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Student Research Projects

Renaissance Psychology: The Humoral Theory, Its Societal Implications, and Its Role in William Shakespeare’s Literature

Student Jackie Boyce
Faculty Mentor(s) Dr. James Hall
Department English
Course ENG 491: Independent Research in English

Abstract

My paper “Renaissance Psychology: The Humoral Theory, Its Societal Implications, and Its Role in William Shakespeare’s Literature” is an in-depth study of the humoral theory and its application within Renaissance society and literature. I trace some of the earliest origins of the humoral theory, including Galen and Robert Burton. After detailing the main components of the theory, I examine its effect on Renaissance society. Not only does the theory emphasize the discrepancy between male and female body composition, but it implies that women have an inferior bodily make-up. As a result, the humoral theory endorsed misogynistic beliefs under the guise of medical findings.
These medical findings pervaded society, and especially literature, during the Renaissance. Although the humoral theory is present in multiple authors’ works, Shakespeare’s incorporation is the most pronounced. While he uses the humoral theory to describe female characters’ afflictions, his intention is not misogynistic but rather subversive. By portraying strong women characters, he subverts the Renaissance notion that women are defined completely by their bodily composition. Instead, he presents females as worthwhile individuals who cannot be defined solely by their humoral make-up. By doing so, Shakespeare critiques the humoral theory and the Renaissance society in which it gained acceptance.

 

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