The Shakespearean Guide to Medicine

Playwright William Shakespeare, who recently topped a poll on “symbols” giving Britons pride, (75% agreed with the sentence “I am proud of William Shakespeare as a symbol of Britain”, but only 47% agreed with the sentence “I am proud of Parliament as a symbol of Britain”) has now been rediscovered in a new light by Dr Heaton of North Somerset, who studied Shakespeare after retiring from his post as a gastroenterologist.

Dr Heaton believes that studying Shakespeare enables doctors to look at illnesses from a different perspective; one that takes under consideration the coexistence of psychological and physiological health. His latest research, published in the journal Medical Humanities, focuses on symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, fainting, and disturbed hearing which sometimes has no physical cause and baffles doctors; he explores the idea that these physiological symptoms are produced by underlying emotional distress.

It seems ridiculous to read a headline that says, “Shakespeare could help doctors become better” or “What’s up Doc, or should I ask Shakespeare?”. However, Dr Heaton believes that the playwright’s observations are rather accurate. Shakespeare has previously aroused the interest of a minority of doctors, who have written on his knowledge of medicine in all its aspects and truly believe that Shakespeare had some insight into medicine that doctors today should pay attention to (John Charles Bucknill’s Psychology of Shakespeare (1859) and Paul M Matthews’s The Bard on the Brain (2003) are examples of this). The late Dr Murray Cox said that there was no human condition that is not highlighted in Shakespeare’s works.

An example of the psychological causes of fatigue in Hamlet, for instance, is when Hamlet says “O God, O God / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” and ends with “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” Heaton also cites passages from The Merchant of Venice including Antonio’s opening confession to his friends; “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. / It wearies me, you say it wearies you,” (reflecting chronic fatigue syndrome) and Portia’s first words in scene two, “my little body is aweary of this great world” in which Portia expresses her sadness to Nerissa in a physical way. Furthermore, Shakespeare depicted loss of hearing in characters at times of high emotion. There is of course a high chance that Shakespeare meant these examples metaphorically (as today we do not hear of people going temporarily deaf in times of elevated emotion) but, Dr Heaton theorises that perhaps in Shakespeare’s time stress did cause symptoms related to ears. Was Shakespeare just trying to make his characters more human? Or was he articulating his own “body-consciousness” through his work?

In all Dr Heaton has found at least 43 references to physical problems caused by psychological stress in Shakespeare’s works so far.

“Shakespeare’s perception that numbness and enhanced sensation can have a psychological origin seems not to have been shared by his contemporaries, none of whom included such phenomena in the works examined,” writes Heaton. Heaton encourages modern physicians to remember that physical symptoms can arise from latent psychological problems. He believes that many doctors ignore this, resulting in a delayed diagnosis of their patient; either due to over investigation or because they are overlooking a simple explanation to their patient’s complaint.

Dr Paul Lazarus, a senior clinical educator from the University of Leicester, believes in including subjects such as the history of medicine, its depiction in literature and art, and even the architecture of hospitals for those studying medicine; he believes it can open up different perspectives with which to view and understand medicine better.

Shakespeare also seemed to be aware of the medical literature of his time. An example of this would be the following from Much Ado About Nothing; Don Pedro says, “What! Sigh for a toothache?” to which Leonato replies, “Where is but a humour or a worm” (II.2.23-4). The opinion that toothache was caused by a “humour or a worm” was expressed by John of Gatisden in the book De Corriosone Dentium, published in Italy in 1595.

It seems true that Shakespeare was far ahead of his time when it came to understanding the human condition both physiologically and psychologically. The characters he creates and the pictures he paints contain realism and unmatchable genius. However, the idea that doctors ought to form a basis for their diagnoses by reading his works seems a bit eccentric. Dr Heaton’s research can surely be used as a reminder to doctors of psychosomatic causes for illnesses; however, when it comes to a diagnoses, they should probably stick to conventional medicine.


About the author

Tara Sud

After living the first seventeen years of my life in India, I travelled to the England to study at the University of York. My undergraduate degree was in English Literature and Linguistics, and I am currently completing my Masters degree in Romantic and Sentimental Literature. Apart from writing, I thoroughly enjoy playing piano and consider myself a commendable Scrabble competitor. I have a keen interest in literature, psychology and biology and love to learn in general.