Disease, diagnosis and cure on the early modern stage

It’s been so quiet here this week that the Blogosphere Ecosystem has taken Kafkaesque measures and has metamorphosed me into a “lowly insect,” I notice. Time for a book review!

I have been reading Disease, Diagnosis and Cure on the Early Modern Stage, edited by Stephanie Moss and Kaara L. Peterson (Ashgate 2004). The central premise of this collection of essays is that early modern theatre and medicine are mutually constitutive: the theatre appropriates medical discourses in its representations of subjectivity, but medical discourse also draws on the rhetoric of theatre.

The volume traces the early modern theatrical representations of what it calls the “perilous and shifting” conjunctions of nature, disease, the patient, the practitioner’s art, and performance. It is made up of three parts, the first of which focuses on “performance and the practitioner.” Kaara Peterson’s essay in this section focuses on issues of performance in exorcisms. She analyzes the competing claims of medicine and religion in representations of exorcisms of possessed women, and explores how notions of performance interreact with these discourses.

In the section on race, nationhood and discourses of medicine, Carol Thomas Neely argues that humoral theory in the early seventeenth century is still the dominant conceptual system in medicine (although it is a fluid and contradictory discourse that easily appropriates other discourses). Moreover, like Mary Floyd-Wilson in Reading the Early Modern Passions, she demonstrates that humoral theory provided the resources to begin to conceptualize ethnic, national and racial differences. Where Floyd-Wilson looked at “English mettle” – notions of courage and spirit – in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Neely looks at representations of lovesickness in early modern drama. Because humoral theory, climatological theory, as well as lovesickness are driven by notions of temperature, this allows plays to project extremes of lovesickness away from English bodies, and onto Mediterranean ones. Neely shows how humoral and climatological theories intersect in plays by Shakespeare, and in Middleton’s The Changeling, and identifies four strategies for representing Mediterranean bodies. In the same section, Catherine Belling in a fascinating article examines how the trope of bloodletting, a practice that in Galenic medicine stabilizes a distempered humoral economy, in the drama functions to legitimize violent revenge.

In book’s final section on conflicting discourses, two of the essays focus on the conflict between Galenic and the Swiss physician Paracelcus’ medicine. Lynette Hunter views Romeo and Juliette as a play in which the contesting models of these two medical discourses are contrasted in representations of melancholy, while Stephanie Moss discusses the interrelations between Paracelsan and Galenic medical discourses in Othello. Paracelsan medicine is more empirical than Galenic, and offered a radically new concept of disease, in which illness is not caused by an internal imbalance, but by an exterior influence. Moss argues that Othello’s shift in identity from an assimilated warrior to a black outsider can be traced in a shift from Paracelsan to a Galenic representations of the body in the play.

Possibly because the book originated at a meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, Disease, Diagnosis and Cure does not read like a unified whole in the way that Reading the Early Modern Passions with its thematic and almost programmatic introduction, does manage to. It is, however, a thought-provoking collection of essays that allow the reader to glean new insights into early modern ideas on the workings of the body. Take this quotation from the work of the seventeenth-century French author André du Laurens in Neely’s essay on lovesickness, for example, which describes the subtle as well as the more martial operations of love at first sight.

[Love enters through the eyes, and] maketh a way for it selfe smoothly to glaunce along through the conducting guides, and passing without any perseverance in this sort through the veines unto the lives, doth suddenly imprint a burning desire to obtaine the thing, which is or seemeth worthie to bee beloved, setteth concupiscence on fire, and beginneth by this desire all the strife and contention: but fearing her selfe too weake to incounter with reason, the principal part of the minde, she posteth in haste to the heart, to surprise and winne the same: whereof when she is once sure, as of the strongest hold, she afterward assaileth and setteth upon reason.

Other reviews of Disease, Diagnosis and Cure:

  • Samuel Glen Wong in Renaissance Quarterly 58:2 (2005)
  • Raymond A. Anselment in Journal of British Studies 44:3 (2005)
  • Not all contributions are mentioned in this review, here is a complete table of contents
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