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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.

Casting the Water
Casting the Water

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.

Oil Pot
Oil Pot

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


Why do you think Shakespeare chooses wounds and medicine as metaphors in this passage? Do you think it’s the best way of describing Romeo’s situation?


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(c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait


Sixteenth century portraiture is our key to understanding how Elizabethans wished to be perceived by their peers, subjects and descendants. Prosperous individuals and families often used portraits as a way of communicating wealth, morality and education to the public. Hence every detail, such as clothing, jewels, ornaments and even pets, is significant in a portrait. In practical terms, portraits were ideal because they could be displayed easily or even sent overseas to foreign lands, particularly miniatures. Henry VIII famously dispatched his artist, Hans Holbein the Younger, to Germany to produce a miniature portrait of his future bride, Anne of Cleves, in order to determine whether or not she was attractive enough to marry. Portraits were essential to the monarchy as a way of displaying power, leadership and prosperity to their subjects.


Noble and middle-class families found portraits useful to communicate their stations and wealth to others. If you couldn’t afford to commission a portrait of yourself or family, it was considered respectable to own an image of a nobleman or woman, because it proved that you and your kin aspired to wealth and nobility.

Materials used in portraiture varied according to artist preference and, crucially, financial means. Pigments depended on the availability and cost of materials, and the canvas itself could range from wooden panels to vellum or calf skin.


This copy of the Cobbe portrait of William Shakespeare, supposedly the only one to have been painted during his lifetime, was made in 1615. It was previously known as the Ellenborough Portrait. Now, however, it is referred to as the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Portrait. While we do not know the name of the artist, painter anonymity is often the case for paintings at this time. Consider how carefully the artist has painted Shakespeare’s face and clothes. His skin looks clear and his eyes look bright and alive. The beautiful lace collar was very fashionable and expensive, and shows us that, at this time in his life, Shakespeare was successful and wealthy. This portrait was painted on oak panels. The wood was left to ‘season’ or dry so that it would be in good condition for painting. The paints were made from pigments, or coloured earths, mixed with linseed oil.


Since portraits reveal so much about their subject, Shakespeare referred to portraiture when characters struggle to explain or understand something vital about another person. In the tragedy of Hamlet (1600), for instance, Hamlet directs his mother to two portraits: one of his father, and the other of his uncle who is now his step-father. In this passage, Hamlet refers to his father’s appearance: his brow, hair, eyes and his stance in the portrait:



Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this?
(Hamlet, 3.4, 2445-63).




Hyperion = A Greek god relating to the sun
Jove = Jupiter, the king of gods
Herald Mercury = Mercury was the Greek messenger who had wings
Heaven-kissing hill = high reaching