The Significance of Humoural Theory in Early Modern Drama

UnknownWhen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (in regards to the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead Hamlet is referring to humoural theory which was in keeping with ancient and medieval physiology and medicine (OED A 1) as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – four building blocks or ‘roots’ of the material world with shared qualities resulting in certain physiological and psychological manifestations called humours and temperaments (Greenbaum, 7-18) found in all warm-blooded animals (Paster, 115):

ELEMENT QUALITY HUMOUR TEMPERAMENT
Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

The idea is not so much that, for example, black bile causes melancholy but that in some way it resides in it; in this sense ‘melancholy’ is not just a passing mood (as we might use the word today) but more or less a way of being in the world (Paster, 116-117). Humoural theory ascribed certain characteristic proclivities to the various temperaments as follows (taken from The Regimen of Health by John Harington, 1607, reproduced in Greenbaum, Appendix E and Nicholas Culpeper’s Descriptions of Temperament, reproduced in Greenbaum Appendix D)):

TEMPERAMENT CHARACTERISTICS
Choleric Violent, fierce, ambitious, proud, oft malicious, courageous, quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.
Melancholic Studious, solitary, pensive, musing, suspicious, avoids sport, harbours anger and hate, covetous, cowardly, envious, obstinate, spiteful and squeamish.
Phlegmatic Inclining to be fat, slothful, deadened spirit, dulled senses, little growth, dreamy (of great rains and drowning), sleepy, forgetful, shamefaced and sober.
Sanguine Loves women, wine, and all recreation (especially cards), merciful, courteous, enjoys pleasantries and music, not apt to take offence or be ireful, inclined to weep easily but little affected by grief.

In telling us that it is the ‘humorous’ character who will ‘end his part in peace -Hamlet hints that the theme of finding balance is one of the key significances of humoural theory for early modern drama. In his play Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson expounds on this idea; ‘a creature of most perfect and divine temper’ is ‘one, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ (i.e. balanced); whether this requires balance of all four humours or just two or three remains unclear and hence for purposes of this essay I will assume that balance is achieved when there remains no ‘emulation of Precedencie’. Jonson notes that should a man wish, to ensure his Humours and Elements are ‘peaceably met’, he must ‘strive’ through both his ‘discourse’ and ‘behaviour’ to be ‘Judicious’ (i.e. sensible in all matters’ (OED ad A 1). In other words, if the required effort is made and humoural balance is achieved such that no single temperament dominates, then according to Jonson ‘Fortune could never break’ a man (excerpt from Cynthia’s Revels is reproduced by Greenbaum, 38).humoral theory

Naturally no person could consist of a single temperament – as far back as Galan in the 2nd century it has been accepted that such ‘pure’ states are not possible in nature (Greenbaum, 14). Because the four temperaments share certain qualities, combinations are to be expected; in his translation of Galen’s Art of Physick (reproduced by Greenbaum in Appendix F), Nicholas Culpeper helpfully includes descriptions of certain ‘compound’ temperaments – for example a Choleric/Melancholic (sharing dryness) not only dreams of ‘Murders’ and ‘Hurts’ proceeding from ‘fire, fighting, or anger’ but is also ‘quick Witted’ and ‘studious’; he is however more ‘suspicious’, ‘fretful’, and ‘solitary’ than Choleric men. Not only that but in regards to men (but not to women) the transition from hot/dry (during adulthood all men are presumed to be hot/dry) to cold/dry occurs naturally with age (aging lowers body temperature).

Still it is not unusual to display a dominant temperament – for example Hamlet’s tendency to melancholy is more than evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Not only does he tell them that he has ‘lost all my mirth’ but also that he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’ (2.2, 294-5). Later in the same scene he actually names his complaint – ‘my melancholy’; (2.2 590). But regardless of how many times Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet of his ‘ambitions’ (2.2, 250-260) – suggesting that Hamlet’s friend sees him as Choleric/Melancholic and hence having ambitions – Hamlet refuses (whether consciously or unconsciously) to engage with the full range of his temperaments – he does not ‘strive’ to be ‘judicious’ but instead allows himself to wallow in melancholy’s ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2.2, 300-301). In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, TS Eliot (81-87) concludes that such refusal leaves Hamlet ‘dominated by an emotion’ which ‘is inexpressible’ – he can neither ‘understand’ nor ‘objectify’ it – and if a key character such as Hamlet remains inexpressible on stage, then as Eliot suggests the play is an ‘artistic failure’.

This is not to suggest that all such exaggerations of type result in artistic failure. Compare Hamlet with Shakespeare’s I Henry IV – where in the opening conversation between Prince Hal and Falstaff (1.2, 69-70) the latter declares himself ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’ (cats by nature, are melancholy, Paster, 119). When Hal goes on to compare Falstaff with ‘an old lion’ or ‘a lover’s lute’ – again associated with melancholy (Paster, 115) – Falstaff plays along until Hal invokes the ‘melancholy of Moorditch’ (1.2, 73-74) at which point – with this implication of fetid stagnancy – Falstaff begs off the game (‘thou has the most unsavoury similes’, 1.2, 76). Although obviously aware of his humoural difficulties, like Hamlet, Falstaff fails (perhaps due to age) to balance his melancholy. Yet to my knowledge no one (including TS Eliot) has suggested that Henry IV is an artistic failure and this may be at least in part because by the end of 2 Henry IV the Choleric Hal (he has ambitions as he tells us from the start – ‘Yet herein will I imitate the sun, I.2, 186) and the Melancholic Falstaff cancel each other out. As Eliot (95) notes, in Shakespeare’s successful works his characters act upon each other in a way that is always fitting to their characteristic proclivities; there seems little doubt that Hal heightens his own fortunes at the expense of Falstaff’s.

Shakespeare’s use of humoural theory in Henry IV is in sharp contrast to that of Jonson. TS Eliot (89) suggests that in order to appreciate Jonson’s work, we must not look at the ‘emotional tone’ in a ‘single verse’, but instead at the ‘design of the whole’ work. This is because the success of Jonson’s comedies (but not his tragedies) is not because the characters have an effect on each other (as is the case with Shakespeare) but instead because of the effect of their combination as a whole (Eliot, 94).

Jonson’s work is satire and satire levels criticism against the real world. Thus it should thus come as no surprise that Jonson does not depict humours as balanced – but exactly the reverse – fortune breaks those who allow their characteristic proclivities to slide too far out of balance. Jonson himself has said in the Prologue to Every Man and His Humour that his intention is to ‘sport with human follies’ and ‘laugh at them’ because ‘they deserve no less’. Yet that is not to say that Jonson is more interested in the generation of laughter than in obtaining humoural balance; in his next sentence he qualifies that having seen his play ‘there’s hope left’ that once ‘you, that have so graced monsters’, may learn what it means to be men.

volp2If we are to learn from Jonson, then as TS Eliot suggests (89) we must look to the ‘design of the whole’ work. Like Hamlet, Jonson’s characters are exaggerations of type. Unlike Falstaff and Prince Hal, they fail to balance each other. However they become balanced as the result of the actions of outside forces. For example in Volpone balance is delivered through punishments imposed by the Avocatori, or four Magistrates; with Every Man in His Humour balance comes through the judgements of Justice Clement, also a magistrate. I further suggest that each character’s punishment/ judgement is in keeping with something that triggers a balancing shift in dominant temperament.

For example, in Volpone, the majority of the major players – Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino for the most part display a single domimant temperament as the gulls obsequiously line up to secure their anticipated booty when the ‘childless, rich’ hoaxter Volpone ‘feigns sick’ and ‘offers his state to hopes of several heirs’ (The Argument, 1- 7): they receive balancing punishments as follows:

CHARACTER DOMINANT TEMPERAMENT PUNISHMENT
Volpone Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

 

Along with his servant, Mosca, he plots the hoax on the others because he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth’ than it its ‘possession (I i, 30-33).

Sanguine – hot/wet – not apt to take offence and little affected by grief.

Although he looses all wealth and sent to prison – he addresses the audience at end of the play indicating that for him ‘no suffering is due’ if the audience praises him – ‘clap your hands’ (Epilogue, 1-6)

Mosca Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

Along with his master, he plots the hoax but turns on him in the end – refusing to acknowledge the hoax hoping to ‘inherit’ Volpone’s money himself.

Melancholic – cold/dry – harbours anger and hate, spiteful.

Sentenced to be whipped and sent to the galleys as a slave, he hisses to his accomplice in crime, ‘Bane to thy wolfish nature (V xii. 115)

 

Voltore Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

Although a lawyer, he perjures himself to ensure he gets the ‘inheritance’ – Volpone realises this and plays Voltore further – ‘unscrew my advocate upon new hopes’ (V Xi, 20).

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

After disbarred – V xiii, 126-128, we imagine he is shamefaced to have so scandalized the worthy men of his profession.

Corbaccio Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

In order to secure he is Volpone’s sole heir he disinherits is own son.

‘And disinherit my son? (I iv,95-96) and ‘Tis done, ‘tis done, I go’ (I iv, 132).

 

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

Upon losing all his worldly goods & being sent to a monastery to ‘die well’ at V xiii, 1129-1330 we can imagine his spirit will be deadened.

Corvino Sanguine – hot/wet – Loves women.

It is his prize, his beautiful wife, that he offers up in order to secure his ‘inheritance’. “The party, you wot of, Shall be min own wife (II vi, 80-81).

Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, quick to anger.

Sentenced to public humiliation and losing his wife at V xiii, 134-139 –he reacts angrily but cleverly – ‘I shall not see my shame, yet’.

In summary, the significance of humoural theory in Early Modern Drama is to be found in a character’s success or failure in ending ‘his part in peace’ in the sense that by the end of the play, his ‘Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ – or balanced. This can occur either through (1) striving to judiciously ensure no one temperament dominates to the end as Hamlet failed to do or (2) balancing dominate temperaments with other characters as did Prince Hal and his friend, Falstaff. Additionally Jonson has demonstrated that a character’s unbalanced humoural temperaments can achieve balance through the ‘design of the whole work’ by having balance imposed from the outside.

 

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Bibliography

Jonson, Ben. Five Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Greenbaum, Dorian Gieseler. Temperament – Astrology’s Forgotten Key. Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer Ltd, 2005.

Paster, Gail Kern. ‘Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier’ (113-129). Reading the Modern Early Passions – Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rose, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

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