At the moment I am working with my students on Medieval Theatre in preparation for seeing student-devised and directed pieces based on ‘The Canterbury Tales‘ by Geoffrey Chaucer. This post will introduce you to some ideas that help with character development in Medieval Theatre, and will also give ideas for Independent Projects and research.

The Four Humours

In medieval times it was believed that the character of a person depended on the mixture of substances in the body. These were: phlegm; choler; blood (sangwyn) and bile (malencolye).

The characteristics of these ‘humours’ can be deduced from the modern words derived from them. Below are character descriptions or traits for each one.

Melancholy (earth)

This character is sad and gloomy. They are at one with the earth, cold and dry. This person moves heavily and speaks about people behind their backs. They are malicious and slow.

Phelgmatic (water)

This character is watery, sluggish and idle. They have the nature of water – being cold, fluid and moist. Their movement is slow and sleepy, but they think quickly and can be ingenious.

Choleric (fire)

This character has a short temper and has the nature of a hot fire, being hasty to do things and sometimes foolish. They can be deceitful but also witty. In appearance they tend to be tall and lean.

Sanguine (air)

This character is brave and optimistic. They are large in stature and build, being merry and sociable. The love to laugh and sing, and everything in their life is plentiful – love, friends, food and speech.

How does this link to the Independent Project?

When you are choosing your project you may want to direct, act, devise, run a rehearsal process or lead workshops to help your cast or teach your peers a particular skills.

My students decided to base their work around Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ and needed the grounding in the theatre history to put their work in context. You may be inspired by this and use one of their ideas for yoru own project.

Below are examples of what 3 of my students did:

Option A – The student devised and directed a piece based on ‘The Clerk’s Tale’. The student devised the piece with her cast, drawing on 3 scripts and the original Chaucer poem for inspiration. She then directed the piece and did the lights and sound in performance.

Option B – The student researched areas of realism, inspired by our work on Stanislavsky, and then ran 3 rehearsal process workshops with his cast, that were performing ‘The Miller’s Tale’, on character development. He then focused on specific scenes to develop truth in performance.

Option B – The student drew on our vocal work in ‘Viewpoints’ and focused more on Grotowski and his plastiques, plus the physical work of Lecoq to help his own character work and that of his cast in ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, which is about a cockeral and chickens. The performances included singing and specific animal movement.

Below are some sources you may find useful:

On line resources:

The Tales:

Helpful notes:

The Miller’s and the Reeve’s Tales, animated:

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The Miller’s Tale – modern adaptation:

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The Wife of Bath – animated:

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The Wife of Bath – modern adaptation:

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Printed sources:

‘Devising in Process’ Ed by E Mermikides & J Smart, Macmillan, London, 2010

‘Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales’ adapted by M Poulton, Nick Hern, London, 2005

‘The Canterbury Tales’ adapted by Martin Riley, OUP, Oxford, 2000

*’The Drama and Theatre Arts Coursebook’ by D Self, Nelson, Canada, 1981

(*This is the book that I got information about the Four Humours from)