Shakespeare’s Apothecary

An artist’s engraving of a typical Apothecary with patient

Among those specialised subjects that William Shakespeare had some unusual interest in is the medical, herbal and anatomical knowledge which would only have been of concern or become known to a qualified physician, doctor or apothecary of the time. However, like many other specialised topics frequently indulged in by “England’s Bard”, the medical and anatomical references are used incidentally as figures of speech, metaphorically or as analogies in a great number of his plays. To account for this proliferation of medical insights or knowledge the Stratfordian scholars have long suggested that the Stratford man, William Shakspere relied on his close friendship with his son-in-law Dr. John Hall to supply him with the appropriate terminology and inside knowledge. It is confirmed however that John Hall never attended a university or college to study medicine but relied on the various books on the subject to supplement his natural abilities and skills. Among his patients were several members of his own family, the poet and playwright, Michael Drayton, and the Earl of Warwick. To fully appreciate the scale and incidence of these numerous medical references and how well they are employed in a dramatic and literary sense it seems expedient to explain the nature of Elizabethan medicine and the understanding that trained doctors of the time had with respect to the human body, its constitution, the illnesses it was subject to and how to remedy or cure them.
The College of Physicians denied any men of holy orders to train or purport to be a physician even though the Church itself was entitled to issue their own licences to physics to treat illnesses and diseases. This conflict between the scientific and religious fraternities was far from being resolved during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It seems the Act of 1511 entitled the Archbishop of Canterbury the power to train and elect physicians and surgeons, since which the Bishop of London, and the Dean of St. Paul’s also admitted students into their fold for training, examination and approval as “Doctors of Physick”. Following that in 1518 the College of Physicians was eventually founded by Cardinal Wolsley and Dr. Linacre at Amen Corner admitting only those previously educated at one of England’s universities. The college was also able to make endorsements of physicians who were generally employed by the leading military and marine professions which inevitably led to their preferment abroad on board ships bound for exploration or naval warfare. A reference to this institution is made in “All’s Well That Ends Well” (Act 2, scene 1:120) as being “a congregated college” intended as a qualifications board not an educational or training establishment. It was generally accepted that a young doctor could work as an apprentice to a fully qualified doctor while taking his own degree in that profession. In 1582-3 an establishment where physicians lectured and demonstrated their knowledge and skills was founded by Dr. Lumley and Richard Caldwell M.D. Even so, as a general rule doctors and physicians came under a great deal of suspicion and scepticism from a large portion of the citizens who were bound to pay for their advice and treatment. In 1546 Regius Professorships in medicine and physic were created at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and in 1597 Dr. Matthew Gwinne was appointed head of Gresham College, for the education and training of physicians. As a rule many leading physicians came with a good education and generally completed their education and training in universities or colleges in Europe, for example in Padua, Heidelberg, Leyden, Basle, or Montpellier. Although their curriculum followed on from what was taught and studied firstly by Galen, Avicenna, then Paracelsus and onto Andreas Vesalius (aka: Andreas Witing of Wesel, 1514-1566) of Padua many experts and laymen thought their ethics and morality was of such a poor standard and in need of revision. Dr. Harrison quoted Peter Turner who said “Italy was a perilous place for the corrupt behaviour of the people”. Similarly, Dr. Stubbes thought that the use of some foreign medicines prescribed was more likely to kill the patients rather than cure them: “the framing of such compositions (ie: poisons) as were better known than practised…if they hope for any preferment by their potions and drinks, as will soon make an end of them”. Deadly poisons were certainly known of and frequently used by scurrilous individuals in Shakespeare’s time, for example the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury while imprisoned in the Tower (1613). Even the Queen’s paramour, Sir Robert Dudley acquired a reputation for using poisons when it was discovered his wife had died of poisoning. In 1602 the renowned physician William Harvey received his degree from Padua and went on to teach and practice from Cambridge and by 1604 was lecturing at the Lumley Institute. His demonstrable knowledge of the function of the heart and how the blood circulated around the human body was especially pertinent to the entire study of anatomy, but this was not published in Frankfurt until 1628. What might have been known among a select group of practitioners was made available by Caesalipinus in his “Questiones Peripateticae” of 1569 or from Servetus in his “Christianismi Restitutio” printed in Vienna in 1553. But these would have been rare and largely inconspicuous books for a Stratford Shakespeare to have borrowed or have owned.

The Four Humours

Zodiacal Man with anatomical attributions

Medical astrology: the 16th-century artwork of Zodiacal Man, a male body labelled with the twelve signs of the zodiac with the physical attributions clearly marked as they are today. This artwork was published in Freiburg in 1503 in the encyclopaedia Margarita Philosophica by the German author Gregor Reisch (c.1467-1525). This encyclopaedia was very popular, and was one of the standard textbooks of the time. The artwork shows how physicians thought the universe (the Macrocosm) was reflected in the human body (the Microcosm), a central concept in the astrology and natural philosophy of medieval Europe and the Renaissance. The abdominal and thoracic organs are shown by dissection. Increased use of dissections from the late 1400s eventually led to advances in medical science and a decrease in the influence of astrology on medicine. As a diagnostic method, the Four Humours were defined additionally within the 12 zodiac signs and a personal zodiac chart was drawn up to decide what treatment or cure would be most suitable. The controversial Simon Forman for example was an astrologer, occultist and physician. He published a report entitled “A Discourse on the Plague” in 1595 which brought him into conflict with the Royal College of Physicians, the result of which saw him suffer more periods of imprisonment until he was finally licensed to practice medicine by Cambridge University. Here Forman had many wealthy clients who consulted him on the use of aphrodisiacs, love potions and the like but he also gained a reputation as an astrologer. As a professional science traditional astrology was employed during Queen Elizabeth’s reign as a diagnostic tool and magically to decide when and how remedies might be administered. However, his precarious professional reputation was challenged yet again when he was accused of giving Lady Essex a love potion with which she tried to poison Sir Thomas Overbury in 1613. Fortunately, Forman kept a diary of his practice as well as a record of theatrical performances at the Globe Theatre, including April/May 1611 Macbeth & Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and Richard II. On one occasion he was consulted on a love-match between Emilia Bassano and a musician Alphonse Lanier, the brother of the composer Nicholas Lanier who went with the Earl of Essex to the Azores in 1597. It has been suggested that Forman had a clandestine affair with Emilia Lanier during this time and that she might in fact have been the “Dark Lady” mentioned in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Previous attempts to classify human beings into four basic biophysical types eventually led to the following categories known later to medieval scientists as The Alchemical Humours. The alchemical humours are an important aspect in arcane Medical Astrology because their definition and use clearly resembles a form of early Proto-Psychology. For example they represent the four primary bodily fluids, (Blood, Yellow Bile, Black Bile & Phlegm) whose overall and intrinsic balance was considered essential for good health. Any imbalances could therefore signal the onset of any particular disease as well as in many cases mental and emotional instability. Needless to say, these diagnostic frames of reference have to be understood in both an abstract and practical way before they can make any sense whatsoever. Empedocles defined these 4 basic types as Hot, Moist, Cold & Dry, later these were developed into integrated qualities as well as principles, temperaments as well as primordial qualities. Therefore definitions were known as:

A Table of the Four Humours with their attributes

Hot/Dry, Cold/Humid, Hot/Humid or Moist, and Cold/Dry – these were meant to assist medical practitioners, herbalists and the like in determining the metabolic body functions of their patients. They are in effect generalities that cannot be fully applied to the definition of human psychological types but they were a good starting point.

While the seven traditional planets themselves could be defined in terms of their elemental affinity (fire, water, air and earth) and the 12 Zodiacal Signs themselves can be categorised in more detail within this alchemical framework. Bearing in mind that the basic classifications and attributes need to be adjusted in accord with whether the patient lives in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and their relevant seasonal qualities (Winter-cold, Summer-hot, etc). The various combinations are listed above with the attendant zodiacal qualities and attributes. It is worth considering that though it is the number of planetary positions in each elemental category and not necessarily the signs themselves which go to make up these types. A Scorpio personality with 6 other planets in fire signs is really a “fiery type” and not really as “watery” as we might readily presume.

Finally, the theoretical and philosophical schools of Galen and Paracelsus came under fire from various quarters, especially the French Schools and the English practitioners of medicine. A certain French doctor of medicine (Theodore Touquet de Mayerne 1573-1655), aligned to Paracelsus’s convictions left France to work in London after being persecuted for his beliefs and scientific conclusions. He was immediately made a doctor of medicine at Oxford university and later worked solely at the court of James 1st. The character of Dr. Caius, a French doctor in The Merry Wives of Windsor might easily be an allusion to Theodore. Although the official court doctor was William Paddy (1554-1634) who was James’ personal physician. Having studied at Avignon, he wrote a “Treatise on the Plague” in 1603 when there was a virulent increase in that disease in London. Caius College was a centre of medical training of surgeons where Vicary, a surgeon from St. Bartholomew’s College wrote “A Profitable Treatise of the Anatomy of a Man’s Body” in 1577. This turned out to be a plagiarised version of another 14th century text and was little used for reference by students. However, what may be of interest is that in 1574 the Earl of Oxford’s surgeon, a certain George Baker (1540-1600), dedicated to him two translations namely, “The Composition or Making of…Oleum Magistrale”, and The Third Book of Galen. George Baker also wrote a work on war surgery entitled “Proved Practice”. The Earl has since been recognised by the forensic scholar, J.T. Looney as the most likely and plausible alternative author of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. The Stratford Shakspere theory begins to fall apart when one considers that towards the end of his life Shakspere discovered that his son-in-law and so-called close “friend”, John Hall (who was married to Susanna) was having an affair with another woman. For this reason he was at pains to remove him as a recipient of his last will and testament. In fact Shakspere’s death might have been assisted with some poisonous substance administered secretly to “bump him off”, as by now he had become something of an embarrassment for the authorities involved in the “Great Shakespeare Cover-Up”.

The Apothecary

Numerous plants, their superstitious or lethal properties and herbal cures prescribed at the time are mentioned by Shakespeare, for example when Romeo recalls in Romeo & Juliet:
“I do remember an Apothecary” when he goes in search of a poison in Mantua, where incidentally it was prohibited at the time. He gives a good description of the type of shop that would be available during the 15th-16th century:

A 16th century woodcut of an Apothecarist’s shop

“And in this needy shop a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuff’d, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread, and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scattered to make up a show.”

Is it not strange how we instinctively know a plant is dangerous or lethal when we see it? This may be due to the colour, shape or even texture that alerts us to its secret powers. But even the poisonous species of plants whose subtle properties are understood and administered with care can have their curative qualities. A good example is the poisonous berries, or rather seeds of the Yew tree, which although poisonous to us personally are now used for cancer remedies. The bitter Wormwood, which in Ukrainian translates as Chernobyl for example makes an excellent liver tonic and purgative. The seeds of the Castor Oil plant (Fatsia. japonica) are also very poisonous, (the medicinal oil is extracted from the stem and leaves) and toxic extractions of which have been used as a lethal poison in war. The Aconite derived from Monkshood acts as an antidote to ergot or mushroom poisoning. While extracts of the Periwinkle are used to avert sickness, cure snake-bites, and deal with excessive fear or terror. Among the most popular theories ascribed to remedies and cures from various plants and herbs was that devised or invented by Paracelsus known then as the doctrine of signatures. The Swiss botanist Paracelcus Aureoleus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim was a pioneer of herbal medicine, and he based much of his knowledge and art of healing on ancient lore and folk magic. In his own work with the same title “The Doctrine of Signatures” he describes the different attributes of plants according to their name, colour, shape & habitat. The English physician Dr. Nicholas Culpepper continued his work in England and compiled the herbal classic, “The English Physician”. He was able to classify herbs, flowers, trees and plants according to their elemental, planetary and zodiacal attributes and ruler-ships. Not all of which were reliable cures, yet the majority of his work is still used by modern herbal practitioners. The traditional classification of plants is often based on numerous family groups, sub-species, vernacular names and botanical Latin A-Z indexes. For example the Pea Family, the Lettuce Family etc. However, in Herbal treatments herbs can be grouped and tabulated according to various classifications which can also indicate where and how they may best be employed. Take for instance the colour yellow – it is the colour of bile, and the skin especially when the liver is diseased. A herbalist would therefore look to herbs bearing yellow flowers for his cure.

Example of a herbalist’s Guide to Herbs and Spices

Agrimony: – an excellent tonic to the liver & digestive tract.
Dandelion: – Ideal for revitalising liver, spleen, and gallbladder.
Barberry: – Treats jaundice & biliousness & liver problems.
Wormwood: – Excellent for cleaning system.
Celandine: – For Liver & Gallbladder problems.
Toadflax: – Gives strong relief from jaundice, liver complaints.

*Note: There are however exceptions to any rule, Daffodils for example bear bright yellow flowers yet they will in no way help liver complaints. Certain species have been found useful in cancer treatment.

Shape & Form:
Eyebright:- Small plant with flowers resembling eyes. This is often used in eye complaints.
Lungwort:- This plant has leaves with spots on them – an image which resembles the human eye.
Pulmonaria:- of diseased lungs its spotted leaves suggests curative properties.
Willow:- The way that willow grows suggests ladies tresses and is therefore considered good in shampoo.
Kidneywort:- An excellent diuretic as its’ name suggests.


Willow:- Which grows in damp locations – its bark contains salicylic acid which relieves rheumatism/pain.
Meadowsweet:- Another bog plant contains methyl salicylate used in the treatment of rheumatics/colds/fevers.

In many instances, particularly in rural areas magical superstitions, folklore and other bizarre and miraculous remedies were usually prescribed by untrained practitioners despite their lack of efficacy. The converse medical theory states the opposite whereby the ancient cures were really efficacious and proved later to be useful and justifiable. The main occupation of an apothecary was obtaining the plant material and then by maceration, distillation, extraction, infusion, cream or ointment obtaining its active ingredient suitable for prescription and use by the doctor or physician. For this purpose they were closely aligned to the vegetable merchants, markets and suppliers of foreign spices or medicinal foods. Several drugs and herbs are frequently referred to such as rhubarb, senna, colocynth (bitter apple), rosemary, poppy (laudanum), mandragora (mandrake), henbane, yew berries, and lavender.

Herbs being collected from the garden

Surgeons & Barbers

The Charter of the Barber Surgeons bound its corporation for its members to supply on demand from any physic, surgeon or doctor the necessary medicine required by their patients. However, their complaint was that this licence was for a limited period and had to be renewed every so often which frustrated their operations and compliance from the College of Physicians. They also clashed with the powers of the state and where rural practitioners were concerned who did not have their approval. For the most part a surgeon was someone who operated on the body of his clients to remedy a problem such as the removal of a tumour, perhaps a limb in some instances, or to remove some extraneous material or substance. There were laws in place to compensate someone who had been “poorly practised on”. While “Barbers” as they were called, because their main preoccupation was to shave and cut hair, were also licensed to remove teeth and perform other minor operations with their client’s approval. The term Shakespeare employs for dissection is “to anatomise”, so we find in “As You Like It”, Touchstone says: “The wise man’s folly is anatomised”, and Romeo says: “In what vile part of this anatomy does my name lodge”,

Leech Books

Illustration in a herbal of Datura, a psychoactive nerve tonic

In the Anglo-Saxon period around 900 AD a manuscript entitled the Leech Book of Bald was created that combined much herbal folk remedies from Britain and the Far East. There were at least 500 plants listed in this manual along with quite a lot of superstitious ideas concerning the activities of mischievous elementals, witches and elves. At this stage in medical history diagnosis relied heavily on the colour of the patients urine, the position of the stars or some other significant factor. In the 5th century a Roman writer and occultist by the name of Apuleius wrote his own Herbarium based largely on the works of Dioscorides. For the most part many cures during this time in Europe, Mesopotamia and the Middle East involved prayers and incantations to certain Christian Saints or pagan gods in place of any real practical remedy. In effect this was a form of faith-healing with placebos which is still practised today in America, Africa and other Islamic countries. Prayers were often written on paper, placed in a leather bag and tied to the infected part of the body and the patient would just have to hope for the best. By the end of the 14th century many monks had left the Church to set up their own practices, as the Church lost its superstitious hold on the populace. A centre of learning was set up at Montpellier as the Salerno School declined. Soon other medical centres were set up at Padua, Bologna and Paris.
During the 16th and 17th century many colonial expeditions and explorations into the New World, the Pacific Islands and the Far East yielded important medicinal plants suitable for export into Europe and N. America. Many herbs and plants which we take for granted today were gradually introduced into the western diet, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, ginseng, sunflowers, cocoa, coffee and tobacco. An even greater number of trees, plants and herbs were found in the tropical regions of the world in S. America, the W. Indies, Indonesia, Australia and Africa. Acacia gum, eucalyptus, cannabis and opium are now widely used in the western world for their medicinal, tonic and recuperative properties. In 1553 Pedro de Cieza de Leon published his “Chronica del Peru”, which listed a small shrubby tree that yielded a valuable medicinal substance called Cuco (Erythracylon coca). We now know this as the familiar narcotic cocaine, which at the time became popular as a valuable local anaesthetic, furthering the surgical work of dentists and doctors in Europe. This plant was probably used by the indigenous native population and the evolved Meso-American civilisations for thousands of years. In a Peruvian site traces of cocaine were discovered by archaeologists in an Inca burial urn dated to the Nazca period (500 AD). Coca leaves were chewed to promote stamina and relieve fatigue, or they were burnt during ceremonial rites in Bolivia and Peru. However, what is even more puzzling is that traces of cocaine were found in the coffins of Egyptian mummies which date to a much earlier period. How traces of a S. American drug became available to the Egyptians is still something of a mystery to chroniclers of botany.

Illustration of the illusive Mandrake root with fruit and flowers now extinct in England

One particular and unwelcome import from the New World was the sexually transmitted disease which we know today as syphilis. The red hot chilli pepper arrived as a powerful medicinal plant from India into Europe around 1548. It was used for scrofula, gastric problems and as a stimulant or counter-irritant. Cayenne improves circulation, regulates and increases blood flow, strengthens the heart and arteries, cures flatulence, dyspepsia, and colic. Figwort (Scrophularia nodusa) was traditionally known for a long time and used to cure piles and goitre, or as a cleanser, to expel toxins, to clean wounds or abscesses and for the treatment of scrofula – the so-called “King’s Evil” which causes tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck. The tradition or belief that the monarch’s touch could, like that of Jesus Christ, cure any evil condition was widespread and King James frequently made himself available for hopeful pilgrims to attend and touch him. William Gilbert, the Queen’s physician was the first man to use the word “electric”, but Dr. Lopez was suspected of attempting to poison her. The first treatise of tropical diseases was published in 1598 “The Cures of the Diseased, in Tropical Regions” by George Whetstone.

Mental Illness

Title page of Robert Burton’s 16th century Treatise on mental illness

Robert Burton’s most relevant work on mental illness was “The Anatomy of Melancholy” in 1621, with the famous engraved illustration by Albrecht Durer that became one of the clues in Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code”. This was originally intended as a medical treatise for physicians but it expanded into a lengthy commentary on the nature of the human condition. It also contains numerous philosophical classical quotations. It is worth bearing in mind that the term “doctor” was late in being adopted, the earlier term for a doctor was “Leech”, which was superseded by “physic” or “physician” and then “medick”. In Act 1, scene 2, of King Lear Edmund says:

And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old
comedy: my cue is melancholy, with a
sigh like Tom o’ Bedlam. O, these eclipses do
portend these divisions! Fa, sol, la, mi.

In Much Ado about Nothing Don Pedro ascribes Benedick’s melancholy as follows: “Nay, but his jesting spirit; which is now crept into a lute-string, and now governed by stops.”

The play Hamlet certainly raises more questions with respect to mental illness since clearly the leading character, Hamlet has also lost his mind and is to all intents and purposes nearly suicidal as a result of what he has uncovered through the agency of his father’s ghostly apparition. The King realises that Ophelia’s refusal of Hamlet is not at all the cause of his madness but fails to identify what exactly ails the young Prince. Similarly, Ophelia clearly struggles to maintain her equanimity while Hamlet is overwhelmed by his own insanity. One of the play’s sources is thought to be “A Treatise of Melancholy” (1586) by the Cambridgeshire born Timothy Bright (1551-1615), physician, clergyman, and inventor of shorthand which was printed by the French Huguenot (1586), Thomas Vautrollier, whose business the apprentice Richard Field, originally from Stratford-upon-Avon, took over after his death by marrying his widow. Another apparent source for the theme of insanity or manic depression is linked to the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere namely his preface to Thomas Bedingfield’s translation of “Cardanus Comforte”, which some scholars have determined had an influence on the philosophical questions posed in Hamlet’s soliloquy. One of the Earl’s residences in London, Fisher’s Folly was situated barely a five minute walk from a bedlam house near the Thames. In addition in 1580 three works were dedicated to the Earl of Oxford, John Hester‘s “A Short Discourse . . . of Leonardo Fioravanti, Bolognese, upon Surgery”, Anthony Munday identifying himself on the title page as ‘Servant to the Right Honourable the Earl of Oxenforde’. In Pericles, Prince of Tyre after dying of childbirth Luciana is encased in a coffin and then floated out to sea. She is discovered and miraculously revived by a physician, Cerimon and becomes a priestess at the Temple of Diana. The romantic theme is quite likely to have also been inspired by a contemporary of Chaucer’s, namely John Gower’s “Confessio Amantis” (Confession of a Lover) or the tale of Parismus and Violeta by Emmanuel Forde in its melancholy depiction of the ardent lover being forsaken goes into a form of melancholic depression. In Love’s Labour’s Lost melancholy is known as: “The black oppressing humour”. Shakespeare’s stance or view on deformity is well-documented in another post: “Shakespeare On Deformity”.
Another clear reference to the gradual onset of madness comes in Shakespeare’s play, The Tragical History of King Lear (Tom o’Bedlam).

An engraving to illustrate the profession of Astrological Prognostication

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets the verses 140-154 define the poet’s decline into “inevitable madness” and dis-ease, following no doubt from the ruthless betrayal of his “Dark Lady”, which I have discussed in a previous post entitled “The Dark Lady & the Rival Poet”:

If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For, if I should despair, I should grow mad.

And in Sonnet 147 suggests that the playwright is suffering from some disease:

My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.

And in Sonnet 153:

And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.

While Malvolio is detained for his insane love for Olivia he is tormented further by Feste who is disguised as a priest, with Maria and Belch joining in the farce. Malvolio’s delusionary madness is explained when the pranksters confess their crimes and brother and sister are happily reunited.

References to Common Ailments in Shakespeare

The majority of Shakespeare’s 36 plays have some reference to the use of medicine and the various medical practitioners of his age. He writes little of any great technical information but applies medical metaphors, similes and analogies to describe or heighten a particular theme or situation. For example in King Richard II the King declares: “This ague-fit of fear is overblown”, while Macbeth hopes that “famine and ague may eat up the foe”. Mistress Quickly says that “Falstaff was shaked of a burning quotidian tertian”, this being the intermediate and tertiary fevers known to Elizabethan physics. In Troillus & Cressida, Troillus speaks of “a feverous pulse”, and of “measles” which could in fact signify leprosy. A “sweating sickness” (mentioned by Caius in 1552) is mentioned in Measure for Measure (Act 1, scene 2). Reference to bubonic plague can be found in several plays, for example in The Tempest it is spoken of as the ‘Red Plague’ (Act 1, scene 2, 364) while in Troillus & Cressida it is called ‘red murrain’, and carbuncle is found in King Lear and “token pestilence”, meaning plague sores, is found in Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Of the movement of the blood, which was still something of a contentious subject among the physicians of the time, Shakespeare metaphorically writes in Julius Caesar:

A woodcut illustrating a visit to the doctor

The ruddy drops that visit my sad heart.
And in Coriolanus:
Through the rivers of your blood, even to the court, your heart.
With Menenius saying: The veins unfilled, our blood is cold…but when we have stuffed these pipes and these conveyances of our blood with wine and feeding, we have suppler souls.
In Romeo & Juliet reference is made again to the humour found in the blood:
Through all thy veins shall run a cold and drowsy humour.
In act 4, scene 3, of Love’s Labours Lost Biron says:
Why universal plodding prisons up the nimble spirits in the arteries.
In King John Act 5, scene 1:
This inundation of distempered humour rests by you only to be qualified:
Then pause not; for the present time’s so sick, that present medicine must be ministered.

In Act 2, scene 1 of All’s Well That Ends Well Shakespeare hints at the possibility that the French King, Charles Vth had suffered from a thoracic fistula:

What is it, my good lord, the king languishes of?
A fistula, my lord.
I heard not of it before.
The King meanwhile agrees to be cured by Helena:

Thou this to hazard needs must intimate
Skill infinite or monstrous desperate.
Sweet practiser, thy physic I will try,
That ministers thine own death if I die.

Agues were frequent and common diseases in Shakespeare’s age where roads and pathways were badly drained causing stagnant puddles and flashes where many insects capable of transmitting germs and bacteria found ideal habitats. Because the average diet of the noble or aristocrat was probably 80% meat protein, gout and consumption was also common and frequently the cause of much skeletal and muscular pain in old age. Falstaff mentions it in Henry IVth Part One, “It plays the rogue with my big toe”, but chronic gout is often accompanied with serpigo, an irritation caused by eczema. Rheumatism was also a common ailment mentioned in Measure For Measure as “makes an elderly man so miserable that he curses them for not ending him sooner”. Another ailment was known as palsy or “shaking palsy” (paralysis agitans) mentioned in Henry Fourth Part Two as the Duke of York’s problem. Apoplexy is mentioned in the same play in act one scene 2, “This apoplexy is, as I take it, a kind of lethargy”, while general consumption, due largely to an unhealthy or poor diet, was also frequently reported (Comedy of Errors-“Unquiet meals make ill digestions”). In the Merchant of Venice Gratiano notes that man “creeps into the jaundice, being peevish” and Agamemnon asks: “What grief hath set the jaundice on your cheeks?”. Much Ado mentions ‘heart-burn’, while King Lear makes reference to nervous disorders (globus hystericus): “O, how this mother swells up toward my heart; hysteria passo!”. In Troillus & Cressida Thersites mentions around fifteen differing ailments which has baffled medical and linguistic analysts for some time:

Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!

Current estimates of transliteration by modern medical analysts suggest that what Thersites is probably referring to could be perhaps syphilis, colic, hernias, catarrhs, pains in the loins or bones, probably due to kidney stones, or strokes, paralysis of the limbs, chronic inflammation, chronic cystitis, lumbago, sciatica, asthma and psoriasis. Small pox, a common ailment in Elizabethan England and in Europe is mentioned in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Oh, that your face were not so full of ‘O’s!…a pox on that jest! Plagues were referenced in The Tempest with the euphemism “Mal de Naples” where it originally broke out in Europe. The common remedy of which was a hot tub or spa water infused with herbs such as rosemary, juniper and lavender for sweating the body. Contagious diseases are also mentioned frequently, no doubt as the plague was predominant at that time. In Timon of Athens in Act 4, scene 1 Timon makes a speech as follows:

A 16th century engraving of the known Constellations

Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
merely poison!

However, the word plague was often meant as a vulgar curse as in “A plague on both your houses”, and the word choler could be exchanged for “anger”. He goes on to mention a sexual contagion which could be used as a scourge against mankind:

Be a whore still: they love thee not that use thee;
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths; bring down rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet.

In other words meat-pickling vats were often used to treat sufferers of venereal disease and the plague infused with herbs such as rosemary. Heat-stroke was known as ‘calenture’, yellow fever as ‘tarbardillo’ and prickly heat as ‘las espinas’. Also mentioned are minor ailments such as boils (byles or ulceras), acne, cramps, chilblains, abscesses (imposthumes), dropsy, swellings, carbuncles and pimples (bubuckles), pleurisy, cramps and neuralgia. The “green sickness” mentioned in Pericles is probably chlorosis or anaemia. The references to what may have been powerful psychoactive drugs (like Mandrake, Datura and Belladonna), which were certainly known of by very few specialists and those which were deadly or slow poisons in Shakespeare’s plays are rather vague or misleading. No doubt the playwright would not have wished to give away vital information to anyone planning to poison or derange their chosen victim.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Apothecary

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