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.


Inspired: Alchemists and housewives around a long table

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Elissavet Ntoulia.

Working in a museum that explores the human condition, you develop the skill of spotting connections between elements that at first glance seem to randomly coexist. Sometimes inspiration comes from as trivial a thing as the choice of furniture: a long table in our Reading Room, for example, situated at the centre of a section exploring the themes of Alchemy and Food. Other sections explore only a single theme, like Body or Pain. So why have Alchemy and Food been paired together?

Possible answers are connected to human curiosity for experimentation and the quest to understand the body’s relationship with nature and the wider universe. Continue reading


Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

Both a user’s guide to the body and a celebration of its elegance, Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis will transform the way you think about being alive, whether in sickness or in health. It’s published by Wellcome Collection and Profile Books on 7 May, but Gavin gives us sneak peek of a dozen images used in his new book, each one accompanied by a short extract.

One tradition of visualising the body sees it through the lens of the surgeon-artists of old, who prepared images of disease and mutilation for the purposes of medical education. Though beautifully executed, those images were often amputated from their context – the lives and stories of the women they depicted.

L0022481 Surgery: cancer of the breast.

Cancer of the Breast, Field Operation, just before the final cut (Wellcome Library).

Continue reading

Generosity Plates

Wellcome Collection’s foyer and café have become home to small miracles of nature with a newly commissioned intervention of artworks, sculptures and plant propagation by the artist John Newling. The Moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) is often called the miracle tree, such is its nutritional richness. Native to the Himalayas it is a unique and exciting opportunity to see them growing alongside the artworks. Kate Gosling asks John Newling some questions about his work.

Continue reading

The Power of Unicorns

From 1908 to 1995 the pharmaceutical company created by Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs in 1880 (Burroughs Wellcome/ Wellcome Foundation) had a unicorn as its logo. Muriel Bailly tells us the story behind this mystical animal and explains the unlikely connection between pharmaceuticals and unicorns.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

Two Burroughs Wellcome/Wellcome Foundation logo designs from 1908 to 1995.

I am entirely objective when I say that Wellcome Collection is an incredible place to learn about the history of medicine. I am regularly amazed by the stories I discover behind the objects from our collections. For today’s article, however, I was not inspired by the collection, but by our visitors. If you have ever visited the Medicine Now gallery you have probably noticed that an entire wall is dedicated to drawing “feedback” cards made by our visitors. On the back of each card is a list of words related to Wellcome Collection for people to take inspiration from. Amongst them is the word “unicorn”: it is one of the most popular on the cards. I wondered how unicorns could be linked to the collection or the Wellcome Trust when I first started working here. After looking a little more closely, it turned out to be pretty obvious.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

Two of the cards drawn by our visitors and added to the feedback wall in Medicine Now.

I am sure we’re all familiar with unicorns from fairy tales, cartoons, films and heraldry: from the books The Little White Horse, Harry Potter and The Flight of the Horse, to the cartoons My Little PonyDungeons and Dragons and Thundercats to the films The Last Unicorn, Legend, Blade Runner and The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s even a very addictive game. Unicorns have often featured in literature and art for centuries but they were first mentioned in antiquity in ancient Greek writings. However, it wasn’t mythology writings as one might expect, but in natural history books; the ancient Greeks were convinced by the authenticity of the creature.

The earliest known mention of unicorns is by Ctesias, a Greek physician from the 5th century BC, who placed their origin in India. Ctesias spent time at the court of Darius in Persia (what is now Iran) where he heard many stories from Indian travellers about a mystical animal. Described as a creature with a white horse-like body, dark blue eyes and a single, colourful horn on the forehead about 43 centimetres long (1’6”). An animal so powerful and fleet of foot that no other could overtake it.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

A fight among animals: a unicorn is fighting a griffon and a lion is killing a fox while other animals are fleeing or watching on.

It was believed the animal’s strength resided in its horn which is why, Ctesias tells us, it was common for the people at that time to grind unicorns’ horns to prepare elixirs and remedies. A tradition paralleled by what is currently happening in Africa and Asia where rhinos are poached for their horns, which some people believe to have medicinal properties (as illustrated in the work of Brent Stirton, runner up 2012 for the Wildlife photojournalist Award at the Natural History Museum).

Unicorns are also mentioned in the works of Strabo and Pliny the Younger. In the Bible, an animal called Re’em in the Hebrew version is often mentioned for its strength and has been translated to “unicorn” in the King James Version.

The popularity of unicorns in religious and natural history literature was such that, by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, unicorns were a symbol of purity and chastity and they were very common in paintings, engravings and tapestries often represented by a white unicorn resting its head on a young virgin’s lap. 

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

Chastity (a virgin and a unicorn) oil painting.

As a result of being a symbol of purity, unicorns, specifically their horns, were believed to possess the power to heal a large variety of diseases; drinking from a unicorn’s horn would allegedly purify filthy water. For these reasons, unicorns’ horns were one of the most valuable things a king could possess throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

This raises a question: what were kings and physicians using in place of unicorns’ horns? In most cases narwhals‘ horns were passed off as unicorns’. As was the case with Goa stones, it was common in ancient times to “adjust” remedies for the greater good. The most important thing was to believe that you were being administered the real thing, what we would call the placebo effect in modern medicine.

This tusk (which originally forms from a tooth) is from the male of a small whale called a narwhal.  For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

This tusk (a canine tooth) is from a small whale called a narwhal. For centuries such tusks, which could grow several metres in length, were claimed to be from the unicorn. As powdered ‘unicorn horn’ was used in a number of different medical preparations these tusks became highly valued and the whales heavily hunted.

A few years ago a “unicorn” or, more precisely, a single-horned deer was born in a wildlife reserve in Italy. This re-launched the debate around the authenticity of unicorns. Is it possible that such genetic modifications were witnessed in antiquity, providing an explanation for the myth? Or was there really a time when creatures such as unicorns (and even mermaids and dragons) existed?

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Plague doctors

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

For this week’s final post we will leave the Medicine Man gallery to explore the wonders of the Wellcome Library. In yesterday’s blog I mentioned that Goa stones were used, among other things, to cure the plague. Oddly enough, this was not the most desperate attempt.

Europe faced a long and deadly episode of plague in the 14th century called the Black Death and plague itself was still found in Europe until the 19th century. The pandemic originated in China and spread to Europe along the Silk Road, reducing the world’s population from 450 million to 350 million. The disease spread extremely rapidly leaving even the most reputable doctors and physicians clueless as to the causes of this new killing machine. As a result, many made the decision to flee, making room for less experienced doctors and opportunists.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

A physician wearing a 17th century plague preventive costume.

Speculations were made on the potential causes of the plague and amongst the most popular was the theory of miasma. This theory advocates that diseases such as cholera and Black Death were caused by “bad” or “polluted” air. In the 17th century, the French physician Charles de Lorme, who was a personal physician of many members of the Medici family in Italy and to the French royal court, created the iconic plague doctor outfit to protect himself from catching the disease when visiting his wealthy, infected patients. The costume is made of a wax-coated canvas outer garment and wax-coated leather pants as well as gloves, boots and hat.

The most iconic part of the costume is no doubt the leather mask with its curved beak and fitted glass domes. The beak was intended to hold the fragrance supposed to protect against the “plague air”. Favourite scents were lavender, camphor, mint, cloves and almost anything else with a nice, strong smell. Charles de Lorme was soon imitated in the rest of Europe by doctors in the infested cities although many plague physicians lacked any medical training. Plague doctors also practiced bloodletting to “rebalance the humors” (discussed in a previous post). The costume is described in a 17th century poem:

As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go 

Although de Lorme died at the honourable age of 96, his costume did very little to protect other physicians and prevent the spread of the disease. The Plague was not entirely eradicated from the European soil until the 19th century.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foolish Remedies: Goa stone

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicked off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

Throughout human history, poisoning has been a method of murder, suicide and execution. The long list of people who met their end at the hands of poison includes the Greek philosopher Socrates, the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra and a variety of Roman emperors. Even today, poisoning remains a threat for royalty, political figures and military leaders.

Oval goa stone, 1601-1800.

Oval Goa stone, 1601-1800.

Goa stones, such as the one usually on display in our Medicine Man gallery, were for centuries considered the only cure for poisoning. Goa stones are named after their place of origin, Goa in India. They are the artificially manufactured versions of bezoar stones: a mixture of gallstones and hairs found in the stomach of deer, sheep and antelopes. Many of us may first have heard of bezoars from Professor Snape lecturing in Harry Potter’s first year Potions class:

“A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons.

The original bezoars did indeed come from the stomach of goats found in the mountains of Western Persia and were introduced to Europe from the Middle East sometime during the 11th century. They remained popular there as medicinal remedies until the 18th century. The term bezoar comes from either the Persian “pahnzehr” or the Arabic “badzehr,” both of which mean “counter-poison” or antidote.

Supplies were limited, however, so in the 17th century a group of Jesuit monks in the Portuguese colony of Goa began producing man-made bezoars from a paste which included exotic ingredients such as narwhal tusk, amethyst, ruby, emerald, coral and pearl. The method of administration consisted of scraping a little bit of the surface of the bezoar or Goa stone into water or wine and drinking the mixture. The monks truly believed that the manufactured bezoars would have the same properties as the real ones and, therefore, save lives.

At a time prior to modern science and medicine most people had absolute faith in the medicinal properties of the stones. Wealthy clients were prepared to spend huge amounts of money for the remedy purported to cure almost everything from poisoning to plague and depression. England started importing Goa stones in the late 17th and early 18th centuries for a very high price.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured version of a goa stone.

The exquisitely carved case for an artificially manufactured Goa stone.

On top of their (literally) incredible medical properties, Goa stones were also very beautiful and refined objects. Containers for the stone were often made of stone and exquisitely decorated with Mughal trellis designs including creatures such as unicorns, griffins, dromedaries, monkeys, stags and lions with human heads. They soon became a status symbol as well as, or maybe rather than, a medicine.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.