Elizabethan Beliefs

Astrology and Supernatural Forces Elizabethan Medical Beliefs
The theory of humours Four qualities, four elements, four seasons, four humours

Shakespeare and Medicine in the Elizabethan Era

Steps, ladder, chain, scale Primary qualities and the spheres
Gendered planets

Astrology and Supernatural Forces

Medicine was not scientific at this time. Oftentimes astrology and the supernatural arts were relied upon to determine the causative elements and treatment of a disease. Treatments and the gathering of drugs were based upon celestial geography. The astrological positions of the planets were also believed to cause threats or benefits to health. Saturn influenced longevity, the conjunction of Mars and Saturn were believed to have caused the plagues that hit England, and Mars was believed to cause tertian fever.

Supernatural arts such as sorcery, magic, and demonology were also the basis behind some medical concerns. Diseases believed to be caused by devils, spirits, demons, gods, etc. were to be challenged by charms, white magic, prayers and other such means.


Elizabethan Medical Beliefs

The three main organs in the body according to Elizabethans were the heart, liver, and brain The liver was considered the great blood-forming nutrition-giving organ from which the four humours and natural spirits arose. The liver was also considered the origin of the veins which spread throughout every part of the body. The circulation of blood through these veins was a separate and closed system. The blood flow was considered to be in a static state versus that of a continuously current propelled by what we now know today as the heart. Elizabethans believed the heart to be the centre and seat of life. The arterial system accompanied the heart and transported vital spirits throughout the body. Again the circulation of blood throughout this system was not as we perceive it today but more of an agitated motion. The vital spirits in the arterial system were supposed to be like the nervous system of today. The heart was the seat of affections and emotions - joy, anger, hope, fear etc.- and the source of the soul's uneasiness. The brain was the seat of reason, memory, and imagination. This was the centre of the rational soul with the spirits as its instruments

The theory of humours

The theory of humours is based on the four elemental body fluids. The amounts of blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile determined a person's physical or mental health. The logic behind the presence of these fluids was that each fluid gave off vapours that ascend to the brain and the person's temperament was decided by the state of his humours. The perfect temperament was one in which none of the humours dominated. A person with a dominant presence of blood was supposedly happy and generous. A dominance of yellow bile meant that the person was violent and vengeful. If a person were dull, pale, and cowardly it was presumed to be due to an excess of phlegm. Black bile justified someone's gluttony, laziness, or sentiment.

Four qualities, four elements, four seasons, four humours

Based on a diagram from Isidoe of Seville, Liber de responsione mundi (Augsburg, 1472):




body fluid










"yellow bile"










"black bile"



The humours each had associated physical and mental characteristics; the result was a system that was quite subtle in its capacity for describing types of personality.






hot, moist


Optimistic, red-cheeked, corpulent, irresponsible (compare Falstaff).


hot, dry


Short-tempered, red-haired, thin, ambitious (compare Hotspur).


cold, moist


Sluggish, pallid, corpulent, lazy


cold, dry


Introspective, sallow, thin (compare Richard II, Hamlet).

In addition, different humours could be combined for more complex personality types: choleric-sanguine, phlegmatic-melancholic, and so on.


Shakespeare and Medicine in the Elizabethan Era

William Shakespeare has been credited as being ahead of his time with regard to his understanding of the medical field. Critics exclaim that the proof of excellence lies within his dramas. Shakespeare has been displaced from his Renaissance environment by such critics. Shakespeare's era was a time of exploration in both the liberal arts and sciences. Many of his contemporaries also made use of medical references within their works. Shakespeare and his contemporaries took pride in the "turning over of authorities" in their work. By doing this, they would often times include accepted doctrines from the "authorities" such as Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, etc. in their work




Within hierarchies there were "correspondences": created beings whose status within the hierarchy were equivalent one to the other. Consider, for example, those at the head of each category:

The angels


The universe




The family


The human body

The head







The list of such correspondences could be extended almost indefinitely.


Steps, ladder, chain, scale

The story of the creation could be seen as a logical progression from light, to the waters, to the earth, to planets, to animals, and finally to humans. In this image there is an orderly progression upwards. This sense of order, and its consequent fixed hierarchy, were convenient for the stability of both church and state.

Primary qualities and the spheres

From the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers had been fascinated by the basic question of the nature of matter. Empedocles suggested that all matter was made up of four basic "roots" or elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and two basic forces, harmony and discord. Later writers, including Aristotle, argued that the four elements themselves expressed combinations of more basic qualities: hot, cold, dry, and moist.

The planets shared the same four primary qualities as all created matter: hot, cold, dry, moist. Thus in the illustration of the spheres, each planet has its combination; the problem of dealing with seven known planets and only four qualities was solved thus:



cold and dry


hot and moist


hot and dry (extreme)

The Sun

hot and dry (moderate)


cold and moist (extreme)


hot with hot, cold with cold, etc.

The Moon

cold and moist (moderate)

Gendered planets

A further neat division was made between the male and the female. The male's natural temperament was hot and dry (Mars, warlike, in extreme; the sun, in moderation); the female was cold and moist (Venus or the moon)