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Changing Explanations in Mind-Body Medicine

Class 4: Mind and Body in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries

Introduction: Shakespeare consistently used familiar humoral notions to explain personalities and emotions in biological terms. His contemporaries readily accepted these ideas but also believed that emotions were sometimes independent of the humors, and they often explained biological events as the consequences of psychological causes. For example, Thomas Wright in his 1604 treatise The Passions of the Minde claimed that disturbances of the mind create perceptible changes in the body, as when men become highly colored in anger and pale in fear and when their eyes become heavy in sorrow and lively in joy. Similarly, Robert Burton’s (1577–1640) Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) contains the following observation about the possibly disastrous consequences of unchecked emotions: “The mind most effectually works upon the body, producing by his passions and perturbations miraculous alterations … cruel diseases and sometimes death itself.” This mix of mind-body and body-mind ideas was the framework in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries understood human behavior, character, and illness, both physical and psychological. It is important for us to understand all dimensions of this complex mixture if we are to truly comprehend Shakespeare’s world.


  • National Library of Medicine. 2012. “And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors. (accessed 1/27/ 2012).
  • [Pre-class assignment: The great popularity in Shakespeare’s time of classical and medieval ideas about the humors and about the relationship between the humors and personality and emotion is one of the major themes of the exhibition. Carefully explore this exhibition as the reading for this class. As presented in the exhibition, Shakespeare seemed to lean heavily towards the Hippocratic or largely biological side of things, although in the exhibition the emphasis is on the connection between the humors and personality as opposed to the connection between the humors and illness as explored in the first three classes of this educational module. Collect specific evidence to support this conclusion about the biological emphasis of the exhibition.]
  • Angus Gowland, The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 43–49.
  • Stanley W. Jackson, Care of the Psyche: A History of Psychological Healing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, 103–105, 155–156, 181–183, 224–226, 267–268, 291–292.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries—Robert Burton, for example—seemed to incline more to a Galenic perspective in that they stressed ways in which “the body tends to be affected by mental conditions.” Burton introduces many non-humoral, psychological factors to explain both the onset and lifting of melancholy in The Anatomy of Melancholy. If these different emphases in Shakespeare and Burton were real and are not an artifact created by using only a small and selective sampling of sources, why might Shakespeare, an actor turned playwright wishing to portray dramatic and often cathartic character transformations before theater audiences, and Burton, who was educated as a clergyman and deeply learned in classical literature and who was intimately familiar with the medical tradition of psychological healing going back to Galen, have differed in their emphases?
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