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REVIEWS F. David Hoeniger, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992. Pp. 404. $55.00. Professor Hoeniger's volume is a compendious attempt to recreate the medical knowledge and practice of Shakespeare's time. Such knowledge was largely contained in the writings of Galen and Paracelsus— especially those of Galen as transmitted to Western Europe by Arab scholars in the Middle Ages, and later translated from Latin into English in numerous treatises on humoral medicine and the passions of the mind. Many of these treatises, including Lemnius' Touchstone of Complexions (1565), Timothy Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), and Thomas Wright's The Passions of the Minde (1601), have long offered a subject of study to literary scholars aiming to recreate the intellectual climate in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote. In the case of Bright, there are sufficient verbal echoes in Shakespeare's works to indicate that he knew the Treatise directly, and, as Hoeniger points out, Shakespeare would have obtained medical knowledge not only from his reading but also from doctors he knew, including his son-in-law, the respected physician John Hall. The title of Hoeniger's own book, Medicine and Shakespeare in the English Renaissance, is revealingly loose in its syntax, however; he does not strongly assert any direct connection between the medical and literary texts on which he focuses. The medical texts simply provided an intellectual context and a physiological or psychological vocabulary for writers , including of course Ben Jonson with his "humor" characters and the theory of temperaments underlying them. We may use words like "context " and "intellectual background" advisedly, for Hoeniger's historicism is unashamedly of the "old" variety. Except for a mention in the bibliography of Stephen Greenblatt's influential article on exorcism and King Lear, Hoeniger shows no interest in the current generation of scholars who write of textual "circulations" among literary and non-literary materials, and he is unconcerned about the "privileging" of literature implied by the meticulous recreation of a "background" for it. His forebears, as he acknowledges in his Preface, are such studies as Ruth Anderson's investigation of Shakespearean drama in terms of Elizabethan psychology (1927), Lily Bess Campbell's more moralistic book on Shakespeare 's tragic heroes and contemporary theories of the "passions" (1930), Lawrence Babb's Elizabethan Malady (1951), J. Bamborough's The Little World of Man (1952), and, more recently, John Hankins' Backgrounds of Shakespeare's Thought (1978). Even though Hoeniger avoids the most belabored topics, such as Hamlet's melancholy, his book will not provide a new perspective on Shakespearean drama for readers familiar with those earlier studies. But he does describe the theory and practice of Renaissance medicine with 358 Reviews359 more patience for detail than most of these earlier books had expended on it, and the historical account of medical practice in Elizabethan England is interesting in its own right. He describes, for example, the fluctuating lines of demarcation between surgeons and more theoretical physicans, the latter being disposed (more than Galen himself, many of whose tenets were based on his observations) to trust their books at the expense of actual experience. Lay-women, he shows, had an especially important role in the treatment of the sick, and were often highly knowledgeable about medicine—not merely the superstitious crones versed in country lore described by Burton in his Anatomy. He emphasizes the major diseases that were current in Shakespeare's time (including the plague, syphilis, and the still mysterious sweating fever that figures so graphically in Nashe's Unfortunate Traveler) as well as common disorders and treatments described in the Elizabethan health manuals. Underlying Elizabethan medicine was the corpus of Galenic writings focusing on humoral physiology, and this Hoeniger describes in detail, as well as the revisionist theories of Paracelsus and his followers. Despite the reverence in which Galen was held in the Renaissance, his assumption that mental processes (and disorders) depended on physiology needed some modification by Christian theorists intent on asserting the autonomy of the "soul." Paracelsus' alchemical medicine claimed to be more "Christian" as well as more firmly based on experience, and his followers found...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 358-360
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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