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Late afternoon, Yosemite Valley

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Venting on the spleen

Magistrate Escalus and Constable Elbow
 meet in Measure for Measure,
 woodcut, early 17th century.
Ricardo sent me this Shakespeare quote from Measure for Measure and asked me if I knew what the bard was talking about in the last couplet:

“But man, proud man,
Dress'd in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd—
His glassy essence—like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.”

Got me. I note the topical references to our current situation but believe he was focussing on the spleen and he confirmed that he was. What is the meaning to the reference?

He wrote back "Maybe spleen is used pejoratively and our having spleens prevents us from having insight or compassion? That fits in with the American cultural divide trope."

I told him that all I know about spleens is that they often get vented.

When people refer to bodily organs metaphorically it breaks my heart. But I'm a lily liver, we all know that. So pardon me while I spill my guts. But do know that I get weak at the knees with this sort of stuff, I just can't stomach it.

He's a smart guy and wrote me back.

"European Middle Ages beliefs about the humours was in some ways analogous to 5 Element theory. Those beliefs persisted much later in language and cultural than in medicine. Splenetic identified imbalance in the body and personality typology of one of the humours."

Way above my intellectual pay grade here. Note the english spelling of humours, a dead giveaway. But the five elements part is I believe a reference to the Chinese principle of Wuxing 五種流行之氣,  that is infused into much Chinese medicine, martial arts and philosophy. Wood, earth, metal, fire and water change the world through their constant interaction.

References to the spleen and ill humour apparently go back to the early1600's, according to the dictionary.

  • Express one's anger, as in Some people see town council meetings as a place where they can vent their spleen. This expression uses vent in the sense of “air,” and spleen in the sense of “anger,” alluding to the fact that this organ was once thought to be the seat of ill humor and melancholy. [First half of 1600s]

So all this talk about the spleen, what exactly does it do?
The spleen is an important organ involved in cleaning out old blood cells and helping to mount the immune response. Although it is relatively small, it carries out a variety of roles. Despite this, if it is removed, a person can carry on without it.
I would like to wind this back to Shakespeare and wrap up with some pithy quote but it is too early in the morning and I've got nothing. Sorry. But did you know that he is huge in China, some four hundred years later. He is.

I have a friend in town named Will Shakespeare. Perhaps he can shed some light on the subject. I will ask him.

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