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THE MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE OF SHAKSPEARE.
I was not a little surprised at the reference of such eminent physicians as Sir Henry Halford, and the late Mr. Abernethy, to the pages of Shakspeare, for an elucidation or proof of some of the peculiar symptoms of particular diseases ; but that surprise excited a curiosity anxious to be gratified, in a re-perusal or cursory survey of my favourite author-chiefly, but not solely, to be farther satisfied on this subject. This article is partly the result of that research, written with the hope of exciting a kindred feeling in the breasts of others hav. ing more curiosity and leisure than I to pursue such matters; and of evidencing that experience is preferable to mere theory in all indispositions affecting constitutional habits in physiology and philosophy.
The reference of Halford was to a symptom of insanity, as given by Hamlet in the closet-scene with his mother :
Would gambol from." Sir Henry related (before the Royal College of Physicians) that he and Sir J. Tutħill had been in attendance on a gentleman in a state of mental derangement; yet who appeared to have his symptoms so alleviated, as to be permitted to make his will, both physicians being witnesses. But on departing after, the medical gentlemen conversed on the circumstance, particularly on the impropriety or singularity of their being witnesses to the will of such a patient, when Sir Henry proposed the test of Shakspeare, whether he would reword the will: but the patient gambolled from the matter.
The reference of Abernethy was to the description of the febrile paroxysm of an intermittent, as given by Cassius of Cæsar :
“ He had a fever when he was in Spain;
• Alas,' it cried,' give me some drink, Titinius."”. Such reference is creditable to all parties; although Abernethy, as a surgeon, might have known bow Shakspeare makes one say quizzically of the “ tent," bring in “ the surgeon's box or the patient's wound," and Halford, as a physician, might recollect
“ Throw physic to the dogs ;
I'll none of it;" and again, in an almost vituperative strain
" Trust not the physician,
He kills more than you rob." But Shakspeare must not be made responsible, in propria persone, for what his dramatic characters may say from circumstances; and perhaps he may really have concluded, with the son of Sirach, “ give place to the physician, fur he was sent from God."
Shakspeare was not so devoid of learning as is commonly or customarily supposed ; and although he may not have received a classical education, he may have acquired a classical and scientific knowledge. Nay, he did acquire, and was so perfectly conscious of his own attainments, and of his claims to literary immortality, that he glances more than obliquely at them in some of his sonnets. He was convinced that no man ever attained excellence without gifts, sedulously cultivated; nor literary success without laborious study : his writings are therefore the result, not of natural endowments enthusiastically exerted, but of personal experience improved or matured by the judgment resulting from the testimouy of others, read as well as heard ; but this is not now my theme.
He who would excel in one branch of science, art, or of literature, must have a more or less intimacy with its correlative dependencies. Shakspeare may not have walked the hospital, although he trod scrutinising in the ways of life. He may not immediately have made physic or surgery, pharmacy or physiology, his peculiar study; yet must he have acquired a knowledge of the thousand ills which flesh is heir to, from other sources than personal experience. Hence it was that he was enabled “ to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature ;" and hence
“ Each trait of many coloured life he drew;
Exhausted worlds, and then im ned new.' Sbakspeare appears to have been so fastidiously accurate, as to remark the difference between the acceptation of disease and distemper--the former, a fatal illness; the latter, a temporary indisposition.
« Little faults proceeding on distemper.-Hen. 5.
'Tis but a body yet distemper'd."-Hen. 4. Again
“ We're all diseased;
But in speaking occasionally of fevers, he discriminates not only between the kinds, but the degrees or stages of the malady, marking an intermittent passing into a continued form; and exhibiting Sir John Falstaff in the fatal embraces of the “ quotidian tertian," and delirium tremens-having “bis nose as sharp as a pen,” &c.
The febrile exacerbations of an intermittent have been already pointed out in Abernethy's reference. Concerning surfeits, as producing not only fevers, but indisposition or inability for literary or similar pursuits, he is equally pointed.
“ Fat paunches make lean pates, and grosser bits
Make rich the ribs, but bankerout the wits.” And not only is be aware of the effects of a pampered stomach on the brain, but of an agitated mind on the animal appetites, clearly evidenced when he makes Henry the Eighth give to Wolsey some papers of no very agreeable tendency; and adds—" read this; and this; and afterwards this : and then to breakfast with what appetite you may !” He must have been well apprised that
“ Dangers alike to mortal life
From joy or sorrow flow;"
" She never told her love ;
and, again, the emotions of the heart being suppressed from corporeal display:
“ To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life.”
6 Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles, &c. &c.” which, however, has not received the cordial approbation of the faculty, because the poet answers,
“ Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Yet Boswell, (in his life of Johnson,) tells us that the lexicographer, having adopted that address, at his dying hour, was answered also by his doctor as Macbeth had been by his. But whether a disease of the imagination, or, if termed better, a derangement of the memory, can be ameliorated by medicine,
is, perhaps, even less questionable, as in the days of our dramatic poet ; for still, (as Milton says, in his immortal epic,)
“ The mind is its own place; and, in itself,
Can make a hell of heaven, or heaven of hell." But I mean not to dispute here whether any course of medicine, or mere alteration in diet, independent of a radical change of the wonted habits of any afflicted with a disordered imagination or memory, can restore sana mens in corpore sano. Of idiosyncrasies, or constitutional peculiarities, our poet was not ignorant:
“Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
But take we, for one minute, a bee's fight among his plays to cull. The pia mater and epidedimus are distinctly referred to in Truilus and Cressida, Act II. Scene 1 ; and in Twelfth Night, Act I. Scene 5. In the Second Act of Lear he refers to even a peculiarity of hysteria. In the Second Part (Act I.) of Henry IV. he refers to the effects of a distempered mind; noticing, at the same time, the increase of muscular strength :
“ My limbs, Enraged with grief, are thrice themselves.” The impossibility of curing scrofula is noted :
« Strangely-visited people, All swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eyes,
The mere despair of surgery.”—Macbeth. Yet, concerning surgery, he was not ignorant. In Antony and Cleopatra (Act. I. Scene 1), he saith,
“ We do lance diseases in our bodies ;" and in Timon of Athens, he actually speaks of
“ Cauterising the root of the tongue.” Podagram, chiragram, hipagram (sciatica), and cockatrice, are often used by him; and diseases are quoted wholesale by Thersites, in Troilus and Cressida ; as well as adverted to by Caliban, in the Tempest.
He seems occasionally to understand, not only the symptomatology, but the prognosis of diseases. “This apoplexy,” says he, in Henry II., “ will certainly . be his end;" and again, in the words of Coriolanus,
“ A very apoplexy; Lethargy, mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible.”
Similarly might he have commented on epilepsy, when he saith, in Othello,
“ My lord bath fallen into an epilepsy ;" equally well, as he has unequivocally stated, that
“ Universal plodding Prisons up the nimble spirits in the arteries;" or asserts again, in Coriolanus,
“Your affections are a sick man's appetite,
Which most desires what would increase the evil." I might notice also his knowledge of the common remedies for some diseases, and the virtues of prominent herbs; how he speaks of the belladonna, as the insane root which takes the reason prisoner; of causes wherein poppy or mandragora would avail not, and of his making the dose of Othello “ bitter as coloquintida.” His knowledge of the effects of quicksilver (as stated in Hamlet) might also be specified, in conjunction with his knowledge of comparative anatomy, evidenced in various parts. So, too, might I notice his appreciation of the various effects of music-its stimulating and its sedative effects : “ the brisk ear-piercing fife;" aud the soothing note which “ comes o'er the ear like the sweet south;" adding also his acquaintance with its narcotic effect :
“ Most heav'nly music!
Haugs on my eyes."
“ Music call and strike more dead
Than common sleep, of all these five the sense;" and subjoining his allusion to the “concord of sweet sounds," with his denun. ciation of the man who has not music in his soul, as being “ fit for treasons stratagems and spoils.”
I might notice these and many other instances of learning as well as mere information, or the judgment resulting from personal experience, if my theme was to disprove the common idea that Shakspeare possessed not knowledge, . by human testimony from written books; because he possessed transcendant genius, aptitude, and discernment. But there is one farther allusion may be permitted on the theme I bare selected.
The circulation of the blood was not discovered, at least acknowledged, during Shakspeare's time; yet we find that he distinctly adverts, in unequivocal lan guage, to that point; similarly as we find a declaration in the best books, that the blood is the seat of life, or the blood is the life of an animal.-(See Genesis.)
Thus our poet gives an accurate representation of the relative condition of