The word Melancholy is derived from the Greek melaina chole or the black bile, one of the four elemental bodily humours. The concept of humourism or humours regulating human behaviour was adopted by the ancient Greek and Roman physicians. Hippocrates is believed to be the one who applied this idea to medicine. Human beings are made up of four humours or four vital body fluids and extreme excess of one would lead to illness, a moderate excess of one of the fluids affect the temperament/behaviour of a person. Human temperaments are thus four types: Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic and Phlegmatic.
A person with a melancholic disposition is believed to have an excess of black bile in his constitution and this unnatural bile secreted by the spleen causes depression. Melancholy was considered the most powerful of the four and could cause physical illness like digestive problems, lethargy, sleeplessness, agitation and so on.
The philosophy of the four bodily humours inherited from the Greek philosophers Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen largely contributes to some of the Shakespearean characters. It is interesting to draw parallels between Shakespeare’s melancholic characters and the low spirited yet lovable Eeyore of A.A. Milne. Hamlet the Prince of Denmark is an epitome of melancholy and malcontent; Antonio, the title character of the play, The Merchant of Venice is a lacklustre person soaked in self-pity. Jaques, the sardonic nobleman of Duke senior in Shakespeare’s Pastoral comedy As You Like It is another mournful character. Of all these Shakespearean characters, Eeyore comes closer to Jaques.
Antonio states at the beginning of the play “In sooth I know not why I’m sad…” and his philosophy in a nutshell is,
“I hold the world as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one“
He is a genuine sufferer who doesn’t know the real cause of his suffering, but not to the extremes of the Melancholy Dane, Hamlet whose inaction brings all the doom. Indecision, procrastination and inaction lead to the fall of this noble prince.
Now as we move on to Mr Melancholy of The Forest of Arden, better known as the Melancholy Jaques who delivers one of the most famous Shakespearean monologues, ‘All the world’s a stage’, we see a contemplative, wistful man. Jaques exhibits a sharp contrast to the merry characters in the play. He takes pride in his melancholy, sans any malignity. He favours solitude, but he is not unsocial.
Jaques and the Wounded Stag by William Hodges (pic courtesy:Wikipedia)
As William Hazlitt puts it, Jaques is the “ prince of philosophical idler; his only passion is thought; he sets no value upon anything but as it serves as food for reflection”. He reflects “it is a melancholy of my own, compounded of many simples… in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humourless sadness.” and attributes his travels the reason for his pensive disposition.
Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow
Jaques: I am so.I do love it better than laughing.
The Jaques of Hundred Acre Wood, Eeyore the perpetually gloomy, grey donkey too contemplates and does nothing. He too places himself outside the happy bunch of Hundred Acre Wood, exactly as Jaques does with those who populate Arden. Nevertheless, Eeyore appreciates his friends and is grateful for the efforts taken by his friends to cheer him up. And unlike Jaques who says “why it is good to be sad and say nothing” , Eeyore can never restrain himself from passing acid remarks to everything he hears.
His theory that cynicism is the essence of his being corresponds to that of Jaques. He too revels in his melancholy and relishes his brimming cup of misery! This doleful donkey who is stuffed with saw dust and a missing tail replaced with an attached one that frequently gets detached, lives in his dismal ‘Eeyore’s Gloomy Place‘ marked on the map as ‘rather boggy and sad‘.
He feels insignificant, isolated and thinks any help from his friends to lift his spirits would be a futile task. Even though he craves for attention, when Pooh and Piglet come and shower him with love and compassion, Eeyore acts passive and greets them with his sardonic sarcasm. Eeyore’s friends accept him as he is ; they never expect him to change. Knowing well he’d be least excited and happy, they invite this lugubrious friend to participate in celebrations and adventures. And he is part of laborious tasks like the quest to rescue Christopher Robin from a place called skull. Despite all the melancholy and cynicism we are so drawn to Eeyore, like his friends are. We relish his sharp wit wrapped in gloom as much as we love the buoyant lines delivered by the jolly good fellows of Hundred Acre Wood. In Arden the Duke enjoys listening to Jaques in his ‘sullen fits’ because he would be in his idiomatic humour at its best! When in sombre mood, listening to Eeyore lifts your spirits and the dark temper just melts away.
As the motto of the Elizabethan era lutenist John Dowland ‘Semper dolens, semper Dowland’ ( Always mourning, always Dowland); some are born to play a sad part. Yes, the bard rightly puts it
“Every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest”