In early accounts of human physiology, a person's physical and mental disposition was thought to be governed by a combination of fluids, or humours, within the body. Four humours were recognized: blood, phlegm, choler (also called yellow bile), and melancholy (also called black bile or black choler). The notion transferred readily into a range of senses to do with temperament, mood, inclination, and manner of action (humour (n.) 1--4), regarded as permanent or alterable features of behaviour. They often referred to a particular facet of behaviour, such as manner of expression - most fully exploited in the character of Nym in MW and H5. The original physical sense of humour as a physical secretion is also still found in Early Modern English (humour (n.) 5--6). Good health was thought to come from having the four humours in balance; but characters often display the predominance of one or the other, and their actions are interpreted accordingly. For example, if a character was hot-tempered, he or she would be thought to have an excess of choler: Lear (KL), Petruchio (TS), Gloucester (2H6), and Cassius (JC) are examples of people at some point described as choleric. 'You are altogether governed by humours', complains Lady Percy of her hot-headed husband (1H4 III.i.228). Blood, choler, and melancholy are terms used in the plays; phlegm is not, though its functions are indirectly referred to, as in the example below. The term is misapplied by Mistress Quickly (MW I.iv.73) when she describes Dr Caius as 'phlegmatic' (she means 'choleric'). See also blood (n.) 1--5, choler (n.), choleric (adj.), melancholy (n.)
Humour Typical disposition Seen in character Example
blood optimistic, passionate, amorous, courageous Hotspur (as described by his wife) In military rules, humours of blood, / He was the mark and glass, copy and book, / That fashioned others (2H4 II.iii.30)
phlegm dull, indifferent, indolent, apathetic, idle Falstaff and his companions (as described by Prince Hal) I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humour of your idleness (1H4 I.ii.194)
choler angry, irascible, bad tempered Cassius (as described by Brutus) Go show your slaves how choleric you are ... Must I stand and crouch / Under your testy humour? (JC IV.iii.43)
melancholy sad, gloomy, sullen, depressed Jaques (as described by Rosalind) They say you are a melancholy fellow.
Jaques: I am so: I do love it better than laughing (AYL IV.i.3)