To be or not to be? This question may be philosophical, but Hamlet might have had a physical reaction to his pondering—at least, that is the theory proposed by a physician who has analyzed 42 of William Shakespeare’s plays to discover the body-mind connection in many of the Bard’s characters.
Kenneth Heaton, a medical doctor and extensively published author on Shakespeare, systematically analyzed the author’s major works and 46 of those of his contemporaries, looking for evidence of psychosomatic symptoms, according to a press release from the British Medical Journal.
He focused on sensory symptoms other than those relating to sight, taste, the heart, and the gut.
He found that Shakespeare’s portrayal of symptoms including dizziness, faintness, and blunted or heightened sensitivity to touch and pain in characters expressing profound emotions was significantly more common than in works by other authors of the time, the press release noted.
Heaton concludes that his data show that Shakespeare “was an exceptionally body-conscious writer,” suggesting that the technique was used to make his characters seem more human and engender greater empathy or raise the emotional temperature of his plays and poems.
And his findings should encourage doctors to remember that physical symptoms can have psychological causes, he suggests.
“Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, over investigation and inappropriate treatment,” Heaton says.
Vertigo, giddiness and dizziness is expressed by five male characters in “Taming of the Shrew”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Henry VI” part 1, “Cymbeline” and “Troilus and Cressida”. The nearest approximation in contemporaries’ works was one incident in John Marston’s “The Malcontent.”
There are at least 11 instances of breathlessness associated with extreme emotion in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” “The Rape of Lucrece,” “Venus and Adonis” and “Troilus and Cressida,” compared with just two in the works of other writers.
Fatigue or weariness as a result of grief or distress is a familiar sensation among Shakespeare’s characters, most notably in “Hamlet,” “The Merchant of Venice,” “As You Like It,” “Richard II” and “Henry IV”. This crops up twice as frequently as in other contemporaries’ works, says Heaton, whose report was published in Medical Humanities.