Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds Down here in the stacks at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, I’m holding in my hand a book that comes pretty well as close to Shakespeare’s family life as any other.
Skip to 0 minutes and 21 seconds It’s by a doctor. Its title page reads, “Select observations on English bodies or cures both empirical and historical performed upon very eminent persons in desperate diseases. First written in Latin by Mr. John Hall, Physician living at Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, where he was very famous, as also in the counties adjacent as appears by these observations drawn out of several hundred of his, as choicest, and now put into English.” Mr. John Hall, Physician living at Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. John Hall was Shakespeare’s son-in-law. And amazingly, one of the cures he mentions in his book was carried out on his own wife, on Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. This is Case Number 19 in Hall’s book. “Mrs. Hall of Stratford, my wife,
Skip to 1 minute and 21 seconds being miserably tormented with the colic was cured as follows: Re diaphen diacapholic ana ounce one hoc and three to Lact q f clypt. This injected gave her two stools. Yet the pain continued, being but little mitigated; therefore I appointed to inject a pint of sack made hot. This passed presently, brought forth a great deal of wind and freed her from all pain to her stomach.
Skip to 1 minute and 59 seconds And was applied then a plaster: de labt cratac cum caran et spec aromat rosat et ulmarkis, which one of these clysters I delivered - with which one of these clysters I deliver the Earl of Northampton from a grievous colic.” So what Hall is doing here is putting together medical concoctions and producing, first of all, a drink and then a clyster to purge all the illness out of his wife. And he says he’s successfully performed the same operation on the Earl of Northampton. And it gives you a glimpse of the way in which herbal medicine was still so crucial in Shakespeare’s England. One of the things he speaks of here, speculum aromatum rosatum.
Skip to 2 minutes and 53 seconds Aromatum rosatum was a concoction of no fewer than 15 different herbs and spices all ground together, mace, cinnamon, cardamom. It sounds like a kind of Elizabethan curry. And it certainly seems to have the effect in getting a great deal of wind out of his colicky wife. So doctors did have a degree of success with physical conditions through this combination of bleeding, purgation, and the various forms of herbal remedy. But what about mental health? Could anything be done in that regard? We saw in Andrew Board’s “Brethery of Health,” describing the nature of madness, that he distinguished between the temporary heat of a fever and true insanity. What remedy was there for insanity, he asked.
Skip to 3 minutes and 49 seconds He said, well there’s very little that can be done. One thing you should do is make sure that the patient is put in a room where they cannot harm themselves or anybody else. But he also says it should be a room where there are no paintings or painted cloths on the wall because one doesn’t want the imagination of the insane patient to be further inflamed by things that they might see. Towards the end of “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth, who was so strong on the night of the murder, has become a mere shell, a shadow of her previous self. She is haunted by the memory of the murder.
Skip to 4 minutes and 31 seconds Famously, she comes on sleepwalking, rubbing her hands, trying to get the spot of blood off her hands. And of course, she can’t get it off because it isn’t really there. It’s in her imagination. “How does your patient, doctor?” asks Macbeth. “Not so sick, my lord,” replies the doctor, “As she is troubled with thick coming fancies that keep her from her rest.” That’s why Andrew Board says you don’t want to have paintings in the chamber of a victim of madness because they will give them more fancies, more ideas. “Cure her of that.”
Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds says Macbeth, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?” So there Macbeth is taking all those physical cures that John Hall used for the colic. The idea of plucking something out from the body, erasing something, applying an antidote, cleansing the bosom, all those things that physically could be done for a colic, can you do them mentally for a memory? Well of course, you can’t, the doctor replies. “Therein the patient must minister to himself”. To which Macbeth replies dismissively, “Throw physic to the dogs. I’ll none of it.”
Skip to 6 minutes and 13 seconds There’s a limitation to what medicine can do. It’s very interesting that in “Macbeth” and a couple of the other plays written around the same time, written shortly after Shakespeare’s daughter had married John Hall, that Shakespeare became interested in doctors, doctors and the idea of the possibility of health being restored become quite a theme in the plays. But in the case of the madness of Lady Macbeth, the doctor is insufficient. And soon after this, of course, she dies. We do not know whether it’s suicide, exactly what has happened. And Macbeth’s response is very calm. “The queen, my lord, is dead.” he’s told. “She should have died hereafter”; says Macbeth, “there would have been a time for such a word.”
Skip to 7 minutes and 10 seconds And then he goes into his great speech. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps on this petty pace from day to day.” In which he compares life, human life, to being “a poor player,” strutting, and fretting our hour “upon the stage” and then we are heard no more. Macbeth has become phlegmatic, even as he comes close to death himself. So what we see from these passages is that knowing a bit about the medicine of Shakespeare’s time, like knowing a bit about witchcraft beliefs in Shakespeare’s time, make us see something of the complexity of the way in which in “Macbeth” Shakespeare explores questions of what is real and what is imaginary.
Skip to 7 minutes and 57 seconds And of course, the extra layer of exploration, that is always there, is revealed to us by Macbeth comparing life to being a play - we are but poor players. Because in the end, however much the characters on stage debate, are the witches is real, is the dagger real, is this a momentary frenzy or true madness, is the ghost of Banquo really there or not, in the end of course the whole of the play is something that’s made up. Something that is imaginary. Something that is invented.
Skip to 8 minutes and 33 seconds It is a fiction, but it’s a fiction that tells deep truths about human nature and deep truths that were of particular interest to King James, as he would have sat in the audience at court performances.