Cholerics: the real drama queens

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. We previously celebrated this by looking at the four bodily humours in one post and Shakespeare’s most famous melancholic in another. Nelly Ekström now explores his choleric characters and how their temperament affects their actions. 


Katherina (Elizabeth Taylor) and Petruchio (Richard Burton).

Here are two of Shakespeare’s most famous choleric characters: Katherina and Petruchio, the tempestuous couple from The Taming of the Shrew. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, themselves a tempestuous couple, played the leading roles in the ’67 film of the same name. Both are dressed in alarmingly bright red costumes, adding more heat to their already fiery temperaments.

We can thank the cholerics for much of the drama in Shakespeare’s writing. If it was all down to the brooding melancholics, the lazy phlegmatics and the friendly and pleasure seeking sanguines, not much would happen. The choleric is the most active of the four temperaments: they are hot and dry, fiery, creatures. At their best they’re ambitious, brave and proud; more often they’re vindictive, deceitful and violent. And, without exception, irritable and bad tempered. The typical choleric is lean and quick with dry curly hair (often red). The hot-headed cholerics can never sit still or keep their mouths shut, unless it’s part of a clever scheme thought out beforehand of course. They also often suffer from indigestion and heartburn (no wonder they’re so irritable!).

V0009342 The face of a bearded man expressing anger. Etching in the c

The face of a man expressing anger.

They may seem like a unpleasant bunch, but some of their qualities were very highly valued and made them very useful in early modern society. Physical courage especially, as a choleric would never be afraid to draw his sword. But “his” is the essential word here. The two hot, active humours, blood and yellow bile, were considered to be more naturally dominating in men; the two cold, passive humours, phlegm and black bile, in women. A female melancholic was considered to be something much more natural, acceptable and attractive than a male melancholic. He would be considered a quite useless individual. A male choleric however, would be appreciated for his active and aggressive qualities, while the same kind of behaviour would make a woman socially impossible.

The perfect example of this is the comedy The Taming of the Shrew, a play more or less about the choleric temperament. Katherina and Petruchio, the leading female and male characters resepctively, are both angry, stubborn and ungovernable. Her temperament makes her into a shrew that no man will marry, while his makes him a difficult dinner guest at worst. Petruchio marries Katherina and then sets about to change her temperament. 

“…Thou must be married to no man but me.
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.”

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, Scene I)

Petruchio throwing the meat in Shakespeare's 'The Taming of the Shrew'.

Petruchio throwing the meat in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’.

He does this by a method that today would be seen as domestic abuse. He drags her away from her family, starves her and takes her clothes away. But from an Elizabethan medical point of view, to restore balance to an overheated choleric, this is pretty much what the doctor would have recommended: stay away from heat and take off clothes to cool the body, and keep away from warming drying foods like bread and red meat.

I tell thee, Kate, ’twas burnt and dried away.
And I expressly am forbid to touch it,
For it engenders choler, planteth anger;
And better ’twere that both of us did fast,
Since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric,
Than feed it with such over-roasted flesh.
Be patient, tomorrow ’t shall be mended,
And, for this night, we’ll fast for company.”

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene I)

The yellow bile was thought to originate from the spleen. The spleen was also where all the “useless” emotions came from, feelings like lust and vanity. Extreme emotions were caused by extreme changes in a person’s humours. Many of Shakespeare’s characters faint, fit or die from extreme emotions. Ten deaths occur as a result of strong feelings and apparently everyone is at risk, both sexes and all age groups are represented. The three deaths that actually happen on stage in front of the eyes of the audience are caused by grief for the loss of a loved one, but too much of any emotion was seen as dangerous at a time when balance equalled health. The possibility of someone dying from strong emotions is mentioned 29 times in all, and extreme fear, anger or joy appear to be as dangerous for you as grief.


Seeking to alter the levels of your humours to keep them in balance was the most important way to keep yourself healthy and of sound mind. But doing the opposite, actively trying to unbalance your humours, was unnatural and could only end in disaster. The bitter yellow bile inflames your spirit and sparks action, which is just what some characters wish for. The melancholic Prince Hamlet regrets that he is too pigeon-livered and lacks the necessary gall to avenge his father’s death, unlike the more choleric Laertes.

Lady Macbeth is a fairly balanced woman at the beginning of the tragedy Macbeth. However, when she is reads the letter from her husband where he tells her that the three witches have foretold that Macbeth will be king, she begs the spirits to change her. To achieve her goals she needs the rage and ruthlessness of a true choleric.

“… Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers…”

(Macbeth, Act I, Scene V)

In Lady Macbeth’s last scene she is sleepwalking on the moor, and she has become what she asked to be made: a shell of a human being, void of remorse and completely governed by her bitter yellow bile. With all that restless energy, it’s hard for people with an excess of choler to relax and find peace, and they often have sleep problems and nightmares. A doctor is called, but since Lady Macbeth has defied nature to change her temperament, she’s beyond the help of any physician and the doctor wishes himself replaced by a clergyman.

“Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician…”

(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1)

In the final part of this blog series, we are going to focus on the most popular of the temperaments: the happy-go-lucky sanguines.

Nelly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.


Mummies preserved

Earlier this week we told you about three of our mummies and their trip to a CT scanner. Today, Taryn Cain looks at mummies more generally, focussing on the Chimú mummy mentioned in the last post. Taryn starts with a frank, step-by-step look at what happens to our bodies when life stops.

Bodies begin to decay as soon as they die. First your cells begin to break down, releasing enzymes into your tissues, then the billions of bacteria that have been co-existing with your living body begin digesting your dead one. Your digestive system, lungs and brain are the first to go, with your cranial fluids leaking out of your nostrils and ears. Your lips, tongue, genitals and abdomen subsequently bloat from gas produced by the actions of the bacteria.

This process attract large amounts of insects to your body if you’ve been left out in the open. For many of us today the process of decay is a horror we wish to be protected from, but for people many centuries ago it meant much more – it could mean the end of your spiritual life. Continue reading

Finding the Truth in a Nutshell

We wrote about Frances Glessner Lee and her “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” in a previous postErin N. Bush got the chance to visit the eighteen original Nutshells and has turned her photos of some of them into fascinating resource exploring these “dolls’ houses of death”. Erin tells us more.

You do not need forensic training to find an outlier amidst the register of pioneers in forensic science. The usual suspects – Cesare Lombroso, Alphonse Bertillon, Francis Galton, Mathieu Orfila, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler – were all men of scientific training or veterans of police work. Then there was Frances Glessner Lee.

A woman. Not just any woman, but the daughter of industrial fortune. Forbidden from attending medical school, she contributed to the art and science of detailed forensics-based detection by appropriating a pastime “proper” for a woman of her class and remaking it into a tool of great power. She repurposed a child’s plaything to give new insight into the darkest adult mysteries.

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Death in a nutshell

Our Forensics exhibition features an example of Frances Glessner Lee’s “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death”, small models still used to train police investigators today. Taryn Cain tells us more about these macabre “dolls’ houses of death” and the woman who made them. 

Dolls have been around for a long time. In fact, they are one of the most ancient toys known, with the oldest found being around 35,000 years old. When we think of dolls today we generally think of children playing with them, even though they have been used by both adults and children throughout history. Due to their resemblance to our own image, dolls have regularly been imbued with magical powers, religious significance and protective qualities.

Doll, spirit figure, in Ivory, Eskimo.

Doll, spirit figure, in ivory, Eskimo.

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The story of Morbid Anatomy

During Twitter’s #MuseumWeek we were unofficially twinned with the evocative Morbid Anatomy. A sort of spiritual half-sister of ours, it specialises in certain themes abundantly explored at Wellcome Collection and Library. Joanna Ebenstein, its founder, tells us about how and why Morbid Anatomy was formed and its journey from blog to library to event series to museum.

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Object of the month: canopic jars

Limestone, jackal headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

Limestone, jackal-headed canopic jar, Egyptian. Wellcome Images

What could a jackal-headed jar of organs have to do with a Spartan sailor? William Birnie lifts the lid on how ancient Egyptians preserved the life force of the dead.

Housed in our End of Life display in the Medicine Man gallery are two very beautiful jars, made from limestone, so simple, elegant and beautifully sculpted that they could be mere decorative objects. Their lids reveal their true purpose, as ancient Egyptian canopic jars, and they played a major role in the process and rituals of mummification.

Ancient Egyptian funerary customs were complex, elaborate, and crucial in allowing the deceased to travel through the Underworld, ensuring a smooth transition from earthly existence to immortality. Mummification could last up to 70 days and was designed to preserve, protect, and establish the body as a life-like presence for the afterlife. The process was intricate and rituals took precedence. Initially the body would be dried, cleaned and rubbed with good smelling oils. Embalmers would place amulets, designed to defend the body, between the layers of linen which wrapped it. Priests dressed as Anubis (the Egyptian god associated with the afterlife and mummification) would read spells aloud to ward off evil spirits, while every layer of bandage was painted with a liquid resin in order to glue and strengthen the whole. Once a body had been wrapped, complete with a picture of the god Osiris painted on to its surface, it would be arranged in the tomb; afterlife paraphernalia, to ensure preparation, would also be entrusted including clothing, valuable objects, furniture, food, and drink.

The ancient Egyptians believed each person to be made up of a variety of physical and non-physical elements, which included Ib (heart), Sheut (shadow), Ren (name), Ba (soul) and Ka (life force). Mummification was intended to provide a place to house these parts. The Ka was a life force sustained by the food and drink left at the tomb by living relatives; depictions of food offerings on a tomb wall could also foster this nourishing function. The Ba could leave the body, enabling the dead to participate in the worlds of the living and the dead. Attention was paid to the appearance of the mummy itself so that the Ba would recognise its own body and return safely. A full and happy afterlife could only be enjoyed if the different parts survived.

Canopic jars contained the large human organs or viscera (liver, lungs, stomach, and intestine). Each of Horus’ sons were assigned a different organ to protect, represented in the forms of a hawk, an ape, a man and a jackal, thus allowing us to identify which organs are stored in each jar. Fascinatingly, the jars themselves are also represented in a mummified fashion, all having the same wrapped body. The jars in our collection have lids depicting the human and jackal; Imsety (liver) and Duamutef (stomach), respectively.

The viscera were wrapped individually in linen and once placed inside the jar had resinous consecrated oil poured over them. The jars were then ritually closed and conserved for eternity inside the tomb. They could be placed at the corners of a sarcophagus or in a false wall in its base. Sometimes they were stored together in a canopic chest or box. These boxes started out simply enough but soon became more elaborate. The brain, regarded as unimportant, was pulled out of the skull using a hook inserted through one nostril, then thrown away. The heart was left in place, as it was considered to be the organ that held the spirit, along with the understanding and the senses of an individual. It would be needed on the Day of Judgement in the Underworld, when the God Anubis would weigh it to ensure the worthiness of the deceased to enter the underworld.

Fourth Dynasty Queen Hetepheres is believed to be the first royal Egyptian to have had her organs dried out and preserved. After the Eighteenth Dynasty (c.1550–1292 BC) canopic jar lids were no longer adorned with the face of the deceased. Instead, they were identified with the four different gods who were the sons of Horus. Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, was portrayed with the head of a hawk and the body of a man. He was God of the sky and in one version of his myth, during the battle for control of Egypt, Horus had his left eye gouged out by the god Set. For the ancient Egyptians, Horus’ left eye represented the moon and explained why the moon was so much weaker, dimmer than the sun. Horus retaliated by castrating Set, hence the infertility of the desert. It was understood that his four sons, emerging out of a water lily that rose from the waters of Nun, were given funerary duties by Anubis.

Why are these jars – which can be made from limestone, pottery or gilded wood – called canopic jars? The ancient Egyptians themselves did not refer to them in such a manner, calling them Qebu en wet (jars of embalming). Rather, it was modern Egyptologists that named them canopic. The British Museum states they were  mistakenly linked to Greek mythology as Canopus, the captain of the fleet of ships of Menelaus, King of Sparta, was buried in Egypt after the fall of Troy and worshipped in the form of human-headed jar. Early Egyptologists noticed a connection between this object and the visceral jars in the tombs, hence the name.

During the first millennium BC when the viscera began to be returned to the body due to improved embalming techniques, the practice of storing the viscera in canopic jars gradually declined with dummy unhollow canopic jars placed in the tomb instead. For a short period during the Twenty-First Dynasty  (c. 1069–945 BC), amulets in the form of the four sons were placed alongside the viscera inside the body. Throughout their history, canopic jars were limited to the upper social strata and with cheaper  and more accessible mummification methods during the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC), there was simply no need for them any longer, with the last royal canopic jar belonging to Apries (reign 589 BC–570 BC).

William Birnie is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at w.birnie@wellcome.ac.uk.

Contemporary votive illustrations: Epic Bubble

To accompany our current exhibition ‘Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings‘, we’ve been working with professional illustrators to produce contemporary votive illustrations based on stories submitted by visitors to Wellcome Collection and to our website. Just as Mexican ex-voto paintings were made by painters to tell stories of thanks, we want to hear contemporary stories of gratitude and explore the process of exchange between storyteller and illustrator.

Melanie Winning: Epic Bubble

Melanie Winning: Epic Bubble

Melanie Winning’s latest illustration is for this story submitted at Wellcome Collection:

I would like to give thanks for the beauty and poignancy of my lover who died in my arms while we made love. He was young and fit and healthy. It was a rather new love so remains in a perfect trouble free bubble. He died of a massive heart attack, so I did not know he had died so much as…well…I thought he was just blissed out and happy and resting…having a tantric moment. The gratitude is not for his dying. That has taken me years to get over. The gratitude is for the grace with which he passed and the beauty of this experience for me. There was a huge blessing in being chosen to midwife this powerful passing… and for it to be without any constriction or pain. I will never be afraid of death and this experience, in many very real ways, gave me my life back in a much more vibrant and whole and real way.

Katheryn Trenshaw, Devon, 3am Good Friday 2004. For Nigel and my son for his great patience for me at this time.

You can find out more about Melanie Winning’s work and explore more votive illustrations on the Wellcome Collection website.

Could your gratitude inspire a votive? Tell us your story, and it could form the basis for an illustration.