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About the Elizabethan Era and the Four Humors

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The Elizabethan Era

The Elizabethan era refers to the time period of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, from 1558 to 1603. The Elizabethan era is also known as "the age of Shakespeare" or "the Renaissance".

It was the height of the English Renaissance, which meant:

  • the "re-birth" of art and culture
  • Elizabethan theatre flourished
  • Shakespeare and others composed new plays that broke free from the typical styles of English theatre
  • Progress in science and technology were made
  • Achievements in the skill of navigation, cartography and surveying were advanced
  • Philosophers such as Sir Thomas More and Sir Francis Bacon published their ideas on humanity and the world
  • The embracement of ancient Greek and Roman beliefs, myths and culture
  • Music was so highly regarded that one was not considered to be a gentleman unless he was able to sing well

The Four Humours

In ancient Greek and Roman times, there was a medical belief that the body consisted of 4 humors or fluids. These humors were: blood, bile, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.

It was thought that when these four humors were in balance, a person was healthy. A surplus or imbalance in one of these fluids would not only affect their physical health, but also their personality and complexion.

This belief became popular once in again in medical practice during the Elizabethan era. Practices such as bloodletting stemmed from this theory.

Humour Element Organ Ancient Name Ancient Characteristics
Blood air liver sanguine cheerful, courageous, agreeable or lustful
Yellow bile (Choler) fire gall bladder choleric prone to anger, rashness and pride
Black bile (Melancholy) earth spleen melancholic introspective, morose, sleepless, irritable
Phlegm water brain/lungs phlegmatic cowardly, dull, pale in complexion

You will notice that in many works by Shakespeare, he refers to these humors. For example, Lady Macbeth says:

"Yet who would have thought / the old man to have had so much blood in him" (V.1.44-45)

This reference to blood implies Duncan's sanguine personality of being kind and joyful. The four temperaments, clockwise from top right: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic

Holidays and Celebrations

Many Elizabethan works also mark various festivities that we don't necessarily celebrate today. For example, the Shakespeare work Twelfth Night marks the first Monday after twelfth night of January, a celebration of returning to work after Christmas holidays. June 21st is known as Midsummer, which is the main focus in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Weddings were highly regarded and so feasts were often a large part of the celebration - this is notable in Shakespeare plays such as As You Like It.

Images Credit: J Machuff, Unforth, Wikipedia, johnbolland

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  1. Daylight saidSat, 06 Dec 2008 06:23:31 -0000 ( Link )

    interesting how with little knowledge about science still (since they used bloodletting.. thank god that isn’t allowed anymore.. i think), they managed to sort the right humour/disease with the right organ that’s affected. cholera for example does affect your gallbladder!

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  2. Yorrick saidFri, 19 Dec 2008 16:26:04 -0000 ( Link )

    Actually, the name of the disease was derived from the Elizabethan idea.

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  3. Yorrick saidFri, 19 Dec 2008 16:29:39 -0000 ( Link )

    Actually, the name of the disease was derived from the Elizabethan idea.

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  4. lucyinthesky saidFri, 19 Dec 2008 18:56:03 -0000 ( Link )

    Yeah, you’re right, Yorrick! :) Glad to see a fellow Shakespeare aficionado on the Hub.

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  5. Yorrick saidSat, 20 Dec 2008 00:01:44 -0000 ( Link )

    Actually I just discovered that about 3 weeks ago. (though I’ve always been into the culture of that time period, I’m very fascinated by the Victorian Era.)
    Now I know where I can always get help with Shakespeare-related stuff. Thanks a lot!

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