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 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).
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.