For centuries, Shakespeare's tragedies have swept audiences up in dramatic intensity, achieving what Aristotle described as catharsis, the purging of emotional tension through drama. They draw us into the psyche of the protagonist--the angst of Hamlet, the guilt-ridden soul of the Macbeths, and the torment of Lear--with an evocative language of feeling and Shakespeare's use of a most powerful image: the human mind in a state of madness.
What drove Shakespeare's characters into insanity? Certainly, it can be argued that outside influences played their part. In the case of Othello, the scheming Iago used his cunning and manipulation to lead his victim into self-doubt and despair. The same could be said for King Lear, who was driven to madness by his ungrateful daughters. Did Shakespeare's tragic protagonists, however, have some pre-disposed disorder? The answers could be in a many centuries old belief that the human body is driven by a state of chemical balance.
An imbalance of chemistry could effect the mood of the individual and if not corrected, could lead to permanent illness, madness and/ or death.
Body Chemistry: Having a Sense of Humor(s)
The theory of body chemistry or humors theory goes back to the 4th century BC. There were earlier cultures in Egypt and Mesepotamia which fluctuated between natural and supernatural explanations of disease, but it took Empedocles to develop theories based on four basic elements and characterized by a quality and a corresponding body humor or liquid:
Element Quality Humor
Fire Heat Blood (in the heart)
Earth Dryness Phlegm (in the brain)
Water Moisture Yellow bile (in the liver)
Air Cold Black bile (in the spleen)
These humors were also tied into the seasons as well. Black bile was considered to be a part of autumn, blood was associated with spring, phlegm with winter and summer...