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The Sickness of His Time

By Jessica Boles


The world of King John is on fire. Proof comes in the form of repeated references to the sun, which Shakespeare paints as “o’ercast with blood”, “old, feeble, and day-wearied,” and “loath to set” (3.1.341, 5.4.36, 5.5.1; all play references are from William Shakespeare, “King John,” Folger Shakespeare Library, Eds. Barbara A Mowat and Paul Werstine [New York: Washington Square Press, 2000]). The days are “wondrous[ly]” and maliciously hot (3.2.1, 2.1.326). Shakespeare manipulates this macrocosm—the workings of the universe at large, here represented by the weather—to draw attention to the play’s microcosm—the details of the particular, fleeting moments in the characters’ histories. By showing the effects of the incessant heat on the characters, Shakespeare solves the mystery of what John calls “the infection of [his] time”: an imbalance of the humors in the characters, particularly the titular king, caused by the excessive heat (5.2.20). Shakespeare taps into his audience’s understanding of humoral theory, deepening their understanding of the play and adding artistry and a connection to the Renaissance human experience to what could have been a straightforward history play.

Shakespeare's audience, like generations across the western world before them, put their confidence in humoral theory as the fundamental explanation for health and sickness. The theory of the four humors, originally credited to Hippocrates but explained further by Galen and many Renaissance scholars, separates the contents of the body into four fluids, with each fluid corresponding to a set of physical and personality traits. The humors were to the body as the elements were to the earth, and each humor took on many symbols and relationships with astrological bodies, Greco-Roman gods, etc. Health, to the Greeks and forward even into the nineteenth century, rested in equilibrium. A state of perfect health was rooted in a perfect balance of each humor (which literally meant ‘fluid’). This ideal was called “pepsis”, which Hippocrates described as the “[essential], orderly, balanced, harmonious digestion and metabolism of the Four Humors” (Billy La Pietra, “Hippocrates: Father of Modern Medicine,” 2013). According to Galen, an individual in a state of pepsis was “kind, affectionate, humane, [and] prudent” (AnnaMarie Eleanor Roos, “Galen and Humoral Theory,” 2009). Any tip in the scales away from pepsis caused trouble, and in King John, this leads to disaster.

Much like modern personality tests, examination of the four humors taught Elizabethans about their personality traits. The four fluids the Elizabethans monitored in their bodies were phlegm, blood, black bile, and yellow bile. Phlegm referred to a variety of whitish secretions and was believed to come from the brain. Too much phlegm typically made a person, called a phlegmatic, lazy and perpetually drowsy. An excess of blood created a sanguine personality, marked by cheerfulness and extroversion. Black bile originated in the liver, and when unchecked, it bred melancholic personality traits like broodiness and general malaise.
Perhaps the most dangerous excess, however (and certainly in King John), was an excess of yellow bile, also called choler, which Renaissance physicians believed was created in an overactive spleen. Galen credited a surfeit of yellow bile with causing individuals to become full of untamed energy and a predisposition to anger.

In 1612, Henry Peacham wrote a poem in the Minerva Britannia describing the choleric personality and accompanying an illustration of a man with a sword and shield and a lion:

Next Choler Stands, resembling fire the most
And having a face that is dark yellow and thin.
He has a sword that he has taken out of its
Sheath in anger, and close to him is a
Stern-eyed lion. He also has a shield with a
Flame on a crimson background.

He is painted young to show that his passions
Control him and that he is a thoughtless and
Undisciplined young man. The lion indicates
That he can seldom keep from performing
Cruel deeds and is without pity. However, the
Lion also indicates that he has a brave and wide-
Ranging mind.

In line with Peacham, contemporary writer on humoral history Noga Arikha calls cholerics prone to “uncontrolled rage” and notes that they were linked to the element fire, “hot and dry” qualities (and thus of all the humors most susceptible to fever), and Mars, the Roman god of war, (Noga Arikha, @Passions and Tempers: About the Humors,” 2007).

As the “hot and dry” humor, choler was especially vulnerable to the magnifying influence of the sun. This explains Shakespeare’s choice of abundant heat imagery. The play’s lords “burn in indignation” (4.2.105). The walls of a contentious city shake with fever (2.1.237). The kings’ trial and speed are hot (2.1.356). Their wrath is “inflaming,” their indignation “fiery.” The war is “kindled” and cannot be blown out (5.2.87).
John shows his choleric nature in his rash, overconfident decision making and in his repeated references to his own “wrath.” In considering war with King Philip, he boldly names himself “God’s wrathful agent” and says that even the bowels of his cannons are “full of wrath” (2.1.87, 2.1.219). Wrath being a key feature of a choleric personality, it becomes very clear that John embraces his imbalance. He makes no attempt to cool his passion and declares, “France, I am burned up with inflaming wrath/ A rage whose heat hath this condition/ That nothing can allay, nothing but blood/ The blood, and dearest-valued blood of France” (3.2.355–358). His bloodlusty cry echoes Peacham’s poem illustrating choler’s qualities. Philip, who tempers his rage earlier than his opponent, warns John against this untempered fury, saying, “Thy rage shall burn thee up/ and thou shalt turn to ashes” (3.2.359–360). Philip’s declaration foreshadows John’s fate at the end of the play, but John has more damage to do before his rage takes its revenge on his own body.

Like the physicians of his and Shakespeare’s ages, John believes the way to fix “all the unsettled humors” of his land is to bleed it (2.1.66). Bloodletting was a widely practiced treatment for humoral imbalance in the Renaissance; though bloodletting was a rare choice for original scholar Hippocrates, Galen lauded the practice. Galen’s theory of bloodletting as a treatment centered on the idea that “pure blood contained a smaller amount of the other humors” (Roos, 2009). Roos explains Galen’s practice thus: “Humoral balance could be restored by therapeutic bloodletting via leeches or lancet. The vein was manually perforated by the doctor and sometimes many cuts were made. When the patient felt faint, and was considered to be ‘calmer’ due to the purging of excess humor, the bleeding was stopped” (Roos, 2009). The cure for England, in John’s mind, then, is war; the blood shed on the battlefields—preferably by the offending French—will cool the feverish land. Warlike John believes himself both king and surgeon, and he is willing to watch his countrymen bleed out the choler he ignores in himself.

The balanced city of Angiers offers another prescription, acting as a voice of reason, calling for negotiation and peace in the place of war. They have shut fast their gates against the contending kings, and when their demand for agreement between John and Philip is answered with “sons [lying] scattered on the bleeding ground” and further contradicting claims from the opposing rulers, they remark on the purposelessness of “blood [for] blood” and refuse again to choose one bloodthirsty king over another. They cry for the “rescue [of] those breathing . . . that here come sacrifices for the field.” They feel the suffering of the common men under the kings’ choleric rule, while Philip and John remain blind with “incensed rage” (4.3.273). Under threat of a “rain of bullets,” the citizens of Angiers persevere in their call for an even-tempered solution(2.1.429). Bring balance, they suggest, through marriage between Blanche of Spain and Louis the Dauphin rather than more bloodshed. They conjure humoral imagery in their argument, citing the spleen as the seat of haste, which will be swayed in them more quickly by the union of Blanche and Louis than by more shows of choleric wrath.

Unfortunately for John, the wisdom of peace over fiery wrath fails to take firm root, and, just as King Philip predicted, John succumbs to fever. Forced to leave the battle when “weakness possesseth” him, John soon shows signs that, like his war that “cannot be blown out,” John is burning out of this world (5.3.17, 5.2.87). He bemoans the fact that his “tyrant fever burns [him] up” and rails against “so hot a summer in [his] bosom/ That all [his] bowels crumble up to dust” (5.3.14, 5.7.33–34). Only on his deathbed—far too late—does John pledge himself to “contemplation and devout desires” (5.4.49). He longs at last for “cold comfort,” the kind which the city of Angiers would have offered him (5.7.45). John dies as he marvels at his “cracked and burnt” heart, leaving his son, Prince Henry, to weep for him (5.7.56, 5.7.115). Just as Arikha explains, choler has burned to melancholy, leaving a tearful but more contemplative, empathetic prince for England. The sickness of the time required that balance be restored; choleric John fails to bleed the land back to a state of pepsis, but the play answers the problem with the tears of Prince Henry. Grief—the noble rheum—cools the land after the battles have finally ceased, but it is too late for choleric John.



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