by Cassandra Clark, SF Shakes Literary Intern
The people of Shakespeare’s time did not think about physical or mental health the way modern doctors and scientists do.
Just as we now believe that mental illnesses may in part be due to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, Elizabethan doctors similarly believed that certain personality traits stemmed from an excess of specific fluids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. This idea was called Humorism, and claimed that the excess of any of these four fluids would produce one of what was known as the four temperaments, each connected to a different element.
An excess of blood created the Sanguine (associated with air) temperament, which was considered the most desirable temperament. Sanguine people were fully functioning members of society–they were enthusiastic, active, and social. The Choleric (fire) temperament was associated with aggressive behavior due to an excess of yellow bile in the body. The Phlegmatic (water) temperament was associated with apathetic behavior, or a lack of feeling, due to an excess of phlegm in the patient’s body. The Melancholic (earth) temperament’s excess of black bile was thought to cause what we would now call depression.
How does all this relate to Hamlet? The melancholic humor is often used to describe Prince Hamlet’s temperament. During Shakespeare’s time, it was also thought that people with an imbalance in one of the four fluids, especially those people who were melancholic or choleric, were some of the most vulnerable to the wills of wicked spirits who might use them as means to evil ends…which explains Hamlet and his friends’ hesitation about whether or not to trust the Ghost of the dead King!