The Doctors Shakespeare Knew

By A. H. Wall

“O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, shrubs, and their true qualities.
For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor ought so good, but, strained from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.”
Romeo and Juliet.
“By medicine life may be prolong’d.”—Cymbeline V. 5.


In Walckenaer’s “Memoirs of Madame de Sévigné,” and in the amusing, interesting volume which Gaston Boissier devoted to her works and letters, we have glimpses of the medical profession in France, which show us it was in her time and country, just what it was in England in the same century when it was known to Shakespeare. For one more or less genuine physician there were thousands of charlatans and quacks, and the contempt which our great dramatic poet frequently expresses in his works for medical practitioners must, in fairness, be regarded as applicable to the latter, not to the former. In 1884, an American writer on this subject (Dr. Rush Field, in his “Medical Thoughts of Shakespeare”) strove to show that our great philosophic poet and playwright’s opinion of all the medical practitioners was a low one. “He uses them frequently,” he says, “as a tool by which deaths are produced through the means of poison, and generally treats them with contempt.” That he might fairly do this, and that in doing it he rather displayed respect and regard for the genuine, more or less scientific professors of the healing art, can be very readily demonstrated by anyone at all familiar with his plays. But to return to Madame de Sévigné. At a time when she was growing old, when her letters speak so sadly of the dying condition of Cardinal de Retz at Commercy, of Madame de la Fayette’s being consumed by slow fever, and La Roche confined to his armchair by gout, of Corbinelle’s threatened insanity, and of his taking “potable gold” as a remedy for headache, she writes also of small-pox and other fevers having permanently settled at Versailles and Saint-Germain, where the King and Queen were attacked, and ladies and gentlemen of the Court were decimated, and cases of apoplexy and rheumatism were rapidly increasing in every direction. “Fashionable folk, used up with pleasure-making, sick through disappointed ambition, fidgetting without motive, agitating without aim, tainted with morbid fancies and suspicion,” found themselves in the doctor’s hands, and were far more ready to select practitioners who promised magically swift and easy cures, than those who spoke of slow and gradual recovery by means which were neither painless nor pleasurable. “Everybody,” says Boissur, “women included, battled with one another to possess marvellous secrets whereby obstinate complaints should be immediately cured. Madame Fouquet applied a plaster to the dying Queen, which cured her, to the great scandal of the Faculty unable to save her; and the Princess de Tarente served out drugs to all her people at Vitre.

Madame Sévigné wrote of her as “the best doctor in the upper classes; she has rare and valuable compounds of which she gives us three pinches with prodigious effect.” When writing to her daughter, she begs her not to neglect taking such medicines as “cherry water,” “extract of periwinkles,” “viper-broth,” “uric acid,” and “powdered crab’s-eyes.” She says the extract of periwinkles “endowed Madame de Grignam with a second youth.” Writing to her daughter, “If you use it, when you re-appear so fair people will cry, ‘O’er what blessed flower can she have walked,’ then I will answer ‘On the periwinkle.’” She tells, too, how the Capuchins, who still retained their ancient medical reputation, treated the rheumatism in her leg “with plants bruised and applied twice a day; taken off while wet twice a day, and buried in the earth, so that as they rotted away her pains might in like way decrease.” “It’s a pity you ran and told the surgeons this,” she says to her daughter, “for they roar with laughter at it, but I do not care a fig for them.” In like way Madame de Scudery tells Bassy, “There is an abbé here who is making a great bother by curing by sympathy. For fever of all kinds, so they say, he takes the patient’s spittle and mingles it with an egg, and gives it to a dog; the dog dies and the patient recovers.... They say he has cured a quantity of people.”

Turning from these illustrations of medical practice in France to see how identical it is with that adopted in England when Shakespeare lived, we recall the advice of that eminent gentleman, Andrew Rourde, who recommends people to wash their faces once a week only, using a scarlet cloth to wipe them dry upon, as a sure remedy in certain cases. In other instances we find that certain pills made from the skulls of murderers taken down from gibbets, and ground to powder for that purpose, were popular as medicine, that a draught of water drunk from a murdered man’s skull had wonderful medicinal properties, and that the blood of a dragon was absolutely miraculous in the cures it effected. The touch of a dead man’s hand was another ghastly remedy in common use, and the powder of mummy was a wonderful cure for certain grave complaints. Love-philtres were also regarded from a medicinal point of view, and the strange doings of quack accoucheurs are not less absurdly terrible. That the seventeenth century physician himself was not always proof against these products of ancient ignorance and superstition, is abundantly apparent. Van Helmont, the son of a nobleman, born in Brussels, and very carefully educated for his profession, practised both medicine and magic medicinally. He rejected Galen, inclined to that illiterate pretender Paracelsus, and determined that the only way by which he could defy disease, and utterly destroy it, was through what he called Archæus. Speaking of digestion, for instance, he denied that it was either chemical or mechanical in its nature, but the result of this Archæus, a spiritual activity, working in a very mysteriously complicated way, for both evil and good. It has been said that he was one of Lord Bacon’s disciples, but for that assertion there certainly is no sufficient foundation, for Bacon, if a mystic by inclination, was logical in reasoning. In England Van Helmont had an English follower in the person of another physician, Dr. Fludd, a disciple of the famous inventor of the camera obscura, and conjecturally the first photographer. His grand quack remedy was “the powder of sympathy,” which was the “sword-salve” of Paracelsus (composed of moss taken from the skull of a gibbetted murderer, of warm human blood, human suet, linseed oil, turpentine, etc.). This was applied, not to the wound, but to the sword that inflicted it, kept “in a cool place!” Certain plants pulled up with the left hand were regarded as a sure remedy in fever cases, but the gatherer, while gathering, was not to look behind, for that deprived the plants of their medicinal value.

Amongst other physicians of Shakespeare’s century was Mr. Valentine Greatrake, who came to London from Ireland, where his supposed magical cures had been awakening a great sensation. He hired a large house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, to which vast crowds of patients of all kinds and conditions crowded daily, all clamouring to be cured. He received them in their order, says an eye-witness, with “a grave and simple countenence.” For, as Shakespeare wrote, “Thus credulous fools are caught.” (“Comedy of Errors,” 1, 2.) Greatrake (afterwards executed for high treason) asserted that every diseased person was possessed by a devil, and that by his prayers and laying on of hands the devil could be cast out. Lord Conway sent for him to cure an incurable disease from which his wife was suffering, and even some of the most learned and eminent people of the time were amongst his patrons. St. Evremond wrote, “You can hardly imagine what a reputation he gained in a short time. Catholics and Protestants visited him from every part, all believing that power from heaven was in his hands.”

In an Act of Parliament which was passed in the year 1511, we read, in its preamble, that “the science and cunning of Physic and Surgery” was exercised by “a great multitude of ignorant persons, of whom the greater part have no manner of insight in the same, nor in any other kind of learning—some also can read no letters in the book—so far forth that common artificers, as smiths, weavers, and women, boldly and accostumably took upon them great cures, and things of great difficulty, in which they partly used sorceries and witchcraft, and partly supplied such medicines unto the diseased as are very noisome, and nothing meet therefore; to the high displeasure of God,” etc.

A large number of the pretended remedies thus used in medical practice are clearly traceable back to the ancient Magi, who were professors of medicine, as well as priests and astrologers.

With these facts before you, turn to your Shakespeare, and see how he regarded the popular delusions thus created and fostered, with their

“Distinguished cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such libertines of sin.”
Comedy of Errors.

Do you remember the other lines from this source, in which the poet speaks of “This pernicious slave,” who “forsooth took on him as a conjurer, and, gazing in mine eyes, feeling my pulse, and with no face, as’t were, outfacing me, cried out I was possessed.” This is not the stern, grave doctor in “Macbeth,” who did not pretend to “raze out the written troubles of the brain,” but said, “Therein the patient must minister unto himself.” There is no depreciation of the healing art in Shakespeare’s painting of Lear’s physician, as there is of the “caitiff wretch” of an apothecary, who sold poison to Romeo in a very different way to that in which the physician in Cymbeline supplied a deadly drug to the Queen. “I beseech your grace,” says he, speaking in solemn earnestness, “without offence (my conscience bids me ask) wherefore you have commanded of me these most poisonous compounds.” In “All’s well that Ends Well,” you will recognize the foregoing descriptions of medicinal delusions in the interview between Helena and the King, who says, we “may not be so credulous of cure, when our most learned doctors leave us, and the congregated college have concluded that labouring art can never ransom Nature from her maid estate, I say we must not so stain our judgment, or corrupt our hope, to prostitute our past-cure malady to empirics.” In this play both “Galen and Paracelsus” are mentioned, and their names then represented rival schools of medicine.

How smartly and merrily Shakespeare wrote of such cures as Greatrake professed to effect, we see in Henry VI., where Simpcox, supposed to be miraculously cured of blindness, is asked to and does describe what he sees, “If thou hadst been born blind, thou might’st as well have known all our names as thus to name the several colours we do wear.”

In the “Merry Wives of Windsor” we have “Master Caius that calls himself doctor of physic,” and is called by Dame Quickly a “fool and physician.” The two were in Shakespeare’s time very commonly combined, and often, as we have shown, very strangely. Dr. Caius was a real name borne by a learned gentleman who was physician to Queen Elizabeth. In Cymbeline the name of the physician is Cornelius. This again was the name of a real physician, who, in the sixteenth century, gained great reputation in Europe chiefly by restoring Charles V. to health after a tediously long illness. We may presume that Shakespeare was familiar with the fact.

Amongst the doctors of our poet’s time it was a common custom to throw up cases when they believed them hopeless. Shakespeare’s Sempronius says, “His friends, like physicians, thrice gave him o’er,” and Lord Bacon in his work on “The Advancement of Learning,” says of Physicians, “In the enquiry of diseases, they do abandon the cures of many, some as in their nature incurable, and others as past the period of cure, so that Sylla triumvirs never prescribed so many men to die as they do by their ignorant edicts.” We have spoken of the sword-salve cure for wounds. Of dealers in poison who visited fairs and market-places, and attracted crowds by the aid of a stage fool, we get a glimpse in “Hamlet,” where Laertes says:—

“I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal, that but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood, no cataplasm so rare
Collected from all simples that have virtue,
Under the moon can save the thing from death.”

There is a hit at doctors who gave others remedies they had not enough faith in to adopt for themselves:—

“Thou speak’st like a physician, Helicarnus:
Who minister’st a potion unto me
That thou would’st tremble to receive thyself.”

In the same play the true physician receives full appreciation. Cerimon says of himself:—

“’Tis known, I ever
Have studied physic, through which secret art,
By turning o’er authorities, I have
Together with my practice, made familiar
To me, and to my aid, the blest infusions
That dwell in vegitives, in metals, stones.
And I can speake of the disturbances
That nature works, and of her cures; which doth give me
A more content in course of true delight
Than to be thirsty after tottering honour,
Or tie my treasure up in silken bags,
To please the fool, and death.”

And one of the two listening gentlemen adds:—

“Your honour has through Ephesus pour’d forth
Your charity, and hundreds call themselves
Your creatures, who by you have been restored.”

And Pericles, with his supposed dead wife in his arms, turning to Cerimon, who has saved her from the grave, says:—

“Reverend Sir,
The gods can have no mortal officer
More like a god than you.”

And Gower, speaking the concluding lines of the play, adds:—

“In reverend Cerimon there well appears
The worth that learned charity aye wears.”

Cerimon:  I hold it ever
Virtue and cunning (wisdom) were endowment greater
Than nobleness and riches....”

There was, perhaps, when Shakespeare wrote the above lines, some thought of the Elizabethan nobleman, Edmund, Earl of Derby, who “was famous for chirurgerie, bone-setting, and hospitalite,” as Ward says in his Diary; of the Marquis of Dorchester, who in his time was a Fellow of the College of Surgeons; or of the poet’s son-in-law, Dr. Hall, a gentleman who resided in Stratford-on-Avon, in a fine old half timber house still standing, and known as Hall’s Croft. To his wife, the poet’s elder daughter, Shakespeare bequeathed his house and grounds, which Dr. Hall occupied when he died. His grave is near that of his glorious father-in-law, and on it is the following inscription:—

“Here Lyeth Ye Body of John Hall,
Gent: He Marr: svsanna Ye daughter
and co heire of Will. Shakespeare,
Gent. Hee Deceased Nover 25 ao 1635
aged 60.

Hallius hic situs est medica celeberrimus arte
Expectans regni gaudia læta Dei
Dignus erat meritis qui Nestora vinceret annis,
In terris omnes, sed rapit aequa dies;
Ne tumulo, quid desit adest fidissima conjux
Et vitæ Comitem nunc quoque mortis habet.”