In Our Time – The Anatomy of Melancholy

May 13, 2011

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Robert Burton’s masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In 1621 the priest and scholar Robert Burton published a book quite unlike any other. The Anatomy of Melancholy brings together almost two thousand years of scholarship, from Ancient Greek philosophy to seventeenth-century medicine. Melancholy, a condition believed to be caused by an imbalance of the body’s four humours, was characterised by despondency, depression and inactivity. Burton himself suffered from it, and resolved to compile an authoritative work of scholarship on the malady, drawing on all relevant sources.

Despite its subject matter the Anatomy is an entertaining work, described by Samuel Johnson as the only book ‘that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.’ It also offers a fascinating insight into seventeenth-century medical theory, and influenced many generations of playwrights and poets.


Julie Sanders Professor of English Literature and Drama at the University of Nottingham

Mary Ann Lund Lecturer in English at the University of Leicester

Erin Sullivan Lecturer and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

Producer: Thomas Morris.

LISTEN HERE on iPlayer



  1. Bragg asks why Burton doesn’t quote from Jaques in As You Like It; a simple reason is that Burton’s book came out in 1621, but AYLI wasn’t published until the Shakespeare Folio in 1623, so unless Burton had seen it performed or read a quotation in a common place book, he wouldn’t have come across the play.

  2. I’m not sure that entirely explains the omission: 1621 was only the first of many editions. Burton kept adding to it for another twenty years as he came across new sources, and the work had doubled in length by the time of his death. I would say that a more likely explanation was that Burton simply wasn’t very interested in Shakespeare. As far as I’m aware he didn’t own copies of any of the plays; his personal library contained some of the poetry but nothing more. I seem to remember there being a dismissive comment from Burton somewhere about Shakespeare’s plays being antiquated, but I’d have to look that up.

    • Interesting thanks. Burton certainly refers to R&J. But, I’ll have to have a look myself.

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