Shakespeare and Medicine: Conference Paper 2014


How Human Afflictions and their Medical Treatments Reconfigure in Shakespeare’s Plays





Paper presented at the Shakespeare450: an International Conference, an interdisciplinary conference organized by The Centre for Shakespeare Studies at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University and the Rustaveli National Theatre.

Tbilisi State University, Tbilisi, Georgia, May 1-3, 2014



This paper will illustrate that William Shakespeare was not only one of the most profound observers of human psychology, but also of medical science. Nicolls begins by defining the times in which he lived – through the discoveries of anatomy by Andreas Vesalius and William Harvey’s theories of blood circulation, as well as rigorous scientific methods of Francis Bacon for testing hypotheses. It was a time of transition from superstitions and Church doctrines to advancements in science. Nicolls believes that Shakespeare supported science and medical practices of the new world view, and that he was well versed in human afflictions and their medical treatments, not only the dysfunctions of the human mind, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders, but also of the body – such as epilepsy, arthritis, scurvy, syphilis, fevers, and diseases. Nicolls will show that through his dramas he was able to inform and enlighten audiences on medical science, and advocate for medicinal treatments and immunisations.

KEYWORDS: Shakespeare, ailments, diseases, medicine, medical science,



How Human Afflictions and their Medical Treatments Reconfigure in Shakespeare’s Plays



Shakespeare, over the past 450 years, has been described in terms such as Catholic, Protestant, Capitalist, Marxist, misogynist, feminist, homosexual, and marijuana smoker (Falk, 2014), but he has rarely been called a scientist. An extraordinary number of studies have explored the link between Shakespeare and the humanities, but far less link Shakespeare with science. Most scientific linkages were those of astronomy (Clark, 1929; Usher, 2010; Condie, 2013). The most recent studies linking Shakespeare and medicine are (1) In the Medical Mind of Shakespeare (1983, 1986) by Aubrey C. Kail, and (2) an article and glossary of medical terms in Shakespeare’s dramas by Michael J Cummings (2010).

Shakespeare was not a scientist. There is no evidence that Shakespeare studied science or medicine. In fact, there is the argument that Shakespeare’s knowledge of medical terms stemmed from the influence of his daughter’s husband. Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, married John Hall, a physician and herbalist, in 1607 (Cummings, 2010). Shakespeare was born in 1564 so he was 43 years old when Susanna married John. Therefore it is more likely that Shakespeare was influenced by the rise in scientific discoveries in London and Europe throughout his life.

Let’s briefly look at the time in which Shakespeare lived and some of the inventions of the day. Significant scientific advancements were made in mathematics, cosmography, geography, engineering, mining, navigation, and anatomy. For example, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) studied anatomy. Peter Henlein invented the pocket watch in 1510, Nicolaus Copernicus invented the heliocentric model of the universe in 1543, which placed the Sun (rather than the Earth) at the centre of the universe, and physician William Gilbert identified the Earth’s magnetic field in 1600. In terms of medicine, Andreas Vesalius pioneered research into human anatomy in 1543, Michael Servetus researched pulmonary circulation in 1552, Zacharias Janssen invented the compound microscope in 1590, and William Harvey documented blood circulation in early 1600s.

Shakespeare died at the age of 52 years, before the Great Plague of London in 1665-66. However, the plague had been known since 1347 (the year of the Black Death). From 1603 (when Shakespeare was 39 years old) London published the Bills of Mortality. In 1603 there were 33,347 recorded deaths from the plague. Between 1603 and the Great Plague of London in 1665 there were only four years in which no one reportedly died from the plague (

In Shakespeare’s plays he mentions the plague many times, but also other diseases. This paper will illustrate a range of examples of quotations from several Shakespearean plays. In this brief presentation, the authors will not focus on psychological ailments (such as elements of madness, depression, and obsessive-compulsive traits), but instead, we will focus on examples of physical ailments, categorized as follows:

(1) visible ailments,

(2) aches and pains,

(3) fits and fevers,

(4) cures and treatments, and

(5) death.




Many of Shakespeare’s scenes occurred on the battlefield. In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare refers to a plethora of soldiers’ ailments and mentions the surgeon’s box and the medical tent when Patroclus and Thersites are outside Achilles’ tent at the Grecian camp. Thersites says:


THERSITES: Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas, limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter
, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

Troilus and Cressida (1602), Act 5, Scene 1


Tetter, mentioned by Thersites, is a skin disease characterized by eruptions, itching and sometimes eczema. Palsy is a nervous tic, a paralysis of a voluntary muscle resulting from nerve affliction. Catarrh is an inflammation of mucous membranes, such as in the nose and throat that causes a runny nose. Rheum is a watery discharge from the nose, eyes, or mouth, usually as a result of a cold. Rheum is mentioned in many plays, such as in Othello, The Moor of Venice; Antony and Cleopatra; Much Ado About Nothing; Coriolanus; and King John. There is also evidence that cold air causes rheum in King Lear when the fool offers the king his coxcomb, which is a cap or hat, to keep his head warm.

Shakespeare mentions boils which are skin sores that are red, swollen and painful. In Coriolanus, there is reference to the knowledge that infectious boils from plagues can be passed from one person to another. When the Roman soldiers were beaten back to their trenches, Marcius says:


MARCIUS: … You shames of Rome! You herd of – boils and plagues

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

Further than seen and infect another

Against the wind a mile!

Coriolanus (1605-1608), Act 1, Scene 4


A more invasive skin infection is leprosy, caused by a bacterial disease. Leprosy affects the skin, nerves, and bones, as well as the eyes, causing swelling and lumps, particularly on the face and limbs leading to extensive disfigurement. Lepers, in severe cases, have shortened fingers and toes that are quite deformed. In Henry VI Part 2, Queen Margaret says to the king, after he is upset about the slaying of Gloucester in his bed:


QUEEN MARGARET: Be woe for me, more wretched than he is.

What, dost thou turn and hide they face?

I am no loathsome leper; look on me.

Henry VI Part 2 (1591), Act 3, Scene 2


In Antony and Cleopatra, at the Battle of Actium in Greece, Scarus describes the battle like a pestilence with the scourge of leprosy Antony and Cleopatra (1623), Act 3, Scene 10. In Timon of Athens, Timon rants against the city, mentioning many diseases:


TIMON: … Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, … Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!

Timon of Athens (1623), Act 4, Scene 1


The symptoms of severe leprosy were similar to those of syphilis, although syphilis was a more common disease, caught through sexual contact, mostly in the brothels of London (whereas leprosy was usually spread by nasal secretions). Shakespeare refers to the sexual disease as pox in ten of his plays. The first stages of syphilis appear as sores which are painless and non-itchy, but secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash usually on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and sores on genital organs. Early cases of both leprosy and syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, syphilitic sores can spread all over the body, and appears as pustules or wart-like lesions. Other symptoms include fever, sore throat, headache, weight loss and hair loss. When the disease attacks the blood vessels and the liver, kidneys, and heart, the patient often dies.

Shakespeare first staged the play in 1604, the year after the government closed the brothels of London, which Elbow in Measure for Measure calls a “naughty house” (Act 2, Scene 1). In Measure for Measure, upon seeing a brothel madam approaching, Lucio says: I have purchased many diseases under her roof … —Measure for Measure (1604), Act 1, Scene 2.

In addition to the diseases of sexual activities, is that of impotence; the inability of the male to perform sexual activities due to erectile dysfunction. This is mentioned in The Tragedy of Macbeth when a porter speaks to Macduff about the consequences of too much alcohol. The porter replies that too much alcohol causes a red nose, sleep and impotence:


PORTER: Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes;

it provokes the desire, but it takes

away the performance:

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606), Act 2, Scene 3


Alcohol could also be the cause of incontinence or bed wetting. In Othello, The Moor of Venice night incontinence is mentioned in the scene with Roderigo and Iago:


RODERIGO: What will I do, thinkest thou?

IAGO: Why, go to bed, and sleep.

RODERIGO: I will incontinently drown myself.

Othello, The Moor of Venice (1603), Act 1, Scene 3



In Shakespeare’s plays there are many specific examples of aches and pains, from simple ailments such as a toothache in Much Ado about Nothing (1598-99), Act 5, Scene 1, and a headache in King John (1623), Act 4, Scene 1. Sciatica is a sharp pain in the nerves that extend from the lower back down the legs. It often causes the person to limp, which is mentioned in Timon of Athens (Act 4, Scene 1) when he mentions “crippled senators.” It is also mentioned in Measure for Measure.

Aches are pains are often described as rheumatism in Shakespeare’s plays. Rheumatism is the pain caused by the swelling of joints, such as knees, fingers, and toes. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-96), Act 2, Scene 1, Shakespeare mentions the connection between cold air and rheumatic diseases in a conversation between Tatania and Oberon. And in Henry IV Part 2, Mistress Quickly says:


MISTRESS QUICKLY: 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;

Henry IV Part 2 (1596-99), Act 2, Scene 4


Shakespeare also mentions gout and cramps, such as in his poem, The Rape of Lucrece in which he writes: “The aged man that coffers-up his gold / Is plagued with cramps and gouts and painful fits.” Gout is acute recurring arthritis that inflames and swells joints, particularly those in the feet and hands, causing severe pain. Cramps are abdominal spasms or painful muscle contractions. In The Tempest, on the island Caliban curses Prospero who replies with the following:


PROSPERO: For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,

Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up;

The Tempest (1610-11), Act 1, Scene 2



Fits and fevers, agues and sweats, are commonly mentioned. In these situations, the person may be hot one moment and cold the next, alternately shivering and sweating. Shakespeare referred to the ague in nine plays (Cummings, 2010) – King John, Henry VIII, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, The Tempest, Troilus and Cressida, and Julius Caesar. The fevers and fits could be a result of malaria, epilepsy, a high temperature, or other illnesses. Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain and nervous system. An epileptic fit can be characterized by seizures that are minor (petit mal) – which results in brief unconsciousness – or major (grand mal) – which results in convulsions. Shakespeare mentions epilepsy in King Lear and in The Tragedy of Macbeth. In King Lear (1603-06, and revised 1608 and 1623), Act 2, Scene 2, Kent says to Cornwall: A plague upon your epileptic visage!

Fits can occur suddenly and can range from coughing to convulsions, or even emotional outburst. One mention of an extreme fit appears in Julius Caesar when Cassius says:


CASSIUS: 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;

Julius Caesar (1599), Act 1, Scene 2

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth explains her husband’s fits to her guests when they are seated at a banquet.


LADY MACBETH: Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus,

And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat;

The fit is momentary; upon a thought

He will again be well:

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606), Act 3, Scene 4



Indigestion and seasickness are mentioned in Cymbeline. Both are stomach complaints. In Cymbeline, Pisanio gives Imogen a “cure” for an upset stomach (although readers are not sure what the cure is).


PISANIO: … if you are sick at sea,

Or stomach-qualm’d at land, a dram of this

Will drive away distemper.

Cymbeline (1611), Act 3, Scene 4


Shakespeare appears to be aware of disease transmission – whereby a person can carry a disease, and spread it, without actually being affected by the disease themselves. This is evident in The Winter’s Tale when Camillo speaks of this revolutionary discovery, and the “cure” here is to avoid the disease rather that to question how it developed.



I know not [how best to bear the disease]: but I am sure ‘tis safer to

Avoid what’s grown than question how ‘tis born.

The Winter’s Tale (1623), Act 1, Scene 2


In King Lear, when the king is dying, he would gladly pay an apothecary (a pharmacist) for a cure – in this case, an ounce of civet, which is a small animal.


KING LEAR: Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie

Fie, fie! Pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet,

Good apothecary

King Lear (1603-06, and revised 1608 and 1623), Act 4, Scene 6


Michael Cummings (2010) lists treatments and cures for ailments and illnesses mentioned in Shakespearean plays from the use of leeches for blood-letting (phlebotomy) to the application of ointments, pills, laxatives, vomiting, and herbal medicines, such as rosemary, basil, licorice, and mint. These treatments are administered by “well educated physicians, minimally educated surgeons, barbers, herbalists, apothecaries, exorcists, astrologers, sorcerers, soothsayers, and do-it-yourself healers.”



If cures and treatments didn’t work, the end was death. And there is a lot of death in Shakespearean plays – too many to mention – from poisoning, battle wounds, suicide, murder, grief, the plague, illness, disease, and execution. In a scene from Measure for Measure in a prison, Duke Vincentio and Claudio discuss their impending deaths by execution, where the only cure for execution is hopeMeasure for Measure (1604), Act 3, Scene 1.

This presentation has sought to mention a brief range of medical illnesses. We did not mention pregnancy, cracked cheeks, obesity, poisoning, insomnia, broken legs, stab wounds, scurvy, acne rosacea (red noses and face), or alcoholism, as well as mental dispositions.

We conclude with another example that neither hope, nor medicine, nor any cure can prevent, only prolong, the ultimate ending of death. In Cymbeline in the tent on the battlefield Cornelius announces that the queen is dead:


CORNELIUS: Hail, great king!

To sour your happiness, I must report

The queen is dead.


CYMBELINE: Who worse than a physician

Would this report become? But I consider,

By medicine life may be prolong’d, yet death

Will seize the doctor too.

Cymbeline (1611), Act 5, Scene 5



Bellis, Mary (no date, accessed 4 February 2014), 16th Century – the technology, science, and interventions,

Clark, Cumberland (1929), Shakespeare and science: a study of Shakespeare’s interest in, and literary and dramatic use of, natural phenomena; with an account of the astronomy, astrology, and alchemy of his day, and his attitude towards these sciences, Cornish Brothers, digitalized in 2007 (original, University of Michigan, USA)

Condie, Bill (October 14, 2013), Shakespeare and the stars, COSMOS: the science of everything,

Cummings, Michael J. (2003, revised 2010), Shakespeare and Medicine, Cummings Study Guides,

Cummings, Michael J. (2008), Shakespeare: A Guide to the Complete Works, Xlibris, USA

Falk, Dan (January 27, 2014), William Shakespeare, the ‘king of infinite space,’ The Telegraph, UK,

Kail, Aubrey C. (1986), In the Medical Mind of Shakespeare, Williams Wilkins Publishers, USA

Kail, Aubrey C. (1983), Medicine in Shakespeare: The Bard and the Body, unknown binding, out of print

Usher, Peter D. (2010), Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science, Cambria Press, USA

Wells, Stanley (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, USA

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Special thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for their online service, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, available at