by Sarah Salazar
12 December 2016
Shakespeare frequently used humor in his plays, and by this, I am not referring to comedy that tickles one’s fancy. The idea of the Four Humors [i.e. also spelled “humours”] is often credited to the the Greek philosophers, Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. It influenced Europeans’ diet throughout the Elizabethan Era (Draper). This ideology was believed to be linked with one’s astrological signs and taught that humans were composed of the following four bodily fluids called humors: Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Choleric and Sanguine. Humans were believed to favor one these four humors which could potentially reflect or manipulate one’s personality characteristics and health conditions. It was considered to be influenced by one’s diet and being unbalanced could cause illness, or even death. For this reason, Elizabethans took their diet seriously as they thought it affected their health (Supersizes Go Medieval). Shakespeare incorporated the Four Humors within his plays to reflect or describe some of his characters. In the “Taming of the Shrew”, he demonstrates the the gravity of humors in the Elizabethan Era, and also shows the importance of following a correct diet through Petruchio and Katherina.
Because humors were believed to be influenced by one’s diet, Katherina is not permitted hot, spicy, or burnt food. The first occasion is when Petruchio says the mutton is burnt and would rather force Katherine to fast with him for that day than to eat it (Shr. 4.1.147-154). While there is a chance that he is lying about the burnt mutton, Petruchio is able to get away with his statement because it was considered a valid reason to not consume burnt food if one was choleric. People who had this humor were also recommended to stay away from some meats like venison and spicy condiments like mustard, curry, pepper, and salt. Instead, they were encouraged to eat sweeter foods to balance their disposition (Supersizers Go…Medieval). When Katherine arrives to her new home as Petruchio’s wife, their servant Grumio shows uncertainty of feeding her broiled fish, mustard, or beef (Shr. 4.3.19-30). Preventing Katherina from the wrong food would make Gremio thoughtful and Petruchio caring for his wife’s health by attempting to stabilize her humors.
Doctors from this time period were the ones who analyzed people’s personalities to determine which was their patient’s dominant humor. Choleric is the only humor referenced in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and considered to be the most aggressive. Another factor that was tied with the humors was the patient’s astrological sign; the planet under which a patient was born also reflected their personality. According to Dr. John W. Draper’s article, “The Humors, ” “It [i.e. humoral medicine] was the only psychology that Shakespeare and his audience knew, and so the only vehicle whose terms could explain character.” As cholerics, Petruchio and Katherine are both considered to have been born under Mars. This means that whatever characteristics this planet symbolizes, passes onto the patient who has this sign. By using this humor for these two characters, Shakespeare is reflecting their personality tendencies of being easily angered, impatient, irritable and short tempered. Mars is considered to be a masculine planet named after the Roman God of War; this nature is observed through Petruchio who beats his servants in the play and even Katherina’s treatment of her younger sister.
Their choleric disposition and astrological sign also affects their relationship. It seems that many factors are against them and make it harder for their relationship to proceed smoothly as their humors causes them to show a cool detachment in their short courtship (alwaysastrology.com). Petruchio’s impetuous and ambitious wishes to wed quickly and why they both act like they don’t care for one another (as interpreted in “Performance Issues and the ‘Problem’ with the Play”) is supposed to be a result of genetic makeup according to Elizabethan science and medicine. It also explains why they do not seem to get along from the beginning because they use the same pretentious tactics and adopt a detached demeanor.
In a way, Petruchio and Katherina cannot help themselves because their humors are part of their nature. While eating the right foods help them to combat their choleric condition, it isn’t a cure, but a lifestyle they must keep. Eating the right foods consisted in consuming the opposite of what caused disruption to the balance. Choleric people whose humors were hot and dry had to eat phlegmatic type of foods which had cold and moist qualities and didn’t include spices like pepper because it would only exacerbate the negative characteristics that dominated their humors according to Carolin Biewer’s article “Dietetics As A Key To Language And Character In Shakespeare’s Comedy.” (19).
Shakespeare shows how important an Elizabethan diet was in his plays by reflecting Humoral Medicine through Petruchio and Katherine’s personality. We can see how the science of medicine from this time period caused many people to adopt superstitious beliefs that required negation such as keeping a strict diet in order to stay healthy. What is Your Humor? Take the test in the link below and find out!
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