Humoring the Body Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage
by Gail Kern Paster
University of Chicago Press, 2004
Cloth: 978-0-226-64847-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-21382-8 | Electronic: 978-0-226-64848-4
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.001.0001


Though modern readers no longer believe in the four humors of Galenic naturalism—blood, choler, melancholy, and phlegm—early modern thought found in these bodily fluids key to explaining human emotions and behavior. In Humoring the Body, Gail Kern Paster proposes a new way to read the emotions of the early modern stage so that contemporary readers may recover some of the historical particularity in early modern expressions of emotional self-experience.

Using notions drawn from humoral medical theory to untangle passages from important moral treatises, medical texts, natural histories, and major plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Paster identifies a historical phenomenology in the language of affect by reconciling the significance of the four humors as the language of embodied emotion. She urges modern readers to resist the influence of post-Cartesian abstraction and the disembodiment of human psychology lest they miss the body-mind connection that still existed for Shakespeare and his contemporaries and constrained them to think differently about how their emotions were embodied in a premodern world.


Gail Kern Paster is the former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is the author of The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare and The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England.


"Humoring the Body challenges our familiar understanding of the relationship between early modern subjects and their surroundings. Paster reveals a Shakespearean landscape saturated in feeling. . . . Paster's book is lively, colourful and often very funny. Its most striking achievement is to reveal not only how Shakespeare's men and women inhabited the world, but also how the world inhabited them in return."
— Katherine Craik, Times Literary Supplement

"Through a juxtaposition of Renaissance plays by Shakespeare and others, and of Renaissance juridical, medical and philosophical texts on the humors, Paster manages to bridge the wide gap between the post-Emlightenment twenty-first-century reader and the Renaissance, making it possible for him/her to perceive the ontological and phenomenological dimension of the emotional experience of the Renaissance subject."
— Cercles

"A meticulously researched study that pushes readers to rethink early modern discourses of the passions from a phenomenological perspective. It provides a solid grounding in critical conversations about early modern epistemologies of embodiment, gender and subjectivity."
— Loren M. Blinde, Comitatus

"A brief review cannot do justice to how Paster's local readings transform the reading of entire plays, indeed of character generally in early modern drama."
— Alberto Cacicedo, Renaissance Quarterly

"Those interested in English renaissance drama will find in [Paster's] neo-humoral exploration of dramatic motivation and causation some substantial contributions to critical interpretation of the canon. . . . In her delicate excavations of English renaissance drama, Paster unearths a vast network of humoral meanings, so easy to misconsture as merely metaphorical today. She succeeds remarkably in reclaiming the inner and outer landscape of consciousness within which such characters as Hamlet, Othello and Desdemona have their being."
— William Dodd, Nuncius

"[Paster] undertakes to read Shakespeare literally. This is a bold step, which has profound implications for bothcriticism and performance. Much of what she offers is revelatory."
— Ros King, MLR

"Paster's excellent book brims with fascinating information about sixteenth-century concepts of the body, especially interactions of body, mind, and environment that produce emotion. Her works forms part of the larger project of excavating the early modern mental landscape."
— Linda Woodbridge, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"Humoring the Body is a remarkable book: probing and thick with insight, written with a deft touch and enormous peripheral vision of the world outside the plays that we find ourselves orbiting again and again. . . . An engrossing, rewarding book to read."
— Douglas Trevor, MLQ

"In an engaging and fascinating work, the author succeeds in restoring 'the historical particularity of early modern emotional self-experience' in the plays of Shakespeare and others. . . . Not only has the author helped us reassess the uses of employment of the passions in early moderd drama, but she has reminded us that the daily experience of emotions in the early modern age was different from our own."
— David A. J. Widmer, Sixteenth Century Journal


List of Illustrations


A Note on Citations

- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0001
[bodily humors, Edward Reynolds, blood, choler, black bile, phlegm, emotions, psychophysiology, bodily fluids, William Shakespeare]
In his Treatise of the Passions and Faculties of the Soule of Man (1640), Bishop Edward Reynolds compares the passions of Christ to those of ordinary men. Reynolds's troping of the passions of Christ is a dense metaphorical layering of the key elements of early modern cosmological thought, and it ends with a surprising and vivid image—of Christ as a vessel of clear liquid. But the passions—thanks to their close functional relation to the four bodily humors of blood, choler, black bile, and phlegm—had a more than analogical relation to liquid states and forces of nature. This book explores a spectrum of emotions including anger and melancholy during a period when the psychological had not yet become divorced from the physiological. It examines self-experience and the psychophysiology of bodily fluids, focusing on the language of the emotions in William Shakespeare's drama and taking it as representative of the thinking about the embodied emotions that is peculiar to early modern English culture. (pages 1 - 24)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0002
[locutions, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Othello, emotions, psychophysiology, wrath, natural substances, embodied self, physical environment]
This chapter examines a few locutions of affect in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello in order to determine how such locutions, if properly contextualized in terms of early modern phenomenology, may point to key epistemic changes in subject-object relations. In order to appreciate early modern emotions historically, the chapter considers the characters' relations to their immediate material environments as constitutive of early psychophysiological truth about self and emotion. It describes this relation—between psychophysiology and the physical constitution of the ensouled premodern world—as the ecology of the passions. The two locutions on which the chapter explores in Hamlet and Othello (Aeneas's description of Pyrrhus as “roasted in wrath and fire” and Desdemona's expression of concern that something “hath puddled” Othello's “clear spirit”) form a convenient pair in precisely inverting what they propose as affectivity's relation with the physical environment: the phrase from Hamlet representing wrath as a quality of matter dispersed into the natural order, and the phrase from Othello introducing natural substances into the deep physical recesses of the embodied self. (pages 25 - 76)
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    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0003
[William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, affectivity, thermal economy, women, humoralism, melancholy, rage]
Extremes of emotion correlate with extremes of temperature. And within these extremes, the doctrine of female coldness imposes itself as a behavioral norm—an ostensible natural limit—governing the appropriateness of affectivity in female characters not only under a given set of dramatic or social circumstances but as a matter of overall obedience to the thermal paradigms of nature. Thus, the social intention deeply, if obscurely, imbricated in the thermal economy not only grants affective privilege to men over women, but it also works to dampen the emotional expressiveness and claim to individuality theoretically granted to women as a whole. This chapter explores how such bodily phenomena as humor, spirit, and temper become performative of versions of femaleness even in contexts where, to us, discourses of sexual difference and the body itself seem barely to be in play. This chapter shows the discourse of female humoralism at work by contrasting selected representations of female melancholy and female rage, mostly, but not exclusively, in three of William Shakespeare's plays: As You Like It, Othello, and The Taming of the Shrew. (pages 77 - 134)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0004
[passions, William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, soul, psychological materialism, species barrier, animals, humans, humors]
It is important to our historical understanding of the passions that they belonged to a part of the natural order jointly occupied by humans and animals. As Thomas Wright pointed out, “Those actions [of the soul] then which are common with vs, and beasts, we call Passions, and Affections, or perturbations of the mind.” For the early moderns, the core intelligibility of this commonplace observation depended upon three interrelated presuppositions of Renaissance cosmology. The first was that the hydraulic model governing early modern psychology was based “on a clear localisation of psychological function by organ or system of organs.” The second was that the four humors of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood were not confined to the human body but were distributed differentially to all those creatures, more and less perfect, possessing a heart and blood. The third, and perhaps most important, presupposition was the common possession of a sensitive soul. This chapter examines psychological materialism across the species barrier William Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV and Antony and Cleopatra. (pages 135 - 188)
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- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0005
[Thomas Wright, passions, thermal imagery, men, urbanization, socialization, England, humors, anger, individuality]
Thomas Wright begins his influential 1604 treatise The Passions of the Minde in Generall by explaining his topic's “goodly and faire glosse of profit and commodity” for many sorts of Englishmen. This chapter examines how Wright's use of thermal imagery to express the passionate unrestraint characteristic of some birthright gentlemen calls attention to the role that Galenic humoralism plays in the master social tropes of early modern urbanization and elite socialization. It discusses the problematic relationship between the social and the emotional hierarchies of early modern England, with particular attention to the key issue of humors and passions in men—and especially the social privileges both required by and often assumed in the expression of male anger. First, it suggests how contemporary rhetoric of the passions and the humors functions in two discourses that work together to express, manage, and adjudicate among claims to emotional privilege: biological discourse and discourse of literary satire. The latter describes the humors as an agreed-upon social fiction by which men describe and claim individuality. (pages 189 - 242)
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    University Press Scholarship Online

- Gail Kern Paster
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.003.0006
[passions, humors, William Shakespeare, human body, natural world, emotions, self, psychological materialism, physical environment]
The classical doctrine of the four humors gave playwrights, including William Shakespeare, a theory of personality, behavior, status, gender, age, and ethnicity that had the distinct advantage of being rooted in what they believed to be indisputable facts about the human body and its relation to the natural world. As one of the six Galenic non-naturals that made up an individual subject's specific physical environment, the passions served as a powerful, if broad, focus for thinking about the relations between inside and outside, between bodily interiority and the phenomenal object world, between self and other even when the other is a servant, a woman, or a cat. That we identify these emotions as identical to our own, though often expressed in an estranging discourse, speaks in part to the long dominance of psychological materialism and the historically specific bodily contents that it presupposed. (pages 243 - 246)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online