Shakespeare 'could help doctors become better'

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William Shakespeare
Image caption,
Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare's works that could help doctors, it was argued

Reading William Shakespeare could give physicians a fresh insight into the links between emotion and illness, a retired doctor and scholar believes.

Dr Kenneth Heaton says many doctors fail to connect psychological problems with physical symptoms - and argues the playwright could help them do it.

He listed dozens of examples in which Shakespeare described these phenomena in his works.

"They could learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare," he said.

While traditional medical school training never strays far from the science of diagnosis and treatment, there has been growing interest in recent years in including courses on health-related art, history or literature as part of the curriculum.

Dr Heaton, from North Somerset, who studied Shakespeare after retiring from his post as a gastroenterologist, believes that a broader perspective could make it easier to understand the viewpoint and needs of a patient, particularly in general practice.


His latest research, published in the journal Medical Humanities, focuses on real symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, fainting, and disturbed hearing, produced by underlying emotional distress, which can sometimes confuse doctors as they have no obvious physical cause.

The frequency of these psychological illnesses in Shakespeare should be a mark not only of his "body-conscious" approach, but also of their importance to doctors, he believes.

Media caption,
Dr Kenneth Heaton says doctors should take notice of the way Shakespeare connects the emotions and the body

Notable examples include the fatigue suffered by Hamlet, grief-stricken for his murdered father, who complains of his "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable" existence, and the headache suffered by the cuckolded Othello.

In King Lear, when Gloucester is led to the point of attempting suicide, his son Edgar notes that his "senses grow imperfect" because of his anguish.

In Romeo and Juliet, feelings of both coldness and faintness are used to convey shock. In all Dr Heaton found at least 43 references to physical problems caused by psychological stress in Shakespeare's works - far more than in other authors of the same period.

He said that the reluctance of modern doctors to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance could cause delayed diagnoses, and unnecessary tests and treatment.

"Shakespeare had an extraordinary insight into the psychology of human beings, extending to the emotional effects on the body.

"Some medical schools have more in the way of humanities teaching than others, but many doctors would be able to learn something from Shakespeare."

Dr Paul Lazarus, a senior clinical educator from the University of Leicester, is one of those advocating a broader curriculum at medical schools, possibly including subjects such as the history of medicine, its depiction in literature and art, and even the architecture of hospitals.

He said: "While it isn't for everyone, it can help make students more capable of being able to view problems from a wider range of perspectives."

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