Funtabulously Frivolous Friday Five 085

In today’s FFFF we journey back to the scrofulous, plague ridden, syphilitic era of Elizabethan England.  William Shakespeare (or whomever he really was, although I don’t want to join the heretical band of doubters) was a man not only known for his exquisite prose, plays and poetry spanning the magnificence of the human condition, and his supreme neologisms, but also for an extensive medical knowledge.  It is not clear from where much of this knowledge came, but, like all of the aspects of the supreme Bard’s life, it continues to be hotly debated.

So, let’s graduate to putting pen to parchment (not papyrus like we did in FFFF 077) and answer some questions about the presence of acute medicine in the works of Will Shakespeare.

Question 1

What is Tetter?

  • Tetter refers to a skin eruption – be it eczematous, psoriatic or herpetic.  As long as it had lots of oozing and itching.
  • In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus and wishes, amongst many things, a tetter upon him.

Thersites. Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

. Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
thou to curse thus?

  • As you will all recall from FFFF 077, Patroclus is a highly debated figure in Greek mythology.  He was certainly highly regarded by and beloved of Achilles. Thersites, on the other hand, was a mean spirited and lowly greek soldier in the Trojan war. He tended to abuse all, including ripping the eyes out of one of my role models, Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, after she was killed by Achilles.  No-one mourned when he died.

Question 2

What is the King’s Evil?

  • Scrofula (one of my favourite diagnoses on the EDIS pallete in this modern era)
  • It has several mentions in the works of Shakespeare, one of which occurs in Macbeth (iv.3)

Macduff. What’s the disease he means?

Malcolm. ’Tis call’d the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and ’tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction.

  • Scrofula is cervical tuberculous lymphadenopathy. The term King’s Evil refers to the fact that it was firmly believed that scrofula could be cured simply by the touch of the reigning monarch.  This superstition persisted from the 11th century up until the 18th century.
  • The monarch in question in Macbeth was King James, where it is postulated that this was purely a compliment to the King, as this passage does progress the plot not a whit.

Question 3

What is Ague?

  • This refers to paroxysms of fevers, usually related to malaria.
  • Ague is mentioned in no less than 9 of Shakespeare’s plays. These include Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Merchant of Venice, King John, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Tempest, Richard II, Henry VIII.
  • My favourite inclusion comes from The Merchant Of Venice:


Salarino: My wind cooling my broth
Would blow me to an ague, when I thought
What harm a wind too great at sea might do.

  • Malaria has had many fabulous monikers throughout history – it is a term that traditionally had been employed to designate certain effluvia or emanations from marshy ground, thus, marsh fever, jungle fever, and the Italian derivation bad air (or mal..aria)

Question 4

Which historical figure featuring in a Shakespeare play suffered from epilepsy?

  • Also described as the falling sickness, Shakespeare wrote of the great Julius Caesar, in the play of the same name:

He had a fever when he was in Spain,
And when the fit was on him, I did mark
How he did shake: ’tis true, this god did shake.

  • How did Shakespeare come across this diagnosis of epilepsy in Gaius Julius Caesar? It was apparently deduced from the writings of Plutarch, however modern scholars are divided as to whether these were grand mal seizures, temporal lobe epilepsy, atypical migraines, or even the dreaded ague. Another hotly debated topic that will keep many of you up at night.
  • Othello also had epilepsy, but he wasn’t a historical figure.


Question 5

Shakespeare obviously had access to varied medical texts, in order to write so authoritatively about diseases and cures.  Which texts did he use?

  • Unfortunately Shakespeare did not have the benefit of referring to LITFL… A Shakespearean scholar, Hoeniger, showed that William Shakespeare had access to the following tomes:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History
Thomas Gale’s A Textbook of Surgery (An enchiridion of chirurgerie)
Dr. John Bannister’s Historie of Man
Dr. William Clowes’s treatises on treatment of wounds based on Ambrose Parb’s anatomy
Sir Thomas Elyot’s The castel of helth

  • He also had a son-in-law physician, Dr John Hall.


These references are the main internet based sources used for these answers, amongst many other fleeting webpages influencing the discussion:

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