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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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2. Pestilences and Diseases


2.  Pestilences and Diseases

Before proposing a description of the various pestilences and diseases present in the Renaissance it must be pointed out that these are not unique to the period. The pathocenosis of the Renaissance period is typically infective, as it has been during the Middle Ages, so that many diseases continue from one period to the other. Here attention will be focused on some infectious diseases, among which the plague, smallpox, gonorrhea, tuberculosis and leprosy, that are present in this period, with a distribution and intensity that varies in the different parts of Europe.28

It may be remembered that Renaissance pathocenosis recognized various other dimensions, besides the infective one, such as the traumatic, the toxic and the deficiency ones. With regard to toxic pathocenosis, it is well to recall ergotism, quite frequent in the Renaissance period. It consisted in an intoxication caused by the alkaloid substances in rye, and could present itself in the form of an epidemic or could arise in the case of a high consumption of flours of rye or wheat contaminated by the powder of the sclerotium of a fungus, Claviceps purpurea. The convulsions and hallucinations caused by this poisoning were well known and well described in the Renaissance.

With reference to the period, the pattern of famines typical of the Middle Ages continues into the Renaissance, constituting a negative vicious circle together with serious and wide-spread epidemic episodes, and with the events of war, which led to...

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