Shakespeare's Medical Language: A Dictionary.
By Sujata Iyengar
New York: Continuum, 2011
I learned a ood deal in the course of working my way through Iyengar's dictionary of Shakespearean medical terminology. For example, the first word discussed, "Abhorson," included because it is an alternate spelling for "abortion," led me to view the character in Measure for Measure who bears this name in a new light (Iyengar credits Mario DiGangi for the association). While what follows is sometimes critical, I want to register at the outset the value I find in this text, despite some of the difficulties its user may encounter.
Iyengar's dictionary, part of the Continuum Shakespeare Dictionary Series, is written to a general formula. In the first (A) section of each entry a word is defined and discussed in its early modern sense. This definition is often an in-depth discussion of the OED treatment of the medical usage of the term. Words used in discussing the definition that are treated elsewhere in the dictionary are highlighted in bold so that the reader can pursue the topic through related vocabulary. For example, the word "complexion" is treated thus: "complexion See also humor, race (A) Complexion is both the early modern medical term for the Greek crasis (temperament, or humoral personality) and the manifestation of that temperament in the skin of the face, through its color" (73). Thus, humor, race, and skin (but not temperament) have their own separate entries in the dictionary. Each entry then moves on to a (B) section, which considers how the term is used by Shakespeare. This section includes as many references to the plays and poetry as seem relevant and often suggests how understanding the early modern meaning of the term illuminates a particular Shakespearean passage in which it appears. Section (C) of each entry offers bibliographical information about the term, beginning with sources available in the early modern period and moving forward to contemporary critical discussions.
Although Iyengar refers obliquely to this formula in her brief introduction--"the (A) entries of the dictionary are a little fuller than is usual in this series. In some cases ... the (A) sections overshadow the Shakespearean 'guided tour'" (6)--she offers no other explanation of the format; nor does the series editor, Sandra Clark, mention it in her brief preface. The reader must figure out the organization on her own--in general, a quick and easy task; but I never learned, for instance, what edition of Shakespeare this dictionary relies on (I suspect it is the Oxford/Norton). While each reference to Shakespeare's text is dutifully given a proper line citation, neither the prefatory materials nor the otherwise exemplary bibliographies (one to primary sources, the other to secondary sources) mention any specific edition of Shakespeare. This is certainly not a crippling defect; readers can probably trace down a reference fairly easily. Given the many variations among editions, however, it is annoying.
The A, B, C formula provides a plethora of information about Shakespearean terminology, some perhaps surprising in a medical dictionary. I did not expect to encounter entries for "linen," "apple," "evil," or "potato," for example, but learned something in each of these treatments. Since only words that Shakespeare used in his texts are defined, there are also some odd omissions that may frustrate the volume's likely users, not all of whom will come to this book already knowledgeable about the medical language of the early modern period. Thus, Iyengar does not define "cupping," a common treatment for humoral imbalance, yet her discussion of a "surgeon's box" tells her reader that it is used "for cupping patients to draw out ill humors and to help the body expel disease" (326-27). Shakespeare uses "surgeon's box" only once, metaphorically, in a speech by Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. There, as Iyengar acknowledges, it may just as plausibly refer to the box in which surgeons carried their instruments as to the box that is a specific tool for cupping. To omit common medical terms which don't appear in Shakespeare's texts may be appropriate given the dictionary's focus, but readers need to be told that they will have to look elsewhere for early modern
medical terms that Shakespeare did not use.
Iyengar does not try to be consistent in the categories of words she includes. Many body parts have entries--eye, eyelid, nose, teeth, and buttock, for example--but others, such as mouth, lip, toe, foot, and arm, do not. Similarly, entries are given for certain medical characters from Shakespeare's plays--Caius and Doctor She, for example--but other physician characters, including Cerimon and Cornelius, receive no entry even though they enter Iyengar's discussions in section (B). As is inevitable in a dictionary format, there is a good deal of repetition among the entries. The entry for "humor" explains galenic humoral theory carefully and the individual humors are cross-referenced. But when the cross-references are pursued, the reader gets much the same explanation under "cholor" or "blood" with specific references to that humor's appearance in Shakespeare's texts. This makes sense for a dictionary where a particular term is what first brings a reader to the volume and where complete information for that term must be included in its entry.
As Iyengar makes clear in her introduction, her dictionary is meant for a variety of readers: those who "wish to learn more about possible real-world origins for Shakespearean illnesses and therapies" (6), those who wish to understand Shakespeare's medical terminology in order to better read his work, and even "physicians and other healers" (8) who may be interested in comparing early modern understanding of particular diseases and conditions with modern medical knowledge. Each kind of reader may be interested in a different aspect of the dictionary entries. For me, despite the usefulness of the bibliographies provided in section (C), the most important section of the dictionary entries proved to be section (B) where Iyengar juxtaposes a number of examples of Shakespeare's use of a particular term, both literal and metaphorical. Reading these citations together was in some cases revelatory and in most cases informative for understanding how Shakespeare employs individual words. One example must serve for the whole.
The entry for surfeit, "an excess of something, usually food or drink, and especially sweets and alcohol" (321), contains in its (B) section about two-and-a-half pages. Iyengar first speaks of Orsino in Twelfth Night, who claims he cannot surfeit on love for Olivia (as a woman might surfeit on love), because men have stronger hearts and can digest "larger amounts of food (by virtue of their hotter and dryer constitutions) than women, so they could process larger amounts of the pure blood that nourished passionate love." Her next citation is to Portia's speech after Bassanio has chosen the lead casket, when she pleads "O love, / Be moderate; ... allay thy ecstasy, / ... make it less, / For fear I surfeit" (322). Here Portia seems worried that she will experience exactly what Orsino described women as being subject to in his speech--an excess of passion which will cause her to "surfeit." The citations to "surfeit" continue through Falstaff's literal surfeits, Tamora's "surfeits" on the flesh of her own sons, Octavius Caesar's scorn of Antony's "surfeits" in Egypt, and ends with a series of characters who surfeit on their excessive grief. The entry leaves a reader newly appreciative of the various valences of the term, particularly with regard to its gender implications. Though not all entries have this richness, the volume consistently delivers an enhanced understanding of Shakespeare's use of language.
Once in a while, Iyengar nods in her discussions of the plays. The most unfortunate example is in her entry for "dram." Here she cites Pisanio's speech to Imogen offering her " 'a dram of [the queen's medicine] to drive away distemper', although he has substituted a sleeping-draught for the deadly poison the queen had requested" (108). In fact, Pisanio believes he is giving Imogen a precious medicine not a sleeping potion, and it was Cornelius who earlier, unbeknownst to either Pisanio or the Queen, substituted the sleeping potion for the poison the Queen had requested. A few lines later, there is a similar confusion when, referring to the first act of The Winter's Tale, Iyengar writes that "Camillo refuses to kill Hermione, even with 'a lingering dram' however, the intended victim of poisoning here is Polixenes, not Hermione. Such errors are rare in this detailed and complex text, but they do occasionally pop up.
As a reader of Shakespeare, I will use Iyengar's dictionary for an enhanced understanding of the way in which Shakespeare employed particular medical language. For a quick definition, I would probably go elsewhere, but I would also seek this text out if I wished to pursue either early modern or contemporary discussions of particular terms or concepts. The bibliographical section (C) provides valuable guidance. Even the rarely found surgeon's box has its bibliography: "(C) For a description of the box and instructions on its use, see Guillemeau (fo. 32-33, 1597), Lowe (pp. 388-91, 1634)" (327). On the whole, this is a text I am pleased to have in my library.
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|Author:||Traister, Barbara H.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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