A Christmas renaissanceBMJ 2016; 355 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i6603 (Published 14 December 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i6603
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It was a great pleasure to read the paper by Dholakia et al. on the interest of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in medicine and surgery, so commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (1). Even though the English playwright probably never formally studied medicine, he observed suffering humanity and learned from physicians and other figures involved in the healing arts. In their conclusion, the authors of the paper focused on the representations of doctors in Renaissance plays as figures of fun (1). They quoted the example of a drunk surgeon in Twelfth Night, but he is not the only negative figure in Shakespearian works. In his plays, the Bard included the figures of eight physicians, only four of whom he named: Cornelius (Cymbeline), Cerimon (Pericles), Butts (Henry VIII), and Caius (The Merry Wives). In his earlier plays, Shakespeare’s regard for the medical profession seemed to be low. For example, in Macbeth the English doctor believes in witchcraft, while the Scottish doctor admits his inability to cure Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism, as he states: “this disease is beyond my practice” (2). After Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna (1583-1649) married Stratford physician John Hall (1575-1635) in 1607, he began to portray physicians somewhat more favorably, although they were never granted more than minor roles in his plays. It is not only playwrights (including the great French comedy writer Molière), but also other intellectuals share a negative opinion about the competence and the ability of the Renaissance doctors. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) sustained that “Empirics and old women [are] more happy many times in their cures than learned physicians”, while Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that “rather have the advice or take physic from an experienced old woman that had been at many sick people’s bedsides, than from the learnedst but unexperienced physician” (3). Shakespeare and the other playwrights therefore testified that despite the development of anatomy (Vesalius), physiology (Harvey) and the first successes of medicine as science, physicians were not held in very high esteem by the society and that the Early Modern Age was not an actual Renaissance for doctors, as it was for artists and intellectuals.
1. Dholakia S, Friend PJ, Maguire L. A Christmas renaissance. BMJ 2016;355:i6603.
2. Riva MA, Sironi VA, Tremolizzo L, Lombardi C, De Vito G, Ferrarese C, Cesana G. Sleepwalking in Italian operas: a window on popular and scientific knowledge on sleep disorders in the 19th century. Eur Neurol 2010;63:116-21.
3. Ehrenhreich B, English D. Witches, midwives and nurses. A history of women healers. Second Edition. New York: The Feminist Press, 2010
Competing interests: No competing interests