Kaara L. Peterson, Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England

Kaara L. Peterson, Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England(Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 217 pp. £55. hb. ISBN 9780754669937

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England provides an important contribution to understandings of early modern medical knowledge. The value of Peterson’s book is underpinned by a careful methodology that clearly distinguishes hysterica passio from later formulations of hysteria, and which historicises early modern hysterical diseases without simplifying ambiguities in early modern representations of such diseases. Through her analysis of the representation of hysterical disorders within medical writings – including those of Culpeper, Crooke, Raynalde, Burton, Sharp, Chamberlayne, Barrough, Bartholin, Bright, Forman, and Jorden – Peterson identifies how hysterical disorders that were “particularly legible in a variety of cultural discourses” (p.11) have been misunderstood and misrepresented through reductive glosses within scholarship about early modern drama. Peterson demonstrates how ‘Historicist approaches simply have often fallen short of defining key medical concepts’ (p.15) and have consequently distorted early modern attitudes towards hysterical disorders and the significance of such diseases when they are alluded to, or directed incorporated, within dramatic works. By illuminating the cultural prominence of particular uterine disorders, moreover, Peterson offers insightful new readings of familiar scenes from plays by Shakespeare, Webster, Ford, Middleton, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Chapman.

Within her first chapter, Peterson examines the representation of hysterica passio within a variety of medical sources. The chapter identifies the problems of diagnosis and treatment of hysterica passio, while highlighting the centrality of such hysterical disorders to understandings of women’s health. Peterson’s observation that women’s wombs are invariably the source of women’s diseases in the early modern period is not, of course, in itself new. However, Peterson uses the specificity of medical discourses regarding hysterical disorders to challenge the emphasis that has been placed upon melancholic disorders within modern scholarship. Peterson argues that early modern ideas about melancholy have been overplayed in a manner that has contributed to diminishing the subtleties particular to the construction of the hysterical figure. This erasure of the hysterical figure, Peterson suggests, has been reflected in failure, on the part of literary scholars, to register the meanings attached to hysterical disorders within early modern literature. Using the example of King Lear’s case of ‘the mother,’ Peterson exposes how different editions of King Lear have glossed over the inclusion of a hysterical disorder in relation to Lear. Peterson reads Lear’s reference to hysterical disease as the representation of a misdiagnosis, rather than, for example, a reading that dismisses the reference as Shakespeare’s misunderstanding of women’s diseases. Throughout her book, Peterson returns to King Lear as an example through which she shows how recurring, but hitherto overlooked, allusions to hysterical disorders have significance for interpreting a play. In chapter two, for example, Peterson suggests how problems related to making judgments about female uterine disorders are explored in King Lear. Lear’s response to the dead Cordelia is shown to adopt the familiar tests for hysterica passio (a disease that could leave its victim in a temporarily paralyzed and apparently state dead, but where revival and recovery were expected).

In chapter two, Peterson’s presents what is perhaps her most provocative argument regarding the significance of hysterical disorders within early modern drama. Peterson notes how stage strangulations and suffocations are often followed by the victim’s brief revival, and that these women (including Shakespeare’s Desdemona and Webster’s Duchess of Malfi) are commonly regarded by their murderers as having a disorderly sexuality. As ideas about disorderly female sexuality were often associated with notions of a disordered womb, Peterson suggests that the suffocated female has imposed upon her the signs of hysterical disorder (disorders that were known, for example, as the ‘strangulation’ or ‘suffocation’ of the womb/mother). While the female’s temporary revival completes the allusion to hysterical disease, however, the murderous act does not allow for the revival to be permanent. Peterson suggests that this relationship between stage strangulations and hysterical disorders might be viewed in relation to negative attitudes towards female sexuality. This compelling notion of death that mimics hysterical disease, however, might well suggest more than Peterson allows. That these deaths are tragic and regrettable, for example, seems to pose additional questions regarding the mis/interpretation of female bodies and perhaps more specifically the interpretation of hysterical disorders.

In chapter three, Peterson examines ideas of female authorship in relation to hysterical disorders through the analysis of ‘blood letters’ in the drama of Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Ford and Kyd. Paying particular attention to Bel-Imperia’s blood letter in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Peterson questions assumptions within current criticism regarding the autonomy suggested by acts of writing. In the enforced and disenfranchising ‘blood letter’ written by Bel-Imperia, Peterson observes tensions surrounding women’s writing that is ‘quite literally “underwritten” by their compromised and even poisonous pathology’ (p.11).

Peterson’s fourth chapter draws largely upon Edward Jorden’s published response to the outcome of a court case concerning the odd behaviour of one Mary Glover in 1602. Jorden, a physician who had provided his professional opinion during court proceedings, uses the tract to defend and explain his diagnosis of a uterine disorder in order to challenge the court’s verdict that Mary’s behaviour was the result of demonic possession. Within his tract, Jorden outlines different symptoms of hysterical disease, including that of bodily paralysis and apparent death. Peterson uses Jorden’s tract to establish the cultural prominence of debates regarding hysterical disorders. In particular, Peterson suggests that the revivification of suffers who have appeared to die became a familiar motif in Renaissance drama. Peterson points out that such a revival clearly occurs in Pericles, but the chapter primarily deals with Hermione’s return in The Winter’s Tale. Peterson convincingly establishes that Hermione is represented in terms that recall causes and symptoms of hysterical disorder. While such observations seem to suggest the possibility of revival (and an explanation for it once it has occurred), this is not, however, the same as saying (as Peterson does) that such a revival is anticipated in Hermione’s case. The Winter’s Tale seems to highlight many possible ways of interpreting events, but audience expectations seem to be continually manipulated rather than fulfilled. It is worth remembering, for example, that Shakespeare’s play deviates considerably from what appears to have been a well-known narrative source (Robert Greene’s Pandosto), where the Queen remains dead. In terms of audience expectations, therefore, Hermione’s death might not initially be identified as a hysterical disorder, even if it may become one upon reflection. Her return from ‘death’ might not, therefore, be anticipated as such.

Nonetheless, Peterson’s book poses new and important questions about early modern medical knowledge, critical practice and the representation of hysterical disease on the early modern stage. Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England is a valuable addition to scholarship of the early modern period and will be of particular use to readers interested in historical understandings of female health, medicine in literature, Shakespeare scholarship and representations of women on the early modern stage.

Victoria Sparey, University of Exeter

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