Doctor, Take a Cue From Shakespeare

Mind-body links frequent in the Bard's plays and poems, researcher says

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 23, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors might gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection by reading the plays and poems of William Shakespeare because he regularly used physical symptoms to illustrate his characters' deep emotions, a researcher suggests.

Dr. Kenneth Heaton, a medical doctor and Shakespeare expert, analyzed 42 of Shakespeare's works and compared them to 46 works by his 16th-century contemporaries. The results are published in the Nov. 24 issue of the journal Medical Humanities.

Heaton found that Shakespeare was far more likely than other authors of his time to describe characters in emotional distress as having psychosomatic symptoms such as dizziness or faintness, and blunted or heightened sensitivity to touch and pain.

Male characters in "Taming of the Shrew," "Romeo and Juliet," "Henry VI Part 1," "Cymbeline," and "Troilus and Cressida" experience vertigo, giddiness or dizziness. Only one other work by another author includes a similar incident.

Eleven descriptions of breathlessness associated with extreme emotion are described in "Two Gentlemen of Verona," "The Rape of Lucrece," "Venus and Adonis," and "Troilus and Cressida," compared with two in the works of other writers of the time.

Shakespeare linked fatigue and weariness to grief or distress in a number of plays, including "Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "As You Like It," "Richard II," and "Henry IV Part 2." The Bard used this mind-body link twice as often as his contemporaries, according to the new report.

Disturbed hearing linked to intense emotion is described in "King Lear," "Richard II" and "King John," while blunted or exaggerated senses occur in "Much Ado About Nothing," "Venus and Adonis," "King Lear," "Love's Labour's Lost" and "Coriolanus."

"Shakespeare's perception that numbness and enhanced sensation can have a psychological origin seems not to have been shared by his contemporaries, none of whom included such phenomena in the works examined," Heaton wrote in a journal news release.

The researcher also noted that Shakespeare used body coldness and faintness to convey shock -- including in "Romeo and Juliet," "Titus Andronicus," "Julius Caesar," "Love's Labour's Lost" and "Richard III" -- much more often than other writers of his time.

The findings show that Shakespeare "was an exceptionally body-conscious writer" and should remind doctors that physical symptoms can have psychological causes, Heaton said.

"Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, over-investigation and inappropriate treatment," Heaton explained in the news release.

"They could learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare. This is important because the so-called functional symptoms are the leading cause of general practitioner visits and of referrals to specialists," he noted.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about the mind-body connection.

SOURCE: Medical Humanities, news release, Nov. 23, 2011
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