Shakespeare can teach doctors about mind-body link
November 25th, 2011
10:58 AM ET

Shakespeare can teach doctors about mind-body link

You probably never thought about reading the works of William Shakespeare for medical advice, but it turns out that the Bard had a keen understanding of the mind-body connection, a study in the journal Medical Humanities reports.

Dr. Kenneth Heaton of the department of medicine at the University of Bristol argues that Shakespeare, more than his contemporaries, depicts the relationship between psychological distress and bodily symptoms.

The findings "should encourage doctors to remember that physical symptoms can have psychological causes," Heaton wrote in the study.

Heaton examined the 42 major works of Shakespeare and 46 works by contemporaries, matched according to genre. He found that symptoms that have roots in the psyche, including vertigo, breathlessness, fatigue, faint feelings and cold feelings are all more common in Shakespeare's works.

A famous example of the psychological causes of fatigue is in "Hamlet," where Hamlet says "O God, O God / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" and ends with "But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue." Hamlet's mother and step-father have asked him to remain in Denmark, and Hamlet, disgusted by their marriage that happened so soon after his biological father's death, contemplates suicide in this speech in Act I Scene II. Heaton also cites passages from "The Merchant of Venice," including Antonio's opening confession o his friends: "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. / It wearies me, you say it wearies you."

Shakespeare was also convinced that vertigo, marked by unsteadiness or a feeling of loss of control, could be brought on by extreme emotion. These days, that connection isn't commonly seen, but vertigo can be a stress-related symptom. Writers have used it as a metaphor for existential distress, but Shakespeare knew about its bodily effects: "He that is giddy thinks the world turns round," a widow in "Taming of the Shrew" says.

Unlike any of the Bard's contemporaries that Heaton studied, Shakespeare depicted characters losing hearing at times of high emotion. In "King Lear," Gloucester, who is blind and believes there is a cliff edge below him to jump off of, admits to his son Edgar that he does not hear the sea. "Why then, your other senses grow imperfect by your eyes' anguish," Edgar says. It could be all metaphorical, since psychosomatic deafness is not seen in the 21st century, but Heaton posits that perhaps in Shakespeare's time stress did cause symptoms related to ears.

Why so much attention to the mind-body connection? Maybe he wanted to make his characters seem more human or more relatable to the audience, or perhaps he unconsciously emphasized these symptoms because of his own body-consciousness. The examples Heaton could have all been written purely as metaphors, but he argues that the specificity of bodily symptoms and psychological feelings should not be dismissed as such.

"Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, overinvestigation and inappropriate treatment," Heaton writes. "They could learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare."

soundoff (57 Responses)
  1. LV Wallets

    Very scholastic article!

    November 25, 2011 at 13:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jos

      Yeah. I've got to go out and find me an alternative Shakespeare doctor asap.

      November 25, 2011 at 17:33 | Report abuse |
    • lorema

      Of course he was right and still is for all psyche related problems affect our liver most if the times and no drug will be effective unless pressure on this organ is relieved.

      November 26, 2011 at 09:42 | Report abuse |
  2. bilge

    too bad doctors are more interested than making money than your momma.

    November 25, 2011 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jos

      To the author:
      He has not so much brain as ear-wax (Troilus and Cressida)

      Read more: http://techland.time.com/2010/04/23/peace-ye-fat-guts-how-to-diss-shakespearian-style/#ixzz1el8oylrr

      November 25, 2011 at 17:36 | Report abuse |
    • William Wallace

      Dead on, I have all the symptoms

      November 25, 2011 at 19:50 | Report abuse |
  3. Portland tony

    Good article. All I can picture is Hamlet "Alas poor Yorick! I knew him......"and the holding of an outstretched skull.

    November 25, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. RabiaDiluvio

    You don't need to interpret subtle clues to come to the conclusion that Shakespeare may have been chronically depressed. All it takes is a read of his plays.

    November 25, 2011 at 16:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. J

    Using Shakespeare as an example is foolhardy. In Shakespeare's day, a lot of serious health issues were considered psychological when in fact they came from infections and diseases. This article fails miserably to address physical symptoms from serious non-psychological causes. Too many doctors today are being told to look to a person's mental health - attributing issues to psychological causes or basic non-severe physical causes - rather than digging a bit deeper. As a result, there is a generation of doctors being trained to not listen to their patients or perform diagnostic testing as a means of ruling out certain health issues.

    The problem with healthcare in America is that the cost of diagnostic testing pushes physicians to "guess" far too often then necessary or blame cause on a patient's mental state. It's sad and disgusting. People should spend more time emphasizing the necessity of testing with their physicians instead of looking to Shakespeare for healthcare advice.

    November 25, 2011 at 17:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Petruchio

      You Sir/Ma'am could not be more correct.

      November 25, 2011 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
    • M.Rose

      Doctors simply don't listen to their patients' own knowledge of their own bodies and NEVER look into causes of their complaints but would rather give you some prescription or other and shoo you out the door. If they spent as much time LISTENING to their patients instead of THINKING THEIIR OWN THOUGHTS while the patient is talking to them, they would actually LEARN SOMETHING FROM THEIR PATIIENTS.

      November 25, 2011 at 19:34 | Report abuse |
    • little sissy

      mrose is correct. there's nol listening and no thinking. There's just the robotic ordering of tests. health care cost rise and quality falls .

      November 25, 2011 at 22:11 | Report abuse |
  6. Frank Lolly

    "Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, overinvestigation and inappropriate treatment" – is patently false. More often symptoms are ignored because the patient is emotionally fragile.

    November 25, 2011 at 17:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      doctors have no time for the patient. They have become data entry techs entering data into computer without looking at the patient...and no one complains.

      November 25, 2011 at 22:19 | Report abuse |
  7. jos

    Comment, where art thou?

    November 25, 2011 at 17:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jos

      Oh, but it was merely a cyberlag.

      November 25, 2011 at 17:37 | Report abuse |
  8. jos


    November 25, 2011 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Squarf of the Apocalypse

    You feel dyspeptic because you are dyspeptic, and your days are full of dyspepsia. Take something that will make you belch frequently and loudly so that you can make others dsypeptic. The alternative would be rude.

    November 25, 2011 at 19:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. alexis montalban

    Great article, but how about Shakespeare's Macbeth?. Sleeplessness caused by paranoia and guilt, and observations from the doctor about how the patient is the cause of his ills and how only he (the patient) can tend to his ills.

    November 25, 2011 at 20:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Elizabeth Landau

      What an excellent observation! Thanks for reading.

      November 26, 2011 at 16:12 | Report abuse |
  11. FauxNews

    Me thinks if you examine Dr. Seuss, you would also findeth against strange maladies a sovereign cure fish for blue fish.

    November 25, 2011 at 20:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. danny

    Do you realize that a doctor is like a mechanic he only fixes people and gives a few things to make it better but actually focusing on the real problem does not seem to work for them Doctors. Just like a good trained mechanic. The good thing is that we can all learn the same things from books and cure our own self without these dumb doctors! Hehhehehehe just my idea.

    November 25, 2011 at 21:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. sedi

    in my point of view we can name shakespeare as a physiologist due to his writing ,He knows who effect your mind and impart his ideas and emotions to your mind.

    November 25, 2011 at 22:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. bernardwesly

    "Control thy lusts, lest neighbor take vengeance on thee"
    "Thy ugliness is superior to beauty, for thee it lasts"
    "If thou drive like hell, thy bound to get there"

    November 26, 2011 at 01:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Dr Bill Toth

    The Mind-Body connection wasn't broken until Rene Descartes wrote his essays for the kIng. Now several hundred years later research from many fields has re-connected the mind & body. Live With Intention, DrBillTothCom/blog

    November 26, 2011 at 06:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. tamara reina

    This article should make doctors think how suicdal their profession is it make say hmmm. Boy, Shakepeare really makes one think.

    November 26, 2011 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Heather

    "It could be all metaphorical, since psychosomatic deafness is not seen in the 21st century, but Heaton posits that perhaps in Shakespeare's time stress did cause symptoms related to ears."

    Honestly, in times of acute stress, I get a ringing in my ears and it is hard to hear around me. I've noticed a number of times, always a dangerous situation.

    November 26, 2011 at 10:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Isaac Andrew

    You can also read "Mind Character and Personality" vol 1 &2 by E.G.White. Go to Ellen G. White website.

    November 27, 2011 at 06:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Bob in Tucson

    Excuse me??? In "King Lear", things have gone very badly for Gloucester (e.g., his eyes have been gouged out). Thus, he has become so despondent he craves death. His son deceives him into thinking he is at the edge of a cliff overhanging the sea so that the old man can "suicide" harmlessly. The father comments that he CANNOT HEAR THE SEA (as well he couldn't, because it isn't there!). The son makes an excuse that his father's hearing must be defective. And this boob of a writer thinks Gloucester's statement of fact indicates a medical condition?

    November 27, 2011 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. amac

    It's all about mind over matter. And if you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

    November 27, 2011 at 23:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Chris

    Come on!! Seriously?

    November 27, 2011 at 23:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bob

    The body, i.e., the physical neurons in the brain, creates the mind. It is ridiculous that this mind/body dualism myth is still being discussed.

    November 28, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. jj

    Like thinking you are possessed by the devil when you have clinical depression.

    November 28, 2011 at 18:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Rose VanSickle

    VERY Interesting!! Abraham A. Low, M.D., a neuropsychiatrist in the 1930’s, was an ardent fan of Shakespeare. For a while he even gave lectures on the different plays.
    What’s even more interesting is that Low definitely ‘caught’ on to the mind-body connection – as evidenced in his own work. He developed a system of simple cognitive-behavioral techniques – self-help methods for overcoming stress, anxiety, depression, fears, panic attacks, phobias and/or anger.
    This method works!! Thousands of people are living better because of Recovery International wellness techniques. I know – I’m one of them. See: lowselfhelpsystems.org

    November 28, 2011 at 18:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Stacey

    It is very true that "physical symptoms have psychological causes". Consider stress for an example. When a person doesn't have control over day to day stress due to ineffective coping, their body learns to compensate and adapt by making physiological and even some anatomical changes required for homeostasis. When these changes begin to occur, physical manifestations of stress begin to show; therefore, the person who is stressed will then seek assistance from a medical professional. Unfortunately, this scenario is far too common in American society. Most patients do not want to hear that they have tremendous control over the prevention of many diseases–they are quick to defer accountability of their own behaviors.

    November 29, 2011 at 04:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Brian

    I've read these posts for a couple of days and I am intrigued by all the tangents, includnig Shakespeare. My education has taught me that the brain controls all physical functions, volentary and involentary. Yet my experience has taught me that if you can control your brain ( ego, super ego,Id ) you can control all bodily functions, either detrementaly or possitively. In other words "Physical Health is directly dependent upon Mental Health." It's a "No Brainer" now....if I could just wash this blood off my hands.

    November 30, 2011 at 02:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. AMH

    Good article, however, I see a problem as a alternative health practioner and that is the psychosomatic stigma being attached to a cultural icon. The first thing I think of as a result is social engineering. Sad but true.

    December 5, 2011 at 18:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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