The Bard Knew His Medicine

Shakespeare scholars have been astounded for centuries at the breadth and depth of his knowledge of diverse subjects, not just life at court but engineering, law, geography, botany, falconry, the classics—and medicine. Some might even suggest that Shakespeare’s, (the glover’s son of Avon), knowledge of medicine derived in part from his physician son-in-law, John Hall. I think not—since the actual author of the plays was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The Earl’s bona fides as the true author, and his sweeping intellect, have been well argued elsewhere. Here we discuss what the text of the plays themselves tell us of Elizabethan notions of medicine.

The plays of Shakespeare were published over a period of twenty years, nested equally before and after the year 1600. It was a volatile era in medical science and practice, sandwiched between the anatomic explorations of Vesalius and the soon-to—be-discovered physiology of Harvey. 

Practitioners were sorted out as ‘masters of physic’ or as quacks, but skepticism attended both. The Royal College of Physicians, incorporated in 1518, attempted to standardize practice and inspect apothecaries. Public dissections were put on by a society of recently united barbers and surgeons. It was, nonetheless a free-for-all, with ‘medicine’ being practiced by the likes of shoemakers, priests, midwives and fortunetellers.

The centuries old tenants of Galen were being contested by those of the ‘near-contemporary’ physician and ‘observational scientist’ Paracelsus. And the ‘observational humanist’ Shakespeare employed medical conditions to drive plots, portray the human condition and as metaphors for personal character and social phenomena. 

Plethora

There is a plethora of texts on ‘Shakespeare and medicine’. One of the most detailed textual analyses was published in 1896 by Dr. John Moyes, a fellow of the esteemed Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons—Glasgow: Medicine and the Kindred Arts in the Plays of Shakespeare. The preface, by a contemporary, is a touching tribute to this compelling labor of love, barely finished before the author’s premature death.

We will elaborate here on that book and then list a few others to explore. According to Dr. Moyes, here is what the Bard made reference to in the broad field of medical malady.

We see notions of blood being generated in the liver (white-livered signified cowardice), then circulating in some fashion and the letting of which was therapeutic. Although, it was hotly debated whether the phlebotomy should be done close to or away from the source of affliction. Being cold-blooded was to be cowardly, hot blooded, valorous. Pia matter was the ‘ventricle of memory’ and the humors of Galen are freely alluded, as in ‘black melancholy’. 

Medical conditions referenced included ague, rheumatism, plague, fever (quotidian and tertian), measles ‘the sweat’ and leprosy, sciatica and palsy, convulsions and ‘side-aches’, colic, dropsy, jaundice, indigestion, and gout.

One might think Shakespeare was practically a hypochondriac, ‘literaturely’ speaking.

Soul and Corpus

But we turn to Shakespeare for understanding the soul of man, not the corpus. And so we learn “The miserable have no other medicine, but only hope.” [Measure for Measure iii, 1].

The mind-body relationship was understood. Sympathetic disturbances (a thesis originating with Paracelsus) can be seen in King Lear. “The tempest in my mind doth from my senses take all feeling …”  

Some ailments, like colic, were a chance for humor: of colic—“if you chanced to be pinched with the cholic, you make faces like mummers…” [Henry IV iii, 1]; and dark humor too—of gout: “he had rather groan so in perpetuity, than be cured by the sure physician, death…” [Cymbeline, V, 4]. 

Some conditions bear terms unfamiliar to modern ears: the ‘green sickness’ was chlorosis (iron deficiency anemia), and ‘side-sickness’ was appendicitis. 

Venereal disease (gonorrhea and syphilis) had many terms, generally shame-base euphemisms or aspersions. Syphilis was called by the English, the French Disease, and by the French, the Spanish Disease. In any case, it was a disease familiar in frequency and detail, including the deformed nose, alopecia, bone aches and altered voice.  

There are many instances of the three main medical diagnostics of the era: the pulse, the urine and expectoration. And Shakespeare knew, too, of some medical forensics. Warwick says, viewing the corpse of the strangled Gloster [Henry VI, iii, 2]:

Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost,
of ashy semblance, meagre, pale and bloodless…

But see, his face is black, and full of blood;
His eye-balls further out than when he lived.

Of therapeutics, there are oils, infusions, plasters, pills and salves. The salutary effects of the poppy were known, as was the toxicity of Ratsbane (arsenic) and properties of a dozen other pharmaceutical agents, “the blest infusions that dwell in vegetives.”[Pericles, iii, 2]. It is speculated that an opioid was used by Juliet to simulate death for ‘two and forty hours’, and the poisoning of King John is described in details that strongly suggest arsenic. [King John, V, 6]. And no less than three poisons participate in Hamlet! 

Alcohol, aphrodisiacs, rhubarb and senna are also amongst the cast of characters. Surgery dealt with boils, gangrene, fistulas, wounds, fractures and cataracts, and blood letting. Blood letting, along with purging and counter-irritation were the more physical forms of therapy seen in the plays. 

Medicine and Politics

But Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, is wont to use simile and metaphor, as in Richard II, I, 1.

This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision:
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed:
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.


This is, of course, a political statement. As is “Dangerous conceits are in their nature, poisons…” [Othello, iii, 3]

In All’s Well that Ends Well, the King is dying of a ‘fistula’. This allows for a plot twist when he meets with an unexpected cure, but also for an exquisite expressions of despair: “He hath abandoned his physicians, madam; under whose practices he hath persecuted time with hope”.

Of midwifery, we’ll just note that mention is made of prematurity, abortion, deformity, weaning and, for all the fans of MacBeth, Caesarean section (“for none of woman born shall harm MacBeth”).

And on concealed desperation, much as with cancer today, we have this about the syphilitic:

But like the owner of a foul disease,
to keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life”
. [Hamlet, iv, 1]

And who can deny the artful depiction of aging from As You Like It ii, 7, in which we are reminded of the “last scene of all … mere oblivion: sans teeth, san eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Much to Explore

There is so much to explore on this topic and I will mention just a few additional sources. One of my favorites for historical context is Medicine in the Shakespearean Plays and Dickens’ Doctors by Herman Pomeranz, 1956. (I have an autographed copy!). Here we learn of, for example, the most famous physician of Shakespeare’s time—Theodore Turquet Mayerne. Of the good doctor Mayerne, the House of Commons expressed their “esteem of a man whose extraordinary abilities would make him welcome in any part of Christendom…singular for his knowledge of his profession…”. Before he left France the College of Physicians of Paris said they “do judge the said Turquet to be unworthy to practice physick in any place because of his ignorance…”  It seems there was a cross-channel divide over the use of antimony cups, but that’s another story.

As to modern texts, here is one to get oriented with: Shakespeare's Medical Language: A Dictionary by Sujata Iyengar.


Shakespeare by another name