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The Four Humors in Shakespeare's Works
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The Humors Influence the Mood, Behavior, and Health of Characters


Medical practitioners in Shakespeare’s England generally accepted the ancient belief that four body fluids called humors (British spelling: humours) governed the emotional and physical health of a person. These fluids—produced by the body’s organs and tissues—were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood.

In his plays, Shakespeare frequently referred or alluded to a humor as an influence on a character’s behavior or physical condition.

The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) developed the theory of the four humors, drawing upon knowledge passed on from previous generations and cultures. He maintained that too much or too little of a humor would affect the mental state and behavior of an individual, usually—but not always—negatively. Such an altered state could lead to physical illness, according to this theory. Another Greek physician, Galen (130-200 AD), enlarged upon and popularized the theory as he traveled the Roman Empire.

In the age of Shakespeare, physicians identified the mental and emotional effects of a humoral imbalance as follows:
Black bile: Pessimism, gloom, depression, introspection, moodiness, hypochondria. Persons under the influence of black bile were said to be melancholic. (The noun is melancholy.)
Yellow bile: Anger, violence, volatility, resentment, rage, spite, ambition, vengefulness. Persons under the influence of yellow bile were said to be choleric. (The noun is choler, meaning anger and irritability).
Phlegm: Laziness, apathy, impassivity, calmness, sleepiness, cowardice. Persons under the influence of phlegm were said to be phlegmatic. (The noun is phlegm.)
Blood: Optimism, passion, merriment, boldness, kindness, courage, youth (or a youthful spirit), and sometimes overindulgence. Persons under the influence of blood were said to be sanguine, meaning healthy, cheerful, and confident. (The noun is sanguinity.)
Among the physical afflictions that could develop from a humoral imbalance were respiratory illness (associated with phlegm); fever, jaundice, and liver disease (associated with yellow bile); obesity (associated with blood); and fatigue, cancer, nerve problems, tremors, arthritis, and rheumatism (associated with black bile).

Dyscrasia was the term used to identify an imblance of the humors; eucrasia identified a balance—in other words, good health. To correct imbalances, doctors prescribed bloodletting, vomiting, and enemas to purge the body of a humoral excess. They also prescribed dietary changes and drugs.

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Following are examples of passages in Shakespeare’s plays that refer or allude to a humor.
Black Bile
When I am dull with care and melancholy,
[He] lightens my humour with his merry jests. (The Comedy of Errors, 1.2.-22-23)
The speaker is Antipholus of Syracuse. He explains that jests help lighten his dark moods.

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off. (Hamlet, 1.2.71)
The death of Hamlet’s father deeply saddens and depresses him. Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, attempts to cheer him up, telling him to cast off the black shade that colors his disposition.

So it is, besieged with sable-coloured melancholy, I did commend the black-oppressing humour to the most wholesome physic of thy health-giving air; and, as I am a gentleman, betook myself to walk. (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1.1.207)
In a letter read by the king, Armado says he breathed fresh air and took a walk to overcome his “black-oppressing humour.”
Blood
IMOGEN: Is he disposed to mirth? I hope he is.
IACHAMO: Exceeding pleasant; none a stranger there
So merry and so gamesome: he is call'd
The Briton reveller. (Cymbeline, 1.6.66-69)
Imogen asks whether her husband, Posthumus Leonatus, who is away in Rome, is happy and cheerful. Iachamo, who has just arrived from Rome, describes Posthumus’s state of mind and behavior as merry and gamesome, as if he is under the influence of blood.

Awake remembrance of these valiant dead,           
And with your puissant arm renew their feats:   
You are their heir, you sit upon their throne,   
The blood and courage that renowned them   
Runs in your veins; and my thrice-puissant liege   
Is in the very May-morn of his youth,          
Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises. (Henry V, 1.2.120-126)
The Bishop of Ely advises King Henry to go to war against France, maintaining he has a just claim to the French throne. He says Henry has the same courage and valiant spirit (qualities of a person under a sanguine humoral influence) of Englishmen who fought the French in the past. Their blood runs in his veins.
Phlegm
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness. (Henry IV Part I, 1.2.65-66)
Prince Henry is addressing his indolent—that is, phlegmaticcompanions.

I beseech you, be not so phlegmatic. Hear the truth of it: he came of an errand to me from Parson Hugh. (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1.4.39)
Mistress Quickly is addressing Dr. Caius.
Yellow Bile
I do know Fluellen valiant
And, touched with choler, hot as gunpowder,
And quickly will return an injury. (Henry V, 4.7. 98-100)
King Henry tells Warwick and Gloucester that Fluellen has a short temper and is easily provoked.

Scarce can I speak, my choler is so great:
O, I could hew up rocks and fight with flint,
I am so angry at these abject terms. (Henry VI Part II, 5.1.26)
York expresses his anger with a decision of King Henry VI.

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be ruled by me;
Let's purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision;
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed. (Richard II, 1.1.155-159)
King Richard II bids his listeners to restrain their anger “without letting blood,” a play on words referring to a physicians’ bloodletting and to fighting that draws blood.

I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour. (The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1.147)
Petruchio says he will tame the choleric Katherina.

Examples of characters who exhibit the effects of an excess of a humor are Hamlet and Ophelia (black bile) in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; Falstaff (phlegm) in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II; Lady Macbeth (yellow bile) in Macbeth and Tybalt (yellow bile) in Romeo and Juliet; Benedick (blood) in Much Ado About Nothing and Viola (blood) in Twelfth Night: or What You Will.

Sometimes, Shakespeare writes of humors without specifying the humor to which he is referring. Here are examples.
For the table, sir, it shall be served in; for the meat, sir, it shall be covered; for your coming in to dinner, sir, why, let it be as humours and conceits shall govern. (The Merchant of Venice, 3.5.22)

He is there: see what humour he is in; and I will bring the doctor about by the fields. Will it do well? (The Merry Wives of Windsor, 2.3.40)
In addition, Shakespeare writes of humors occurring in nature, as in the the following passage.
Is Brutus sick? and is it physical
To walk unbraced and suck up the humours
Of the dank morning? What, is Brutus sick,
And will he steal out of his wholesome bed,
To dare the vile contagion of the night    
And tempt the rheumy and unpurged air
To add unto his sickness? (Julius Caesar, 2.1.281-287)