JAMA Revisited April 20, 1964

The Humors Some Psychological Aspects of Shakespeare’s Tragedies John W. Draper, PhD For more than a thousand years, the humoral theory, derived from Aristotle and Galen, dominated medical and psychological thought. The body and mind were supposed to be ruled by four humors which, in equilibrium, brought perfect health; but the predominance of any one, whether from birth or age or circumstances, produced a certain type of physique and a cast of mind appropriate to certain activities and to a certain social status. The wrong humor in a given situation invited tragedy, for each humor belonged with certain stars and planets. The sanguine humor (blood) was under the astral influence of the planet Jupiter, and was thought proper to princes, to accepted lovers, and to the jovial and the fortunate; but ill-chance could easily sour it to melancholy. The phlegmatic humor under Venus was thought proper to women, children, and voluptuaries, and under the moon (which was regarded as a planet in the old geocentric astronomy) belonged to simpletons and fools. The choleric (yellow bile) under the sun was proper to rulers and self-willed women, and under Mars to soldiers, roisterers, and drunkards. It was considered unlucky. Even more unlucky was saturnine melancholy (black bile), proper to the sick, the frustrated, and the senile; indeed, it might even bring on a manic-depressive psychosis. This system,1 though it sometimes used absurd analogies as evidence, rested in part on sound clinical observation. Humoral medicine was integrated with astrology and hence with the times and seasons, and also with the social classes and the four classical elements. It entered folklore and gave to English such words as “sanguine,” “jovial,” and “mercurial.” It was the only psychology that Shakespeare and his audience knew, and so the only vehicle whose terms could explain character. As Aristotle says, the plot of tragedy (more than other types of drama) must grow convincingly from the characters to express in its conclusion some theme or general truth. Therefore, the interactions between situation and character must seem right in terms of the experience and beliefs of the spectators.

Editor’s Note: JAMA Revisited is transcribed verbatim from articles published previously, unless otherwise noted. 1980

Not every story with a woeful end is stuff for tragedy. The conclusion that expresses the theme of the play must seem as inevitable as the result of a chemical experiment today. This highest form of drama, therefore, cannot exist without convincing characterization; otherwise it becomes mere melodrama. Shakespeare learned his art from his immediate predecessors, especially from Marlowe. Marlowe’s world-conquering Tamburlaine is obviously choleric, the intriguing Jew of Malta is by nature melancholic, and the unstable Edward II meets his doom because he lacks the choleric fortitude necessary to a king. The humors of the main figures motivate the plot and the final catastrophe.… The Elizabethans, following the ancient authority of Seneca, felt that tragedy should take as its theme not the doings of a mere individual, but the fate of a whole peoples and matters of great political import. Except for Romeo and Juliet and Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedies are mainly political in theme, but this theme had to be expressed through the clashing wills and actions of important individuals. To make these individuals and their roles convincing to the audience, the dramatist had to give them a psychological rationale, and, for the Elizabethans, this had to be expressed in terms of the humors. These humors need not have been utterly fixed at birth, but, as in life, might change under the stress of age or situation. Romeo changes from the melancholy of his frustrated love for Rosaline to the sanguine humor natural to his personality and time of life; Hamlet shows the opposite change; and Othello moves from the serenity of martial choler to the frenzy of jealously. Lady Macbeth assumes a choleric humor foreign to her sex; however, her mind cannot stand the prolonged strain and her death brings ruin to her unstable Lord. Antony’s character disintegrates by degrees in the conflict between choleric ambition and phlegmatic lust; and the choler of Coriolanus brings him military victory and then ruin. If the themes and plots of tragedy were to be convincing to the Elizabethan audience, they had to be expressed according to the humoral theory derived from Aristotle and Galen. 100 McLane Ave, Morgantown, W Va 1. Draper, J.W.: Humors and Shakespeare’s Characters, Durham, NC, 1945. JAMA. 1964;188(3):259-262.

Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA May 19, 2015 Volume 313, Number 19 (Reprinted)

Copyright 2015 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.

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