Hamlet: Background Notes
The Great Chain of Being
- Elizabethans believed in an absolutely ordered universe in which all things could be
clearly ranked in order of superiority
- living things have a precise place and function
- an object’s “place” depended upon the relative proportion of “spirit” and “matter” it
contained. (the less spirit and more “matter”, the lower down it stood)
(King, Queen, Knights, Noblemen, Gentleman, Ladies, Peasants)
- human beings were viewed as microcosms (“little world”) that reflected the structure of the
world as a world. Just as the world was composed of four elements (earth, water, air, fire)
so too was the human body composed of substances called “humours” (black bile, yellow
bile, phlegm, and blood) with characteristics corresponding to the four elements. These
elements had to remain balanced for a person to remain healthy.
- when things were properly ordered – reason ruled over emotion, a king over his subjects,
and parent ruled the child, and the sun governed the planets.
- to act against human nature causes humans to descend to the level of a beast.
- Kings were thought of having a “divine right” ; they received their power from God; dire
consequences for rebellion, treason, or political unrest because it was a sin against God - Shakespeare suggests through his plays that civil disobedience leads to cosmic chaos. - the need for strong political rule was very significant; many pieces of literature during the
Renaissance addressed the concept of “the ideal ruler”.
Theories of medicine
The underlying principle of medieval medicine was the theory of humours. This was derived from the ancient
medical works, and dominated all western medicine up until the 19th century. The theory stated that within
every individual there were four humours, or principal fluids - black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, these were produced by various organs in the body, and they had to be in balance for a person to remain healthy. Too much phlegm in the body, for example, caused lung problems; and the body tried to cough up the phlegm to restore a balance. The balance of humours in humans could be achieved by diet, medicines, and by blood-letting, using leeches. The four humours were also associated with the four seasons, black bile-autumn, yellow bile-summer, phlegm-winter and blood-spring. Medieval Europe was a place unable to maintain the aqueducts et al built by the Romans, so it became a place where medical practice was in places regressing rather than progressing.
HUMOUR TEMPER ORGAN NATURE ELEMENT
Black bile Melancholic Spleen Cold Dry Earth
Phlegm Phlegmatic Lungs Cold Wet Water
Blood Sanguine Head Warm Wet Air
Yellow bile Choleric Gall Bladder Warm Dry Fire
The astrological signs of the zodiac were also thought to be associated with certain humours. Even now, some still use words "choleric", "sanguine", "phlegmatic" and "melancholy" to describe personalities. The use of herbs dovetailed naturally with this system, the success of herbal remedies