Medical Knowlege: Re-posting No. 39 of 100 Reasons “Shake-speare” was the Earl of Oxford

In his edition of the Shakespeare sonnets, the Stratfordian scholar Stephen Booth includes the title page of The Newe Jewell of Health, wherein is contained the most excellent Secrets of Physic and Philosophy, divided into four Books by the surgeon George Baker, published in 1576.

Booth presents an illustration of the doctor’s important book in connection with Sonnet 119, which builds upon metaphors and analogies from alchemy and medicine:

What potions have I drunk of siren tears,

Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within…

“Shakespeare” knew all about the “distillations” of waters, oils and balms as set forth by Dr. Baker, whose book has been long considered a key source for the Bard’s interest in alchemy as well as the full range of medical knowledge at the time. It happens that Baker, who would become surgeon to Queen Elizabeth, was the personal physician of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and dedicated The New Jewel of Health to the earl’s wife Anne Cecil. Baker had dedicated his first book, Olenum Magistrale (1574) to de Vere himself, and in 1599 dedicated his Practice of the New and Old Physic to the earl as well. Baker was part of the household of de Vere, whose patronage helped to make it possible for this medical pioneer to write his books in the first place.

This is one example of how “Shakespeare’s” remarkable knowledge of medicine is mirrored by Oxford’s own connection to the leading medical experts and advances of his time, not only in England but also on the Continent. If Baker had just once treated Shakspere for a cut finger, upholders of the Stratford faith would have devoted entire books to that medical incident and its influences upon Shakespeare’s writings. On the other hand, Booth uses a full page to illustrate The Newe Jewell of Health in connection with Shakespeare’s sonnets, but never indicates that Baker dedicated that very book to the wife of the leading candidate to replace the Stratford man, nor does he mention that the doctor dedicated two other books to the earl of Oxford himself!

Scholars often try to “dumb down” Shakespeare’s works to avoid having to explain how he could have acquired such amazing knowledge. They tell us things like, “Well, see, he really didn’t know that much.  He wrote about stuff that anyone in England could have picked up, in the tavern or on the street, and of course he made mistakes…”  If something is too large to be filled by the Stratford man’s pitifully small biography, it must be cut down to fit, even while “the miracle” of his “genius” is further inflated, to explain the inexplicable.

Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577)

De Vere requires no such adjustments. to explain the knowledge displayed by “Shakespeare” in his works. As for exposure to medical knowledge, he was tutored during childhood by Sir Thomas Smith, known for his interest in diseases, alchemy and therapeutic botanicals. Then he had access to Cecil’s library with some 200 books on alchemy and medical topics. In his twenties Oxford lived next door to Bedlam Hospital, a source of firsthand knowledge about patients suffering from mental illness.

Oxford’s life forms a picture that deepens our perceptions of the great plays and poems.  And because of the Oxfordian authorship theory, researchers are continually finding new evidence that “Shakespeare” was even more brilliant than we have been able to know and appreciate.

Dr. Earl Showerman

Earl Showerman, M.D., points out that the Shakespeare plays contain “over 700 medical references to practically all the diseases and drugs” that were known by the year1600, along with “knowledge of anatomy, physiology, surgery, obstetrics, public health, aging, forensics, neurology and mental disorders,” not to mention “detailed knowledge of syphilis.” Dr. Showerman quotes from Shakespeare and Medicine (1962) by R.R. Simpson, who reports that the poet-dramtist demonstrates “not only an astute knowledge of medical affairs, but also a keen sense of the correct use of that knowledge” – a sign that he was well acquainted with the medical literature of his day.  Another work is The Medical Mind of Shakespeare (1986) by Aubrey Kail, who writes that the Bard’s plays “bear witness to profound knowledge of contemporary physiology and psychology” and that he “employed medical terms in a manner which would have been beyond the powers of any ordinary playwright or physician.”

“The Medical Mind of Shakespeare” by Aubrey Kail (1986)

Another Oxfordian researcher, Frank M. Davis, M.D., writes that in Shakespeare’s time “true medical literature, like medicine itself, was still in its infancy,” so he could not have absorbed much from reading what was available in English: “The vast majority of medical works were published in Latin or Greek.”

Davis finds it “remarkable” that Shakespeare refers in three plays to the pia mater, the inner lining of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. “Knowledge of this relatively obscure part of anatomy could only mean that Shakespeare had either studied anatomy or read medical literature … Even more striking to me as a neurosurgeon is his acquaintance with the relationship of the third ventricle with memory,” he adds, noting a possible source was Thomas Vicary’s Anatomy of the Body of Man (1548), which refers to the third ventricle as the ‘ventricle of memory’” – a phrase used in Love’s Labour’s Lost, when the pedant Holfernes states that his various gifts of the mind “are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of the pia mater…” (4.2.70-71)

“The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man” by Thomas Vicary (1490-1561)

William Harvey (1578-1657)

While the discovery of the circulation of blood has been assigned to William Harvey, who announced it in 1616, “Shakespeare” was likely aware of it long before then.  There are “at least nine significant references to the circulation or flowing of blood in Shakespeare’s plays,” Davis writes.

England was far behind the advances in medical technology taking place on the Continent. Most of the great doctors and teachers were based at the University of Padua, then the center for medical learning; others studied there before returning to their hometowns to practice medicine.

University of Padua

Oxford, touring the cities of Europe during 1575 at age twenty-five, visited Padua at least once, probably twice.  “With the background in pharmacology gained from his years with Sir Thomas Smith,” writes Davis, “it seems unlikely that Oxford would visit Padua without attempting to discover the latest developments in ‘physic.’”

Fabricius (1537-1619)

In the previous year, the Renaissance doctor Fabricius had discovered “the valves in veins responsible for keeping the blood flowing in one direction toward the heart,” Davis notes, adding that Fabricius was “the first to bring this important discovery to light.” Even if Oxford had never met Fabricius in person, it is “easy to imagine” that the great teacher’s 1574 discovery of those valves, along with other topics related to the circulation of the blood, “would have been an ongoing staple of conversation among the students and faculty at the time of Oxford’s visit the following year.”

[This is an updated version of the original blog, the way it now appears as No. 59 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford (2016),reflecting the work of editor Alex McNeil, with other editorial help from Brian Bechtold. (Published by Forever Press.]

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Always fascinating, thanks, Hank

  2. Thanks for this Hank, absolutely fascinating! I especially liked the mention of Sir Thomas Smith who lived for a while down the Thames from me at Ankerwicke, famous for its ancient yew tree. I went there recently and made a video, I speculate a bit! I still remember your show at The Globe a few years back now.

    • Hey Geoff thanks for checking in and for the link to your fascinating tour. Wonderful!


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