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Medicine in the time of Shakespeare

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Autumn


An exhibit in the Historical Library explored medical theory and practice in 16th-century London.

“A plague o’ both your houses,” the dying Mercutio cries in Romeo and Juliet. “Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow,” exclaims the mad king in King Lear, referring to an affliction of the womb. And in The Winter’s Tale, Camillo presents the visionary notion that a person can carry and spread a disease without showing signs of illness.

Medical references are rife in the Bard’s oeuvre, garnering attention from literary scholars and medical historians alike. A recent exhibit organized by the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library highlighted themes from Shakespeare’s works, including plague, midwifery, domestic medicine, herbal remedies, astrological medicine, surgery, and other medical topics from the period between 1589 and 1613, when Shakespeare produced most of his known work. (Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616.) “Medicine in Shakespeare’s London,” curated by historical librarian Melissa Grafe, Ph.D., was part of a university-wide Shakespeare festival and on display from March through June.

In choosing relevant texts to display in the library’s rotunda, Grafe decided to paint a broad picture of medical knowledge and practice at the time. “We wanted not only to discuss Shakespeare but to go beyond what Shakespeare might say and write,” said Grafe, adding that the exhibit included works not directly connected to Shakespeare in order to give a fuller picture of medicine in that time and place.

Among the texts displayed were The Byrth of Mankynde, otherwyse named the Womans Booke, published in 1545 and one of the earliest books written in English on pregnancy and childbirth; a 1633 edition of John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall historie of plantes; plague orders issued by the Privy Council under Queen Elizabeth I in 1592; and a 1633 edition of The Workes of that famous chyrurgian, Mr. Iohn Banester, a compilation of the early works of a surgeon who served the Earl of Warwick.

“We chose selectively,” Grafe said. “Some texts were more important than others, but we wanted to show diversity. We wanted to talk about how people understood their bodies, health, and disease during Shakespeare’s time.”

Indeed, some areas of medical knowledge saw significant advances in the Elizabethan Age—Andreas Vesalius laid the foundations for modern anatomy, and Ambroise Paré revolutionized battlefield medicine. Other fields, however, remained mired in ancient concepts. Not until the 19th century did Western medicine abandon the notion, first proposed by Hippocrates, that there are four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) corresponding to four human temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic). The concept is described and illustrated in the 1664 edition of The Optick Glasse of Humors, first published in 1607 by the cleric and writer Thomas Walkington.

Also on display was a 1679 edition of John Hall’s Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases, in which the physician describes a variety of diseases through case studies, including observations on melancholy and syphilis. Hall married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. Some historians have suggested that this connection explains Shakespeare’s medical fluency; however, Shakespeare wrote many of his plays with medical references, like Macbeth and King Lear, before Hall’s relationship with the family.

Although the exhibit included more than 25 texts, Grafe noted that the library’s early modern holdings are much more extensive. “This is just a small tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We have well over 1,000 books from that period.” Selections from the exhibit may be viewed online at

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