Twelfth Night: There’s the Humor of It

Thinking about Twelfth Night… and humors.

Not humor, ha-ha and knee-slappers, mind you, but the four humors.

What are they?

Well, according to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the four humors were bodily fluids that were said to hold sway over the whole body and the personality of a given person:

  • Yellow Bile–the bile and gall related to the liver–the excess of which would cause the person to be choleric, easily angered, possibly ambitious or restless.
  • Blood–stemming from the heart–the overabundance of which brings forth a sanguine personality, playful, carefree, hopeful, maybe even courageous.
  • Phlegm–thought to be related to the brain–when in excess can cause a kind of phlegmatic apathy, or a kind of peaceful, patient calm.
  • Black Bile–secreted from the spleen–can cause the person to become melancholic, overly serious, analytic and despondent.

Here’s a graphical breakdown of the humors:

graphical breakdown of the four humors
the Four Humors

The gray band denotes a categorization of the humor in terms of the environment. For example, blood is seen as primarily wet, but also hot; Yellow Bile primarily hot, but also dry (and so on).


Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the link between humors and the elements… but in the meantime, how do you think the characters fall into humor-related personality types?

Maria describes Olivia as “being addicted to a melancholy” (II.v.193), so is it any surprise that Orsino speaks of waiting for “when liver, brain, and heart, //These sovereign thrones, are supplied and filled” (I.i.38-9) in Olivia (as those three are the organ centers for the other three humors [choleric, phlegmatic, and sanguine, respectively])?

Cesario describes a fictional sister–the real Viola?–when telling Orsino that “with a green and yellow melancholy, // She sat like Patience on a monument” (II.iv.113-4). Viola also speaks of having “frail blood” (III.iv.342); if her blood is weak, and blood is the opposing humor to black bile, then does this further support her own melancholy?

What of the male characters?


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