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Talking Shakespeare

Notes from a Journey


Louis Fantasia

Talking Shakespeare is a collection of essays on Shakespeare’s plays and politics and their impact in the world today. Originally given as provocative talks on Shakespeare at some of the most prestigious universities, conferences, and theatres around the world, they reflect on the author’s more than thirty-year career as a producer, director and educator. The essays provide a unique and personal look into multiple aspects of Shakespeare’s world—and ours.


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Chapter 9. A Hamlet Autopsy


· 9 · A HAMLET AUTOPSY (Given at University of California Shakespeare Forum, Conference on Shakespeare and Medicine, UC San Francisco, 1993) Despite what we might consider some of its more primitive aspects, such as bleeding, the use of leeches, ignorance of the circulatory or nervous systems, the failure to understand how germs transmit disease and the like, Elizabethan med- ical thought was a remarkably sophisticated, unified and holistic science which emphasized the tripartite balance of mind, body, and soul as the key to health. Any imbalance in one of these three areas would manifest itself by disor- ders in the other two. Elizabethan doctors sought to cure not only the body, but also the mind and soul of affliction and suffering. This was the distillation of medical thought from Hippocrates, Galen, and Aristotle, filtered through the new ideas of the Renaissance and conditioned by the teachings and dog- mas of the Catholic Church. As the contemporary physician Laurentius Laurentianus wrote, “Man was God’s masterpiece and his bodie was the modell of the whole world.”1 Sir Walter Raleigh, himself no physician, could write of the veins as rivers, bone as rocks, heart as the sun, and the brain as the governor of the body in describ- ing Elizabethan man. Elizabethan medicine was a mix of commonsense folk arts and the more or less magical arts of alchemy and astrology. Preindustrial Elizabethans were still in touch with their land, their gardens, their spirits and their goblins. In A Hamlet Autopsy 96 TALKING...

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