Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bacon and Shakespeare - Interest in Medicine

Opinions, attitudes and interests of Shake-Speare and Bacon.

Interest in Medicine

Shake-Speare's work teems with allusions, literal or metaphorical, to medical science, to surgical operations, to potions and poisons and their effects. Dr. John Charles Bucknill in his The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare (1860), p.2, wrote: "It would be difficult to point to any great author, not himself a physician, in whose works the healing art is referred to more frequently and more respectfully than in those of Shakespeare; the sacred writings alone being excepted". At p. 12 he added: "[the medical allusions in Shake-Speare] appear to amount not merely to evidence but to proof that Shakespeare had read widely in medical literature"; at p. 290: "The great dramatist had, at least, been a diligent student of all the medical knowledge existing in his time"; at p. 292: "The cumulative evidence...[is] unanswerable proof that his mind was deeply imbued with the best medical knowledge of his age". In similar vein Herman Pomeranz in his Medicine in the Shakespeare Plays and Dickens Doctors (1936), p. 9, wrote: "The Elizabethan dramatists in general...had a hearty contempt of medical men. Shakespeare appears to have been the sole exception". At p. 210: "All in all there is more mention of medical botany in his plays than in all the other late Elizabethan or early Jamesian writers". At p. 206: "He had a deeper interest in herbs, medicinal or otherwise, than any contemporary dramatist or poet".

Bacon's interest in medicine was almost obsessive. In Amboise's French version of Bacon's Natural History Bacon wrote: "His own health ought to be the first study of every man". He was dogged by frail health from childhood and called it "my second original sin". He records that his doctors thought he would not reach 14. He would concoct potions of his own recipe for his health's relief. For example, in his private notebook Commentarius Solutus, compiled in the summer of 1608, there are jottings of remedies for indigestion, bowel troubles and "vicious humours". One of his more attractive self-prescriptions (to be found in his Medical Remains, is: "In the third hour after sun is risen, to take in air from some high and open place, with a ventilation of rose maschetae and fresh violets, and to stir the earth with infusion of wine and mint".

Lord Macauley in his Essay on Bacon wrote: "Of all the sciences, that which he regarded with the greatest interest was the science which, in Plato's opinion, would not be tolerated in a well-regulated community. To make a man perfect was no part of Bacon's plan. His humble aim was to make imperfect man comfortable...He appealed to the example of Christ, and reminded his readers that the great Physician of the soul did not disdain to be also the physician of the body".

Pomeranz, op.cit. p. 155, wrote: "Bacon was a deep student of the medical literature of past ages - of Hippocrates, Galen and Celsus in especial - and of the antics of the quacks of his own period". Francis Osborne (1593-1659) in his Advice to a Son (1658) Part 2, p. 67, related how he once heard Bacon "outcant [out-jargon] a London chirurgeon [surgeon]" in a discussion about surgical matters.

It seems improbable that William Shakspere of Stratford would have had such a profound interest in medical science, ancient and modern.

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