What's Up, Doc, or Should I Ask Shakespeare? The Bard's uncanny grasp of what ails us puts much of modern medicine to shame

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A retired gastroenterologist in Somerset, Dr Kenneth Heaton, has concluded that if doctors knew their Shakespeare better, they would order fewer unnecessary (and expensive) tests for symptoms of psychological origin: for no one ever described or understood those symptoms better than Shakespeare.

In fact, our national playwright and poet has long aroused the interest of at least a minority of doctors, who have written extensively on his knowledge of medicine in all its aspects. They range from John Charles Bucknill’s Psychology of Shakespeare, of 1859, to Paul M Matthews’s The Bard on the Brain, of 2003. The late Dr Murray Cox, consultant psychotherapist at Broadmoor, used Shakespeare as a psychotherapeutic instrument, and maintained that there was no human situation which he did not illuminate somewhere in his work.

The playwright’s clinical observations are astonishingly accurate, especially when compared with those of his son-in-law, Dr John Hall, who saw his patients through the misleading lens of the humoral theory that he had been taught. His only book, Select observations on English bodies, or Cures both empericall and historicall performed upon very eminent persons in desperate diseases, is of antiquarian interest only, its prescriptions hardly distinguishable from the ingredients of the witches’ cauldron in Macbeth.

By contrast, there is barely a Shakespeare play that cannot arrest a doctor’s attention. It is not just that he describes things accurately from a physiological point of view; he seems to know what it is like to feel them as well, and how to make us feel them, too.

The other day, reading Richard II, I was struck by the queen’s description of her own anxiety after Richard leaves her for Ireland:

“Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb Is coming towards me, and my inward soul With nothing trembles…”

One of Richard’s courtiers, Bushy, in effect tells her to pull herself together and stop worrying over nothing, but his advice is unavailing:

“For nothing hath begot my something grief, Or something hath the nothing that I grieve… But what it is that is not yet known what, I cannot name…”

No medical textbook could put it better.

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