Heffernan intends to study “the way melancholy is treated in the poetry of Chaucer and Shakespeare and in the medical writing of contemporary physicians” in order “to demonstrate that the two poets and the medieval-Renaissance physicians viewed melancholy in parallel ways” (p. 4). In chapters on Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess and Troilus and Criseyde and on Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Hamlet, using brief quotations from a number of contemporary medical treatises, she shows that Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s portrayals of melancholic characters were informed by the contemporary medical understanding of melancholy as a disease affecting mind and body.
Heffernan’s discussion of the narrator and the black knight in The Book of the Duchess emphasizes three distinct forms of melancholy: ordinary melancholy; lovesickness (termed by medical authorities amor hereos ); and mania, the result of untreated lovesickness. Writing about Chaucer’s Troilus, she focuses on amor hereos as the medical equivalent to literature’s “courtly love”: “what pragmatic physicians always cite in the signs of suffering as disease, proof of madness, poets sometimes see as indicators of lofty feelings and ideals” (p. 67). In As You Like It, Heffernan is concerned with Jacques, the cynic who exhibits many classic symptoms of melancholy. The study ends with Hamlet and provides the reader with a review both of relevant medical commentaries and of earlier literary criticism that addresses Hamlet’s malady.
Some of Heffernan’s generalizations are careless. For example, her comment on the association of melancholy and travel—“taking a trip was thought therapeutic well into the nineteenth century: Claudius, for example, sends Hamlet to England” (p. 117)—ignores the fact that Claudius sent Hamlet to England to be executed, not to be cured. Occasional citations of comments, often Freudian, by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century physicians about the literary characters [End Page 146] she studies are interesting enough, but surely not germane to whether Chaucer and Shakespeare were familiar with the medical theories of their day. Both men wrote for cultures that valued a broad knowledge of a number of fields, and in which intellectuals were thought to be especially prone to melancholy. Their familiarity with humoral medical theory, and even with the specific details of melancholy’s symptoms and treatments, should not surprise us. Heffernan refers to a number of relatively unknown medical treatises dealing with melancholy, but it is difficult to discover what else this book adds (certainly not the perspective of current literary theory) to earlier studies of literary representations of melancholy. The volume includes a good bibliography.