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.


A to Z of the Human Condition: Y is for Yawning

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. In this final post of the series, Richard Firth-Godbehere explores how we use expressions to speak with our faces, illustrated by your photos.


One area where we historians find ourselves struggling is in the realm of ‘extra-linguistic communication’. Most of what we do involves reading texts with words in them and trying to first piece together what was meant by those words before translating that to modern language. History, in essence, is an act of translation; just translating from old words to new ones is far from easy. This is why going beyond words is even harder, especially when it comes to emotions.

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A cat among the collection

In honour of cats everywhere, we’re taking a look through Wellcome Collection’s clowder of cat-related material: from scientific accounts to historical satire; from safe sex posters to Henry Wellcome’s very own felines. Russell Dornan tells us about some of the ways cats are represented in our collection.

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Irrational Fears (and Aversions)

Last week’s #CuriousConversations was one of our most responded to yet. Rob Bidder had already drawn the first batch of your irrational fears but so many of you got in touch that we carried the conversation on for another week. Richard Firth-Godbehere was particularly interested in some of your submissions and discusses the sometimes abstract causes of aversion.

Wellcome Collection recently kicked off one of its #CuriousConversations with a simple question: “what are your irrational fears?” The answers ranged from one of the most common phobias of all (spiders) to the more unusual (balloons or, in my case, wooden objects in my mouth). Throughout all of these responses, a few predominant aversive emotions shone through that are often found tied to irrational fears: anxiety, hatred, horror and disgust.

This observation is nothing new. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas said that the passion of aversive feelings in opposition to desiring “has no name”. The best description he could think of was “aversion or abomination”. Here are a few examples of the #CuriousConversations responses:

In the 1970s, philosopher Aurel Kolnai noticed that these aversive emotions have an asymmetry with desiring emotions in that the causes of aversions are more abstract than the causes of desires. Whereas the cause of a love of balloons is usually clear and rational (such as a happy memory or aesthetic pleasure), the reason to fear them is irrational and harder to grasp. What’s more, these irrational aversions are not focused only on their central object; they also affect related behaviour.

By way of an example, one of the tweets particularly caught my attention. @charlottelb tweeted:

This phobia is the reason I became interested in aversive emotions in the first place. My wife has lived with Emetophobia for some time (now controlled through CBT) and her phobia was not fear alone: it was a mixture of aversive emotions. The most powerful was the combination of two whose links to phobias are becoming increasingly well documented: anxiety and disgust. Vomiting is an abomination to almost everybody as it combines many causes of disgust, such as the ejection of what is supposed to be contained within the body the wrong way through a bodily orifice of a substance that is putrefied; foul tasting; and able to remind us of our animal existence and mortality.

Rob Bidder's #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

Rob Bidder’s #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

The phobia stems, as do many phobias, from contamination anxiety. Horrifying and disgusting is the idea that another’s vomit may contaminate the self through either contact or sympathetic magic by hearing or seeing them vomit. The idea that the self has become contaminated, and might contaminate others, is terrifying and disgusting. Many Emetaphobes have such strong feelings of aversion that they obsessively clean, check and recheck food to make sure it is cooked, avoid eating out, and so on.

These mixed aversive emotions can trigger the avoidance of anything related to the phobia, real or imagined. As a result, phobias can rule your life, as might my dislike for wood on the roof of my mouth. Thankfully, my love of Magnum ice-creams is more powerful.

There’s still time to submit your own irrational fears. Send us a tweet or comment below.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. He is researching how the passions of aversion were related to medicine in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Find out more on his blog.