Shakespeare and Medicine
Bard Was Well Versed in Human Afflictions and Their Treatments
The following article includes a glossary at the end of the text
By Michael J. Cummings..© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
.......William Shakespeare’s ability to fathom the dysfunctions of the human mind has astounded theatergoers for more than four hundred years. His portraits of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth all attest to his genius for reaching into the depths of the soul and pulling out its pith for all to examine. But Shakespeare also excelled at identifying and describing afflictions of the body, such as scurvy, gout, epilepsy, rheumatism, and venereal disease. Each of these afflictionsand scores moresicken the kings and commoners of his plays; they are the Furies of old come to torment Medieval and Renaissance England.  
.......Shakespeare’s knowledge of both physical and mental illness enabled him to enlighten audiences about the soma and psyche of a character and their failure to work in harmony. Not infrequently, Shakespeare exhibits surprising insights into medicine. For example, in Henry IV Part II, Northumberlanddown with a feverdescribes the principles behind immunization when he receives bad news from the battlefield: 
In poison there is physic; and these news, 
Having been well, that would have made me sick, 
Being sick, have in some measure made me well (1.1.153-155)
In The Winter’s Tale, Camillo presents a revolutionary concept: that a person can carry and spread illness even though he or she remains disease free: 
There is a sickness 
Which puts some of us in distemper, but 
I cannot name the disease; and it is caught 
Of you that yet are well. (1.2.447-450)
In Richard III, after Hastings informs Richard that the king languishes with a fatal illness, Shakespeare calls attention to the importance of nutrition in the following lines spoken by Richard: "O, he [the king] hath kept an evil diet long, / And overmuch consumed his royal person" (1.1.146-147). In Pericles, Prince of Athens, Shakespeare demonstrates an awareness of altered states of consciousness that mimic death. In the key passage, Cerimon opens Thaisa’s coffin, observes “how fresh” she looks, and remarks,  
Death may usurp on nature many hours, 
And yet the fire of life kindle again 
The o'erpress'd spirits. I heard of an Egyptian 
That had nine hours lien dead, 
Who was by good appliance recovered. (3.2.98-102)
Cerimon then revives Thaisa, noting, “She hath not been entranced above five hours” (111-112).
.......Scholars often conjecture that Shakespeare’s knowledge of medicine was mainly the product of his relationship with John Hall, a physician and herbalist who earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University in 1597 and, after further studies on the European continent, settled in Stratford and married Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, Susanna, in 1607.  However, it seems just as likely that Shakespeare gained most of his medical knowledge on his own. Supporting this view is the fact that he had already written many of his playsincluding dramas with medical referencesbefore Hall left Cambridge. More important, though, Shakespeare had lived in London in the early 1590's. The city at that time was a prolific breeding ground of disease because of crowded, unsanitary conditions. Garbage littered streets. Residents emptied chamber pots out windows. Brothels incubated syphilis. Dung clogged gutters and waterways. Flies and rodents carried bacteria and viruses from one section of the city to another. Hygiene was almost nonexistent. Even the queen bathed only once a month.  
.......Consequently, the London of Shakespeare was dirty, raw, and noxious. When plague ravaged the city between 1592 and 1603, Shakespeare witnessed human suffering on a vast scale. The infected burned with fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or more, shivered incessantly, and suffered bouts of vomiting, insomnia, and delirium.  
.......Spread from rats to humans by fleas, plague could manifest itself in three forms: bubonic plague, which caused painful swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes of the armpits and groin; pneumonic plague, which filled the lungs with fluid; and septicemic plague, which poisoned the bloodstream. Sometimes one form of the disease killed by itself; at other times, it progressed into another of the forms before claiming a victim. Together, these three manifestations of plague were known as the Black Death because of the livid hue of corpses caused by subcutaneous hemorrhaging. 
.......As the bodies accumulatedand the rats and fleas multiplied outbreaks exponentiallyShakespeare saw it all. At his writing table, death sat at his elbow. On his walks through streets and byways, it saluted him with the flopping arms of wagon-borne corpses. Physicians were powerless against the disease. In fact, one of the most distinguished physicians of the ageWilliam Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and, after her death, to King James Idied of plague in 1603.  
.......In The Medical Mind of Shakespeare, Aubrey C. Kail describes efforts to contain plague: “Special officials called ‘searchers’ were appointed, whose duty it was to go into houses and search out plague victims. They were paid a higher rate if the victims were found dead.” Kail says the practice of using searchers, along with the imposition of quarantines, provided Shakespeare a plausible explanation for a significant development in one of his most popular plays.  
......The use of the word ‘searcher’ in this sense appeared in 1592 in Romeo and Juliet. Friar John, suspected of being in an infected house, was shut in by the ‘searchers,’ and was thus prevented from carrying the all-important message from Friar Lawrence to Romeo. No messenger could be found to return the letter to Friar Lawrence, so afraid were the citizens of Verona of the infection.
The communications breakdown precipitated events leading to the tragic ending of the play. 
.......Another common affliction in Shakespeare’s time was venereal diseasein particular, syphilis. Although the crew of Christopher Columbus is sometimes blamed for carrying syphilis from the New World to Europe, the disease probably existed in Europe long before Columbus set sail for the first time. However, it was apparently mistaken for leprosy. Giovanni Fracastro, an Italian poet and physician, coined the word syphilis in a poem in 1530. Shakespeare refers to the illness as pox in ten of his plays. Of special interest is Measure for Measure, in which three citizens of Vienna openly discuss venereal disease. One of them, Lucio, upon seeing a brothel madam approaching, says, “I have purchased . . . many diseases under her roof” (1.2.23). Shakespeare first staged the play in 1604, the year after the government closed the brothels of London.  
.......Besides plague, venereal disease, and other afflictions of the body, mental illness and its symptomsincluding depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and recitations of gibberishwere commonplace in Shakespearean London. In fact, because treatment was virtually nonexistent for the mentally disabled and because most of the mentally disturbed roamed freely for lack of institutional care, London and other European cities teemed with the eccentric, the paranoid, the schizophrenic. When Shakespeare ventured forth on the streets of London, he entered an alfresco asylum. All he had to do was etch images in his memory and he had raw material for his plays.  
.......In his dramas, both mental and physical illness sometimes inhabit the same character at the same time. For example, in Richard III, Richard exhibits the symptoms of kyphosis (hunched back) and psychopathy (asocial and amoral behavior), which shape him into a grotesque killing machine. In the opening lines of the play, Richard soliloquizes on his appearance and his mindset: 
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, 
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; 
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty 
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph; 
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion, 
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, 
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time 
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up, 
And that so lamely and unfashionable 
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; 
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, 
Have no delight to pass away the time, 
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun 
And descant on mine own deformity: 
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, 
To entertain these fair well-spoken days, 
I am determined to prove a villain 
And hate the idle pleasures of these days. 
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous, 
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams. (1.1.16-35)
.......For modern audiences, Shakespeare is a window on human affliction and its treatments in the late 1500's and early 1600's, an age when medical science was an oxymoron and gleeful germs had the run of both the king’s household and the peasant’s hovel. Some people of Shakespeare’s time believed disease was a punishment for sinful behavior. Others thought it resulted from the movement of the stars and the planets. Whatever the cause, virtually everyone agreed that it triggered illness by creating an intolerable imbalance in four vital fluids in the body: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Called “humors” or “humours” (from a Latin word for liquids), these fluids controlled health and human behavior.  
.......Persons in whom blood was the dominant humor were kind, loving, merry, enthusiastic, and passionate. Those ruled by phlegm were sluggish, apathetic, cowardly, and dull-witted. Persons dominated by yellow bile were stubborn, impatient, vengeful, and easy to anger, and those dominated by black bile were melancholic, depressed, irritable, brooding, and cynical.  
.......When the body produced too much or too little of a humoror if the humor altered its consistency or ventured beyond its normal location in the bodyillness resulted. Diagnosis consisted in one or more of the following: observing symptoms such as fever and headache, evaluating urine for discoloration and frothing, plotting astrological charts, and checking the pulse for the rate and strength of the heartbeat and for rhythm abnormalities. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Hamlet underscores the importance of the heartbeat as a measure of well-being when he tells Gertrude "My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time, / 
And makes as healthful music". (3.4.160-161).
.......Treatments to restore the proper balance of humors consisted mainly in ridding the body of humoral excess by blood-letting (phlebotomy), vomiting (emesis), and cleansing the bowels (purging). Blood-letting, a frequent practice, required opening a vein or applying leeches. The other treatments required administration of concoctions to induce vomiting spells or bowel movements. In the latter case, a patient could choose from oral laxatives or enemas.  
.......Medical practitioners also used a variety of preparationswith ingredients ranging from animal dung and ground gemstones (including emeralds, sapphires, garnets, and topaz) to licorice, mint, rosemary, and basilto heal the sick. Some preparations, such as herbal remedies, occasionally worked. Patients themselves often prayed for a miraculous cure, touched their bodies with the relics of saints, or went on pilgrimages. A few turned to religious rites to rid the body of a demon. 
.......Persons offering preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic services included well educated physicians, minimally educated surgeons, barbers, herbalists, apothecaries, exorcists, astrologers, sorcerers, soothsayers, and do-it yourself healers. At barber shops, patrons could get a haircut, then have a tooth extracted. They could also undergo blood-letting, a service advertised by a spiral red stripe on the barber pole outside the typical barber shop. The striped barber pole survives to the present day as a symbol of the tonsorial profession. 
.......The afflictions in Shakespeare’s plays not only help to drive the plots and motivate the characters, but they also educate modern audiences and historians about health in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Among the afflictions and symptoms Shakespeare mentions in his plays are the following: 
Glossary of Medical Afflictions in Shakespeare's Plays

Abdominal Spasms See Cramps
Acne Rosacea See Rhinophyma
Abscess See Boil, Carbuncle, and Fistula
Ague  (1) Fever usually caused by malaria. The victim may be cold one moment and hot the next. Bouts of sweating are commonplace. (2) fever characterized by chills and shivering, as well as pain in the joints and bones. Shakespeare refers to ague in nine plays. In Julius Caesar, Caesar tells Caius Ligarius, “Caesar was ne’er so much your enemy as that same ague which hath made you lean” (2.2.24-25). In King John, Constancelamenting the fate of her sonsays: 

But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud 
And chase the native beauty from his cheek 
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,  
As dim and meagre as an ague's fit.”  (3.4.87-90)
References to ague also occur in Henry VIII, King Lear, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, The Tempest, and Troilus and Cressida
Alcoholism Excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages that can result in psychological and nutritional disorders, liver disease, and death. Although Shakespeare does not use the word alcoholism, it is clear that certain characters in his plays exhibit symptoms of the disease, most notably Prince Hal’s drinking companions in Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II. Bardolph, for example, suffers from a bulbous red nose brought on by drinking malmsey, a Madeira wine. In the same two plays, Sir John Falstaff worships sack, a dry white wine, and even recommends addiction to it in the following prose passage: "If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack" (4.3.48). In Henry V, Falstaff cries out for sack on his deathbed. 
Anxiety Apprehension and uneasiness; nervousness. Anxiety is a normal reaction if the cause of the uneasiness poses a threat of physical harm, embarrassment, financial reversal, etc. It is an abnormal reaction if the cause is harmless but perceived as harmful or if the symptoms are exaggerated out of proportion to the threat. Among the possible symptoms are sweating, rapid pulse, and trembling. Anxiety overtakes Macbeth after the First Murderer tells him hat although Banquo lies dead in a ditch his son Fleance has escaped. Macbeth reacts with the following alliterative reply reflecting his anxiety: "But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in / .To saucy doubts and fears. But Banquo's safe?" (3.4.29-30)
Bed-Wetting Involuntary and habitual urination while sleeping. Bed-wetting is a form of enuresis, a general medical term for inability to control urination whether awake or asleep. Shakespeare alludes to the condition in All’s Well That Ends Well when Parolles recites this prose passage: "For he will be swine-drunk; and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bed-clothes about him; but they know his conditions and lay him in straw" (4.3.109). 
Birthmark, or Nevus Skin defect, such as a blotch, occurring at birth. One common type of birthmark is portwine stain (nevus flammeus), a cluster of blood vessels that appear as a reddish-purple stain. In of King John, Constance praises her son, Arthur, as being fair-skinned and blessed with good looks, but notes that  
If thou . . . wert grim, 
Ugly and slanderous to thy mother’s womb 
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigious,   48
Patch’d with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care, I then would be content 
For then I should not love thee. (3.1.45-51) 
Blain Painful skin swelling or sore. In a soliloquy in Timon of Athens, Timon curses all Athenians, wishing that "itches, blains, / Sow all the Athenian bosoms" (4.1.30-31). 
Boil, or Furuncle Skin abscess characterized by swelling and pain. (See also Carbuncle.) Staphylococcus germs cause the formation of the pus. In Coriolanus, Marcius (Coriolanus) curses enemies, saying,  
Boils and plagues 
Plaster you o'er, that you may be abhorr'd 
Further than seen and one infect another 
Against the wind a mile! (1.4.41-44)
Carbuncle Staphylococcus infection beneath the skin characterized by clusters of abscesses that drain through openings on the buttocks, neck, and other body parts. In King Lear, the old king rebukes one of his evil daughters, calling her “a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle” (2.4.228-229).
Catarrh Inflammation of mucous membranes, mainly those of the nose and throat, causing increased secretion of mucous. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus, saying, “Now, the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs . . . take and take again such preposterous discoveries" (5.1.18). 
Cramps Abdominal spasms or painful muscle contractions. In The Tempest, when Caliban curses Prospero, Prospero replies with a curse of his own: "To-night that shalt have cramps / Side-stitches that shall pen they breath up” (1.2.389-390). A reference to cramps also appears in Shakespeare’s long poem The Rape of Lucrece: "The aged man that coffers-up his gold / Is plagued with cramps and gouts and painful fits" (855-866). 
Dementia Irreversible mental deterioration. Short-term memory loss, irritability, and confusion are among the symptoms of the illness. Alzheimer’s disease and Pick’s disease are specific varieties of the affliction. Although the symptoms of Pick’s disease are similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease, the former generally occurs in middle age. King Lear, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, obviously suffers from a form of dementia. His erratic behavior and raving outbursts attest to his mental breakdown. However, because he never completely loses touch with reality, he is able to acknowledge his shortcomings before the play ends. See also Insanity
Depression Mental disorder characterized by anxiety, unremitting gloom, and hopelessness. Hamlet and King Lear both exhibit symptoms of depression. 
Dyspepsia See Indigestion
Eczema See Tetter
Emaciation Condition in which the body is severely underweight as a result of disease or malnutrition. In Richard II, Shakespeare alludes to emaciation in an exchange between King Richard and John of Gaunt in which the latter uses a pun on his name to describe his wasted appearance: 
KING RICHARD II    What comfort, man? how is't with aged Gaunt? 
JOHN OF GAUNT    O how that name befits my composition! 
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old: 
Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast; 
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt? 
For sleeping England long time have I watch'd; 
 Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt. (2.1.75-81)
Enuresis See Bed-Wetting
Epilepsy Disorder of the brain and nervous system characterized by minor (petit mal) and major (grand mal) seizures. A petit mal seizure causes a brief spell of unconsciousness; a grand mal seizure causes a spell of convulsions, loss of consciousness, and loss of motor control. In Julius Caesar, Cassiusin describing the great Caesar as a mere mortal, tells Brutus:  
He had a fever when he was in Spain, 
And when the fit was on him, I did mark 
How he did shake: 'tis true, this god did shake. (1.2.127-129)
.Fistula Narrow channel, formed as a result of disease or injury, that connects an abscess, organ, or cavity to the skin surface or to another abscess, organ or cavity. In All’s Well That Ends Well, The King of France suffers from a fistula and Helena cures it using potions developed by her father before he died.  
Fit Sudden attack or spell characterized by convulsions (as in epilepsy), coughing, or other uncontrollable symptoms; an emotional outburst. In Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo sits in Macbeth’s place as a banquet commences. Only Macbeth sees it. After he addresses it, Lady Macbeth explains his odd behavior to the guests this way: 
Sit, worthy friends: my lord is often thus, 
And hath been from his youth: pray you, keep seat; 
The fit is momentary; upon a thought 
He will again be well. (3.4.65-68)
Furuncle See Boil
Gout Acute recurring arthritis that inflames and swells joints, particularly those in the feet and hands, causing severe pain. The condition develops when a congenital flaw results in an imbalance of uric acid in the body. The acid crystallizes as sodium urate, and the crystals lodge in joints. A commonly affected site is the joint of the big toe. References to gout occur in As You Like It, Cymbeline, Henry IV Part II, Measure for Measure, and The Two Noble Kinsmen
Grand Mal Seizure See Epilepsy
Hallucination Unreal image or sound that the mind perceives as real; illusion, fantasy; apparition; phantasm. Hallucinations, or what resemble hallucinations, are important events in Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth presents one of the most famous depictions of a hallucination in all of literature, when Macbeth says: 
Is this a dagger which I see before me, 
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. 
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. 
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible 
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but 
A dagger of the mind, a false creation, 
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? (2.1.44-50)
Macbeth also hallucinates when he sees the ghost of Banquo, who occupies Macbeth’s seat at a table during a banquet. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the ghost of the murdered king appears to Hamlet. But is it really a ghost or merely a hallucination? Shakespeare suggests the ghost really appears while presenting evidence indicating the contrary.  
Headache Throbbing pain in the head resulting from a variety of causes. In King John, young Arthurpleading with Hubert for mercyrecalls a time when he comforted Hubert, who was sick with a headache: 
Have you the heart? When your head did but ache, 
I knit my handercher about your brows, 
The best I had, a princess wrought it me, 
And I did never ask it you again; 
And with my hand at midnight held your head, 
And like the watchful minutes to the hour, 
Still and anon cheer'd up the heavy time, 
Saying, "What lack you?" and 'Where lies your grief?" (4.1.49-56)
Herpes See Tetter
Hysteria Condition characterized by anxiety, excessive display of emotion (crying, weeping or laughing, for example), or symptoms of organ malfunction or breakdown (such as deafness and blindness) even though there is no physical cause to explain the symptoms. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Ophelia“divided from herself" (4.5.54), as Claudius observes, over the death of her father and the departure of Hamletexhibits symptoms of hysteria when she sings songs and distributes herbs and flowers.  
Hunchback See Kyphosis
Impetigo See Tetter
Impotence Inability of a male to engage in sexual intercourse. In Macbeth, a porter alludes to impotence when he tells Macduff that “drink” (alcoholic beverages) “provokes the desire, but it takes  away the performance” (2.3.9).
Incontinence, Urinary Inability to prevent the discharge of urine. Pregnancy, an enlarged prostate gland, nerve disorders, injury, lack of exercise, muscle weakness in the elderly, and spinal disease are among the causes. Shakespeare alludes to the condition in The Merchant of Venice when Shylock says sneezing or blowing the nose (“when the bagpipe sings”) can cause a urine discharge in some men (4.1.53). 
Indigestion Stomach distress caused by inability to digest food properly. In Cymbeline, Pisanio gives Imogen a drug which he believes is an elixir to ward off seasickness or stomach distress. “If you are sick at sea,” he says, “Or stomach-qualm'd at land, a dram of this / Will drive away distemper" (3.4.206-207).
Insanity Mental derangement; madness; inability to think rationally or responsibly. Illnesses in which insanity may develop as a symptom include Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, senility, psychosis, schizophrenia, and paranoia. Insanityor what appears to be insanityplays a significant role in many of Shakespeare plays, notably Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth. In Hamlet, a key question throughout the play is whether Hamlet is really insane or merely pretending to beor, as Hamlet says in Act I, Scene V, putting on an “antic disposition.” In King Lear, the old king exhibits what appear to be symptoms of dementia, senility, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, although he is not so far gone that he cannot see the folly of his ways. In Macbeth, gnawing guilt drives Lady Macbeth insane, causing her to sleepwalk and repeatedly wash her hands to cleanse them of her guilt. 
Insomnia: Chronic inability to sleep. In Macbeth, the First Witch promises in to inflict insomnia on a sailor, saying, "Sleep shall neither night nor day / Hang upon his pent-house lid" ( After murdering King Duncan, Macbeth tells Lady Macbeth,
Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! 
Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep, 
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care, 
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, 
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, 
Chief nourisher in life's feast. (2.2.46-51)
When Macbeth confides to Lady Macbeth “Strange things I have in my head,” she replies, “You lack the season of all natures, sleep” (3.4.167). 
Kyphosis Curvature of the spine that results in a hump. In Richard III, Richard is a hunchback “cheated of feature by dissembling nature / Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world” (1.1.21-22). There is no conclusive evidence that the Richard of history was a hunchback. 
Leprosy Mildly infectious bacterial disease of the skin, nerves, cartilage, bone and other body parts. Skin lesions, edema, eye inflammation (keratitis or iritis), and nerve impairment are among the symptoms. Queen Margaret refers to the disease in Henry VI Part II
Be woe for me, more wretched than he is. 
What, dost thou turn away and hide thy face? 
I am no loathsome leper; look on me. (3.2.79-81) 
Other references to leprosy occur in Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens
Malaria See Ague
Nevus See Birthmark
Nevus Flammeus See Birthmark
Nightmare Terrifying dream; in medieval times, an evil spirit that invades sleep. Macbeth refers to nightmares when he says to Lady Macbeth,  
        [W]e will eat our meal in fear and sleep  
In the affliction of these terrible dreams 
That shake us nightly. (3.2.22-24)
Obesity Condition in which a person is grossly overweight and, therefore, at higher than normal risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Numerous characters in Shakespeare plays are obese, including Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Cardinal Wolsey (Henry VIII). 
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Mental disorder in which the victim continually experiences undesired thoughtsfor example, that he or she will have an accident or act foolish in publicor continually repeats certain actions. Perhaps the most famous obsessive-compulsive character in all of literature is Lady Macbeth, the wife of the main character in Macbeth. Unable to banish her obsessive feelings of guilt, she repeatedly washes her hands to cleanse herself of culpability in the murder of King Duncan.  
Palsy Paralysis of a voluntary muscle resulting from a nerve affliction. Tremors sometimes accompany palsy. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus, wishing “cold palsies” (5.1.18) upon him.  
Paranoia (1) Mental disorder characterized by delusions of persecution or grandeur. The victim may insist that the delusions are real and attempt to defend himself against perceived threats. (2) Unreasonable suspicion of others. Among the characters in Shakespeare plays who exhibit symptoms of of paranoiamost of them fitting the second definitionare Coriolanus, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III
Petit Mal Seizure See Epilepsy
Pick’s Disease See Dementia
Portwine Stain See Birthmark
Pox Syphilis, an infectious bacterial disease spread through sexual intercourse, although it sometimes passes at birth from an infected mother to her child. In its early stage, it causes chancres (firm swellings), which release a highly infectious fluid. The chancres heal within two months. One or more months later, skin rash and lesions appear in about half of syphilis victims. Ulceration may develop in the mouth. The rash and lesions usually disappear within four months. The disease then becomes latent, causing no problems, generally for several decadesor even a lifetime. Most victims do not exhibit further symptoms. However, one in four victims may eventually develop nodules beneath the skin and in the organs. When the disease attacks the blood vessels and the liver, kidneys, and/or heart, it often kills. The word pox, for syphilis, occurs frequently in Shakespeare’s plays, attesting to the widespread occurrence of the illness in Elizabethan England. Characters in Shakespeare’s plays use pox mainly as a brief curse, like that uttered by Bertram against Captain DumainA pox upon himin All’s Well That Ends Well (4.3.111). References to pox also occur in Cymbeline, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Othello, and Pericles, Prince of Athens
Psychopathy Mental disorder characterized by asocial and amoral behavior for which the victim exhibits no shame or lack of remorse. Probably the most famous psychopath in Shakespeare is the title character in Richard III. “I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard says in the soliloquy that opens the play (1.1.32). To the very end, he is unrepentant of his evil deeds.  
Rheum Watery discharge from the nose, eyes or mouth; a cold. In a famous passage in Othello, Othello asks Desdemona to lend him her handkerchief, saying, “I have a salt and sorry rheum offends me” (3.4.49). References to rheum occur in many other plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing, Coriolanus, and King John.  
Rheumatism Catch-all laymen's term for aches, pains, swelling, stiffness and inflammation of the joints, muscles, and connective tissues. Rheumatism includes bursitis, neuritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Ann Pagein complimenting Sir Hugh Evansdescribes the weather as conducive to rheumatism: "And youthful still! in your doublet and hose this raw rheumatic day!" (3.1.21). In Henry IV Part II, Mistress Quickly uses rheumatic in a simile when she addresses Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet: "By my troth, this is the old fashion; you two never meet but you fall to some discord: you are both, i' good truth, as rheumatic as two dry toasts; you cannot one bear with another's confirmities" (2.4.24).
Rhinophyma Disfigurement, swelling, and redness of the nose that can be caused by excessive drinking. Rhinophyma is a form of rosacea (also called acne rosacea), a type of acne that causes red lesions on the cheeks, forehead, and nose. It was rhinophyma that gave W.C. Fields his famous bulbous nose. In Henry IV Part I, Falstaff alludes to rhinophyma when he tells Bardolph that his red nose resembles a lamp: "Do thou amend thy face, and I'll amend my life: thou art our admiral, thou bearest the lantern in the poop, but 'tis in the nose of thee; thou art the Knight of the Burning Lamp" (3.3.7). In Macbeth, the porter also refers to rhinophyma after Macduff asks, “What three things does drink especially provoke?” The porter answers, “ Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and urine" (2.3.9).
Rosacea See Rhinophyma
Sciatica Pain in either of the sciatic nerves. These nerves extend from the lower back, beginning at the lumbar spine, and run through the buttocks and down the back of the legs. At the back of the knees, they branch into smaller nerves. In Act IV, Scene I, of Timon of Athens, Timon utters the following curse on the Athenians: 
          Thou cold sciatica, 
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt 
As lamely as their manners. (4.1.25-27) 
Scurvy Disease resulting from lack of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in the diet. Victims suffer anemia, weakness, swollen gums, and bleeding beneath the skin. Shakespeare uses scurvy almost exclusively as an adjective, as in "Thou are but a scurvy fellow" (Twelfth Night, 3.4.84). References to scurvy also appear in All’s Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  
Seasickness Nausea, sometimes accompanied by vomiting, caused by the rocking and pitching of a boat or ship. The illness is sometimes referred to by its French name, mal de mer. In Cymbeline, Pisanio gives Imogen a drug which he believes is an elixir to ward off illness. “If you are sick at sea,” he says, “Or stomach-qualm'd at land, a dram of this / Will drive away distemper" (3.4.205-207).
Senility. See Dementia and Insanity
Serpigo Spreading skin disease, such as ringworm (or tinea), characterized by scaling and itching. Characters in Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure refer to the disease.  
Sleepwalking, or Somnambulism Walking while asleep. In Act V, Scene I, of Macbeth, a gentlewoman reports to a doctor that Lady Macbeth has been sleepwalking:  
"Since his majesty went into the field, I have seen her rise from her bed, throw her night-gown upon her, unlock her closet, take forth paper, fold it, write upon't, read it, afterwards seal it, and again return to bed; yet all this while in a most fast sleep" (5.1.4).
Syphilis See Pox
Tetter Skin disease characterized by eruptions, itching, and sometimes itchy scales. Eczema, herpes, and impetigo are forms of it. In Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus, wishing a tetter upon him. 
Wen Benign tumor on the skin; sebaceous cyst. In Henry IV Part II, Prince Hal refers to Falstaff as a wen. 
Wheeze Hard breathing that makes a whistling sound. In Act V, Scene I, of Troilus and Cressida, Thersites curses Patroclus, wishing “wheezing lungs” (5.1.18) upon him. 
About the Author: Michael J. Cummings is the developer of Shake Sphere and its forerunner, The Complete Shakespeare. He has taught English composition and literature at the college level as an adjunct instructor. Over the years, he has written more than 3,000 articles and four books as a journalist and freelance writer. One of his writing specialties is medicine.