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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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5. Tempers and Distempers in The Merry Wives of Windsor: Variable Humours

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5.  Tempers and Distempers in The Merry Wives of Windsor: Variable Humours

The Merry Wives of Windsor documents the way in which various tempers and distempers may be discerned involving the characters and their interaction with things or events. The term “temper” is to be understood as “Mental constitution; habitual disposition” and in the sense of “Actual state or attitude of the mind or feelings; frame of mind; inclination, humour”,261 but at the time of Shakespeare, “temper” also indicated: “The constitution, character, or quality of a substance or body (orig. supposed to depend upon the ‘temper’ or combination of the elements)”.262 With regard to the term “distemper”, it is here employed in the meaning of “Deranged or disordered condition of the body or mind […]; ill health, illness, disease”, as also in the transferred and figurative sense of “Derangement, disturbance, or disorder (esp. in a state or body politic)”.263 In the comedy various tempers furnish evidence of direct or indirect connections with different medical manifestations and thus come to entail forms of distemper, malaise and indisposition, the latter in its meaning of “Disordered bodily condition; ill health, illness, ailment; esp. of a slight or passing character”.264 In the medical context of the play, two characters are particularly significant for their tempers and distempers: Doctor Caius and Falstaff. In effect, the play may be described, from the medical point of view, as a comedy involving the distemper of a potential patient in the main plot, Falstaff,...

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