Hamlet’s Melancholia

The Elizabethans inherited from the middle ages a view of man’s body as being composed of a mixture of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire, which were supplied by the intake of food. The liver converted food into four different kinds of liquids, or “humours”, which in turn gave moisture and vital heat to the body.

The four humours were the choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic. The melancholic, being cold and dry, was associated with earth. The phlegmatic humour was cold and moist and associated with water. The sanguine humour was located in the blood, which was hot and moist, and the choleric humour was associated with fire and was hot and dry.

Fire = Choleric = Hot and Dry = Bile
Air = Sanguine = Hot and Moist = Blood
Water = Phlegmatic = Cold and Moist = Phlegm
Earth = Melancholic = Cold and Dry = Black Bile

It was the particular mixture or combination of these humours, or elements as they were also called, that informed each individual human being with a particular temperament or “complexion”.

The ideal man would consist of a perfect mixture of the four elements. In Shakespeare‘s “Julius Caesar“, Anthony describes Brutus as having been just such a man:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed up in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Few people are blessed with such an ideal mixture and most exhibit a predominant humour or combination of humours.

For example, if someone was said to be of a choleric temperament it was because his character reflected the predominate tendency of that humour; in other words, he was a quick tempered, impatient, bilious sort of chap.

A phlegmatic character was placid and rather indolent, lacking in feelings and tending towards imbecility.

A sanguine character was ruddy of countenance, of a cheerful disposition and a lover of the pleasures of the flesh. Many considered this the best of all the humours.

Finally, the melancholic type was moody, sensitive, reflective, and given to bouts of mania or world-weary sadness or chagrin, like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad,
It wearies me…

It was the melancholic humour that was given the most attention in the Renaissance period because it was the humour that could bring on bouts of madness, ecstasy, fury, and was even linked to divine inspiration.

Socrates and Plato were said to have been melancholic types whose philosophical insights were divinely inspired.

Poets and artists were also thought to have melancholic temperaments, and an attitude of “tristezza” became fashionable among young intellectuals in Shakespeare’s day.

In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton remarks that melancholia “advanceth men’s conceits more than any other humour” – in other words, the melancholic type is given to witticisms and has a swift and fertile imagination.

Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592), who popularized the essay as a literary genre, described his natural complexion as being a stable mixture of the sanguine and melancholic, the former keeping the latter in check.

However, when he relinquished his business affairs and retired to his country estate to live the life of a gentleman of leisure, a sudden bereavement threw him into a profound melancholic depression which he feared might develop into full-blown madness. His spirit, usually tempered by the sanguine humour and therefore free of sadness, suddenly “bolted off like a runaway horse” and gave birth to “chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after another” (Essays I:8).

If melancholia or any of the other humours takes on excess it corrupts and burns up to become “melancholy adust” and if one’s predominate humour is melancholia, then madness is a real danger.

Montaigne’s solution was to write about himself in the light of classical history, personal experience and anecdotes he picked up here and there. He analyzed and questioned everything that interested him (except the doctrines of the Catholic faith) with the sceptical eye of a student of Sextus Empiricus.

Montaigne’s melancholic humour and his intellectual scepticism are thought to have influenced Shakespeare in his creation of Hamlet, who is the image of a sceptical prince par excellence. Much of the play revolves around Hamlet’s search for evidence that Claudius did indeed murder Hamlet’s father.

Hamlet grieves over the loss of his father and is horrified by his mother’s hasty marriage with his uncle, Claudius, the new king. Hamlet’s melancholy humour is clearly conveyed in his first soliloquy:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Hamlet’s melancholy has become corrupted and “burnt” with excessive heat, and during the course of the play we see him take on various roles or undergo experiences that might be linked to “melancholy adust”.

He sees a ghost, just as Montaigne reported seeing chimeras; his language is full of poetic conceit and witty inspiration; he apes a lover’s ecstacies; he kills Polonius in a moment of fury and ultimately kills Claudius in a frenzied assault hastened by his knowledge that he too is dying.

And of course, Hamlet feigns madness. But he does it so convincingly that we wonder whether or not he has actually gone mad, or at least whether one would have to be mad in order to choose to feign madness.

Whatever the truth behind the claims that Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne when he was writing Hamlet, one thing is certain, and that is that Hamlet is for much of the play an excellent model of melancholia.

For more information about the influence of melancholia on Shakespeare, see The Melancholy Muse: Chaucer, Shakespeare and Early Medicine (Medieval and Renaissance Literary Studies)