The Four Humors
Based on a diagram from Isidore of Seville, Liber
de responsione mundi (Augsburg, 1472). Original
in the Huntington Library.
Greek & Roman Development
of the Four Humors
The idea of the four temperaments, or humors, was established
around 400 BCE by Hippocrates at the medical school on the island
of Kos. Greek medicine was based on these four humors, a system
which was also used to describe the human temperament, psyche
and psychology. This system has found its way into our language
and we still use the words phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholy to
describe someone’s “temperament.” We also describe a person as
being “in their element” or “in good humor.”
Romans thought that humors were formed in the body, and that
foods had varying potential to produce different humors. Hot foods
produced yellow bile; cold ones produced phlegm. Seasons, a
person’s age, sleep patterns, geographic living area, and occupation
also had an influence on humors.
The imbalance of humors was the direct cause of all disease, so
good health required a balance of humors.
• By medieval times,
scientists felt that the
bodily humors gave
off vapors which
ascended to the brain
and influenced a
person’s state of mind
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
A Doctor too emerged as we proceeded.
No one alive could talk as well as he did
On points of medicine and of surgery
For, being grounded in astronomy
He watched his patient's favourable star
And, by his Natural Magic, knew what are
The lucky hours and planetary degrees
For making charms and effigies.
The cause of every malady you'd got
He knew, and whether dry, cold, moist or hot;
He knew their seat, their humour and condition.
He was a perfect practicing physician.
Elizabethan use of
the Four Humors
• Renaissance thinkers viewed a human being as a
microcosm (literally, a "little world") that reflected the
structure of the world as a whole, the macrocosm; just
as the world was composed of four "elements" (earth,
water, air, fire), so too was the human body composed of
four substances called "humours," with characteristics
corresponding to the four elements. "Correspondences"
existed everywhere, on many levels. Thus the
hierarchical organization of the mental faculties was also
thought of as reflecting the hierarchical order within the
family, the state, and the forces of nature. When things
were properly ordered, reason ruled the emotions, just
as a king ruled his subjects, the parent ruled the child,
and the sun governed the planets.
Shakespeare’s Use of the Four Humors
Shakespeare relies on his audience’s understanding of the Four Humors:
Lady Macbeth’s reference to blood implies Duncan’s sanguine personality of
being kind and joyful. “Yet who would have thought / the old man to have had
so much blood in him” (V.1.44-45)
In Shakespeare's King Lear, the simultaneous disorder in family relationships
and in the state (child ruling parent, subject ruling king) is reflected in the
disorder of Lear's mind (the loss of reason) as well as in the disorder of nature
(the raging storm). Lear even equates his loss of reason to "a tempest in my
Portia asks Brutus, “ . . . is it physical To walk unbraced and suck up the
humours Of the dank morning?”
Antony offers a eulogy to Julius Caesar using the Greek notion of balanced
humors. “His life was gentle, and the elements So mix'd in him that Nature
might stand up And say to all the world, "This was a man!“ (V.5.74 – 76)