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Shakespeare’s Extensive Knowledge and Awareness of Disease (1564-1616)


We celebrated William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 26th



William Shakespeare is widely regarded as a genius in the same category as Leonardo di Vinci, the grandfather of psychoanalysis, and the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s preeminent dramatist. His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright. Part of Shakespeare’s genius lay in the breadth of his knowledge in so many fields. Including an impressive number of references to medical afflictions.


Below is a glossary of the medical terms used by Shakespeare in his plays, giving with some, the references and the actual or partial speeches. If you love the timelessness of Shakespeare, you’ll appreciate this. If you love the history of medicine, you’ll really get a kick out of the incredible awareness of Shakespeare, who was always ahead of the curve. And, if you have an interest in psychology and behavior, you will recognize his astuteness in including in his plays, all of the human aches and pains, knowing that his audience could easily identify with them, and subsequently be drawn in further to resonate with the deeper darker side of (all of us) our nature.


Ague – Fever usually caused by malaria 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”.


In King John, Constance – lamenting the fate of her son—says:

But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud

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.”


References to ague also occur in Henry VIII, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, The Tempest, and Troilus and Cressida.


Alcoholism. 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”. In Henry V, Falstaff cries out for sack on his deathbed.


Anxiety. Anxiety overtakes Macbeth after the First Murderer tells him that 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?”


Bed-Wetting. 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”.


Birthmark, or Nevus. In of King John, Constance praises her son, Arthur, as being fair-skinned and blessed with good looks, but notes that:


If thou wert grim,

Ugly and slanderous to thy mother’s womb

Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,

Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious

Patch’d with foul moles and eye-offending marks,

I would not care, I then would be content

For then I should not love thee.


Boil, or Furuncle. In Coriolanus, Marcius (Coriolanus) curses enemies, saying,


Boils and plagues

Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d

Further than seen and one infect another

Against the wind a mile!


Carbuncle. In King Lear, the old king rebukes one of his evil daughters, calling her “a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle”.


Cramps. 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”. 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”.


Epilepsy. In Julius Caesar, Cassius – in describing the great Caesar as a mere mortal, tells Brutus:


He had a fever when he was in Spain,

And when the fit was on him, I did mark

How he did shake: ‘tis true, this god did shake.


Hallucination. Macbeth presents one of the most famous depictions of a hallucination in all of literature, when Macbeth says:


Is this a dagger which I see before me,

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, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?


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.


Headache. 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,

I knit my handercher about your brows,

The best I had, a princess wrought it me,

And I did never ask it you again;

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?”


Impotence. In Macbeth, a porter alludes to impotence when he tells Macduff that “drink” (alcoholic beverages) “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”.


Insomnia. 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”. After murdering King Duncan, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth:


Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!

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 feast.


When Macbeth confides to Lady Macbeth “Strange things I have in my head,” she replies, “You lack the season of all natures, sleep”.


Leprosy. Queen Margaret refers to the disease in Henry VI Part II:

Be woe for me, more wretched than he is.

What, dost thou turn away and hide thy face?

I am no loathsome leper; look on me.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 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.


Pox (Syphilis). 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. 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 Pericles, Prince of Athens.


In Romeo and Juliet: Often quoted as “A pox on both your houses.” As Mercutio dies, he utters this phrase three times, cursing the families whose rivalry led to his death. The phrase is commonly applied to criticize warring factions whose rivalry brings ruin to others.


Rheumatism. 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!”. 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”.


Sleepwalking, or Somnambulism. 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”.


Source: 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. 


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