While the world is paying homage to mark the 400th death anniversary of William Shakespeare, it would be poignant to ponder over the everlasting contributions he has made in relation to the field of medicine. Shakespeare has not just been an English playwright but a global citizen and phenomenon. He is revered across the world; his plays have been translated into 180 languages. References to physicians, diseases and treatments occur in almost all his plays. Although he had no formal medical training, taking into consideration his medical knowledge, we should place him on the similar pedestal as the great physicians like Hippocrates and Galen.
In the early 16th century, when Shakespeare lived in London, the city was overcrowded and unsanitary. The streets were littered with garbage, rodents ruled the roads and diseases and death dominated daily life. Hygiene was such a rare commodity that even the Queen took a bath only once a month. Against the backdrop of all these phantasmagoria of horrible nonsense, Shakespeare wrote his plays. His unfathomable in-depth understanding of the dysfunctions of body and mind were deliciously depicted in his works. Shakespeare gained his medical knowledge on his own since he wrote most of his plays even before his eldest daughter Susanne got married to Joseph Hall, a physician in 1607.
This mythical magical medicinal wizard described the ailments affecting all systems of body and mind. Even after four centuries, his works are beacons of eternal learning. I shall give a glimpse of his vision.
Is this the dagger which I see before me,
A dagger of the mind, a false creation.
Macbeth, II, i, 38
A good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop;
A fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow
King Henry V, V, ii, 155
Burnout due to excessive workload:
Long sitting to determine poor men’s causes
Hath made me full of sickness and disease.
King Henry VI, IV, vii, 82
We will bestow you in some better place,
Fitter for sickness and for crazy age.
King Henry VI, III, ii, 88
…take heed of yonder dog!
Look when he fawns, he bites;
His venom tooth will rankle to the death.
King Richard III, I, ii, 289
And when the fit was on him I did mark
How he did shake.
Julius Caesar, I, ii, 120
And that doesn’t include descriptions of pregnancy symptoms in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Caesarean section in Macbeth and plague in Troilus and Cressida. The list is so vast, laborious and elaborate.
In an era when there were no electricity, computing and revelatory technology, this man-wonder created his works in immaculate style, crystal-clear clarity and precision with supreme aplomb. Not a day passes without reference to Shakespeare- stories being told, plays being enacted, works being read, research into his works, people visiting his house and so on. This hero lives on, in the hearts and minds of billions across the globe.
Shakespeare has been the best honourable ‘medical knowhow’ ever, who brilliantly enlightened the world of the ailments and maladies in dramatically adventurous, linguistically gorgeous style. In my view, his name deserves to be inscribed in the Hall of Fame of the RCGP. As a genius who analysed the cliffs and caverns of the brain, tides and currents of the heart and translated those into a galaxy of plays, his place is unique. We all need to salute and shout out from rooftops ‘Hail, Shakespeare’.
Dr Thomas Abraham is a GP in Hull