The Bard Comes to NLM

A special display at the National Library of Medicine offers an unusual perspective on the work of William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.

"And there's the humor of it" logo“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors explores how characters in Shakespeare’s plays were conceived of and characterized in terms of the then prevailing worldview of the four bodily humors.  The National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library, worked with the Folger Shakespeare Library, the world’s largest collection of Shakespearean materials, to develop this original display of rare books and prints. It is the first formal collaboration between the two libraries.

In Shakespeare’s time modern understandings of human anatomy, physiology and psychology were just beginning to emerge from the classical cosmology of the four humors inherited from the Ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. Most people in Shakespeare’s day understood the human body as subject to four bodily humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.  An imbalance of the humors was believed to cause physical and mental ailments. The influence of the humors varied with many factors—age, sex, and season—and produced varying temperaments: blood to sanguine (happy/amorous), phlegm to phlegmatic (calm/accepting), yellow bile to choleric (angry/aggressive), and black bile to melancholic (sad/contemplative).

“And there’s the humor of it” provides several examples of how Shakespeare’s characters display the behaviors and motivations of their temperaments as understood in terms of the four humors. Guest curators were Gail Kern Paster, PhD, former Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Theodore Brown, PhD, Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Paster said developing the special display was a new experience for her. “Exhibitions are a whole new way to think. And it was great fun.”

Gale Paster PhDDuring a recent lecture at NLM, Paster allowed the audience a glimpse into another worldview and an opportunity to deepen our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays by learning to interpret circumstances, temperaments, and words in the context of the four humors.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Kate’s choleric personality is the central issue of the play.  Her anger is in striking contrast to the compliant phlegmatic disposition associated with women and her husband’s drastic measures (also displaying a choleric temperament) are intended to restore the balance of her humors.

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, displays a melancholic temperament. “Shylock’s heart has literally been hardened by a combination of social and environmental factors including his age and his experiences as a money lending Jew in Venice,” Dr. Paster explains. “The common belief among Shakespeare and his contemporaries was that the humors serve the body as weapons against attack.” And so Shylock argues that his vengefulness against Antonio is a universal, natural, and involuntary response to persecution, springing from the body’s humors, and not responsive to reason or argument.

Melancholy face of OpheliaFinally, Ophelia in Hamlet displays classic characteristics of melancholy throughout the play even to the extremity of madness.  “And there’s the humor of it” features a seminal work on melancholy from the NLM collection. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1628, Robert Burton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, develops a comprehensive and systematic analysis of melancholy disorder. Ophelia’s circumstances and behaviors closely match his account of a female melancholic.  In his account, Burton expresses sympathy for these women who “out of a strong temperament…are violently carried away with this torrent of inward humors, and though very modest of themselves, sober, religious, vertuous, and well given…yet cannot make resistance.”  Dr. Paster explains that “For Shakespeare… [Ophelia’s] madness involved literally a darkening of her spirits, the clouding through passion of the fluids that ran through her neural pathways.” In this context, it becomes clear that Shakespeare, making dramatic use of contemporary medical practice, included in her mad speech allusions to medicinal plants, including pansies and violets, which would have been used to treat her melancholy.

Shakespeare drew on the contemporary cosmology of the four humors, rich with 2000 years of tradition, nuance, and vocabulary that still color our language and art today, to create some of the most human and empathic characters of all time.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors will be on display in the History of Medicine Division Reading Room on the first floor of the Library (Building 38) through August 17, 2012. The room is open 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday-Friday, except federal holidays.  You can view the exhibition independently or request a guided tour by calling 301.594.1947.

If you can’t make it to NLM, the display has been translated into a traveling banner version, and is available to libraries across the country free of charge. NLM’s traveling exhibition web page has information on where you can see the display and how you can book it. There are also education resources for K-12 educators and students, and university professors and students are included in the online adaptation of the special display.

By Beth Mullen, NLM in Focus Contributor, NLM Exhibition Program

Photo captions from top to bottom

Logo from “And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors

Gail Kern Paster, PhD, gives a talk, Shrew Taming and Other Tales of the Four Humors at NLM on February 28. Photo by Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, History of Medicine Division

John Hayter, Melancholy face of Ophelia, 1846, Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library