The humours in Shakespeare

23 April 2016

On 23 April 2016 we mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. One way we’re celebrating this anniversary is by exploring the four bodily humours and their effect on some of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. Nelly Ekström tells us more about the humours and how they’ve been represented in the work of the Bard of Avon. 

Everey man humour hath his adjuct pleasure,
Wherein it finds joy above the rest.

– William Shakespeare, sonnet 91

One of the uncountable ways Shakespeare’s work is so wonderful and relevant for us today is because of the knowledge it gives us about the world he lived in. His writing is one of the most important sources for the knowledge we have about medicine in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His works contains a lot of information on the contemporary medical practices of the time, but also show the social history of medicine: how medicine formed a part of people’s lives and thoughts.

In Shakespeare’s time, the understanding of medicine and the human body was based on the theory of the four bodily humours. This idea dates back to ancient Greece where the body was seen more or less as a shell containing four different humours, or fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The humours affect your whole being, from your health and feelings to your looks and actions.

The key to good health (and being a good person) is to keep your humours in balance. However, everyone has a natural excess of one of the humours, which is what makes us all look unique and behave differently. If blood dominates, you will have a sanguine temperament; yellow bile makes you choleric; black bile melancholic; and phlegm leads you to being phlegmatic.

In this series of blogs we’ll be taking a closer look at each of the four humours and how they affect the temperaments and actions of four of Shakespeare’s most famous characters.

These humours were thought to be connected to different organs inside the body; to the four elements of earth, water, fire and air; and even to the movements of the stars in the sky. Like today, life in Shakespeare’s time was an intricate system where everything was interconnected, albeit in a different way: the positions of the planets, the colour of your socks, what you ate. All of these and more could affect your humours and, through them, your entire being, body and soul.

 Picture 1
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T. Walkington’s Diagram from “The Optic Glass of the Four Humors,” 1639.

 L0012390 De Astrologia. Astrological Man: 1503
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Astrological or zodiac man.

One play really stands out when it comes to the subject of humours. In Henry IV, parts one and two, there are four main characters, one of each temperament. And they all have roughly the same number of lines.

So the play itself is very close to the ideal humoral balance. King Henry IV himself is melancholic, Prince Hal sanguine, Sir Harry Hotspur choleric and the knight Sir John Falstaff is phlegmatic. Jack Falstaff is fat, lazy, cowardly, dishonest and sentimental, but the audience loved him despite all his faults. He became so popular that Shakespeare later wrote him his own play, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

There are far fewer phlegmatic leading characters in Shakespeare’s writing then there are sanguine, melancholic and choleric. Besides Falstaff, who has the largest number of lines in Henry IV, they usually function in the subplot of the comedies, like the duos Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night or Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest. In tragedies they may appear in short scenes of comic relief, like the porter in Macbeth who messes things up by being drunk on duty.

 L0069446 Woodcut of drinking and vomiting
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Woodcut of two men drinking, over-consuming and vomiting.

All the temperaments have their good and bad sides. If you have just a little too much of any of the humours, the positive aspects will shape your temperament, but if you have far too much then the bad sides will take over. Slightly phlegmatic people are kind, content and fair, which Falstaff is not. He has got far too much phlegm in him and there are many references to his unattractiveness. This is how Prince Hal greets him in Henry IV, part 1, Act 1, scene 2″

Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sac, and unbuttoning thee after
supper, and sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast forgotten to
demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know. What a devil hast thou
to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and
minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of
leaping houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flamecoloured
taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to
demand the time of day.

 Picture 4
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Falstaff imagined by artist Eduard von Grützner, 1906.

At the beginning of the play, Falstaff and Prince Hal are great friends. The phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments have a lot in common. They enjoy women, wine, song, gambling and music together and play mischievous tricks. But the Prince, who is honest and good hearted due to his sanguine temperament, knows that he has to mend his ways in order to be worthy of the crown and eventually leaves the bad influence of Falstaff behind. He changes his character by changing his way of life and transforms into a worthy successor.

Having an excess of a humours could be a bit of a vicious cycle: it both causes and is caused by your behaviour. Falstaff’s phlegmatic temperament makes him gorge in “sack” (wine) and “capons” (castrated cockerel, fattened for eating) all night and sleep all day, which builds up more and more phlegm and makes him even more thick and self-indulgent. What he should be doing is try to restore the balance by switching to a warming and drying diet and engaging in warming and drying activities. In other words, no drinking, no heavy fatty foods and more exercise. Basically what any doctor today would recommend. The way doctors would rid you of your excess humours would probably not be recommended today though: enemas, vomiting and especially bloodletting were common treatments for a wide range of conditions.

 L0025552 Histoires prodigieuses; Histoire d'un Roy... WMS 136
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Story of a King who was so fat, that he had his fat sucked out by leeches.

Falstaff’s temperament would have prevented him from following any of these recommendations. He’d probably agree with fellow phlegmatic Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 3:

I am a great eater of beefd and I believe that does harm to my wit.

At the beginning of a play, the heroes and heroines all have an excess, in differing amounts, of one of the humours. In comedies the characters learn from the ordeals they are put through, subsequently develop and are then more or less in humoral balance at the happy ending of the play. In tragedies the characters usually start out with a normal excess of their temperamental humour, but thru their actions and reactions their excess is built up, leading to more and more extreme behaviour until all hope of restoring balance is lost.

This is the destiny of one of Shakespeare’s most well known characters, whose melancholic temperament drove him to murder and madness. Next time we will take a closer look at Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Nelly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.