Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage

Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage

Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage

Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage

Synopsis

By Shakespeare's time, the debate over legitimate medical practice had become vociferous and public. The powerful College of Physicians fought hard to discredit some and rein in others, but many resisted, denied, or ignored its authority. Dramatists did not fail to notice the turmoil, nor did they fail to comment on it - and no one commented more profoundly on stage than William Shakespeare. Going beyond the usual questions posed about Shakespeare and medicine, this study, which won the first Jay L. Halio Prize in Shakespeare and Early Modern Studies, explores Shakespeare's response to the early modern struggle for control of English medical practice. It does not rehearse the fundamentals of early modern medical thought such as the humoral system that have been more than adequately covered numerous times elsewhere. Instead, it undertakes a reading of popular English medical tracts in an effort to reconstruct the terms in which medical practitioners of all kinds were understood. injury were busy hearing such stories, and in a time of spectacular outbreaks of infectious disease, in a time of religious transition, and in a time of shifting modes of political power, such stories held especial fascination. Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor Cape Breton University.

Excerpt

This story shall the good man teach his son.

Henry V

WHEN THE WIFE OF CYMBELINE DIES NEAR THE END OF SHAKESPEARE’S Cymbeline, King of Britain, it is left to Cornelius, the doctor who has been attending the Queen, to give the king the bad news. Cymbeline’s response to Cornelius, not surprising from a king who has been getting more than his share of bad news, is bitter: “Who worse than a physician / Would this report become?” (5.5.27–28). The immediate point of the rhetorical question is obvious: physicians are supposed to heal the sick, and the death of the patient obviously reflects poorly on the practitioner; it does not “become” a physician to “report” his own failures. For Shakespeare’s audience, though, the lines would have had a more rich significance. Physicians, since the inception of the College of Physicians of London in the early sixteenth century, had fought hard to establish a clear hierarchy among medical practitioners, and to install themselves in the highest tier of that hierarchy. Other kinds of medical practitioners— surgeons, apothecaries, empirics—were all expected to take their place below (some far below) the university-trained doctors of medicine, whose extensive classical education was meant to set them apart from the supposedly more ignorant.

Cymbeline’s question, then, is an implicit critique not only of Cornelius himself and his own skills, but also of his entire profession. It is an acerbic suggestion that perhaps physicians are not as wise as they are thought to be, that perhaps for all their rhetoric, they may be no more effective as healers than those they denigrate. One might, the king implies, expect bad results from a fraudulent mountebank, or a careless apothecary, or an ignorant woman with a few faded remedies scribbled on tattered scraps of paper, but who worse . . .

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