So often when characters die in Shakespeare’s plays (potential spoiler alert?) it is from exotic causes like poison or stabbing or convoluted, yet effective, suicide methods like swallowing burning coals. As well, characters are lost at sea with some frequency. But what of illness in Shakespeare? It’s fair to say, death in Shakespeare’s time was more often than not caused by infectious disease. He lived and wrote, after all, in a plague-ravaged London. In addition to the plague, there were always smallpox, typhus, and syphilis to contend with.
Perhaps because they were so common in life, no one particularly needed to see them repeated on the stage. While death by infectious illness was not a common theme that visited Shakespeare’s tragedies, his characters had much more dramatic afflictions. They suffer from everything from kyphosis to chronic insomnia (naturally brought on my well deserved guilt). Beyond physical ailments, there is no shortage of mental illnesses among the Bard’s tragic heroes and heroines.
Perhaps a little dark, but nevertheless an interesting topic: here are just a few of my favorite references to disease in Shakespeare’s plays:
King Lear providing one of his many fatherly pep talks: “Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood.”
Mercutio’s famous line from Romeo and Juliet: “A plague a' both your houses!” As a rather interesting side note, while both of the title characters are ultimately their own killers, the reason Juliet’s letter to Romeo (explaining that she is only fake killing herself and to not freak out or anything) is not delivered is because the friar is quarantined in a house suspected to have the plague. So really, it’s fair to say the plague was in fact the lovers’ undoing.
Hamlet’s non-board-licensed medical advice to his stepfather/uncle: “This physic but prolongs thy sickly days."
Othello on herbal remedies: “Not poppy nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep, Which thou owedst yesterday."
And last but not least, from Troilus and Cressida, one of the more vivid descriptions of pestilence: “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!”
At any rate, readers, I hope you’re all feeling healthy, well-rested, and boil free. If you do happen to know someone who is feeling under the weather, having a hard time, or just in need of a little cheering up: The Bard’s Cards has just the thing.