“For that reason he subjects his sensibilities to principles … The man of melancholic disposition cares little for the opinions of others … for that reason he relies solely on his own judgment. Because impulses assume in him the nature of principles, he is not easily distracted; his constancy too sometimes turns to obstinacy … friendship is sublime; he is therefore susceptible to it. (Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl. (1964). Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art. London : Thomas Nelson and Sons, p. 123)”
Every age has its own peculiar disease of the spirit. Thus the medieval religious were attacked by that sloth of the soul called accicide, which often struck before lunchtime and hence was called the noonday devil. The fashionable intellectual ailment of Baudelaire’s Paris was spleen; a sort of ill temper blown up into cosmic dissatisfaction. Our age has known angst, or atomic anxiety, pandemic anxiety as well as ”la noia” , different forms of Alberto Moravia’s refinement of the French ”ennui” The great spiritual illness of the age of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson was melancholy.
The term literally means ”black bile” The old mechanistic view of the psyche, accepting that matter was made up of earth, air, fire and water, saw in the structure of man’s soul an analogous fourfold mixing of elements. These were called humors, and they were in fact, and they were in fact, a collection of ultimate fluids; blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In a healthy balanced human personality there was no preponderance of one over the other. But an excess of blood produced a sanguine temperament. Too much phlegm made a man phlegmatic; yellow bile in over plus caused choler, or the habit of anger. Exceed the normal secretion of black bile, and the gloom and depression of a melancholy fit resulted, or else a chronic state of melancholy.
All nonsense, of course, but we still use the terms: ”I’m nt exactly sanguine about the outcome of the conference”; ”that raised my choler I can tell you”, and so on. The general term ”humor” has been simplified into merely good and bad; ”humorous” means plain funny, but when Hamlet, just before the players arrive, talks about the ”humorous man” , he means an emotional actor, one sick with an excess of temperament, or humor.
The hero of Fletcher’s ”Humorous Lieutenant” is brave because of a disordering of his humors; he’s not a comic. Humors were very much a property of the English theatre in the later days of Queen ELizabeth I and the early days of her successor, James. Playwrights like George Chapman and Ben Jonson revived the medical doctrine of humors in order to create clear-cut satirical types for their comedies. It was with Chapman that the stock melancholic character first appeared; Dowsecer in ”A Humorous Day’s Mirth”, black- suited, black-hatted, to match his bile. The black hat, like Stephen Dedalus’s in Joyce,s Ulysses, became a recognizable attribute of the professional gloomy man.
When Hamlet first walked into the stage of The Globe, sad- faced and all in black, the audience probably expected a ”humorous man”. But Shakespeare’s psychology was too subtle to settle for such mechanical simplifications as pleased Ben Jonson. Hamlet is Hamlet, and no medieval analyst could explain his sickness. Melancholy was a stage cult, and it inevitably led to self-conscious postures of gloom and misery in real life. Real life like to imitate art, especially if it has nothing better to do. The Elizabethan Inns of Court were probably full of mock Dowsecers; long faces under black became the rage. But this Tudor-Stuart melanchooy was more than a pose or a device for the theatre. After the swelling tide of Elizabethan expansion; the defeat of the Armada, pirated wealth flowing in, the chauvinism of a little country aware for the first time of its muscles, there came a large depression.
The year of ”Hamlet”, 1601, was a bad year because it saw the Essex rebellion and the execution of Essex, once England’s chivalric flower. The queen was old; there was worr
er the succession. When James I came to the throne, and the worry was ended, there was still a general sense that things were not as good as they used to be. Gloucester in ”King Lear” sums it all up: ” We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves.”
Well, the machinations and treachery were certainly there at court, and high office was rarely attained through merit. And all the time prices were rising. The settled economy of the Middle Ages had given way to a transitional system that was not clearly understood. As well as a shortage of money, there was strong sense of the omnipresence of the Grim Reaper. Infant mortality was high, the plague struck and struck again, and there was none of the medieval acceptance of death as the gateway to a greater life. There was, then, plenty to be melancholy about.
Of course, there has always been plenty to be melancholy about, and there always will be. But the fact of melancholy, the very name was so rubbed into the intellectuals of the agethat it seemed to be a ”fin-de-siecle” monopoly. Even Sir John Harrington’s cleanly invention of the water closet was dragged into the house of intellectual doom. A water closet was a good thing to sit upon and costively brood. Why the melancholy Jaques in ”As You Like It?” Because a jakes was a john, and John-Jaques sardonic disquisitions suited best a prolonged session, preferably solitary, on the stool. Shakespeare saw that melancholy could be laughed at, not cruelly but with the salutary derision proper for self-indulgence . For melancholy could be enjoyed , and still can be.
When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of diverse things fore-known
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow and void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet,
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly,
Naught so sweet as melancholy.
Here, melancholy is the term for the ambiguous mood in which we hold the lessons of sweet silent thought. But again, we drop to the most physiological, and, as we could name it, the materialistic view; that is, a phenomenon that is difficult to reduce to its essential elements. There opens up a want of agreement, multiple and sometimes conflicting diagnostics, and boundless fields of conjecture. The causes of melancholy were thought to have ranged from the highest of all causes, down through magicians, witches, the stars, old age, sickness, poverty, sorrow and affright, to special peculiarities of diet that in sum, reflected the chaotic state of medical theory that opened itself up to much satire. There was a painful attitude of doubt.
Burton’s collection of the prescriptions of the day was a curious illustration of the time in which the most virtuous and benevolent men went about bledding fever-struck patients to death, flogging others out of madness, and with equal confidence administering spiders in nutshells; all carried out from the best possible motives.