Today, Shakespeare's fascination with medicine. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Shakespeare was born in 1564, just
about the time medicine was moving out of the ivory
towers of the medieval world. Practical anatomy and
new techniques of surgery were changing the
essential nature of medicine. The low-status
medieval barber-surgeon was becoming a respected
medical practitioner with a new arsenal of
techniques for dealing with wounds and illness.
When he was 18 Shakespeare married 26-year-old
Anne Hathaway. Susanna,
the first of their three children, was born six
months later. When Shakespeare was 43, Susanna
married a noted doctor, John Hall. Shakespeare had
known Hall for some time by then.
Doctor Aubrey Kail now looks closely at
Shakespeare's plays, and he finds a startling
imprint of the new medicine and of son-in-law John
Hall as well. Shakespeare wrote Pericles,
Prince of Tyre, at the time of the wedding.
In it, the physician Cerimon is a noble man,
doubtless based on Hall. A gentleman says to
Your honour has through Ephesus pour'd
Your charity, and hundreds call themselves
Your creatures, who by you have been
Shakespeare portrayed many real-life doctors in his
plays, often without disguising their names. Dr.
William Butts, the real-life physician to Henry
VIII, for example, shows up by name in the play,
Henry VIII. The heroine, Helena, of
All's Well That Ends Well was the
daughter of the real-life French Physician Gerard
de Narbon. When the king of France suffers an open
sore, Helena uses her knowledge of her father's
medicines to heal him.
All through Shakespeare's plays flow allusions to
the corporeal human body -- its birth, death, and
maintenance. Gloucester in Henry VI
describes his birth: "For I have often heard my
mother say, I came into this world with feet
forward." Richard III complains that he was,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my
Into this breathing world scarce half made
The doctors around Shakespeare thought wounds
should be protected from fresh air, so we read,
The air hath got into my deadly wounds,
and much effuse of blood doth make me
He clearly understood the connection of mind and
body when he put these words in King Lear's mouth:
... this tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else.
Kail has chapters about Shakespeare on epilepsy,
Shakespeare on venereal disease, on mental illness,
geriatrics, wounds, therapeutics.
Many people have tried to diagnose Shakespeare's
greatness. Maybe this odd book offers a new clue.
For can it really be any surprise that the greatest
teller of the human drama should tell his tales in
terms of human flesh and blood?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds