Can Shakespeare Teach Us About Health and Wellness?

Heart health
April 9, 2019

You know what April 23 is, don’t you? That’s right, it’s Shakespeare Day! In honor of everyone’s favorite playwright, we’ve put together a guide to the Bard’s preoccupation with health and wellness.

There are more than 500 references to medical maladies in Shakespeare’s work, with countless more around wellness-related topics like sport and sleep. Not to mention all the obscure Renaissance foods and weird ingredients that pepper the pages of his plays. So, what can the Bard’s work tell us about health in Elizabethan times, as well as our modern approach to diet, fitness, and rest?

1. “Sleep, Nature’s soft nurse” (Henry IV, Part 2)

Shakespeare makes frequent references to sleep, and many of his characters, from Macbeth to King Henry V, suffer from clinical sleep disorders like sleep apnea, somnambulism, and insomnia. And although references to “sweet, oblivious antidotes” and “drowsy syrups” illustrate that sleep disorder medicines have been around for awhile, Shakespeare implies that they rarely work, and that sleep disorders are largely caused by underlying psychological issues. Which isn’t that far from where modern science is now. Centuries before these types of disorders were recognized by medical professionals, much less treated, they had been performed before thousands of audience members on the stages of Elizabethan London, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

2. “Give them great meals of beef…” (Henry V)

“… and iron and steel, they will eat like wolves and fight like devils.” Back in Shakespeare’s time, beef wasn’t just the quintessential English food. There was also a weirdly widespread belief that consuming this much-loved Renaissance food led to bravery or courage, making it the perfect food for a pre-battle supper. That being said, there was also a train of thought that eating beef caused stupidity. Well, perhaps this is just two halves of the same coin. As they say in This Is Spinal Tap, there’s a such a fine line between stupid and clever.

3. “Like a football you do spurn me thus” (The Comedy of Errors)

Shakespeare talks about “sport” throughout his plays, but he’s not talking about sport in the way that you or I would understand it. Back in Elizabethan times, the word “sport” was used to mean a variety of different things, including gambling, sex, and war. Games like tennis were generally reserved for the elite, while soccer was considered to be an activity that the masses could enjoy. So, when Kent calls Oswald a “base football player” in King Lear, it’s probably a reference to the wild, lower-class origins of that sport.

4. “The death of each day’s life” (Macbeth)

Earlier, we gave Shakespeare his props for those eerily accurate portrayal of sleep disorders, but one area where the Bard might have got it wrong is his antipathy to diurnal (daytime) sleep. Shakespeare often depicts daytime slumber as a sign of bad character, most notably when he talks about Falstaff’s distasteful habit for “sleeping upon benches after noon.” We can’t really hold it against him, though, as this was a common belief in Elizabethan times. Day sleeping was believed to lead to illnesses and fever, not just because it was abnormal, but because it was seen as undignified and even unnatural. These days, sleeping in the daytime doesn’t attract nearly the same opprobrium. It’s generally accepted that napping may have health benefits—be sure to check out our blog post for a bit more info—while for people who work nights, it’s pretty much unavoidable anyway.

5. “As whole as a fish” (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)

Today, everybody talks about the great health benefits of eating fish, and they’re right to do so, because it is legitimately awesome for your body. And while fish were considered inferior to meat back in Tudor times—possibly because this Renaissance food was a little too Catholic for the Protestants’ liking—fish played a massive role in Elizabethan trade. Elizabeth I ordered weekly “fish days” to boost the domestic fishing industry and reduce the price of meat, which must have had a fantastic effect on the nation’s health, regardless of whether that was the intention!

6. “Can’st thou minister to a mind diseased?” (Macbeth)

Shakespeare wasn’t just concerned with physical health, but mental health as well. He understood that extreme levels of stress could be unhealthy, as did many Elizabethans, who had a relatively enlightened approach to mental health. As it happens, Shakespeare’s own son-in-law, John Hall, attempted to treat a girl suffering from mental health problems with laxatives and enemas. Okay, so by modern standards that sounds kind of wacky, but it’s a far cry from the popular belief that people who suffered from psychiatric problems in Tudor times were “madmen” who needed to be ostracized from society.

As you can see, there are tons of references to health in Shakespeare’s plays, and while he didn’t always agree with the prevailing wisdom of the day, it’s clear that many Elizabethans had sophisticated and thoughtful attitudes towards the concept of wellness. This Shakespeare Day, why not pay homage to the big man by cooking up a nice, healthy fish dish and enjoying a good night’s rest?
Photo: Shakespeare statue at the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Library of Congress.