Shakespeare and the Four Humours


Elizabethans heavily believed in the supernatural and the presence of malevolent forces, tempting evil to rise above good. Most importantly, all matter was made up of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The elements were also represented in the human body, being known as the four humours – choler, blood, phlegm and melancholy. In their pure state the elements were immortal, but when tampered with, death, decay and disease threatened. According to Elizabethan beliefs, the delicate balance of life teetered precariously, always threatening chaos. Shakespeare played heavily on this doctrine of natural balance in the natural and physical world, both with symbolism (such as the advent of a storm to herald disaster) and his characters who fall victim to inner conflicts of loyalty and betrayal, love and jealously, honour and revenge.


The theory of humours is based on the four elemental body fluids. The amounts of blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile determined a person’s physical or mental health. The logic behind the presence of these fluids was that each fluid gave off vapours that ascend to the brain and the person’s temperament was decided by the state of his humours. The humours each had associated physical and mental characteristics; the result was a system that was quite subtle in its capacity for describing types of personality. The perfect temperament was one in which none of the humours dominated.

  • A person with a dominant presence of blood was supposedly happy and generous. Blood was referred to as Sanguine, with its qualities being hot and moist and its element representing air. People with sanguine would be optimistic, red-cheeked, corpulent, irresponsible (compare Falstaff).
  • A dominance of yellow bile meant that the person was violent and vengeful. Yellow bile was referred to as Choleric, with its qualities being hot and dry, representing fire. People will yellow bile would be short-tempered, red-haired, thin and ambitious (compare Hotspur).
  • If a person were dull, pale, and cowardly it was presumed to be due to an excess of phlegm. Phlegmatic connoted cold and moist and represented water. People representing phlegm would be sluggish, pallid, corpulent and lazy.
  • Black bile justified someone’s gluttony, laziness, or sentiment. Their humour is called Melancholic, and its qualities are cold and dry, representing the earth. Characteristics include being introspective, sallow, thin (compare Richard II, Hamlet).

Different humours could be combined for more complex personality types: choleric-sanguine, phlegmatic-melancholic, and so on.



Desdemona mentions Othello’s “jealous humour”, perhaps not referring to the blackness of his skin, but of illness that affects his judgement and delusion. Jealousy perhaps isn’t represented in a person’s appearance, but their illness of the mind.

“I think the sun where he was born/ Drew all such humours from him?” Act 3 Scene 4. Desdemona is sure that the sun of Africa baked out any humours that could have made Othello a jealous man.

“I pray you, be content, ‘tis but his humour” Iago, Act 4 Scene 2/ “Sir, he’s rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you.” Iago, Act 2 Scene 1

Iago’s language consistently connotes visceral language of bodily fluids and sickness, mirroring how he ironically plagues the play and manipulates the protagonist’s own voice. The sickness spreads.



The melancholy temperament abounds throughout Elizabethan literature. In Shakespeare’s plays, the melancholic figures are easily recognized. In early modern England, a melancholy temperament carried serious implications. In Hamlet, the titular character constantly broods throughout his tragedy, wracked with grief from the recent death of his father, the recent remarriage of his mother to his uncle, and his tumultuous love affair with Ophelia. The other characters call him mad, and struggle to uncover the cause of his illness. Hamlet worries, second-guesses, and questions everything, ultimately destroying himself and those around him. Hamlet’s tale of melancholy ends in death.

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton explains that melancholic people are consumed by “irresolution, inconstancy, [and] vanity of mind” and that “their fear, torture, care, jealousy, suspicion, etc., continues, and they cannot be relieved” (139). In Hamlet’s introductory scene, his mother comments on his dark disposition, pleading, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off” and “do not seek for thy noble father in the dust,” reasoning that “’tis common; all that lives must die” (1.2.68-71). However, as Burton’s definition implies, Hamlet “cannot be relieved” of the grief that he feels for his father; furthermore, as the play progresses, we see this grief develop into jealousy and suspicion of Claudius, his uncle and stepfather, mentally torturing the prince. A.C. Bradley, the first scholar to discuss Hamlet as a melancholic tragic hero, asserts, “By temperament [Hamlet] was inclined to nervous instability, to rapid and perhaps extreme changes of feeling and mood” (110). The melancholy that possesses Hamlet throughout the play influences his actions, which are as unstable as his mind, for, as Bradley states, “the whole story [of Hamlet] turns upon the peculiar character of the hero” (89).

Black bile, the excessive fluid that caused melancholy, generated in the brain and remained in the spleen (Draper, “Star-Crossed Lovers” 22). While Shakespeare often made reference to the governing organ of humoral fluids, he makes only one reference to the spleen in Hamlet. At Ophelia’s burial, Laertes censures Hamlet, and the Prince swears, “I am not splenitive and rash” (5.1.262). In this sole reference to the spleen, Hamlet refers to choler rather than melancholy, insisting that he is not ruled by fiery passion like Laertes. Interestingly, although Shakespeare makes countless textual allusions to the humors throughout his plays, he refrains from linking the spleen to melancholy. Rather, as Hoeniger asserts, Shakespeare links the spleen to other humors to demonstrate a functioning spleen that absorbs excessive black bile (177). Since Hamlet remains melancholy, references to the spleen prove unnecessary, for, theoretically, the prince’s organ does not operate effectively.

The melancholy temperament arises from the element earth. Dry and cold, a surplus of earth causes slow, heavy movement in its host (Anderson 32). Throughout Hamlet, the many references to “earth” embedded in the text remind the audience of the underlying cause of the tragedy. Shakespeare uses the word “earth” and its variants, e.g. “earthly,” twenty-three times in the text of Hamlet. If this number seems insignificant, we must remember that Shakespeare chose his words carefully and deliberately. Richard II, which shares with Hamlet a melancholy hero, mentions the word “earth” twenty-four times, but otherwise the word is scarce in Shakespeare’s plays. Antony and Cleopatra, which has the third most references to “earth,” trails far behind Hamlet, only invoking the word fifteen times. To prove that usage of the word was not common, I will point out that The Taming of the Shrew uses the word only once. David Bevington submits that “a recurring motif in Hamlet is of a seemingly healthy exterior concealing an interior sickness” (546). The subtle references to earth hidden in the text reflect the interior sickness of Hamlet—a sickness related to both earth and black bile—and, as Bevington continues, “this motif of concealed evil and disease continually reminds us that, in both a specific and a broader sense, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’” (546). Thus the text offers clues to the melancholy temperament of its protagonist. Often, characters in the play make references stressing the distance between heaven and earth. While Hamlet is alive, he is ruled by melancholy; he is ruled by the element earth while he walks the earth. This melancholy prevents him from the decisive action to which he has been called by the ghost of his father.

The melancholy temperament is often associated with both Saturn and the moon. In act 1, Horatio cautions Hamlet, “The very place puts toys of desperation, without mere motive, into every brain that looks so many fathoms to the sea and hears it roar beneath” (1.4.75-78). However, Hamlet does not heed this warning, and is thrown into a sea of melancholy. Moreover, Horatio’s statement links the concept of melancholy to the moon. Theorists maintained that the planet Saturn influenced the excess of black bile that led to a melancholy disposition, although Thomas Vicary and others also listed the moon and stars as having an effect on one’s temperament (Overholser 336-337). In fact, Burton claims that the moon “many times produceth melancholy,” and cites “lunatic persons that are deprived of their wits by the moon’s motion” as an example (qtd. in Overholser 337). The moon, playing an important role in one’s sanity (or lack thereof), serves as an important symbol throughout Hamlet. The moon’s motion influences the tide, and the early moderns believed that it affected a melancholy person’s wits in a similar manner. When Horatio mentions “every brain that looks…to the sea,” he describes the brains of the melancholy individual, which, like the tides of the sea, are controlled by the moon. In 1587, Vicary claimed, “The brain hath this property that it moveth and followeth the moving of the moon; for in the waxing of the moon the brain followeth upwards; and in the wane of the moon the brain descendeth downwards” (qtd. in Overholser 337). Lunar references throughout the play include the use of the terms “wax” and “wane.” Laertes assures Ophelia that Hamlet’s love is inconstant: “As this temple waxes the inward service of the mind and soul grows wide withal” (1.3.12-14); moreover, when Hamlet follows the ghost, Horatio describes, “He waxes desperate with imagination” (1.4.87). These utterances occur early in the text, and, in act 2, Hamlet wonders how the Player King “could force his soul so to his own conceit that all his visage…wanned” (2.2.553-554). The Player perplexes Hamlet. In a world where a healthy exterior conceals an ill interior, the Player King acts as a foil. While most of Hamlet’s figures feign normalcy, the actor portrays “tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect, [and] a broken voice” (2.2.555-556). The actor’s visage, although not his soul, wanes; conversely, Hamlet’s soul “descendeth downwards” as the play progresses.

The Player King is not the sole foil to the melancholy prince. Sara Munson Deats contrasts Hamlet to “the fiery Laertes,” and compares him to Claudius: “as he descends spiritually, Hamlet begins more and more to resemble his arch adversary Claudius” (22- 23). Although the wicked Claudius possesses enough choler to kill his brother the King to claim the crown, he also may exhibit some phlegmatic qualities. In act 1, scene 4, Hamlet scoffs that the king “takes his rouse, keeps wassail,” and that “as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down, the kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out the triumph of his pledge” (8-12). “Fiery” Laertes, then, portrays the most choleric figure in the play. At Ophelia’s grave, the splenitive Laertes does not hesitate to attack Hamlet in a rage, crying, “The devil take thy soul!” (5.1.259). Here, unlike Hamlet, Laertes rejects conscience, God, the afterlife—everything. In the final scene of the play, Hamlet mentions that his melancholy actions, which “might [Laertes’] nature…roughly awake” were caused by madness (5.2.229-230), thus linking his melancholy to madness and acknowledging the ignition of Laertes’ choler in response to his own melancholy temperament. Moreover, as they duel, Hamlet asserts that Laertes’ skill will “stick fiery off indeed” (5.2.255), again linking his opponent’s exploits to his exorbitant passion. Laertes’ hot passion contrasts drastically with Hamlet, and Anderson posits that “whenever the quality [of melancholy] becomes extreme… it benumbs the powers of the soul” (38). Whereas heat may incline Laertes to his hot passions, “cold, in the real sense of the word, [is] detrimental to man” (Anderson 38), and Hamlet certainly demonstrates this point.

Even as the melancholy type is the most referenced temperament, it is also the most frequently mentioned mental illness in Elizabethan literature (Overholser 344). In early modern England, the word “psychiatry” did not exist; however, types of mental illness were nonetheless categorised, “as maniacs, as melancholics, as suffering from phrenitis, frenzy, lunacy, or demoniacal possessions” (Overholser 335). Melancholy was classified among several types of mental illness, and taken very seriously. Melancholy was linked to madness and associated with the effects of insanity, including hallucinations and frenzy. Overholser submits that “it was generally believed also that the melancholy individual was particularly subject to demonic influence” (343). Therefore, because Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo also see the spirit, we can assume that the ghost is not a hallucination, but that Hamlet may have been particularly susceptible to supernatural communication in his melancholy state, since as a melancholic, it would have been logical to the Elizabethans that the melancholy Hamlet would interact with a supernatural force, “doomed for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires” (1.5.11-12). If Hamlet had already succumbed to the agony of his mother’s quick remarriage and his uncle’s new role as stepfather, perhaps he needed no further prodding to cross the line into madness.

Deats has observed Hamlet’s unbalanced behavior and views the play as “a tragedy of misdirected action” (23). In her study of two important scenes of the play, Deats concludes that “the Prince’s own wild whirling between the extremes of melancholy and choler certainly contributes to the bloody conclusion” (22). In Hamlet, the melancholy temperament causes the prince to think when he should act, or, conversely, to act when he should think. Deats focuses first on act 3, scene 3, in which Hamlet, armed to slay Claudius, finds his stepfather kneeling in prayer. Burton observes of the melancholic person: “He will freely promise, undertake any business beforehand, but when it comes to be performed he dare not adventure but fears an infinite number of dangers, disasters, etc.” (135). Indeed, in Act 1, Hamlet promises his father’s ghost, “Thy commandment alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter” (1.5.103-105), yet when the moment arrives, the prince falters. Here, as Deats points out, he thinks when he should act. Bradley also asserts that Hamlet fails here, citing his first words upon seeing Claudius: “Now might I do it” (qtd. in Bradley 135, emphasis mine), describing Hamlet’s hesitation as “melancholy paralysis” (135), and identifying this incident as the play’s turning-point (136). In sparing the king’s life, claims Bradley, Hamlet ultimately sacrifices the other characters in the play who begin to die shortly theareafter (136).

Deats next cites “the skewering of Polonius” (23) behind Gertrude’s curtain in Act 3, scene 4, as a contrast to Hamlet’s hesitation: “In failing to avail himself of this fortuitous opportunity for action [by sparing Claudius’ life], Hamlet commits his first serious error in judgment…Yet clearly some action should be taken lest Hamlet irrevocably lose the initiative” (22). Indeed, Hamlet does take “some action”: shortly after he refrains from killing Claudius, Hamlet acts quickly, recklessly slaying Polonius. Thus, he becomes a murderer rather than his father’s avenger by acting too quickly instead of pausing to assess the situation. Hamlet blames his haste on his “madness,” which Deats reads “in the Elizabethan sense of ‘uncontrolled by reason’” (23).

Throughout the play, Hamlet struggles to achieve a balance between reason and passion, thought and action, which is exemplified in these two paradoxical scenes.

Hamlet laments to Horatio, “Blessed are those whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled” (3.2.67-68). Hamlet is a play that revolves around the titular character’s lack of balance, caused by his melancholy temperament. Deats believes that Hamlet would have been a better king than Fortinbras, who wins the crown after the deaths of Claudius and Hamlet (25), but Hamlet’s melancholy seals his fate. Although Deats suggests that Hamlet does achieve equilibrium between passion and reason at the end of the play, his newfound stability comes too late. Of course, many others besides the Prince of Denmark suffer as a result of Hamlet’s fickle temperament; Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern also die in its wake. A narrative balance and equilibrium can only be found when emotional balance too, is restored. Thus, Hamlet illustrates the severity of the most referenced temperament in early modern England.


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