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The Humorous Man

The Humorous Man

By Diana Major Spencer


Theatre-goers in Elizabethan England expected and usually found one or more humorous characters during an afternoon of drama. The Utah Shakespeare Festival's selections for l99l would not disappoint them, for in these plays Shakespeare has provided Kate, Petruchio, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Hamlet, all of them humorous in the sense intended by Hamlet in his remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern announcing the imminent arrival of the players: "The humorous man shall end his part in peace" (II.ii.335). That Kate, Petruchio, and Sir Andrew are humorous is obvious. Yet Shakespeare's audience would also have recognized Hamlet as humorous. Not funny, not comical but humorous.

Nowadays, "funny, amusing, witty, droll, whimsical, and laughable" are synonyms for humorous. But this modern range of meaning evolved after Shakespeare's death, appearing in print for the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in l705. For Shakespeare, the word humour meant "fluid or moisture," specifically "the life juices of plants or animals."

Briefly, the doctrine of the humours included the following assumptions: Four elements comprise the universe, each with characteristic temperature or humidity: earth/cold, water/moist, air/dry, and fire/hot. As these combine to create various life forms, they produce four life-carrying fluids, the humours: blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, and melancholy or black bile. Each person contains all four categories elements, qualities, and humours but the proportions vary.

A preponderance of one humour results in an identifiable character type, with characteristic appearance and behavior: the melancholic is pale, reflective, and fretting (Hamlet); the phlegmatic is apathetic, indifferent, and pale (Sir Andrew); the sanguine is ruddy, good-natured, and devil-may-care (Petruchio); and the choleric is lean, easily angered, and vindictive (Kate).

The appearance of a person dressed in black and using words like "black," "nighted," "sable," "dark," "dank," "witching hour," and so forth, would prepare an Elizabethan for a melancholy humour. (Melan- is the Greek root meaning "black.") If he also broods and frets in lengthy indulgence of his anger as opposed to the choleric's immediate flare-up he substantiates the audience's suspicion that he is melancholy. Add fitful sleep and fearful dreams, both of which are mentioned by Hamlet, and you have the perfect melancholic. Hamlet is "distemper'd," "melancholy," "mad" with his "antic disposition," his "nighted colour," and "the dejected 'haviour of the visage" (downcast eyes).

Perfect physical and mental health result from a temperate mixture of the four humours, each of which is tempered (modified by mixing) by the presence of the others. Fortune blesses few individuals with the perfect blend, but Hamlet believes Horatio is such as one: "Blest are those / Whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled, / That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger / O sound what stop she please. Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core" (III.ii.72-78).

Someone who, like Horatio, has his humours and his reason well mixed (comeddled) is even-tempered, temper meaning "the appropriate mixture of qualities." If Horatio shows anger, he loses his temper; he could also lose his temper by falling into melancholy.

Hamlet, we are told, has undergone a transformation and, thus, is out of temper (Gertrude's "too much changed son" [II.ii.37]). One's temper could be altered by diet, blood-letting, sitting in the sun and passion. In fact, the same humour could stem from different passions. If grieved, as Hamlet was, the reduction of heat in the body, combined with the loss of moisture through weeping, produces a cold, dry temperament: melancholy. Conversely, Polonius also makes sense when he attributes Hamlet's behavior to love: such passion generates heat, which vaporizes the humours and dissipates the hot, moist blood through sighs, leaving it cold and dry as dross: melancholy.

Ophelia's madness may also be interpreted as humorous (phlegmatic) in that she becomes too apathetic and dull to act in her own defense. Gertrude's observation that she was "like a creature native and indued / Unto that element [water]," and Laertes' "too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia," suggest that her death by drowning suited her watery character.

For Shakespeare a humorous character could be unbalanced either by nature or by circumstance. He might be comic or tragic, a Petruchio or a Hamlet; he might enjoy his humour, as Petruchio does; or his humour might be his "tragic flaw," as Hamlet's is. In any case a humorous character is a source of conflict and dramatic tension, and of resolution when, at play's end, "the humorous man shall end his part in peace."

"Good night, sweet Prince."