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New Traveling Exhibit from the NLM Features Shakespeare and the Four Humors


“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors

A special display, traveling banner exhibition, and online exhibition with education resources developed and produced by the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

Curated by Gail Kern Paster, PhD and Theodore Brown, PhD
Exhibition design by Riggs Ward Design

Open at the National Library of Medicine January 30 2012 to August 17 2012

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors –blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define peoples’ physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well.

The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare’s plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear—the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies.

“And there’s the humor of it” Shakespeare and the four humors explores these themes in a special display featuring rare books and incunables from the collection of the National Library of Medicine and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The display was translated into a traveling banner exhibition, which will be available to libraries across America free of charge. In addition, education resources for K-12 educators and students, and university professors and students are included in the online adaptation of the special display.

For a tour of the special display, please contact or call 301.594.1947.

For information about booking a traveling exhibition, please go to

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