Shakespeare and health

Categories: History of food

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, sometime resident of Southwark. Jane Levi, writer and visiting research fellow at King’s College London, explains the relevance to his writing of the humoral theory of health

“Now, good digestion wait on appetite,
And health on both!”

Macbeth, Macbeth, act 3, scene 4

In Shakespeare’s time most people still thought about their bodies, diet and digestion in terms of the humoral theory originally developed by Galen in the 1st century CE. The principles of this system continued to be influential in European health and medicine into the 17th century. Understanding the humoral system can help enrich our perception of what Shakespeare’s original audiences would have understood about his characters from some of the terminology used to describe them.

“Sir, he’s rash and very sudden in choler, and haply may strike at you.”
Iago, Othello, act 2, scene 1

Under the Galenic system, it was believed that each individual contained different degrees of each of the four humours, with one’s personality being governed by whichever humour naturally dominated. Each humour contained a different degree of heat and moisture, and according to the system so did each food—and even each cooking method. In order to be healthy and happy, you needed to eat according to your natural temperament, taking into account any imbalances caused by lifestyle, illness or mood, and select appropriate sauces, combinations and quantities of foods to maintain an even balance and correct any problems.

Shakespeare illustration

“A surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings.”

Lysander, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act 2, scene 2

The four humours were defined as follows:

Temperament & personality traits:
sanguine (confident, optimistic, rash/brave)
Basic qualities: warm & moist
Food examples: sugar, oil
Cooking methods: boiling

Temperament & personality traits: choleric (ambitious restless, hot-tempered)
Basic qualities: warm & dry
Food examples: mutton, herbs, spices, wine
Cooking methods: roasting, frying

Temperament & personality traits: melancholic (serious, analytical, morose)
Basic qualities: cold & dry
Food examples: beef, venison, rye, vinegar

Temperament & personality traits: phlegmatic (calm, matter-of-fact, peaceful)
Basic qualities: cold & moist
Food examples: melon, lettuce, fish, pork

So, under this system, ‘cold and dry’ beef could be ‘warmed and moistened’ by boiling; ‘cold and moist’ melon could be ‘warmed and dried’ with ginger; and ‘warm’ mutton could be ‘cooled’ a little by the vinegar in a mint sauce. The melancholy Jacques in As You Like It needed to steer clear of the venison in the Forest of Arden and would have benefitted from a little corrective wheat bread and sweet fruit.

Many of the healing combinations suggested by the humoral system remain in use today, as does the language we use when, say, we describe black pepper as ‘hot’.

Sir Andrew: (presenting a paper) Here’s the challenge, read it. Warrant there’s vinegar and pepper in ’t.
Fabian: Is ’t so saucy?
Sir Andrew: Ay, is ’t, I warrant him. Do but read.

Twelfth Night, act 3, scene 4

We also continue to employ some of these ideas in traditional remedies—for example by adding honey (a hot and dry food) to soothing drinks when we have a phlegmy cold (a cold and moist condition). Shakespeare’s audiences were well versed in this system, with a ready understanding of the food-related similes he uses and what they say about the characters concerned, including the lovelorn people.

“of such vinegar aspect
That they’ll not show their teeth in way of smile”
Solanio, Merchant of Venice, act 1, scene 1

Whether we refer to our humours or not, it’s as obvious now as it was then that a little sugar would help transform this sour face into a sweet, healthy smile.