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Melancholy in Age: The Case of Shylock

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Black-and-white illustrations shows a scene from The Merchant of Venice. Jessica stands at the door step receiving something from Shylock as he is leaving the house. To the right of Shylock, a man is shown, hunched over looking at the two.

For William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, aging was a process of gradual drying of the flesh and cooling of bodily humors. The body’s supply of blood diminished as individuals approached the final coldness and dryness of death. In old age, the body developed an excess of melancholy and the sad, unforgiving, and close-fisted disposition that accompanied that retentive bodily humor.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is reviled by anti-Semitic Venetians who might have seen him as a pathological case of unnatural melancholy or “melancholy adust.” When the body’s natural heat and moisture were burned up by vengefulness like Shylock’s against his Venetian enemies, the naturally clear fluids of the brain became darkened, resulting in an excess of the melancholy humor and what we might recognize as depression and unresolved anger.

above: Felix Darley, Shylock and Jessica, 1885. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. Cautioning daughter Jessica to lock up his doors as he goes out unwillingly to a feast, Shylock displays the retentiveness and lack of sociality associated with the cold, dry temperament.

below left: Felix Darley, Shylock with Antonio and Bassanio, 1884. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

below right: Sir John Tenniel, Merchant of Venice, 1879. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. William Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have identified Shylock’s traits—his occupation as a moneylender, his calculating disposition, his suspiciousness of others, his long memory, and his cruelty in demanding a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio for repayment of a debt—as melancholic.

Black-and-white illustration depicts an exterior scene with three men standing by columns of a building. Shylock, on the left, holds a cane on his right hand. He leans and speaks to one of the two other men, Antonio and Bassanio, to his right.
Full figure illustration of Shylock.
Photograph of the play, The Merchant of Venice.

left: William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Quarto, ca. 1600. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. The publication of inexpensive editions of Shakespeare’s plays, like this 1600 quarto of The Merchant of Venice, suggests that there was an audience of readers as well as theatre goers interested in Shylock and Shakespeare’s Venice.

Photograph of the title page of the book, Anatomy of Melancholy.

left: Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1624. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. Renaissance culture generally associated old age with melancholy. English scholar Robert Burton wrote “Old age, being cold and dry, and of the same quality as melancholy is, must needs cause it, by diminution of spirits and substance.”

Photograph of the book, De vita libri tres open to show pages 76 and 77.

left: Marsilio Ficino, De vita libri tres, 1529. Courtesy National Library of Medicine. The Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), himself a melancholic by birth, was interested in warm, moistening therapies to prolong life and counteract the cold dryness of old age. In his De vita libri tres (Three Books on Life), he recommends that old people drink the warm milk of a young woman “who is healthy, beautiful, temperate, and cheerful.” He would have the elderly take spicy cordials to keep them “in a state of natural greenness” and walk among green fields because “a certain youthful spirit flows to us through the odor, sight, use, and habitation of and in them.”

Do as I bid you. Shut doors after you. Fast bind, fast find— A proverb never stale in thrify mind. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venica, ca. 1598. Red horizontal line
Black-and-whte illustration of the Globe Theater in the foreground with some shurbs. Four small figures are on the left of the theater building. In the background are buildings in shadow with smoke rising from one of the chimnies toward the upper left corner. To the right of the smoke are the words 'The Globe.'

In Conclusion: Shakespeare’s audiences were presented with plays depicting the full range of human behaviors and character types, from the vengefulness of choleric old age to maidenly melancholy. If the modern age no longer recognizes the four bodily humors, we recognize the emotions with which they were associated for so many centuries.

above: Claes Jansz Visscher, “Globe Theater,” Londinum florentissima Brittaniae urbs, 1626. Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library. In 1599, Shakespeare’s company of actors built the Globe Theater on the south bank of the Thames almost directly across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. An amphitheater open to the skies, the Globe burned down in 1613 but was soon rebuilt on the old foundations. It remained in operation until the theaters were closed by city authorities in 1642.

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