In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio attempts to squelch Katherine’s hot temper by denying her meat, snatching away a roast that he claims was “burnt and dried away,” and thus likely to engender choler. “And better ’twere both of us did fast,” he offers by way of explanation, “since of ourselves, ourselves are choleric.” While his methods may be imperious—and his motivation suspect— Petruchio’s reasoning nonetheless expresses a dietary philosophy prevalent during the Renaissance.
WHAT’S YOUR HUMOR?
Humoral theory, based on the work of the ancient Greek physician Galen, holds that good health relies on a balance of four fundamental fluids: blood, choler (yellow bile), phlegm, and black bile. An ideal proportion (one quarter as much phlegm as blood, one sixteenth as much choler as blood, and one sixty-fourth as much melancholy as blood) is difficult to sustain since humors are continually influenced by what people eat and drink. So one humor will generally predominate and characterize an individual’s overall temperament or “complexion.” Too much blood, for example, results in a sanguine personality, and an overabundance of black bile makes one melancholy.
Each temperament carried its own set of characteristics, which still resonate in our language today. Sanguine people were thought to be ruddy and cheerful, phlegmatics pale and listless, cholerics jaundiced and angry, and melancholics dark and sad (but often creative).