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Learn from Shakespeare, doctors told

24 November 2011, 09:42

Paris - Doctors should read up on Shakespeare, according to an unusual medical study that says the Bard was exceptionally skilled at spotting psychosomatic symptoms.

Kenneth Heaton, a doctor at the University of Bristol in western England, trawled through all 42 of Shakespeare's major works and 46 genre-matched works by contemporaries.

He found Shakespeare stood out for his ability to link physical symptoms and mental distress.

Vertigo, giddiness or dizziness is expressed by five male characters in the throes of emotional disturbance, in The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VI Part 1, Cymbeline, and Troilus and Cressida.

Eleven instances of breathlessness linked to extreme emotions are found in Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis and Troilus and Cressida.

Grief or distress is conveyed through symptoms of fatigue in Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Richard II and Henry IV Part 2.

Disturbed hearing at a time of mental crisis crops up in King Lear, Richard II and King John.

Meanwhile, coldness and faintness, emblematic of deep shock, occur in Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Richard III and elsewhere.

"Shakespeare's perception that numbness and enhanced sensation can have a psychological origin seems not to have been shared by his contemporaries, none of whom included such phenomena in the works examined," Heaton observes.

Shakespeare can help doctors today who face patients whose physical state masks underlying emotional problems, he suggests.

"Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, over investigation, and inappropriate treatment," Heaton points out.

"They could learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare. This is important because the so-called functional symptoms are the leading cause of general practitioner visits and of referrals to specialists."

The study appears on Wednesday in a British publication, the Journal of Medical Humanities.


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