Better than laughing: Renaissance melancholy

When the disguised Rosalind meets Jaques in the Forest of Arden, she mentions that people say he is a ‘melancholy fellow’. Jaques not only acknowledges the truth of this, but embraces his reputation in a knowing fashion: ‘I do love it better than laughing’ (As You Like It, 4.1.3-4, 5). But what are Rosalind and Jaques’s shared assumptions about what melancholy is like, and how you might spot a melancholic?

The Anatomy of Melancholy title page
Title page of Robert Burton’s The anatomy of melancholy, what it is. Oxford, 1621. Folger STC 4159 copy 1

The most famous book about Renaissance melancholy, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), celebrates its four hundredth anniversary this year. Though it was published five years after Shakespeare’s death, it gathers together ideas about melancholy from antiquity right through to the seventeenth century. This perplexing and slippery condition was seen as a disease of mind, body, and soul which escaped easy definition. It could manifest in such varied and contradictory ways that, as Burton puts it, there are ‘scarce two of two thousand that concur in the same symptoms. The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms’.

The vast size of Burton’s project – over half a million words by the time he died in 1640 – is testimony to the astonishingly wide spectrum of experience that the word ‘melancholy’ encompassed, to the hundreds of case histories of melancholics treated by Renaissance physicians, and to its dark glamour. Melancholy was a source of fascination to artists and literary writers, being seen as closely associated with creative genius but also as a danger to them: melancholics might excel in philosophy, politics, poetry, or the arts (as the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems explained), but they could also be seized by illness and even tipped into madness.

When Jaques and Rosalind speak of melancholy, they identify it by its hallmark symptom: unshakable sorrow. Jaques says that ‘my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness’, reminding us too that melancholy is rooted in the humor black bile. As Burton puts it, the common definition of melancholy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is as ‘a kind of dotage without a fever, having for his ordinary companions fear, and sadness, without any apparent occasion’. Interestingly, Rosalind’s response to Jaques notes that he does have ‘apparent occasion’: ‘you have great reason to be sad’, she teases him, because he is a traveler and has sold his own lands to see other people’s instead. Perhaps The Merchant of Venice’s Antonio has greater claim to be a self-declared melancholic because his experience of it is unmoored from any obvious cause: ‘In sooth I know not why I am so sad’ (1.1.1).

While the mournful pensiveness and sadness of Jaques’s melancholy might accord with the way we might use the word today, in the Renaissance the condition encompassed a great deal more. Melancholics might be prone to seek out solitude in the woods and by a stream or indulge in the pleasures of music like Jaques, who can ‘suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs’ (2.5.12-13). Then again, they might experience strange phobias, griefs, or delusions, or they might suffer from a range of allied physical conditions such as trapped wind, skin rashes, or migraines. Case histories recounted by Renaissance writers on melancholy such as Burton and the French royal physician André du Laurens tell of melancholics who believed that they were made of butter or glass, that they had frogs living in their stomach, that they were unable to urinate in case they flooded their town, that they were a cockerel or a shellfish.

Most surprisingly, though Jaques loves his melancholy ‘better than laughing’, the condition could even manifest in laughter. Renaissance melancholy was marked by excess and disproportion, by going beyond the bounds of social convention. Someone prone to the variety known as sanguine melancholy – where the sanguine humor (blood) becomes adust or corrupted and gives off noxious vapors which rise to the head – might reveal their condition not through sadness and fear, but through immoderate cheerfulness. Burton recounts a story from a continental medical history of a man called Brunsellius who was subject to this variety of the condition. While he was in church one day listening to a sermon, he saw a woman literally drop off to sleep: she slid off the bench on which she was sitting. While most of the people who witnessed the incident laughed, Brunsellius ‘was so much moved, that for three whole days after he did nothing but laugh, by which means he was much weakened, and worse a long time after’.  His affliction manifested itself through the extremity of his reaction. It is fitting too that this was prompted by a spectacle, since sanguine melancholics typically enjoyed watching plays – and not only real ones. Burton includes a story from Aristotle of a man who used to sit as if at the theatre, ‘now clap his hands, and laugh, as if he had been well pleased with the sight’. Melancholy was a disease above all of the imagination, the corruption of which could lead to fantastical behaviour.

Jaques, ‘Monsieur Melancholy’, is a character in a comedy, and Rosalind sends up his self-regarding and mannered behaviour; he is a man who dresses the part and acts the role. Shakespeare exploits the comic as well as serious potential of this disease, and Robert Burton would go on to do the same. He published the Anatomy under the pseudonym of ‘Democritus Junior’, heir to the ancient Greek philosopher who looked at the world’s follies and laughed. To write about melancholy demands a ‘mixed passion’, Burton claims, where he sometimes mocks, sometimes laments and sympathizes with those who suffer from it. And perhaps it is the wild energy of Renaissance melancholy – its association with creativity, performance, and the unbounded imagination – that provides some of its most compelling aspects both in Shakespeare and, four hundred years on, in The Anatomy of Melancholy.


Biographical note: Dr Mary Ann Lund’s new book A User’s Guide to Melancholy (Cambridge University Press, 2021) is out now. She is Associate Professor in Renaissance English Literature at the University of Leicester.

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