Medicine Matters in Five Comedies of Shakespeare

From the Renaissance Context to a Reading of the Plays

by Luisa Camaiora (Author) Andrea A. Conti (Author)
Monographs 246 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Premise
  • Part I: Some Features of the Renaissance Context
  • Introduction
  • 1. Humours and the Body
  • 2. Pestilences and Diseases
  • 3. Medical Interventions and Preparations
  • 4. Practitioners
  • 5. Institutions, Medical Progress and Health Care
  • Part II: A Reading of Five Comedies of Shakespeare
  • Note on the Chronology of the Comedies
  • 1. Undifferentiated Diagnoses in The Comedy of Errors: Reliance on Visual Evidence
  • 2. Logorrhoeic Symptoms in Love’s Labour’s Lost: Indigestion of Words
  • 3. The Chameleon Syndrome in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Mutation In Love
  • 4. Homoeopathic Necessity in The Taming of the Shrew: Interactive Therapy
  • 5. Tempers and Distempers in The Merry Wives of Windsor: Variable Humours
  • Bibliography
  • Bibliography of Part I
  • Bibliography of Part II
  • Series index


The first part of this book presents a brief survey of diverse medical matters during the Renaissance, matters retained to be a useful background to the medical references and allusions identified in the comedies of Shakespeare. The topics dealt with are treated in a general way, employing only the necessary minimum of medical technicalities, so as to result readily accessible to a reader with no specific competence in the field of medicine. The Renaissance is a period that extends, in Europe, from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, in accordance with the different cultural histories of the various countries, and the English Renaissance is traditionally collocated from the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. Given that William Shakespeare was born in the sixteenth and lived into the seventeenth century (1564–1616), the medical matters here addressed focus particularly on the English Renaissance. The first section of the book furnishes a broad perspective regarding the medical knowledge of the Renaissance, and provides information concerning some of the medical concepts circulating at the time. It traces a picture of the state of the art of medicine during the period in question, functional for the perception of the medical climate then prevailing. Furthermore, when retained needful and expedient for the presentation of medicine in the Renaissance, the various sections provide links and connections with the Classical periods of Greece and Rome and with the Middle Ages, as also some indications of the development, in the following centuries, and even in the present day, of certain of the topics treated.

The second part of the book provides a reading of five comedies of Shakespeare from a standpoint that dedicates attention to the medical aspects and features within the plays and that focuses on the way in which these elements may be retained to constitute certain thematic constructs in the works. The comedies chosen are The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor. A number of medical matters discussed in the first part of the book, and in particular those relating to the human body, diseases and cures, make their appearance in these plays. The discussion of the five comedies evidences how medical questions discernible within them can provide a perspective from which to interpret the plays and from which to evaluate the human action and behaviour with which Shakespeare is concerned. This perspective is functional in enucleating certain specific and unifying motifs within the comedies, thus documenting how medical matters, ← 7 | 8 → in the sense of medical references and allusions, can provide an interpretational key through which to read and analyze the plays. It may therefore be said that Shakespeare not only makes use of medicine matters, but also that, for him, medicine matters.

Luisa Camaiora

Andrea A. Conti

← 8 | 9 →

Part I:
Some Features of the Renaissance Context


← 9 | 10 → ← 10 | 11 →


Wars, epidemics and famine were among the factors that had contributed to the collapse of the economic and institutional system of the Middle Ages.1 To the Medieval period there succeeded the cultural rebirth of the Renaissance. This rebirth saw a decisive return to the study of classical texts, specifically favoured, in the middle of the fifteen hundreds, by the great number of Byzantine and Greek scholars who abandoned the city of Constantinople when it fell into the hands of the Turks in 1543.2 ← 11 | 12 →

The progress achieved in medicine during the Renaissance (understood in the widest temporal extension of the term) was extraordinary.3 It involved a variety of situations, factors and events, and was of notable relevance both for its intrinsic value and for its significant effects on future periods.4 Some aspects ← 12 | 13 → of Renaissance medical matters will be treated in what follows. Here it may be remembered that a place of considerable importance must be attributed to the invention of the printing press, which allowed a more ample circulation of intellectual endeavours, including medical concepts.5 The development of anatomy, thanks also to the (partial) supersession of Galenic theories,6 constituted another propulsive element in the context of the medicine of Humanism, which progressively develops a more profound interest in the functioning of natural phenomena. To this period may also be traced the first structural attempts in the Western ← 13 | 14 → world to determine measures of control for the most diffuse diseases and to organize forms of territorial healthcare. This was a slow and unsystematic process which nonetheless bore witness to the emergence of a new awareness regarding both single individuals and entire populations, in a period of renewal, not only within medicine in general, but within the wider context of Western culture. It is not by chance that to the Renaissance are to be ascribed the efforts to distinguish and identify, both conceptually and operatively, the poor and the sick, categories that, in the Medieval period, tended to be confused together both in the minds of common people and of those involved in the medical sphere.7

Though diseases and medicines will be selectively discussed in the following sections, it is well to anticipate that, in the Renaissance period, as in the Middle Ages, pathocenosis, that is, the framework of diseases characterizing a historical period, remains typically infective.8 At the medical-theoretical level may be registered the effort to understand and rationalize the predominant diseases of the age. Emblematic of this new epistemological attitude is the Italian doctor, philosopher and man of letters, Girolamo Fracastoro (1476–1553).9

Fracastoro is considered by many scholars to be one of the founders of modern pathology, and he is remembered, in the history of Western medicine, as the person who proposed the notion that infections, so frequent in the period during which he lived and worked, were attributable to seeds (“seminaria”), transporters of pathology. These elements, the precursors of modern germs, possessed, in Fracastoro’s hypothesis, the characteristic of proliferating in human organisms and above all, of passing from sick individuals to healthy ones, through direct contact or vehiculated by objects or personal effects. The hypotheses of Fracastoro present themselves as really innovative in a period, the Renaissance, in which, though infective epidemic pathologies were still particularly frequent and serious, prevalent ideas (even within the medical community) regarding the causes and the transmission of illnesses were still widely tied to miasmic theories,10 to ← 14 | 15 → the idea of putrid and unhealthy air and to a living environment generally retained to be “contaminated”. Between 1530 and 1546, that is, still in the middle of the sixteenth century, Fracastoro published on this question both the poem in hexameters “Syphilis sive de morbo gallico” (1530) and the fundamental treatise “De contagione et contagiosis morbis” (1546), a Renaissance milestone for the development of the future discipline of “pathology”, understood, in accordance with its etymology, as “the study of diseases”. Fracastoro was also professor of logic in the University of Padua in the Veneto region, an influential centre of Renaissance medical culture.

Indeed, it may be remembered that the cultural and scientific attraction exercised in the Renaissance period on the rest of Europe by the Italian universities (Padua, Bologna, Ferrara) was notable and wide-spread.11 Shakespeare, for example, in The Taming of the Shrew, makes Lucentio announce that he has reached “fruitful Lombardy”, / The pleasant garden of great Italy” (1.1.3–4) in his scholarly desire “To see fair Padua, nursery of arts” (1.1.2).12 In the first half of the sixteenth century the English were so numerous in the city of Padua that in 1534 their “nazione anglica” (“English nation”), namely, their centre of assistance and research for students and scholars, had to be divided into two.

Renaissance medicine, however, does not solely consist in that pertaining to the official academic sphere, given that in the sixteenth century other trends are observable and other men of science have left a distinctive mark in the history of Western medicine. Among these may be remembered, in particular, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, known more simply as Paracelsus (1493–1541), a doctor commonly considered the maximum exponent of German naturalism during the Humanistic period.13 From the point of view of ← 15 | 16 → Paracelsus, man was a microcosm that reflected the macrocosm of the universe, and for him medicine was based on alchemy,14 astronomy, philosophy and on virtue, that is to say, on the competence and morality of the doctor. In the work of Paracelsus, and specifically in “Paramirum Primum”, the concept of disease is far from the Hippocratic-Galenic one, based on humoral theory. The determinants of pathologies are alternatively attributed by Paracelsus to five entities (planetary, poisonous, natural, spiritual and ideal), or, in the case in which the state of health was retained to depend essentially on the planets, to three principles (salt, mercury and sulphur). The appropriate curative remedies (“arcana”) were to be obtained, in the system of Paracelsus, both from alchemy and the application of the idea of similarity as a therapeutic principle (the embryo of what in the future will be termed homoeopathy). In contraposition to the Galenic concept of “contraria contrariis curantur” (“contraries cure contraries”), Paracelsus appropriated an expression already known in the history of Western medicine, the principle of “similia similibus” (“similar things with similar things”), articulating it at an organizational and therapeutic level. Asserting that “the physician must follow the disease as the cow goes into its manger”,15 Paracelsus set up, as the basis for medical action, a consonance between the human microcosm and the universal macrocosm and an analogy between a pathological modification and its corresponding remedy, observing, among other things, that plants that grow near water can cure (in his conceptual-therapeutic system) the illnesses due to the cold.

With regard to this latter point, it may be remembered that attention towards herbs and plants for curative purposes was particularly emphasized in the Renaissance, a period in which, to the remedies already known and used in the Western world there were added, as will be seen, those imported from the New World. ← 16 | 17 →

1      On some medical aspects of the Middle Ages and/or the early Renaissance, see Darrel W. Amundsen. 1977. “Deontology and Pestilential Disease in the Later Middle Ages”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 32: 403–421; Elizabeth Lane Furdell (ed.). 2005. Textual Healing: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Medicine. Leiden, Boston: Brill; Benjamin Lee Gordon. 1960. Medieval and Renaissance Medicine. London: P. Owen; Vivian Nutton. 2008. Pestilential Complexities: Understanding Medieval Plague. London: Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine; Edward J. Kealey. 1981. Medieval Medicus: A Social History of Anglo-Norman Medicine. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press; Carole Rawcliffe. 1999 [1995]. Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England. London: Sandpiper Books; Nancy G. Siraisi. 1986. “Medieval and Renaissance Medicine: Continuity and Diversity”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, vol. 41: 391–394; Nancy G. Siraisi. 1990. Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Charles H. Talbot. 1967. Medicine in Medieval England. London: Oldbourne.

2      On medicine from the ancients to the Medieval period, see Darrel W. Amundsen. 1996. Medicine, Society and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Mirko D. Grmek (ed.). 1998. Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. For some presentations of medical progress from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond, see Lawrence Conrad, Michael Neve, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter, Andrew Wear (eds.). 1995. The Western Medical Tradition, 800 BC to AD 1800. Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press; Roger French. 2000. Ancients and Moderns in the Medical Sciences: From Hippocrates to Harvey. Aldershot, Hampshire, England, Brookfield, VT: Ashgate; Roy Porter. 1999. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. London: Fontana; Giorgio Cosmacini. 2001. L’arte lunga. Storia della medicina dall’antichità a oggi. Bari: Editori Laterza; C. F. V. Smout. 1964. The Story of The Progress of Medicine. Bristol: John Wright & Sons; Luciana Rita Angeletti. 1995. “Environment and Political Institutions between Antiquity and Contemporary Medicine”. Medicina nei Secoli, vol. 7: 415–423; Vivian Nutton. 2002. “The Diffusion of Ancient Medicine in the Renaissance”. Medicina nei Secoli, vol. 14: 461–478.

3      On medicine and the Renaissance, see L. M. Beier. 1987. Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Andrea Carlino. 1999. Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning. Trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press; Carlo M. Cipolla. 1976. Public Health and the Medical Profession in the Renaissance. Cambridge, London, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press; William S. C. Copeman. 1960. Doctors and Disease in Tudor Times. London: Dawson’s of Pall Mall; Ian Dawson. 2005. The History of Medicine: Renaissance Medicine. New York: Enchanted Lion Books; Allen G. Debus (ed.). 1974. Medicine in the Seventeenth Century: A Symposium Held at UCLA in Honor of C. D. O’Malley. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press; Alan G. Debus. 1977. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. 2 vols. New York: Science History Publications; Mary Dobson. 1997. Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Roger French (ed.). 1989. The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Roger K. French and Ian M. Lonie (eds.). 1985. The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham (eds.). 2001 [1993]. Medicine and the Reformation. London and New York: Routledge; Ian Maclean. 2002. Logic, Signs and Nature in the Renaissance: The Case of Learned Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Michael McVaugh and Nancy G. Siraisi (eds.). 1990. Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition. Philadelphia: Osiris; Walter Pagel. 1985. Religion and Neoplatonism in Renaissance Medicine. Ed. Marianne Winder. London: Variorum Reprints; Winfried Schleiner. 1995. Medical Ethics in the Renaissance. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press; Archibald Walker Sloan. 1996. English Medicine in the Seventeenth Century. Durham: Durham Academic Press; Brian Vickers (ed.). 1984. Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Andrew Wear, Roger K. French and Ian M. Lonie (eds.). 1985. The Medical Renaissance of the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Andrew Wear. 2000. Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550–1680. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Charles Webster (ed.). 1979. Health, Medicine, and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Sophie Daynes-Diallo. 2011. “Theory and Practice: European Renaissance Medicine”. Medicographia, vol. 33: 334–343; Katharine Park. 1997. “Medicine and the Renaissance.” In Irvine Loudon (ed.). 1997. Western Medicine: An Illustrated History. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 66–79; Sir Arthur Salusbury MacNalty. 1945. “The Renaissance and its Influence on English Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health”. British Medical Journal, vol. 2: 755–759; Nancy G. Siraisi. 1984. “Some Current Trends in the Study of Renaissance Medicine”. Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 37: 585–600; Vivian Nutton. 2005. “Books, Printing and Medicine in the Renaissance”. Medicina nei Secoli, vol. 17: 421–442. On English medical terminology of the sixteenth century, see R. W. McConchie. 1997. Lexicography and Physicke: A Record of Sixteenth Century English Medical Terminology. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

4      For specific studies of the period 1500–1800, see Peter Elmer (ed.). 2004. The Healing Arts: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500–1800. The Open University. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press; Elaine Leong and Alisha Rankin (eds.). 2011. Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500–1800. Farnham, Surrey, Burlington VT: Ashgate; Roy Porter. 1993 [1987]. Disease, Medicine and Society in England, 1550–1860. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. For extracts from primary and secondary sources of the same period, see Peter Elmer and Ole Peter Grell (eds.). 2004. Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1500–1800: A Source Book. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.


The book examines the presence of medicine matters in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and documents how the theme of medicine can acquire particular importance for the interpretation of the plays: namely, it matters. Andrea A. Conti provides information on certain aspects of the medical context of the Renaissance, effecting the essential connections with previous and subsequent periods and furnishing the necessary background for the understanding of the state of the art of medicine at the time. Luisa Camaiora presents a close reading of the comedies, and identifies for each a specific and dominant medical facet, then proposed as a structural key for the analysis of the plays. The medical motifs enucleated determine the critical perspective for the discussion of the dramatic characters and events and for the interpretation of the overall meaning and significance of the single works. Features and references related to the sphere of medicine, identified in the comedies, are also commented upon and examined in the context of this medical reading of the plays.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 246 pp.

Biographical notes

Luisa Camaiora (Author) Andrea A. Conti (Author)

Luisa Camaiora is former full professor of English linguistics at the Catholic University of Milan, where she was also Dean. She was previously professor of English Literature at the Universities of Udine, Milan State and Verona. She has published on Shakespeare and English Renaissance poets and has written books and articles on eighteenth and nineteenth-century poets and novelists. Andrea A. Conti, M.D., is researcher and aggregate professor in the history of medicine at the University of Florence. His publications in Italian and international scientific journals, many indexed on the Medline database, treat the history of Western medicine, and particularly infectious diseases, bioethics, clinical epidemiology, and the methodology of biomedical research.


Title: Medicine Matters in Five Comedies of Shakespeare