The Humours in Humour: Shakespeare and Early Modern Psychology

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Did Shakespeare believe in the four humours? And did he write "humours comedy"? To address these questions it is necessary first to review Renaissance humoral theory, derived from Galen and Hippocrates, which held that a human body contains four principal fluids, 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. The theory of the humours has long regarded by literary scholars as something of a historical curiosity, on a par with horoscopes, and too absurd do more than to indicate the pre-scientific nature of early modern thinking. And yet recent work, including the studies of Paster, Rowe, and Floyd-Wilson, suggests that humoral theory is intimately bound up with early medicine, science, and even understandings of the self. In particular, and drawing on the recent studies of Pollard and Hobgood, this chapter will argue that the reputation of the theatre itself as site especially likely to cause humoral alteration and interchange gives a particular edge to Shakespeare's numerous references to humoral psychology.
The chapter pursues these connections into the idea of "humours comedy", one particularly associated with Shakespeare's colleague Ben Jonson. Like the humours themselves, this genre label has long been rather disparaged and relatively little cross-examined. This chapter returns to the seminal references to the genre by Jonson and others, arguing that "humours comedy" is a term which is polemical; flexible; and surprisingly relevant to Shakespeare's own practice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Comedy
EditorsHeather Hirschfeld
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780198727682
Publication statusPublished - 10 Oct 2018


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