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National Library of Medicine Announces "And there's the humor of it" — Shakespeare and the four humors

Special Display, Online Exhibition and Traveling Banner Exhibition Feature Treasures from NLM and Folger Shakespeare Library

The National Library of Medicine, the world's largest medical library and a component of the National Institutes of Health, is pleased to announce a new resource, "And there's the humor of it" Shakespeare and the four humors. This unique project, featuring items from NLM's historical collection as well as the Folger Shakespeare Library (// in Washington, DC, will take several forms: a special display open to the public at NLM, on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, January 30-August 17, 2012; a traveling banner exhibition, which will tour the nation and perhaps travel abroad (; and as an online exhibition, which can be viewed by people around the globe (//  The latter will feature educational resources developed and produced by NLM.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age-that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors -blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define people's physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well. 

The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare's plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear-the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies."And there's the humor of it" Shakespeare and the four humors explores these themes in a special display featuring rare books and incunables from the collection of the National Library of Medicine and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The display was translated into a traveling banner exhibition, which will be available to libraries across America free of charge. In addition, education resources for K-12 educators and students, and university professors and students are included in the online adaptation of the special display.

"And there's the humor of it" Shakespeare and the four humors marks the first formal collaboration between NLM and the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world's largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials. The exhibition was curated by former Folger Director Gail Kern Paster, PhD, and Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Theodore Brown, PhD.  The exhibition and Web site were designed by Riggs Ward Design (//

Images from the Exhibtion
 Rembert Dodoens, A Niewe Herball, 1578  John Hayter, Melancholy face of Ophelia, 1846  William Shakespeare, 1623

Rembert Dodoens, A Niewe Herball, 1578

John Hayter,  Melancholy face of Ophelia, 1846

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

William Shakespeare,1623

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library


For a tour of the special display at NLM in Bethesda, please contact or call 301.594.1947.

For information about booking a traveling exhibition, please go to