The humours in humour: Shakespeare and early modern psychology

STEGGLE, Matthew (2016). The humours in humour: Shakespeare and early modern psychology. In: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Comedy. Oxford University Press. (In Press)

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Renaissance humoral theory held that a human body contains four principal fluids, blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, each of which corresponds to the one of the four elements of earth, fire, air, and water. This system permeated the metaphorical language of Renaissance psychology , and also governed medical practice, conceptualized as a series of attempts to rebalance those humours. But did Shakespeare believe in the four humours? And did he write "humours comedy"? The theory of the humours was long regarded by literary scholars as something of a curiosity in the history of medicine, too absurd to do more than to indicate the pre-scientific nature of early modern thinking, and interesting mainly for the comical nature of the treatments it demanded - laxatives, vomits, and leeches. As for "humours comedy", that phrase is often used to describe the comic theory and practice of Shakespeare's contemporary and rival Ben Jonson. It has become a critical shorthand for a style in which, in Murray Krieger's formulation, "every character is sharply defined and clearly 'typed' so that the satiric implications of his folly are evident … the audience is forced to assume an objective attitude which frees it from any emotional involvement and allows it an detached aloofness from the fools they see displaying themselves". It carries the suggestion of a scientific analysis of characters whose action is determined by the physiology they were born with. Shakespeare is usually praised for his refusal to stoop to such a schematic level in his own comic writing. But this chapter will suggest that many of the ideas in the previous paragraph are untenable. Much recent work suggests that humoral theory should not be regarded as a mere medical curiosity, and that it is intimately bound up with early modern ideas of selfhood. As for humours comedy, that too might turn out, in practice, to be a subtler creature, and perhaps a more Shakespearean one, than it is often given credit for.

Item Type: Book Section
Research Institute, Centre or Group: Humanities Research Centre
Depositing User: Matthew Steggle
Date Deposited: 07 Jun 2016 13:38
Last Modified: 07 Jun 2016 13:38

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