Hamlet: Background Notes

By Wesley Chavez,2014-09-03 14:58
13 views 0
Hamlet: Background NotesHaml

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)

The Order




    (King, Queen, Knights, Noblemen, Gentleman, Ladies, Peasants)



    Inorganic Matter


    - 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.

Political Implications

- 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.


    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

Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email