“To be, or not to be” opens one of the most famous soliloquies of William Shakespeare – but an exhibit currently at the University of South Florida changes that phrase to “To be well, or not to be well.”
"And there’s the humor of it" Shakespeare and the four humors is a traveling exhibition designed by the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health.
Since mid-March, it’s been on display at the USF Shimberg Health Sciences Library, which recently hosted a reception for students and faculty to check it out.
Despite the name, the four humors were not funny – it's actually an ancient theory that the body contained four vital substances: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.
"These were what they thought in those Renaissance times that people, if you were not quite in balance or you were ill, that it was a problem with one of the four humors," Jill Baker, a fiscal and business specialist at the Library, explained.
In addition, the humors corresponded with the four seasons; the elements of earth, fire, water and air; and people’s temperament - sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.
"Even in Shakespeare, he was talking about melancholy and age and how it was in literature, but in science, we describe this as depression," said senior nursing student Cecilia Ferguson. "The last time I was exposed to Shakespeare was honestly in high school, so it’s been awhile, but the humors was definitely something new and it was very interesting."
The exhibit is open to everyone - not just USF Health students and staff. Physics senior Matthew Saunders came by because he used to perform in Shakespeare plays in community theater. However, he didn’t realize the roles health and medicine played in some of them.
"It’s interesting, there’s a poster over here talking about some of the characters and how they represent the different diseases that might have been common threads in medicine back then too," Saunders said.
"The exhibit talks about how in Renaissance times there was definitely a holistic approach to medicine, which I believe we’ve gotten away from that and we’re coming back to that now, so I think it's certainly a topic for discussion among the students," Baker added.
During the reception, the USF Health Chamber Players performed for the crowd, and the USF School of Theater and Dance’s costume department lent some period costumes for people to look at and try on. Even Snitch, the library’s service dog, donned a lime green Elizabethan collar.
"We’re always looking for opportunities for our two sides of campus to really overlap with each other," Institute Director Liz Kicak said. "We do a lot of events that focus on how science impacts the quality of human life, human society, the advancement of humanities in different cultures, so it was a really natural opportunity for us to come over and work with them."
The presence of the Institute - and the nature of the Shakespearean exhibit in general - is just one way that USF Health uses the arts to help create more well-rounded medical professionals.
"I think it’s absolutely critical," Kicak said. "Ultimately they’re working with human beings and understanding the human side of things and the way that doctors and patients communicate is through language, so anything we can do to help improve the language between doctor and patient, we think that’s really helpful."
And second-year med student Jameson Kuang said events like these give him a chance to exercise the right side of his brain – the creative, holistic thinking side – a bit more.
"As practitioners, we’re always bogged down in the books, but having this sort of humanistic side to medicine, remembering it’s also about the stories and about how people kind of express themselves in everyday life, I think that adds to our expertise as healthcare practitioners," he said.
“And there’s the humor of it” is on display at the USF Shimberg Health Services Library through April 22.