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Shakespeare Has Opinions: Medicine (Part 1)

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Among all the 1,242 speaking characters in Shakespeare's plays, it may surprise you to know that the professional field most represented is medicine. Which is interesting on a lot of levels. Based off what we know or speculate of Shakespeare's life, it would make more sense if lawyers, scribes, innkeepers, or merchants topped the list. We can't physically place him anywhere he would have naturally developed the necessary medical knowledge, but if he held to the adage "write what you know" at all, then he must've picked it up somewhere. He does eventually gain a medical man for a son-in-law, but that's too late in his life to explain his very keen interest and strangely accurate depiction of medicine. Not only does he mention medicine, its practice and practitioners, more than his contemporaries to an almost embarrassing degree (a conservative count of 712 references; 455 major and 257 minor, making an average of a little more than 12 per play (psst. Your obsession is showing, Will), but he also seems to have strong opinions. With the exception of his Romeo and Juliet, all of Shakespeare's plays manage to challenge the established medical understanding and hierarchy of the early modern period. To best explain this in future articles, some background is in order.

*Master John Banister's Anatomical Tables, with Figures. The paintings comprise a portrait of Banister delivering a visceral lecture at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall, Monkwell Street, London. c. 1580


The early modern medical food chain looked a little like this:

The physicians were at the pinnacle of the medical field. Only licensed physicians that studied at Oxbridge could call themselves 'doctor' and they absolutely, never ever, shed blood. Spilling blood was a contaminating and unclean act, so that was left to lesser beings. Beings like our modern medical rockstars, the surgeons. Purposefully denied the privileged title of "Dr.", male surgeons in England (and Ireland) have always been addressed by "Mr.", even today. But the public put-down of 'Mister" up through the 1730s was happily turned into a badge of distinction by the 1830s (Good on you, Messrs. Anyway, back to doctors). Basically, doctors learned Latin, made diagnoses, treated internal ailments and prescribed medicines, and no more, good heavens.

Surgeons were second in knowledge and prestige, but controversially so. Surgeons did the cutting that the physicians would not, which created mixed-feelings and mutable reputations. A type of unlucky guardian angel, if you will. But it was hard to change entrenched public perceptions, considering the separation between doctor and surgeon came about as early as the 12th century when the Roman Catholic Church denounced the working with blood. That was important since most physicians at the time were clerics, too; seeing as they manned the gate between life and death. So when cleric-physicians could no longer perform surgeries, one knife-wielding profession saw the opportunity for expansion: the humble barber. As expected, here's where things get a little dicey. Seen as unskilled and not a little dishonest, barbers mainly performed blood-letting, some teeth-pulling, and lanced boils; while a surgeon's tasks still included trepanning (yikes!), setting bones, and treating illnesses. In practice, the lines between the two started to become uncomfortably blurred and barber-surgeons were doing everything: surgeries, amputations, treating disabilities and STDs, plague containment, and even body disposal. Before Henry VIII passed the Act of Union of the Barbers and Surgeons in the 16th century, barber-surgeons terrifyingly required no schooling, no connections, and no special skills. Which understandably lead to no public confidence. The purpose of the act was to raise the standards of barbers by licensing them under one banner, the Barber-Surgeon Company, with surgeons that had gone through seven-year apprenticeships under a master surgeon. Hilariously, this royal unification didn't stop ugly legal battles and actual physical brawls between the two factions as they fought for resources and clients. The apothecaries weren't above getting involved either.

Apothecaries, next on the medical food chain, have an interestingly turbulent history outside of the turf battles with the barbers and surgeons. It all comes down to branding. They never quite nailed down their public image to the commonwealth. They continually struggled to distinguish themselves from druggists and chemists - they were real medical practitioners, thank you very much. But practically speaking, they operated in the same circles as priests and the two were often conflated. Which is weird, since they were also under constant suspicion of murder. (An all-in-all crapshoot of a PR campaign, really.) By the late 1500s, poisoners, ahem I mean, apothecaries couldn't shake off their theatrically nefarious reputation, and by 1587 regular searches of their premises had been mandated. So again, no public confidence. It probably also didn't help that they were only able to successfully separate themselves from grocers after 1617 (seriously, this PR manager). But when needs must, they were simply more accessible, full stop. And for those wary of physician prices, apothecaries were known for some quick, unofficial diagnosing. They could at least point to their lengthy apprenticeships and proprietary remedies for a patient's peace of mind.

Midwives, however, were the heart and soul of the early modern medical world. Some scholars argue that among their communities they were more respected than the apothecaries, while others argue that in the medical hierarchy they technically fall very much below. But most of the essential health-care, whether medical, psychological, or even mystical, fell to these overworked hands. Both the licensed midwives and the unlicensed "empirics" and alewives delivered babies, made remedies, as well as examined suspected witches, rape victims, and female prisoners. Welcomed and natural in any home, midwives provided discreet consultation to those not ready to publicize their need for a doctor. Like teeth-pullers (early forerunner to dentists) there was no formal training; but unlike teeth-pullers and barbers, people readily trusted in their experience and home-grown wisdom.

And the largest and lowest sector of medicine belonged to the unlicensed healers, more affectionately known as "quacks". Probably the most useless and dangerous option for the average Elizabethan, but sometimes they were all on whom a village or hamlet could rely. Under their care, you couldn't be sure the remedies wouldn't kill you, never mind heal you. But a lucky person could and sometimes would come across an unlicensed healer who, through generational trial-and-error, offered effective cures for the common ails.

Now, in part II, Shakespeare is going to poo-poo over all of this. Well, except for the midwives. He's not a monster.

Bucknill, John Charles. "The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare", Longman & Co, 1860

Caron, Christine. "Barber Surgeons in the Early Modern Period", The Scientific

Enlightenment, Algoma University, 2016.

Falk, Dan. The Science of Shakepeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. St. Martin’s

Press, 2014.

Harkup, Kathryn. Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts.

Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020

Lopresti, Courtney. "Barber-surgeons", Morbid History, 2015.

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