“And there’s the humor of it”: Shakespeare and the four humors

And there’s the humor of it: Shakespeare and the four humors

November 24, 2014 to January 2, 2015
3rd floor Gallery, Health Sciences Library
Explore the exhibit online

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 understood to define peoples’ physical and mental health, and determined their personality, 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. Curator Gail Kern Paster explains “The four humors were an early typology for human personality. Shakespeare uses them, even as he transcends them, to create the vivid characters whose emotions continue to fascinate and delight us.”

In addition to the panels from the National Library of Medicine, the Health Sciences Library will also be displaying the following in the Gallery:

  • Artifacts related to bleeding – In the Elizabethan world, blood was seen as having great power.  Bleeding was used to treat inflammation, fever, and all sorts of diseases and injuries.  View lancets and other  artifacts related to bleeding.
  • Browse some of Shakespeare’s works – Copies of The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew will be available.  Take a quick break from studying to read some Shakespeare!
  • Take a selfie – With Shakespeare or with a Shakespeare quote.  Be sure to use our hashtags – #CUHSLFourHumors #CUHSLibrary

Shakespeare and the four humors: image