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  • Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage by Todd H. J. Pettigrew
  • Carol F. Heffernan (bio)
Todd H. J. Pettigrew. Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic: Medical Narratives on the Early Modern English Stage. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007. 197 pages. $85.00.

Todd Pettigrew's Shakespeare and the Practice of Physic studies the medical practitioners that appear in Shakespeare's plays in the context of tracts and vernacular medical texts that were part of the debate on medical practice sparked by the establishment of the College of Physicians of London in the early sixteenth century. The College of Physicians attempted to establish a hierarchy of medical practitioners with themselves at the top. Pettigrew argues that "Shakespeare's drama consistently questions and challenges the elite physicians' claim on absolute authority in medical matters" (30). His introductory chapter (chapter 1) focuses on the rhetorical question the king in Cymbeline puts to the physician who delivers the news of his wife's death, "Who worse than a physician/Would this report become?" (5.5.27-28). Pettigrew suggests that the question "is the subtle medical refrain of the most sophisticated drama of the age" (30). The next five chapters each takes up one kind of practitioner of the healing arts: "the empiric," with no formal training but with practical experience (usually a woman); the university-trained physician; apothecaries and friars; surgeons; and, finally, those who heal with magic. Left unsaid is that most of the sick in Shakespeare's day, as in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, did not have the good fortune to be treated by a doctor of physic such as Richard Napier, mentioned several times by Pettigrew. Napier was a physician and clergyman whose medical records, kept from 1597–1634, are the source of Michael MacDonald's study of madness in seventeenth-century England, Mystical Bedlam. Napier's patients were exclusively dukes and duchesses and other members of the highest ranks of [End Page 161] the aristocracy. Patients were usually treated by barber surgeons who performed such operations as bleeding, tooth-drawing, and cauterization; midwives; apothecaries; and members of the clergy who were long in the habit of curing men's bodies together with their souls. Except for the clergy, these other leeches were unlatined and, therefore, unversed in the Latin medical authorities that formed the basis of university medical training. This reality makes more striking Pettigrew's assertion that Shakespeare challenges the establishment physicians.

Chapter 2 presents Helena's cure of an ailing king in All's Well that Ends Well as Shakespeare's "case for greater tolerance in medical practice" (60). The king at first rejects Helena's offer of help because, as a woman, she lacks the formal training of the "learned doctors" of "the congregated college" (2.1.115-16) and, therefore, he groups her with "empirics" (2.1.121) who were thought to privilege experience over formal training. Helena, however, is no mere female empiric; she has inherited remedies from her father, Gerard de Narbon, a famous physician. In the end, the king calls Helena a "sweet practiser" of "physic" (2.1.183-84) and declares himself her "resolved patient" (2.1.203). Chapter 3 is primarily concerned with Macbeth and demonstrates the powerlessness of physicians—the establishment practitioners—to heal conditions beyond the physiological. Called in to treat the madness of Lady Macbeth, the physician seems to judge her condition in need of spiritual rather than medical treatment: "This disease is beyond my practice" (5.1.60). Timothy Bright's A Treatise of Melancholie would seem to concur: "the affliction of soul through conscience is quite another thing than melancholy." Chapter 4 takes up marginal practitioners: the apothecary and friar who appear in Romeo and Juliet, the one play that does not challenge the elite physicians' claim to absolute authority in medical matters. Both the apothecary and the friar exceed the limits of their profession, and thus lead to disaster. The apothecary breaks the laws of Mantua when he sells Romeo the poison because of his poverty; Friar Laurence's potion concocted for Juliet would have been forbidden by the College...


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