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High School

The Melancholy Dane

Grade Level:


Time Needed:

two 40-minute class periods


Students deepen their analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by learning about and applying their knowledge of the four humors rooted in Greek Medicine and used during and beyond Shakespeare’s time. In Class 1, students use an excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor to consider varying definitions of “humor” in the author’s time. Students examine primary sources featured in the “And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors exhibition to learn about the four humors and the humoral theory, as well as review dramatic structure. In Class 2, students apply their knowledge about the melancholic humor in their character analysis and understanding of Hamlet as the “melancholy prince.” Students identify text references to Hamlet’s melancholy traits and assess the significance of his characterization for the play as a whole.

Students are expected to have read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and to be familiar with dramatic plot structure, specifically exposition and rising action.

Learning Outcomes: Students will be able to

  • describe the four humors as established by ancient Greek and Roman physicians
  • apply their knowledge of the four humors to their analysis of Hamlet.
  • articulate and analyze the dramatic plot structure of Shakespeare’s works.
  • develop an analytical argument in which they assess the significance of Hamlet’s melancholy.
  • interpret primary sources of varying media types, including textual and visual.

Background Information

The "And there’s the humor of it" exhibition explores how the humoral theory of Greek medicine continued to dominate our understanding of temperaments and illness into and beyond Shakespeare’s time. The humoral theory states that the human body and mind are affected by four bodily fluids. Teachers are recommended to preview the "And there’s the humor of it" website and to review the handouts listed under Materials prior to using the lesson plan as a whole or in part.

Teachers may also review or reference the following secondary sources for additional background information:


The following words may be introduced or incorporated during class discussions:

  • inference, turning point, exposition, rising action, falling action, climax, resolution, denouement, thesis, context, catastrophe, internal conflict, external conflict, protagonist
  • black bile, yellow bile, sanguine, melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic, humors


  • Handouts
    • “Humour” Excerpt: Merry Wives of Windsor Act 2, Scene 1 (PDF, MSWord)
    • Teacher’s “Humour” Excerpt: Merry Wives of Windsor Act 2, Scene 1 (PDF)
    • Four Humors Primary Sources (PDF, MSWord)
    • Four Humors Chart (PDF, MSWord)
    • Teacher’s Four Humors Chart (PDF)
    • Four Humors in Hamlet (PDF, MSWord)
    • Teacher’s Four Humors in Hamlet (PDF)
    • Dramatic Structure Review (PDF, MSWord)
    • Teacher’s Dramatic Structure Review (PDF)
    • Case Study of Melancholy and the Literary Analysis (PDF, MSWord)
    • Teacher’s Case Study of Melancholy and the Literary Analysis (PDF)
    • Hamlet’s Melancholy—Essay (PDF, MSWord)
  • Other materials and set-ups:
    • a display set-up for the class (e.g., front board for class notes, overhead projector and screen, smart or Promethean board, etc.)
    • (Optional) laptops or access to a computer lab for online research and word processing

Class 1 Procedures

  1. Ask students to share their definitions of the word “humor” and summarize the shared definition(s). Tell students that they are going to examine how Shakespeare used the word “humour” (British spelling).
  2. Distribute copies of “Humour” Excerpt: Merry Wives of Windsor Act 2, Scene 1. Review as a class the context and task paragraphs on the top of the handout.
  3. Have students read the excerpt, complete the task on the bottom portion of the handout, and share their answers. See Teachers’ “Humour” Excerpt: Merry Wives of Windsor Act 2, Scene 1 for possible answers.
  4. Project or print out the introduction to “And there’s the humor of It” and describe the four humors theory, as Shakespeare would have known it in his time—i.e., four bodily fluids whose balance and imbalance determined one’s health and personality/temperament.
  5. Group 2 to 4 students together and give a copy of the Four Humors Chart to each student and a copy of Four Humors Primary Sources to each group. Task groups to complete the chart using the primary sources. [Optional: If groups have access to computers with the Internet connection, have them access the “The World of Shakespeare’s Humors” webpage for the group work.]
  6. Project the Four Humors Chart and complete it as a class by having groups report their answers and discuss any discrepancies. See discussion notes in Teacher’s Four Humor Chart.
  7. Use Four Humors in Hamlet for students to analyze how Shakespeare used the four humors (in bold type on the display) to describe his characters. See suggested discussion guides in Teacher’s Four Humors in Hamlet.
  8. Hand out Dramatic Structure Review for students to complete and review as a class their answers. See Teacher’s Dramatic Structure Review for answers.
  9. Class 1 Evaluation: In addition to the class discussions, collect the completed “Humor” Excerpt: Merry Wives of Windsor Act 2, Scene 1, Four Humors Chart, Four Humors in Hamlet, and Dramatic Structure Review handouts for evaluation.

Class 2 Procedures

[Preparation: Have the completed Four Humors in Hamlet, and Dramatic Structure Review handouts to return to students at the start of Class 2. Also have students bring their copies of Hamlet or prepare copies of Act I Scene 2 ( for students’ working on Case Study of Melancholy and Literary Analysis during step 4 below.]

  1. Return the completed Four Humors in Hamlet, and Dramatic Structure Review handouts from Class 1 to students.
  2. As a class review the two handouts and tell students that they are to examine closely Hamlet’s temperament during the exposition and rising action part of the play’s dramatic structure.
  3. Display and read aloud for the class the “Sanguine” description in Four Humors Primary Sources, as well as the “Black Bile” row of the Teacher’s Four Humors Chart.
  4. Hand out copies of Case Study of Melancholy and Literary Analysis and review the questions on the handout as a class. Have students work in pairs and use their copies of Hamlet (specifically, the Act I Scene 2) to answer the questions on the handout.
  5. Have students share their responses and conduct the class discussion. See discussion guides in Teacher’s Case Study of Melancholy and Literary Analysis.
  6. Ask students how or whether Hamlet’s melancholy affects the play, Hamlet, and help students reflect on why Shakespeare has characterized Hamlet as so stereotypically “melancholy.”
  7. Tell students that they are to write a literary analysis paper about Hamlet’s melancholy. Hand out Hamlet’s Melancholy—Essay, and review the task and evaluation guidelines as a class.
  8. Have students write an outline of the essay and use the remainder of the class to work on Hamlet’s Melancholy—Essay. Assign students finish and hand in their completed essays at the beginning of next class.
  9. Class 2 Evaluation: In addition to class discussion, teachers can evaluate student understanding using the short essay on melancholy in Hamlet and other completed handouts.


In addition to observing and assessing students during class discussions and presentations, teachers can evaluate students’ progress and understanding by reviewing completed handouts and the short essay.

Extension Activities

Assign a research project on the role of the four humors in other characters in Hamlet. Students may incorporate secondary source material into their own writing.

National Standards (

  • Language Arts: English
    • Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
    • Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
    • Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
    • Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
    • Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).