following article includes a glossary at the end
of the text
Michael J. Cummings..©
Shakespeare’s ability to fathom the dysfunctions of the human mind has
astounded theatergoers for more than four hundred years. His portraits
of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth all attest to his genius for
reaching into the depths of the soul and pulling out its pith for all to
examine. But Shakespeare also excelled at identifying and describing afflictions
of the body, such as scurvy, gout, epilepsy, rheumatism, and venereal disease.
Each of these afflictions—and scores more—sicken
the kings and commoners of his plays; they are the Furies of old come to
torment Medieval and Renaissance England.
knowledge of both physical and mental illness enabled him to enlighten
audiences about the soma and psyche of a character and their failure to
work in harmony. Not infrequently, Shakespeare exhibits surprising insights
into medicine. For example, in Henry IV Part II, Northumberland—down
with a fever—describes the principles behind
immunization when he receives bad news from the battlefield:
In poison there
is physic; and these news,
In The Winter’s Tale,
Camillo presents a revolutionary concept: that a person can carry and spread
illness even though he or she remains disease free:
Having been well, that would
have made me sick,
Being sick, have in some
measure made me well (1.1.153-155)
There is a sickness
In Richard III, after
Hastings informs Richard that the king languishes with a fatal illness,
Shakespeare calls attention to the importance of nutrition in the following
lines spoken by Richard: "O, he [the king] hath kept an evil diet long,
/ And overmuch consumed his royal person" (1.1.146-147). In Pericles,
Prince of Athens, Shakespeare demonstrates an awareness of altered
states of consciousness that mimic death. In the key passage, Cerimon opens
Thaisa’s coffin, observes “how fresh" she looks, and remarks,
Which puts some of us in
I cannot name the disease;
and it is caught
Of you that yet are well.
Death may usurp
on nature many hours,
Cerimon then revives Thaisa,
noting, “She hath not been entranced above five hours" (111-112).
And yet the fire of life
The o'erpress'd spirits.
I heard of an Egyptian
That had nine hours lien
Who was by good appliance
often conjecture that Shakespeare’s knowledge of medicine was mainly the
product of his relationship with John Hall, a physician and herbalist who
earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University in 1597 and, after further
studies on the European continent, settled in Stratford and married Shakespeare’s
oldest daughter, Susanna, in 1607. However, it seems just as likely
that Shakespeare gained most of his medical knowledge on his own. Supporting
this view is the fact that he had already written many of his plays—including
dramas with medical references—before Hall
left Cambridge. More important, though, Shakespeare had lived in London
in the early 1590's. The city at that time was a prolific breeding ground
of disease because of crowded, unsanitary conditions. Garbage littered
streets. Residents emptied chamber pots out windows. Brothels incubated
syphilis. Dung clogged gutters and waterways. Flies and rodents carried
bacteria and viruses from one section of the city to another. Hygiene was
almost nonexistent. Even the queen bathed only once a month.
the London of Shakespeare was dirty, raw, and noxious. When plague ravaged
the city between 1592 and 1603, Shakespeare witnessed human suffering on
a vast scale. The infected burned with fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit
or more, shivered incessantly, and suffered bouts of vomiting, insomnia,
from rats to humans by fleas, plague could manifest itself in three forms:
bubonic plague, which caused painful swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes
of the armpits and groin; pneumonic plague, which filled the lungs with
fluid; and septicemic plague, which poisoned the bloodstream. Sometimes
one form of the disease killed by itself; at other times, it progressed
into another of the forms before claiming a victim. Together, these three
manifestations of plague were known as the Black Death because of the livid
hue of corpses caused by subcutaneous hemorrhaging.
the bodies accumulated—and the rats and fleas
multiplied outbreaks exponentially—Shakespeare
saw it all. At his writing table, death sat at his elbow. On his walks
through streets and byways, it saluted him with the flopping arms of wagon-borne
corpses. Physicians were powerless against the disease. In fact, one of
the most distinguished physicians of the age—William
Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and, after her death, to King James
I—died of plague in 1603.
Medical Mind of Shakespeare, Aubrey C. Kail describes efforts to contain
plague: “Special officials called ‘searchers’ were appointed, whose duty
it was to go into houses and search out plague victims. They were paid
a higher rate if the victims were found dead." Kail says the practice of
using searchers, along with the imposition of quarantines, provided Shakespeare
a plausible explanation for a significant development in one of his most
use of the word ‘searcher’ in this sense appeared in 1592 in Romeo and
Juliet. Friar John, suspected of being in an infected house, was shut
in by the ‘searchers,’ and was thus prevented from carrying the all-important
message from Friar Lawrence to Romeo. No messenger could be found to return
the letter to Friar Lawrence, so afraid were the citizens of Verona of
the infection.The communications breakdown
precipitated events leading to the tragic ending of the play.
common affliction in Shakespeare’s time was venereal disease—in
particular, syphilis. Although the crew of Christopher Columbus is sometimes
blamed for carrying syphilis from the New World to Europe, the disease
probably existed in Europe long before Columbus set sail for the first
time. However, it was apparently mistaken for leprosy. Giovanni Fracastro,
an Italian poet and physician, coined the word syphilis in a poem
in 1530. Shakespeare refers to the illness as pox in ten of his
plays. Of special interest is Measure for Measure, in which three
citizens of Vienna openly discuss venereal disease. One of them, Lucio,
upon seeing a brothel madam approaching, says, “I have purchased . . .
many diseases under her roof" (1.2.23). Shakespeare first staged the play
in 1604, the year after the government closed the brothels of London.
plague, venereal disease, and other afflictions of the body, mental illness
and its symptoms—including depression, obsessive-compulsive
disorder, and recitations of gibberish—were
commonplace in Shakespearean London. In fact, because treatment was virtually
nonexistent for the mentally disabled and because most of the mentally
disturbed roamed freely for lack of institutional care, London and other
European cities teemed with the eccentric, the paranoid, the schizophrenic.
When Shakespeare ventured forth on the streets of London, he entered an
alfresco asylum. All he had to do was etch images in his memory and he
had raw material for his plays.
his dramas, both mental and physical illness sometimes inhabit the same
character at the same time. For example, in Richard III, Richard
exhibits the symptoms of kyphosis (hunched back) and psychopathy (asocial
and amoral behavior), which shape him into a grotesque killing machine.
In the opening lines of the play, Richard soliloquizes on his appearance
and his mindset:
But I, that am not
shaped for sportive tricks,
modern audiences, Shakespeare is a window on human affliction and its treatments
in the late 1500's and early 1600's, an age when medical science was an
oxymoron and gleeful germs had the run of both the king’s household and
the peasant’s hovel. Some people of Shakespeare’s time believed disease
was a punishment for sinful behavior. Others thought it resulted from the
movement of the stars and the planets. Whatever the cause, virtually everyone
agreed that it triggered illness by creating an intolerable imbalance in
four vital fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile.
Called “humors" or “humours" (from a Latin word for liquids), these fluids
controlled health and human behavior.
Nor made to court an amorous
I, that am rudely stamp'd,
and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton
I, that am curtail'd of
this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent
before my time
Into this breathing world,
scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as
I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping
time of peace,
Have no delight to pass
away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow
in the sun
And descant on mine own
And therefore, since I cannot
prove a lover,
To entertain these fair
I am determined to prove
And hate the idle pleasures
of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions
By drunken prophecies, libels
and dreams. (1.1.16-35)
in whom blood was the dominant humor were kind, loving, merry, enthusiastic,
and passionate. Those ruled by phlegm were sluggish, apathetic, cowardly,
and dull-witted. Persons dominated by yellow bile were stubborn, impatient,
vengeful, and easy to anger, and those dominated by black bile were melancholic,
depressed, irritable, brooding, and cynical.
the body produced too much or too little of a humor—or
if the humor altered its consistency or ventured beyond its normal location
in the body—illness resulted. Diagnosis consisted
in one or more of the following: observing symptoms such as fever and headache,
evaluating urine for discoloration and frothing, plotting astrological
charts, and checking the pulse for the rate and strength of the heartbeat
and for rhythm abnormalities. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet
underscores the importance of the heartbeat as a measure of well-being
when he tells Gertrude "My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music".
to restore the proper balance of humors consisted mainly in ridding the
body of humoral excess by blood-letting (phlebotomy), vomiting (emesis),
and cleansing the bowels (purging). Blood-letting, a frequent practice,
required opening a vein or applying leeches. The other treatments required
administration of concoctions to induce vomiting spells or bowel movements.
In the latter case, a patient could choose from oral laxatives or enemas.
practitioners also used a variety of preparations—with
ingredients ranging from animal dung and ground gemstones (including emeralds,
sapphires, garnets, and topaz) to licorice, mint, rosemary, and basil—to
heal the sick. Some preparations, such as herbal remedies, occasionally
worked. Patients themselves often prayed for a miraculous cure, touched
their bodies with the relics of saints, or went on pilgrimages. A few turned
to religious rites to rid the body of a demon.
offering preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic services included well
educated physicians, minimally educated surgeons, barbers, herbalists,
apothecaries, exorcists, astrologers, sorcerers, soothsayers, and do-it
yourself healers. At barber shops, patrons could get a haircut, then have
a tooth extracted. They could also undergo blood-letting, a service advertised
by a spiral red stripe on the barber pole outside the typical barber shop.
The striped barber pole survives to the present day as a symbol of the
afflictions in Shakespeare’s plays not only help to drive the plots and
motivate the characters, but they also educate modern audiences and historians
about health in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Among the afflictions
and symptoms Shakespeare mentions in his plays are the following:
Glossary of Medical Afflictions
in Shakespeare's Plays
Abdominal Spasms See
Acne Rosacea See
Abscess See Boil,
(1) Fever usually caused by malaria. The victim may be cold one moment
and hot the next. Bouts of sweating are commonplace. (2) fever characterized
by chills and shivering, as well as pain in the joints and bones. Shakespeare
refers to ague in nine plays. In Julius Caesar, Caesar tells Caius
Ligarius, “Caesar was ne’er so much your enemy as that same ague which
hath made you lean" (2.2.24-25). In King John, Constance—lamenting
the fate of her son—says:
But now will canker-sorrow
eat my bud
References to ague also occur
in Henry VIII, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Richard
II, The Tempest, and Troilus and Cressida.
And chase the native beauty
from his cheek
And he will look as hollow
as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an
ague's fit." (3.4.87-90)
consumption of alcoholic beverages that can result in psychological and
nutritional disorders, liver disease, and death. Although Shakespeare does
not use the word alcoholism, it is clear that certain characters in his
plays exhibit symptoms of the disease, most notably Prince Hal’s drinking
companions in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. Bardolph,
for example, suffers from a bulbous red nose brought on by drinking malmsey,
a Madeira wine. In the same two plays, Sir John Falstaff worships sack,
a dry white wine, and even recommends addiction to it in the following
prose passage: "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I
would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves
to sack" (4.3.48). In Henry V, Falstaff cries out for sack on his
and uneasiness; nervousness. Anxiety is a normal reaction if the cause
of the uneasiness poses a threat of physical harm, embarrassment, financial
reversal, etc. It is an abnormal reaction if the cause is harmless but
perceived as harmful or if the symptoms are exaggerated out of proportion
to the threat. Among the possible symptoms are sweating, rapid pulse, and
trembling. Anxiety overtakes Macbeth after the First Murderer tells him
hat although Banquo lies dead in a ditch his son Fleance has escaped. Macbeth
reacts with the following alliterative reply reflecting his anxiety: "But
now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / .To
saucy doubts and fears. But Banquo's safe?" (3.4.29-30)
Involuntary and habitual urination while sleeping. Bed-wetting is a form
of enuresis, a general medical term for inability to control urination
whether awake or asleep. Shakespeare alludes to the condition in All’s
Well That Ends Well when Parolles recites this prose passage: "For
he will be swine-drunk; and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his
bed-clothes about him; but they know his conditions and lay him in straw"
or Nevus Skin defect, such as a blotch, occurring at birth. One common
type of birthmark is portwine stain (nevus flammeus), a cluster of blood
vessels that appear as a reddish-purple stain. In of
Constance praises her son, Arthur, as being fair-skinned and blessed with
good looks, but notes that
If thou . . . wert
Blain Painful skin swelling
or sore. In a soliloquy in Timon of Athens, Timon curses all Athenians,
wishing that "itches, blains, / Sow all the Athenian bosoms" (4.1.30-31).
Ugly and slanderous to thy
Full of unpleasing blots
and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked,
swart, prodigious, 48
Patch’d with foul moles
and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then
would be content
For then I should not love
or Furuncle Skin abscess characterized by swelling and pain. (See also
Staphylococcus germs cause the formation of the pus. In Coriolanus,
Marcius (Coriolanus) curses enemies, saying,
Boils and plagues
Staphylococcus infection beneath the skin characterized by clusters of
abscesses that drain through openings on the buttocks, neck, and other
body parts. In King Lear, the old king rebukes one of his evil daughters,
calling her “a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle" (2.4.228-229).
Plaster you o'er, that you
may be abhorr'd
Further than seen and one
Against the wind a mile!
Inflammation of mucous membranes, mainly those of the nose and throat,
causing increased secretion of mucous. In Troilus and Cressida,
Thersites curses Patroclus, saying, “Now, the rotten diseases of the south,
the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs . . . take and take again such preposterous
Abdominal spasms or painful muscle contractions. In The Tempest,
when Caliban curses Prospero, Prospero replies with a curse of his own:
"To-night that shalt have cramps / Side-stitches that shall pen they breath
up" (1.2.389-390). A reference to cramps also appears in Shakespeare’s
long poem The Rape of Lucrece: "The aged man that coffers-up his
gold / Is plagued with cramps and gouts and painful fits" (855-866).
Irreversible mental deterioration. Short-term memory loss, irritability,
and confusion are among the symptoms of the illness. Alzheimer’s disease
and Pick’s disease are specific varieties of the affliction. Although the
symptoms of Pick’s disease are similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease,
the former generally occurs in middle age. King Lear, in Shakespeare’s
play of the same name, obviously suffers from a form of dementia. His erratic
behavior and raving outbursts attest to his mental breakdown. However,
because he never completely loses touch with reality, he is able to acknowledge
his shortcomings before the play ends. See also Insanity.
disorder characterized by anxiety, unremitting gloom, and hopelessness.
Hamlet and King Lear both exhibit symptoms of depression.
Dyspepsia See Indigestion.
Eczema See Tetter.
in which the body is severely underweight as a result of disease or malnutrition.
In Richard II, Shakespeare alludes to emaciation in an exchange
between King Richard and John of Gaunt in which the latter uses a pun on
his name to describe his wasted appearance:
KING RICHARD II
What comfort, man? how is't with aged Gaunt?
Enuresis See Bed-Wetting.
JOHN OF GAUNT
O how that name befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt
in being old:
Within me grief hath kept
a tedious fast;
And who abstains from meat
that is not gaunt?
For sleeping England long
time have I watch'd;
Watching breeds leanness,
leanness is all gaunt. (2.1.75-81)
Disorder of the brain and nervous system characterized by minor (petit
mal) and major (grand mal) seizures. A petit mal seizure causes a brief
spell of unconsciousness; a grand mal seizure causes a spell of convulsions,
loss of consciousness, and loss of motor control. In Julius Caesar,
Cassius—in describing the great Caesar as
a mere mortal, tells Brutus:
He had a fever when
he was in Spain,
Narrow channel, formed as a result of disease or injury, that connects
an abscess, organ, or cavity to the skin surface or to another abscess,
organ or cavity. In All’s Well That Ends Well, The King of France
suffers from a fistula and Helena cures it using potions developed by her
father before he died.
And when the fit was on
him, I did mark
How he did shake: 'tis true,
this god did shake. (1.2.127-129)
Fit Sudden attack
or spell characterized by convulsions (as in epilepsy),
coughing, or other uncontrollable symptoms; an emotional outburst. In Macbeth,
the ghost of Banquo sits in Macbeth’s place as a banquet commences. Only
Macbeth sees it. After he addresses it, Lady Macbeth explains his odd behavior
to the guests this way:
Sit, worthy friends:
my lord is often thus,
Furuncle See Boil.
And hath been from his youth:
pray you, keep seat;
The fit is momentary; upon
He will again be well. (3.4.65-68)
Gout Acute recurring
arthritis that inflames and swells joints, particularly those in the feet
and hands, causing severe pain. The condition develops when a congenital
flaw results in an imbalance of uric acid in the body. The acid crystallizes
as sodium urate, and the crystals lodge in joints. A commonly affected
site is the joint of the big toe. References to gout occur in As You
Like It, Cymbeline, Henry IV Part II, Measure for Measure, and
Two Noble Kinsmen.
Grand Mal Seizure
image or sound that the mind perceives as real; illusion, fantasy; apparition;
phantasm. Hallucinations, or what resemble hallucinations, are important
events in Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth presents one of the most
famous depictions of a hallucination in all of literature, when Macbeth
Is this a dagger
which I see before me,
Macbeth also hallucinates when
he sees the ghost of Banquo, who occupies Macbeth’s seat at a table during
a banquet. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the ghost of the murdered
king appears to Hamlet. But is it really a ghost or merely a hallucination?
Shakespeare suggests the ghost really appears while presenting evidence
indicating the contrary.
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet
I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision,
To feeling as to sight?
or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed
pain in the head resulting from a variety of causes. In King John,
young Arthur—pleading with Hubert for mercy—recalls
a time when he comforted Hubert, who was sick with a headache:
Have you the heart?
When your head did but ache,
Herpes See Tetter.
I knit my handercher about
The best I had, a princess
wrought it me,
And I did never ask it you
And with my hand at midnight
held your head,
And like the watchful minutes
to the hour,
Still and anon cheer'd up
the heavy time,
Saying, "What lack you?"
and 'Where lies your grief?" (4.1.49-56)
characterized by anxiety, excessive display of emotion (crying, weeping
or laughing, for example), or symptoms of organ malfunction or breakdown
(such as deafness and blindness) even though there is no physical cause
to explain the symptoms. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Ophelia—“divided
from herself" (4.5.54), as Claudius observes, over the death of her father
and the departure of Hamlet—exhibits symptoms
of hysteria when she sings songs and distributes herbs and flowers.
Impetigo See Tetter.
of a male to engage in sexual intercourse. In Macbeth, a porter
alludes to impotence when he tells Macduff that “drink" (alcoholic beverages)
“provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance" (2.3.9).
Inability to prevent the discharge of urine. Pregnancy, an enlarged prostate
gland, nerve disorders, injury, lack of exercise, muscle weakness in the
elderly, and spinal disease are among the causes. Shakespeare alludes to
the condition in The Merchant of Venice when Shylock says sneezing
or blowing the nose (“when the bagpipe sings") can cause a urine discharge
in some men (4.1.53).
Stomach distress caused by inability to digest food properly. In Cymbeline,
Pisanio gives Imogen a drug which he believes is an elixir to ward off
seasickness or stomach distress. “If you are sick at sea," he says, “Or
stomach-qualm'd at land, a dram of this / Will drive away distemper" (3.4.206-207).
Mental derangement; madness; inability to think rationally or responsibly.
Illnesses in which insanity may develop as a symptom include Alzheimer’s
disease, dementia, senility, psychosis, schizophrenia, and paranoia. Insanity—or
what appears to be insanity—plays a significant
role in many of Shakespeare plays, notably Hamlet, King Lear, and
Macbeth. In Hamlet, a key question throughout the play is
whether Hamlet is really insane or merely pretending to be—or,
as Hamlet says in Act I, Scene V, putting on an “antic disposition." In
King Lear, the old king exhibits what appear to be symptoms of dementia,
senility, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, although he is not so far gone
that he cannot see the folly of his ways. In Macbeth, gnawing guilt
drives Lady Macbeth insane, causing her to sleepwalk and repeatedly wash
her hands to cleanse them of her guilt.
inability to sleep. In Macbeth, the First Witch promises in to inflict
insomnia on a sailor, saying, "Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang
upon his pent-house lid" (188.8.131.52). After murdering King Duncan, Macbeth
tells Lady Macbeth,
Methought I heard
a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
When Macbeth confides to Lady
Macbeth “Strange things I have in my head," she replies, “You lack the
season of all natures, sleep" (3.4.167).
Macbeth does murder sleep',
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the
ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's
life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great
nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's
Curvature of the spine that results in a hump. In Richard III, Richard
is a hunchback “cheated of feature by dissembling nature / Deformed, unfinished,
sent before my time into this breathing world" (1.1.21-22). There is no
conclusive evidence that the Richard of history was a hunchback.
Leprosy Mildly infectious
bacterial disease of the skin, nerves, cartilage, bone and other body parts.
Skin lesions, edema, eye inflammation (keratitis or iritis), and nerve
impairment are among the symptoms. Queen Margaret refers to the disease
in Henry VI Part II:
Be woe for me, more
wretched than he is.
Other references to leprosy
occur in Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens.
What, dost thou turn away
and hide thy face?
I am no loathsome leper;
look on me. (3.2.79-81)
Malaria See Ague.
Nevus See Birthmark.
Nevus Flammeus See
dream; in medieval times, an evil spirit that invades sleep. Macbeth refers
to nightmares when he says to Lady Macbeth,
[W]e will eat our meal in fear and sleep
Obesity Condition in
which a person is grossly overweight and, therefore, at higher than normal
risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Numerous
characters in Shakespeare plays are obese, including Sir John Falstaff
(Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, The Merry Wives of Windsor)
and Cardinal Wolsey (Henry VIII).
In the affliction of these
That shake us nightly. (3.2.22-24)
Disorder Mental disorder in which the victim continually experiences
undesired thoughts—for example, that he or
she will have an accident or act foolish in public—or
continually repeats certain actions. Perhaps the most famous obsessive-compulsive
character in all of literature is Lady Macbeth, the wife of the main character
in Macbeth. Unable to banish her obsessive feelings of guilt, she
repeatedly washes her hands to cleanse herself of culpability in the murder
of King Duncan.
Palsy Paralysis of
a voluntary muscle resulting from a nerve affliction. Tremors sometimes
accompany palsy. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus,
wishing “cold palsies" (5.1.18) upon him.
Paranoia (1) Mental
disorder characterized by delusions of persecution or grandeur. The victim
may insist that the delusions are real and attempt to defend himself against
perceived threats. (2) Unreasonable suspicion of others. Among the characters
in Shakespeare plays who exhibit symptoms of of paranoia—most
of them fitting the second definition—are
Coriolanus, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III.
Petit Mal Seizure
Pick’s Disease See
Portwine Stain See
Syphilis, an infectious bacterial disease spread through sexual intercourse,
although it sometimes passes at birth from an infected mother to her child.
In its early stage, it causes chancres (firm swellings), which release
a highly infectious fluid. The chancres heal within two months. One or
more months later, skin rash and lesions appear in about half of syphilis
victims. Ulceration may develop in the mouth. The rash and lesions usually
disappear within four months. The disease then becomes latent, causing
no problems, generally for several decades—or
even a lifetime. Most victims do not exhibit further symptoms. However,
one in four victims may eventually develop nodules beneath the skin and
in the organs. When the disease attacks the blood vessels and the liver,
kidneys, and/or heart, it often kills. The word pox, for syphilis,
occurs frequently in Shakespeare’s plays, attesting to the widespread occurrence
of the illness in Elizabethan England. Characters in Shakespeare’s plays
use pox mainly as a brief curse, like that uttered by Bertram against
Captain Dumain—A pox upon him—in
All’s Well That Ends Well (4.3.111). References to pox also occur
in Cymbeline, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Hamlet, Love’s
Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Othello, and
disorder characterized by asocial and amoral behavior for which the victim
exhibits no shame or lack of remorse. Probably the most famous psychopath
in Shakespeare is the title character in Richard III. “I am determined
to prove a villain," Richard says in the soliloquy that opens the play
(1.1.32). To the very end, he is unrepentant of his evil deeds.
Rheum Watery discharge
from the nose, eyes or mouth; a cold. In a famous passage in Othello,
Othello asks Desdemona to lend him her handkerchief, saying, “I have a
salt and sorry rheum offends me" (3.4.49). References to rheum occur in
many other plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About
Nothing, Coriolanus, and King John.
laymen's term for aches, pains, swelling, stiffness and inflammation of
the joints, muscles, and connective tissues. Rheumatism includes bursitis,
neuritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. In The Merry Wives
of Windsor, Ann Page—in complimenting
Sir Hugh Evans—describes the weather as conducive
to rheumatism: "And youthful still! in your doublet and hose this raw rheumatic
day!" (3.1.21). In Henry IV Part II, Mistress Quickly uses rheumatic
in a simile when she addresses Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet: "By my troth,
this is the old fashion; you two never meet but you fall to some discord:
you are both, i' good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts; you cannot
one bear with another's confirmities" (2.4.24).
Disfigurement, swelling, and redness of the nose that can be caused by
excessive drinking. Rhinophyma is a form of rosacea (also called acne rosacea),
a type of acne that causes red lesions on the cheeks, forehead, and nose.
It was rhinophyma that gave W.C. Fields his famous bulbous nose. In Henry
IV Part I, Falstaff alludes to rhinophyma when he tells Bardolph that
his red nose resembles a lamp: "Do thou amend thy face, and I'll amend
my life: thou art our admiral, thou bearest the lantern in the poop, but
'tis in the nose of thee; thou art the Knight of the Burning Lamp" (3.3.7).
In Macbeth, the porter also refers to rhinophyma after Macduff asks,
“What three things does drink especially provoke?" The porter answers,
“ Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine" (2.3.9).
Rosacea See Rhinophyma.
Sciatica Pain in
either of the sciatic nerves. These nerves extend from the lower back,
beginning at the lumbar spine, and run through the buttocks and down the
back of the legs. At the back of the knees, they branch into smaller nerves.
In Act IV, Scene I, of Timon of Athens, Timon utters the following
curse on the Athenians:
Thou cold sciatica,
Scurvy Disease resulting
from lack of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in the diet. Victims suffer anemia,
weakness, swollen gums, and bleeding beneath the skin. Shakespeare uses
scurvy almost exclusively as an adjective, as in "Thou are but a scurvy
fellow" (Twelfth Night, 3.4.84). References to scurvy also
appear in All’s Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The
Tempest, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Cripple our senators, that
their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners.
sometimes accompanied by vomiting, caused by the rocking and pitching of
a boat or ship. The illness is sometimes referred to by its French name,
de mer. In Cymbeline, Pisanio gives Imogen a drug which he believes
is an elixir to ward off illness. “If you are sick at sea," he says, “Or
stomach-qualm'd at land, a dram of this / Will drive away distemper" (3.4.205-207).
Senility. See Dementia
skin disease, such as ringworm (or tinea), characterized by scaling and
itching. Characters in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure
refer to the disease.
Sleepwalking, or Somnambulism
Walking while asleep. In Act V, Scene I, of Macbeth, a gentlewoman
reports to a doctor that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking:
"Since his majesty went
into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown
upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read
it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in
a most fast sleep" (5.1.4).
Syphilis See Pox.
Skin disease characterized by eruptions, itching, and sometimes itchy scales.
Eczema, herpes, and impetigo are forms of it. In Troilus and Cressida,
Thersites curses Patroclus, wishing a tetter upon him.
Wen Benign tumor
on the skin; sebaceous cyst. In Henry IV Part II, Prince Hal refers
to Falstaff as a wen.
Wheeze Hard breathing
that makes a whistling sound. In Act V, Scene I, of Troilus and Cressida,
Thersites curses Patroclus, wishing “wheezing lungs" (5.1.18) upon him.
the Author: Michael J. Cummings is
the developer of Shake Sphere and its forerunner, The Complete
Shakespeare. He has taught English composition and literature at the
college level as an adjunct instructor. Over the years, he has written
more than 3,000 articles and four books as a journalist and freelance writer.
One of his writing specialties is medicine.