Skip Navigation Bar
 

The World of Shakespeare's Humors

Red horizontal line

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.

Scanned illustration from the book, Minerva Britanna. At the top of the page is the word Melancholia and illustration shows a man with a bearded sitting with a book on his lap and a bag in his right hand, with an owl and a cat sit on either side.

Melancholic

  • Humor: Black Bile
  • Element: Earth
  • Season: Winter
  • Age: Old Age
  • Qualities: Cold & Dry
  • Organ: Spleen
  • Planet: Saturn
Illustration from the book, Minerva Britanna. At the top of the page is the word phlegma, and an illustration of a man sitting next to the fire of a hearth, with a turtle near his feet.

Phlegmatic

  • Humor: Phlegm
  • Element: Water
  • Season: Autumn
  • Age: Maturity
  • Qualities: Cold & Moist
  • Organ: Brain
  • Planet: Moon

above: Henry Peacham, “Melancolia,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

above: Henry Peacham, “Phlegma,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

Illustration from the book, Minerva Britanna. At the top of the page is the word Cholera, and an illustration shows a man without a shirt holding a sword in his right hand while standing next to a lion that is lying on the ground.

Choleric

  • Humor: Yellow Bile
  • Element: Fire
  • Season: Summer
  • Age: Childhood
  • Qualities: Hot & Dry
  • Organ: Gall Bladder
  • Planet: Mars
Illustration from the book, Minerva Britanna. At the top of the page is the word Sanguis and an illustration of a man shown playing a stringed instrument while standing next to a goat with grapes in its mouth.

Sanguine

  • Humor: Blood
  • Element: Air
  • Season: Spring
  • Age: Adolescence
  • Qualities: Hot & Moist
  • Organ: Heart
  • Planet: Jupiter

above: Henry Peacham, “Cholera,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

above: Henry Peacham, “Sanguis,” Minerva Britanna, 1612. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

Illustration of from the book, Deutsche Kalendar. Circular rim frames a scene of a woman seated with her eyes closed eyes, facing away from a man on the right who rests his head on his hands on a table.
Illustration of from the book, Deutsche Kalendar. Circular rim frames a scene showing a young man embraces a woman.
Illustration of Phlegmatic from the book, Deutsche Kalendar. Circular rim frames a scene showing a young man and a young woman playing string instruments facing each other.
Illustration from the book, Deutsche Kalendar. Circular rim frames a scene showing a man with a stick raising his arm as a women sits before him.

above, left to right: Images from Deutsche Kalendar, 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. (first image) The hot, moist man representing the sanguine temperament is depicted as an active wooer embracing a woman. (second image) A cold, moist phlegmatic couple prefer retirement and leisure, signified here by music. (third image) The hot, dry man of choler furiously beats the woman kneeling helplessly at his feet. (fourth image)

Red horizontal line

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.

Photograph of opened De Animalibus shows two pages with some comments written on the margins.
Photograph of the froticepiece of the book, De Humoribus, showing the Latin text in the center of the page framed by an illustration of architectural details.
Photograph of the title page of the book De temperametis libri tres showing Latin text with handwritten notes and an illustration of clouds, a winged horse, cornacopia, two intertwined serpents, and two hands. On the bottome right corner is a stamp reading Library, Surgeon General's Office dated Jul-9, 1899, with hand-written number, 166615.

above left: Aristotle, De Animalibus, ca 1225. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE) identified the classic four elements—earth, water, air, and fire—as the building blocks of the universe. CLICK FOR PORTRAIT OF ARISTOTLE.

above center: Hippocrates, De Humoribus, 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 famous treatise on Airs, Waters, and Places describes the influence of geography on the body and its humoral makeup. CLICK FOR PORTRAIT OF HIPPOCRATES.

above right: Galen, De temperamentis libri tres, 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. CLICK FOR PORTRAIT OF GALEN.

Scanned pages of the book, Optick Glasse of Humors, open to pages 76 and 77 where Chapter VI of Temperaments starts.

left: 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.

Photograph of the book, Castel of Helth, open to the page where the Of Humors section starts.

left: Thomas Elyot, Castel of Helth, 1541. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. Tudor humanist Thomas Elyot (1490–1546) wrote 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 had “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.

The mind's inclination follows the body's temperature. —Commonly attributed to Galen Red horizontal line

BACK | NEXT

Illustration of a red quill pen