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Medicine Matters in Five Comedies of Shakespeare

From the Renaissance Context to a Reading of the Plays

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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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1. Humours and the Body

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1.  Humours and the Body

The theory of the humours

The theory of the humours has its roots in Hippocratic medicine (5th–4th century B.C.).16 According to Hippocrates of Cos (460–ca. 377) and his followers, the human body could be considered a container of humours, that is, of liquids, which had to remain in equilibrium with one another so as to assure a state of good health. The classical humours were four in number, and precisely, black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Hippocrates sustained that yellow bile was produced by the liver, as was the blood; phlegm was considered a cerebral secretion and black bile was retained a secretion of the spleen. Before this theory, which represented one of the first logical attempts to provide a causative motivation for the insurgence of disease in human beings, the Greek philosopher Anaximenes of Miletus (585–528 B.C.) had proposed, in the sixth century B.C., the theory of the four fundamental elements constituting physical reality, and precisely, air, water, fire and earth. In the fifth century B.C., the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles of Agrigento (495–430 B.C.; Sicily was then a part of Magna Graecia), hypothesized that tangible reality was made up of immutable elements, each with a double set of qualities or attributes: water was cold and wet; fire, hot and dry; air, hot and wet; and earth, cold and dry. The achievement of Hippocrates was that of unifying all the above-mentioned factors into a single...

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