Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

The eight physicians of Shakespeare

Edward Tabor
Bethesda, Maryland, United States

William Shakespeare created eight physicians in his thirty-eight plays (Table I)1; seven of them appear on stage, and the eighth, Gerard de Narbon, though deceased, has a medical reputation that forms an important part of one of the plays.2 All eight physicians have functional roles in the plays; in addition, one is used as a source of humor and two others allow Shakespeare to show his admiration for the medical profession.    

Name of the PhysicianPlayYears the Play Was Written
Doctor CaiusThe Merry Wives of Windsor1600-1
Gerard de Narbon (deceased)All’s Well That Ends Well1603-4
DoctorKing Lear1605-6
English DoctorMacbeth1605-6
Scottish DoctorcMacbeth1605-6
Cerimond Pericles1608-9
Doctor Buttsf Henry VIII1612-13
Table I. Physicians in Shakespeare’s playsa,b

There were three categories of medical practitioners in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Physicians and surgeons cared for patients much as they do today. A third group, the apothecaries, functioned as general practitioners; they dispensed medical advice as well as medications. Shakespeare used both the words “physician” and “doctor” interchangeably to mean “physician,” more or less as we do today. In his thirty-eight plays, he referred to physicians a total of 109 times: “physician” thirty-five times and “doctor,” meaning physician, seventy-four times, not including use in stage directions.4,5,6 He mentioned surgeons thirteen times,5,7 but none appear on stage. He mentioned apothecaries five times,5,8 but only as providers of medications and not in their role as general practitioners; only one apothecary appears on stage.8

Shakespeare also mentioned physicians as a class to indicate that a character was about to die, a common stage device in Elizabethan drama. To do this, he wrote that the patient “hath abandoned his physicians” (All’s Well, I.i.15), that the physicians did “fear” for the patient (Richard III, I.i.137; I Henry IV, IV.i.24), or that the physicians did “give him over” (Timon of Athens, III.iii.11-12).

It is noteworthy that two of Shakespeare’s physicians, Doctor Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the late Gerard de Narbon in All’s Well that Ends Well, were French. This suggests that Elizabethan audiences were used to hearing about physicians who came from France.

Shakespeare used Caius’ medical profession as a source of humor. The other characters call him “my Aesculapius” and “my Galen” (Merry Wives, II.iii.30). They joke about the common practice at the time of making diagnoses by examining a patient’s urine, saying “Thou art a Castalion-King-Urinal,” and they call him “Mounseur Mockwater,” also in reference to the examination of urine (Merry Wives, II.iii. 34; 59-60). His misunderstanding of English expressions is also used for humor (Merry Wives, II.iii.62-101).

Shakespeare clearly admired Gerard de Narbon as the ideal physician, a man “whose skill was almost as great as his honesty” (All’s Well, I.i.21). Gerard’s outstanding reputation plays a key role in the action of All’s Well that Ends Well. The memory of his medical ability is respected by everyone, including the king.

Shakespeare also expressed his admiration for what physicians do for their patients. In Pericles, Cerimon, a noble lord of Ephesus who is a physician as well, says:

‘Tis known I ever
Have studied physic, through which secret art,
By turning o’er authorities, I have,
Together with my practice, made familiar
To me and my aid the blest infusions
That dwell in vegetives, in metals, stones;
And I can speak of the disturbances
That nature works, and of her cures, which doth give me
A more content in course of true delight
Than to be thirsty after tottering honor,
Or tie my treasure up in silken bags …
(Pericles, III.ii.31-41)

And one person comments:

… hundreds call themselves
Your creatures, who by you have been restored …
(Pericles, III.ii.44-45)

When Cerimon miraculously revives the queen, he exclaims to the god of medicine, “Aesculapius guide us!” (Pericles, III.ii.111).

Shakespeare and Dr. John Hall

Shakespeare began to include physicians in his plays around 1600, around the time Dr. John Hall, his future son-in-law, moved to Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford.9 Stratford was a small town, so they could have been acquainted as early as 1600. Hall married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607; the couple apparently remained close to Shakespeare, since Susanna was the predominant beneficiary of Shakespeare’s will (in contrast to his other daughter).10 Hall was only eleven years younger than Shakespeare, and had a large medical practice drawing patients from Stratford and beyond, including “Persons Noble, Rich and Learned,” according to a contemporary physician.9 Hall may have been a model for some of the eight physicians in Shakespeare’s plays.

Hall might also have taught some medical things to Shakespeare, either in answer to questions or by describing his cases. He certainly had a storyteller’s personality; he kept a written account of diseases, treatments, and results of more than 1,000 patients, selections of which were published after his death in 1635 (in three editions published in 1657, 1679, and 1683).9

Even in his earlier plays, written between 1591–1600, Shakespeare described clinical illnesses and used many medical metaphors. Thus, Shakespeare clearly also had other sources for his medical knowledge, either from reading, conversations with other physicians, or observations of life around him. 

Table notes

  • a Table I is modified from Simpson, 19623
  • b Shakespeare, who lived from 1564-1616, wrote 38 plays between 1591-1613.
  • c Called “A Scotch Doctor” in the Dramatis Personae, and “A Doctor of Physic” in a stage direction
  • d Called “Cerimon, a lord of Ephesus” in the Dramatis Personae
  • e Called “Cornelius, a physician” in the Dramatis Personae
  • f Called “Doctor Butts, physician to the King” in the Dramatis Personae

References and notes

  1. Harrison GB, ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952. All quotations of Shakespeare’s works are from this volume.
  2. One additional physician, Doctor Shaw, is named in passing and does not appear on stage (Richard III, III.v.103).
  3. Simpson RR. Shakespeare and Medicine. Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1962, pages 70-1.
  4. Of the eight physicians in Table I, three are referred to by both the words “physician” and “doctor” (Caius, Cornelius, and Butts), and in one instance even in the same passage (Cornelius). Three others are described only with the word “doctor” (the doctor in King Lear, and the two doctors in Macbeth) and one only by the word “physician” (Gerard de Narbon). One physician, Cerimon, is described without using either word; Shakespeare writes only that Cerimon “studied physic” [Pericles, III.ii.31-41]), followed by a description of his practice and philosophy. 
  5. Open Source Shakespeare. Concordance of Shakespeare’s complete works. Viewed at https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/.
  6. However, in The Merchant of Venice, the word “doctor” was used to mean a “doctor of laws” (Merchant of Venice, IV.i.105; 153-154).
  7. Shakespeare mentions surgeons thirteen times. In five instances, someone either says “fetch a surgeon” to treat wounds (Romeo and Juliet, III.i.97) or similar words (King Lear, IV.vi.196; Merchant of Venice, IV.i.257; Othello, V.i.30; Twelfth Night, V.i.175). In one instance, someone refers to a surgeon who was observed to be drunk at eight o’clock in the morning (Twelfth Night, V.i.189-191). Most of the remaining references to surgeons are metaphorical, such as “I am, indeed, sir, a surgeon to old shoes; when they are in great danger, I recover them” (Julius Caesar, I.i.22), and “Opinion shall be surgeon to my hurt” (I Henry VI, II.iv.53).
  8. Shakespeare mentions apothecaries five times. In two plays, they are providers of poisons. Cardinal Beaufort orders, “bid the apothecary bring the strong poison that I bought of him” (II Henry VI, III.iii.17-18). Romeo goes to an apothecary to buy a poison for his suicide (Romeo and Juliet, V.i.57-78); this is the only apothecary who appears on stage. 
  9. Simpson, 1962, pages 91-126.
  10. Shakespeare, William. “Shakespeare’s Will,” 1616. National Archives (UK). Viewed at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/museum/additional_image_types.asp?extra_image_type_id=2&image_id=29.

EDWARD TABOR, M.D. has worked at the US Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute (NIH), and Fresenius Kabi. He has published widely on viral hepatitis, liver cancer, and pharmaceutical regulatory affairs. A book of his essays, Unusual Encounters: Medicine, Shakespeare, and Historical Moments, will be published in Spring 2024.

Winter 2024



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