Medicine was extremely important in this period. Disease and illness were so common that nearly 50% of all children would die before they reached adulthood. Not only was there plague, there were Smallpox and Tuberculosis, as well as general infections and common ailments such as cold and toothache.
Usually, physicians (doctors) would offer diagnoses for illness, while the apothecary (pharmacist) would prepare and sell the remedies for general ailments and wounds, and surgeons would remove limbs and perform operations.
There were no painkillers, other than alcohol or opiates, and treatments for illness were sometimes based on superstition or, more commonly, a good knowledge of herbs.
This is an image of a patient and his physician casting his water. One way in which people could check for illness was water-casting. This was when a physician would check the urine of a patient and make a diagnosis accordingly.
Apothecaries would know all about remedies and plants. Here are a few:
Dandelion – Used to cure warts, and to help with cramping pains
Nutmeg – Used as a laxative/ to induce vomiting for purging
Cinnamon – Used to control high blood-sugar levels
This is a picture of an ointment pot. Oils and topical solutions would be kept in jars such as this to keep them safe.
There are many references to medicine throughout Shakespeare’s plays. Have a look at this extract from the Tragedy of Macbeth. Macbeth (at this point King of Scotland) is trying to defend his castle against the English army, but more and more of his Scottish lords are switching sides. As he prepares for battle, he talks to a doctor:
Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
Come, put mine armour on; give me my staff.
(…) Doctor, the thanes fly from me.
Come, sir, dispatch. If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee (…).
What rhubarb, cyme, or what purgative drug,
Would scour these English hence?
(Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 3)
physic = medicine
I’ll none of it = I don’t want any of it
staff = lance
thanes = Scottish lords
dispatch = hurry
thou couldst = you could
cast the water = analyse the urine as a method of diagnosis
purge = get rid of
purgative = cleansing
hence = away
Why do you think he compares his country to a diseased body? Given that he’s the king, what metaphor do you think Macbeth would use to describe himself in relation to the country? (A particular body part maybe? Which one?)
Another example of Shakespeare referring to medicine comes from the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo has been to a party, where he has met Juliet, the daughter of his family’s greatest enemy, and fallen in love with her. The next morning he tells his priest, Friar Laurence about the meeting and asks him for help:
I have been feasting with mine enemy,
Where on a sudden one hath wounded me
That’s by me wounded: both our remedies
Within thy help and holy physic lies:
I bear no hatred, blessed man, for lo,
My intercession likewise steads my foe.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2)
on a sudden = suddenly
hath = has
thy = your
physic = medicine
lo = an exclamation meaning “Look!” or “Do you see?”
intercession = request
steads = benefits
foe = enemy