Four Humors, visit the exhibition online.

Erika MillsErika Mills is an exhibit specialist in the Exhibition Program, History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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