The theory of humours derived from the ancients. If matter was compounded of different proportions of the elements – air, earth, fire, water – so mind, or rather temperament, was made up of varying proportions of basic fluids that, entering the body, determined the nature of the owner of the body. There were four fluids or humours, corresponding to the four elements – blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile and melancholy or black bile. If blood predominated, a man’s temperament was sanguine; if phlegm, it was phlegmatic; the choleric or angry and the melancholic or depressed were the result of the predominance of one or the other of the two biles.
According to J. D. Wilson, the character of Hamlet, like that of many other dramatic characters of the period, was “a study in malancholy” ; and melancholy was a condition of mind to which men in the late sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth gave much thought. The interest found its culminating and classical expression in The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, published in 1621., which proved melancholy to be “an inbred malady in every one of us” and so broadened out into a vast treatise upon human nature in general. The best known text-book on psychology when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet was A Treatise of Melancholie by Timothy Bright, published in 1586., a book from which Burton is thought to have learnt a good deal and which Shakespeare himself knew. In his work Shakespeare and Typography (1827.), William Blades observed: “It would be an interesting task to compare the Mad Folk of Shakespeare, most of whom have the melancholy fit, with A Treatise of Melancholie, which was probably read carefully for press by the youthful poet” .
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