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Seasons, Elements and Humors

The four seasons, the four elements and the four humors were all related. The four seasons spring, summer, autumn and winter paralleled the four humors blood/sanguine, yellow bile/choleric, phlegm/phlegmatic and black bile/melancholic, which in turn paralleled the four elements air, fire, water and earth. Good health and good disposition of character or personality were believed to be a matter of keeping one's humors in proper balance. Excess of one humor could make one too melancholic and cold like winter or too choleric, hot and dry, like summer. Each season, like each humor, was defined by degrees of heat and cold, moisture and dryness. This is why recipes for Elizabethan medications as well as recipes for meals sometimes referenced the humors, the elements and the seasons. The recipes were as concerned with nutrition as they were with flavor.

In Much Ado About Nothing (4.1.128), when Leonato exclaims, “And salt too little which may season give,”  the word “season” meant more to Elizabethan minds and to Shakespeare's than to ours. The concept of seasoning foods was associated with bringing foods into their proper season, which was related to bringing the body into its proper humor. In this line Leonato bemoans that his daughter Hero's humors are so metaphorically out of balance that she is beyond healing or redemption. In The Comedy of Errors (2.3.50), when Dromio of Syracuse complains of being “beaten out of season,” audiences would have understood this to be a reference to the four humors as well. And in Hamlet (1.1.162), the four elements are also mentioned in a way that suggests that they encompass the entire universe inhabited by humans:

I have heard
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, and at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine.

 

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Wherefore? Why, doth not every earthly thing

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Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season

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It was about to speak when the cock crew

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