Shakespeare in Stratford and London: Ten Eyewitnesses Who Saw Nothing - Part 5
by Ramon L. Jiménez
Our fourth eyewitness is that same Dr. John Hall who came to Stratford-upon-Avon from Bedfordshire in the early 1600s, and married Susanna Shakespeare in 1607. During his more than thirty years of practice in Warwickshire, Dr. Hall was considered one of the best physicians in the county, and was called often to the homes of noblemen throughout the area. As a leading citizen of the town, he was elected a Burgess to the City Council three times before he finally accepted the office. On the death of his father-in-law in 1616, Dr. Hall, his wife Susanna, and their eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth moved into New Place with William Shakespeare’s widow Anne.
A few years after Dr. Hall’s death in 1635, it transpired that he had kept hundreds of anecdotal records about his patients and their ailments—records that have excited the curiosity of both literary and medical scholars. Two notebooks were recovered, and one containing about 170 cases was translated from the Latin and published by one of his fellow physicians. The other, possibly once in the possession of the Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, has, unfortunately, disappeared. In the single surviving manuscript are descriptions of dozens of Dr. Hall’s patients and their illnesses, including his wife Susanna, and their daughter Elizabeth. Also mentioned are the Vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon and various noblemen and their families, including Michael Drayton’s friends the Rainsfords, and of course Drayton himself. In his notes about one patient Thomas Holyoak, Dr. Hall mentioned that his father Francis Holyoak had compiled a Latin-English dictionary. John Trapp, a minister and the schoolmaster of the Stratford Grammar School, he described as being noted “for his remarkable piety and learning,
second to none” (Joseph 47, 94).
But nowhere in the notebook that has survived is there any mention of Hall’s father-in-law William Shakespeare. This, of course, has vexed and puzzled scholars. Dr. Hall surely treated his wife’s father during the ten years they lived within minutes of each other. Why wouldn’t he record any treatment of William Shakespeare and mention his literary achievements as he had Michael Drayton’s and Francis Holyoake’s? The accepted explanation has always been that of the few cases in Dr. Hall’s notebook that he dated, none bears a date earlier than 1617, the year after Shakespeare’s death. For decades scholars have assumed that any mention of Shakespeare was probably in the lost notebook.
But recently this assumption proved false when a scholar found that at least four, and as many as eight, of the cases Hall recorded can be dated before Shakespeare died, even though the doctor didn’t supply the dates himself. Because Dr. Hall nearly always noted the age and residence of his patients, most of them have been identified and their birth dates found in other sources. The earliest case in the existing manuscript can be dated in 1611, others in 1613, 1614 and 1615, and another four in 1616, the very year of Shakespeare’s death (Lane 351)
It appears that Dr. Hall made his notes shortly after treating his patients, but didn’t prepare them for publication until near the end of his life. Hall was obviously aware and admiring of his patients’ status and achievements, especially their scholarly and literary achievements, as his comments about Drayton, Holyoake, and others reveal. By 1630 William Shakespeare was well-known as an outstanding, if mysterious, playwright. The Second Folio had been published in 1632, and there had been, of course, many of his plays issued in quarto, as well as several printed tributes. Thus, there is good reason to expect that Dr. John Hall would have noted his treatment of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon during the ten years he knew him—if he thought he were someone worthy of mention. It is indeed strange that in the early 1630s, as he was collecting the cases he wished to publish, he should neglect to include any record of his treating his supposedly famous father-in-law. Mrs. Stopes called it “the one great failure of his life” (Stopes 1901, 82).
Joseph, Harriet: Shakespeare’s Son-in-Law: John Hall, Man and Physician Hamden, CT:
Archon Books, 1964.
Lane, Joan: John Hall and his Patients. Stratford-upon-Avon: The Shakespeare
Birthplace Trust, 1996.
Stopes, Charlotte C.. Shakespeare’s Warwickshire Contemporaries. Stratford-upon-
Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1907.