365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

13. Humor Me

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Oh, I am just so clever sometimes I almost can’t stand it.

So let’s talk about how ailments were treated in the Elizabethan era. We’ve all learned about the “four humors”, but what were they? What did they relate to? How was a problem with them treated? My mother works for a holistic clinic, and the chart I found about the four humors actually looks a lot like something we might see on a chart in her office:

Humour Element Organ Ancient Name Ancient Characteristics
Blood air liver sanguine cheerful, courageous, agreeable or lustful
Yellow bile (Choler) fire gall bladder choleric prone to anger, rashness and pride
Black bile (Melancholy) earth spleen melancholic introspective, morose, sleepless, irritable
Phlegm water brain/lungs phlegmatic cowardly, dull, pale in complexion

Weird, huh? The thing is, since we know this is from “back in the day”, we can easily dismiss it. But what if you saw this chart in your own doctor’s office? You’d be way more likely to take it seriously, perhaps even ask about how you can get your humors checked and taken care of.

This is where bloodletting got really popular…and for whatever reason, that practice stayed popular for a really long time, even after its three contemporaries faded out of the spotlight.

So, back in Shakespeare’s day, if you were pale, an insomniac, and proud, you probably had too much phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. I have yet to see a downside to too much blood – why the bloodletting? If having too much blood makes you prone to being “cheerful, courageous, agreeable, or lustful”, the only one that’s not awesome is being “lustful” (though I imagine if you were male this might be considered okay…no way if you were female!), but I’m sure there were exceptions to that as well. Apart from the whole “it’s a sin” thing.

I’ve been sick lately, and if I had to diagnose myself based on the above chart, I’d say my doctors were wrong. It’s not mono/anemia/thyroid stuff…I definitely have too much black bile and phlegm.

Humour Element Organ Ancient Name Ancient Characteristics
Blood air liver sanguine cheerful, courageous, agreeable or lustful
Yellow bile (Choler) fire gall bladder choleric prone to anger, rashness and pride
Black bile (Melancholy) earth spleen melancholic introspective, morose, sleepless, irritable
Phlegm water brain/lungs phlegmatic cowardly, dull, pale in complexion
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Written by Caroline Mincks

October 14, 2009 at 1:08 PM

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