Shakespeare’s Humors Explored at HSLS


Shakespeare adopted his ideas about humorism, or humoralism, from the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and physicians, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. It was thought that the body consisted of four humors or fluids: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm, and that the equilibrium of the body and mind was determined by a balance in these substances. When humors were in balance, a person was healthy, but an imbalance in one of these fluids not only negatively affected the person’s physical health, but also their personality and psychological wellbeing.

Credit: “The Four Elements, Four Qualities, Four Humours, Four Seasons, and Four Ages of Man,” Airbrush by Lois Hague, 1991, Wellcome Library, London, (CC By 4.0)

Shakespeare, based on the humors theory, presented his Elizabethan audiences with plays depicting the full range of human behaviors and character types, such as the vengeful Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, the melancholy Ophelia in Hamlet, and the unruly Katharine in Taming of the Shrew.

Although modern medicine no longer recognizes the theory of the four humors, the concept of balance and mind-body connection, key features in the humoralist theory, are well accepted in modern medicine. The contemporary view of a healthy lifestyle emphasizes the historically influential concept of balance in human life.

Several books on the topic are held at Pitt libraries and specifically in the HSLS History of Medicine and Rare Books collections.

HSLS Hosts Four Humors Exhibit

Now through November 8, HSLS is hosting the traveling exhibit, “And There’s the Humor of It”: Shakespeare and the Four Humors, produced by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and coordinated by the American Library Association. The exhibit uses materials from the historical collections of NLM to explore the prevailing belief of the four bodily humors.

OPENING PRESENTATION: October 2, 6-7 p.m., 1105 Scaife Hall

“William Shakespeare and the Four Humors: Elizabethan Medical Beliefs”
Gail Kern Paster, PhD, director emerita, Folger Shakespeare Library

*Visit the exhibit in Falk Library following the lecture, 200 Scaife Hall

OCTOBER PRESENTATION: October 21, 6-7 p.m., Scaife Hall, Lecture Room 5

“A Clinician Looks at Shakespeare and Medicine”
Robin Maier, MD, MA, director of medical student education/clerkship director, Family Medicine, University of Pittsburgh

~ Ester Saghafi


“About the Elizabethan Era and the Four Humors,” Nuvvo, accessed September 12, 2014,

Draper J. “The Humors: Some Psychological Aspects of Shakespeare’s Tragedies,” Draper JW. JAMA 188, (April 20, 1964):259-62.

“Humoralism,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, accessed September 11, 2014,

“Humorism,” Wikipedia, accessed September 12, 2014,

“The world of Shakespeare’s humors,” National Library of Medicine, accessed September 12, 2014,