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"Purge him of that humour": Leontes' Sickness and Cure

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Thomas Walkington. The optick glass of humors. London, 1607

October 2002
Carrie Leadingham teaches English at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California, where her courses include a Shakespeare class for seniors of varying abilities. She finds that easy access to San Francisco and Berkeley make the many Shakespeare productions a wonderful resource.

Plays/Scenes Covered
The Winter's Tale
What's On for Today and Why
This activity provides students with a fundamental understanding of the humours--the system that underlies Elizabethan psychology, science, and medicine--and encourages them to reflect on the systems we use today to explain human behavior. Use this lesson after the class has read The Winter's Tale or modify it for use at the beginning of the play.

This lesson should take approximately two and a half class periods.
What You Need

New Folger edition of The Winter's Tale


Art supplies: butcher paper, newspapers, magazines, glue, tape, scissors, etc.

Humor Chart
The Optike Glasse of Humours diagram
What To Do

Day 1
1. Tap into previous discussions about why Leontes' behavior could have changed so dramatically and quickly. What leads him to modify his behavior sixteen years later?


2. Pass out copies of the diagram in "The Optike Glass of Humours" and copies of the table in the handout, both below. Discuss as a class the qualities of the four humours. Have the class refer to The Winter's Tale 2.3.39-46 where Paulina believes she can "purge [Leontes] of that humour" with her news of the baby Perdita's birth. With the aid of the charts, discuss possible meanings of this line.


3. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the four complexions or humours. (You could also create smaller groups and have more than one group assigned to each humour.) Give each group art supplies and instruct them to create a pictorial representation or collage of the elements that fall under their assigned humour.


Day 2
1. Give students time to finish their collages from the day before and then display them around the class accompanied by the appropriate "oohs and ahs".


2. Take a moment to have the students identify themselves in the various collages. How accurate are the collages in explaining what students understand of their own predispositions? Discuss the limitations of the humour system.


3. As a class, have students identify Leontes' humour in Acts 1 and 2. If, as Paulina suggests, his jealous madness is a result of an imbalance in one of the humours, which one would it be? Ask students to search out instances that reflect this quality in Leontes. Then, look back at 3.2. At what point is Leontes finally purged of his humour?


4. Have students look back at Leontes in Act 5 and find moments that suggest that he has moved from his original complexion into another humour. Refer back to the original diagram of the humours. Have students speculate as to why Leontes might have moved from one humour to another.


5. Now, have the students return to their humour groups and ask them to investigate the following questions: What are the two remaining humours on which the class has not commented? Which characters in the play might represent these humours? Why is the play called The Winter's Tale? Which humour is associated with winter? Which character finally brings renewal, hope, and balance to the play? With which humour might this character be associated and why?


Day 3
1. Ask students to share their findings from the previous day with the class. How has the play achieved balance in the end? Can the philosophy of humours adequately explain what has happened in the play?


2. Compare the Elizabethan way of explaining human behavior with modern theories. You can have students do this by completing one of the following assignments.

a)Create your own personality chart. Develop your own set of categories and describe any factors that might influence certain dispositions.
b) Write a reflection detailing your thoughts regarding human behavior and comparing them to the system of humours. Can either system completely explain the variety of human experience?

Share student responses.

How Did It Go?
Were groups able to include the elements of their assigned humour in their poster? Was the poster interesting and creative? Were students able to apply the idea of humours to specific sections of the play? Can they identify certain humours in the characters, and then use the theory of humours to describe the character's behavior? Could students extend the idea of a systematic approach to human personality to modern theories? Could they analyze both humours and modern methods critically?

If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.

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1 Comment

How about bringing that lovely smile on the face of patients as you assist the doctor treating them? Yes, you can, if you enrol for medical assistant programs
marker October 31, 2014 8:01 AM
  Common Core State Standards

There are no standards associated with this Lesson Plan.
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