The Tao of Shakespeare

Illustration of the Four Humors from Wikipedia

Illustration of the Four Humors from Wikipedia

Yesterday I set off in search of a better understanding of the humors – Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric – and how Shakespeare employed them to shape his characters.  Today I am reminded of one of my favorite books: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, and how these two disparate streams of thought may very well be related.

In the Tao of Pooh, Tigger, Winnie, Piglet, Owl and Eyeore are shown to embody particular personality types: Owl is the thinker, Piglet the worrier, Tigger the optimist, Eyeore the pessimist and Winnie the Taoist who bumbles happily along as “a bear of little brain.”

Tao of Pooh

This seems comparable to how Shakespeare considered personalities based upon the four “humors,” a Greek concept that endured well past the Renaissance until human bodies were finally allowed to be dissected and thereby mechanistically understood, transforming the philosophy of medicine.

According to the ancient approach, there were four dominant “types” or humors (as mentioned above).  Here is a famous example from the era, Robert Burton’s legendary Anatomy of Melancholy as featured in the display case at the Norris Medical Library at USC.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton

Yet who expresses Melancholia better than this guy?


Similar comparisons can be made with the other humors. Here is a chart on Choleric from USC:


The Taming of the Shrew was offered to illustrate, but I think the point could just as easily have been made by this fellow:


The Phlegmatic type is characterized by being centered in the mind. Who conveys that better than this guy?


My personal favorite humor is Sanguine. Here is a shot of the display case from the Norris Library. (If not for the glare, I would have used more of these in this post.)


For my money, nobody embodies that attitude better than:


There are many ways of considering Shakespeare and the humors.  This is just one of them.  My post in no way intends to make light of a serious historical concept, but rather tries to simplify what can otherwise seem obtuse and impenetrable by making connections to contemporary personality types that are universally familiar.

Medical philosophy has come a long way since physicians utilized blood letting and bile sampling in order to diagnose and treat “ill-humored” patients.  While the basis for these ideas still lingers in Chinese medicine and what are now considered “alternative” remedies, we all retain a semblance of such broad characteristics when assessing the behaviors of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers.  They even help us gain insight into ourselves.

The Tao of Pooh puts it best:

Pooh Philosophy


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