These richly symbolic woodcuts appear in the second part of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612), a type of emblem book that was popular in Renaissance Europe. In these books, each image is an emblem depicting a key idea, accompanied by a pithy rhyming verse or moral epigram. Of the 204 emblems in this work, 62 are based on Basilikon Doron (1599), King James VI and I’s book of advice to his young son.

The four humours: how do they define Shakespeare’s characters?

The first four woodcuts digitised here (pp. 126–29) represent the four bodily humours – ‘Melancholly’, ‘Sanguis’, ‘Choller’ and ‘Phlegme – which were thought to define human character in Shakespeare’s day.

The theory of the four humours was central to the teachings of Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. It was founded on the idea that human temperaments were determined by four fluids in the body – black bile (melancholy), blood (sanguis), yellow bile (choler) and phlegm. These humours in turn were composed of four qualities (hot, dry, cold and wet) and four elements (earth, air, fire and water). They were also associated with the four different seasons and with the four ages of man from childhood to old age.

In this way, the human body became a microcosm (or miniature representation) of the wider natural world. Health relied on a balance of humours, while illness or unusual behaviour arose from imbalance or excess. Hamlet says, ‘the o’ergrowth of some complexion’ or humour often breaks down the ‘forts of reason’ (1.4.27–28). Cures were based on restoring equilibrium of the humours through blood-letting, vomiting, sweating, or changes in diet and exercise.

This idea shaped European perceptions of the relationship between the body and the emotions until the end of the 17th century. The humours are often central to the way Shakespeare depicts characters like Hamlet, Don John, Benedick, Jacques and Antonio. They are also the key to other Elizabethan plays such as Ben Jonson’s comedy, Every Man in His Humour (1601).

  • Black bile (or melancholy) made people melancholic, solitary and studious. This is represented in Peacham’s wintry image of the ‘musing’ old man with his mouth gagged ‘in sign of silence’ (p. 126). His complexion is ‘hot and drie’, connected with the earth (or ‘ground’). The ‘light-loathing’ owl and ‘melancholly Pusse’ sit on either side of him.
  • When blood was dominant it made people sanguine or merry, prone to indulgence with women and wine. This is symbolised by Peacham through the spring-like ‘youthfull’ man, playing music accompanied by a ‘lustfull Goate’ (p. 127). Both are associated with the ‘Airie’ element, which was said to be hot and wet.
  • Yellow bile (or choler) caused people to be choleric and hot-tempered, with their passions raging. This is represented in the summery woodcut of an almost naked man, with an ‘unsheathed’ sword and a lion (p. 128). In his humour, he resembles fire, with its hot and dry qualities.
  • Phlegm made people phlegmatic, ‘slothfull’ and lethargic, as symbolised by Peacham’s tortoise and static old man seen ‘coughing on a Marble seate’ (p. 129). This humour was connected with the cold and wet element of water, and the autumn season.

The servile yoke of marriage and Much Ado About Nothing

This woodcut (p. 132) depicts ‘Matrimonium’ (or marriage) in brutally off-putting terms. Marriage is personified as a male figure stuck in the stocks – an early modern punishment – suggesting a humiliating lack of ‘libertie’. The man carries a heavy yoke, as if trapped like an animal in ‘servitude’, reversing the idea of male dominance that was so common in this era. He is also symbolically bound to Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, and holds a quince as a symbol of ‘fruitfullnes’ or fertility. This fruit was supposedly given to Athenian brides by the ancient Greek statesman Solon.

This idea of marriage as a constrictive ‘yoke’ (particularly for men) is suggested in Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick swears blindly that he will always ‘live a bachelor’ (1.1.245–46). Initially, Beatrice also refuses to ‘hear … of a husband’ and she ‘mocks all her wooers’ (2.1.347–50). Don Pedro suggests that Benedick is bound to submit to marriage in the end, like a ‘savage bull’ surrendering to a ‘yoke’ (1.1.261; 5.1.181–82). But Benedick declares that if he does so, they should stick the bull’s horns on his forehead with a sign saying, ‘Here may you see Benedick the married man’ (1.1.267–68). Of course, there is heavy irony, and perhaps mixed feelings for the audience, when Benedick and Beatrice are married in Act 5.