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Medicine Matters in Five Comedies of Shakespeare

From the Renaissance Context to a Reading of the Plays


Luisa Camaiora and Andrea A. Conti

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.

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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...

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