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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. 

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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.

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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.

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The humours in Shakespeare

On 23 April 2016 we mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. One way we’re celebrating this anniversary is by exploring the four bodily humours and their effect on some of Shakespeare’s most famous characters. Nelly Ekström tells us more about the humours and how they’ve been represented in the work of the Bard of Avon. 

“Everey man humour hath his adjuct pleasure,
Wherein it finds joy above the rest”.

– William Shakespeare, sonnet 91

One of the uncountable ways Shakespeare’s work is so wonderful and relevant for us today is because of the knowledge it gives us about the world he lived in. His writing is one of the most important sources for the knowledge we have about medicine in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His works contains a lot of information on the contemporary medical practices of the time, but also show the social history of medicine: how medicine formed a part of people’s lives and thoughts.

In Shakespeare’s time, the understanding of medicine and the human body was based on the theory of the four bodily humours. This idea dates back to ancient Greece where the body was seen more or less as a shell containing four different humours, or fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The humours affect your whole being, from your health and feelings to your looks and actions. Continue reading