Twelfth Night: the Humor of the Elements?

In Act Two, Scene Three of Twelfth Night, Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew, “Does not our lives consist of the four elements?” (II.iii.9).

What does Belch mean?

The four elements are the “component part(s) of a complex whole….In ancient and mediæval philosophy these were believed to be: Earth, water, air, and fire” (“element, n.; I.1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 30 January 2015.).

(have you ever had a belch that felt like it was comprised of all four elements? only after a long night of tequila, my friends…)

Now, yesterday, I spent some time talking about the concept of humors, and I ended the entry with a tantalizing tease that today, I’d link those bodily fluids with elements, and even seasons of the year.

Well, let’s do this…

As I noted yesterday, the four humors are related to internal organs and personality traits (if the person has an excess of the bodily fluid):

  • Yellow Bile::the liver::choleric
  • Blood::the heart::sanguine
  • Phlegm::the brain::phlegmatic
  • Black Bile::the spleen::melancholic

If we layer the four elements onto that structure, we get:

  • Yellow Bile::the liver::choleric::fire (fitting as Yellow Bile had a predominant environmental categorization of “hot”)
  • Blood::the heart::sanguine::air (interestingly, Blood is predominantly “wet”)
  • Phlegm::the brain::phlegmatic::water (“cold”)
  • Black Bile::the spleen::melancholic::earth (“dry”… fitting for a Mediterranean climate [said the southern California boy who’s known more droughts than floods])

Note: the word “element” can mean not only earth, air, fire or water, but at times one in specific: “the sky…the atmosphere“ (“element, n.; II.10.a”; OED), as in what “shall not behold (Olivia’s) face at ample view” (I.i.28) while she mourns her brother. Also, “element” can be a stand-in for

one of the ‘four elements’ which is the natural abode of any particular class of living beings… Hence (a person’s) ordinary range of activity, the surroundings in which one feels at home
  • “element, n.; II.12”

This is the kind of element Malvolio feels he is “not of” (III.iv.118), doesn’t share with Maria, Fabian, or Sir Toby.

Seasons of the year can be mapped onto this structure, as well:

  • Yellow Bile::the liver::choleric::fire::summer
  • Blood::the heart::sanguine::air::spring
  • Phlegm::the brain::phlegmatic::water::winter
  • Black Bile::the spleen::melancholic::earth::fall

Graphically, this would look like:

Humors and Elements
Humors and Elements

[infographic as PDF]

Yesterday, I talked a little about the textual support for Olivia’s melancholy early in the play. The use of seasons also supports this and shows how she is moving away from this humor, as she tells Cesario:

Cesario, by the roses of the spring,
By maidhood, honor, truth and everything,
I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
  • III.ii.148-51

By this point in the play, Olivia is swearing by the “spring,” the season diametrically opposed to that usually associated with melancholy; as she catalogs what she sees as Cesario’s traits (pride, wit, reason), she names the primary trait she now has: passion… which aligns more with a sanguine personality (the opposite of melancholy’s serious despondency).

What great grist for the actor and director, no?

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