Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up ...'
This is a plausible symptomatic description of the intermittent, breath-restricting pain caused by pleurisy [earlier known as pleuritis], a suggestion at least as early as 1886. In contrast, as used by Shakespeare, the word pleurisy denoted a plethora, or excess of blood. This use is thought to have arisen from the idea that the word pleurisy was derived from plus pluris.
e.g in Hamlet Act IV, Scene 7:
e.g in Hamlet Act IV, Scene 7:
"For goodness, growing to a plurisy
Dies in his own too much."
Dies in his own too much."
Pleurisy, local pain and difficulty in breathing, usually arises from inflammation of the pleura - the membranes that lines the lungs and inner walls of the thoracic cage. These inflammatory processes lead to adhesion of the visceral to the parietal pleura.
Dr Charles Buckmill, writing in 1860, was sceptical of the medical nature of Prospero's curse, seeing it as a blend, half health, half magical in character.
How could Prospero have predicted this would happen to Caliban? Were there poisons at the time [1610-11] that Prospero could have given to Caliban to cause reversible pleurisy? And how did doctors of Shakespeare’s day diagnose pleurisy? The pain of pleurisy is often knife like or cramp-like pain, and worse on inspiration. Pleuritic pain is typically altered by posture, eased in some positions, made worse in others.
These symptoms we now recognize as pleurisy were well-established in Tudor and early Jacobean times; and post-mortem examination was then in European medical centres a route to understanding (or misunderstanding) the nature of disease in retrospect. The Hippocratic writers were already diagnosing pleuritis from a cluster of symptoms: pain in the side, fever, shivering, rapid breathing, difficulty in breathing when lying flat [orthopnoea] and cough productive of pomegranate-peel coloured or blood-stained sputum. From 300BC, discussion moved to the pathology of pleurisy, with a distinction between disease in the lung (e.g. Herophilus: modern pneumonia) and pleuritis as a disease of the membrane that lines the inner part of the ribs [membrana hypezocota] and resulting in increased pain on lying on the unaffected side [because lung movements than are greater at the site of pleural inflammation], or in some greater when lying on the affected part.
Pleurisy results in abnormal lung sounds, which, if loud, would have been audible by a physician placing an ear against the chest [auscultation]. This medical diagnostic method is thought to have been used by Ancient Egyptian physicans. However the key early method of diagnosing pleurisy was ‘hardening of the pulse’.
On listening with a stethoscope, a pleural friction rub is heard. Laennec, the inventor in 1816 of the stethoscope, called this friction sound ‘frottement ascendant et descendant’ and ascribed it to emphysematous change in the lungs. Descriptions of the rub include - a scratchy sound similar to that of a door opening on a rusty hinge; or similar to the sound or two pieces of sandpaper rubbed together. Laennec also used described ‘aegophony’ in pleurisy - a sound like the bleating cry of a goat. Laennec considered that pleurisy was typically associated with modest accumulation of fluid in the pleural cavity (pleural effusion). However with too much pleural fluid, lung sounds disappear, including pleural rubs.
Recognition of pleural effusion goes back to early Babylonian medicine. Small lead tubes discovered in ancient Babylonian sites are considered to have been trochars – implements inserted through the chest wall to drain pleural fluid. With the benefit of modern imaging, it is now easy to be clear in life that both ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ forms of pleurisy may develop.
Contributors to the germ theory of disease range from Varro in 36BC, to microscope inventor Van Leeuwenhoek’s reports in the 17th Century, and Semmelweiss and Pasteur in the 19th Century. Modern medicine recognizes pleurisy, pleuritic pain and its other symptoms as part of a syndrome. Investigations aim to identify the cause of the pleurisy, which might include viral or bacterial infection, pulmonary embolism, immune-mediated disease, kidney failure and tumours. In addition pneumothorax may present wth pleuritic pain. Of note as early as the early 17th Century, the Paduan Vincent Baronius recognized that patients with pneumonia can also develop pleurisy [pleuripneumony], a concept more widely disseminated by Morgagni a century later.
Back to Prospero’s curse. If not just author’s invention, here are some possible recurrent disorders symptoms of which Prospero could be predicting.
- Pleurisy is typical worse at night, when during attempts at sleep the sufferer may turn to adopt a posture likely to make pleurisy worse and thus awake in pain and breathless.
- Tuberculosis may not be fatal but may leave a patient with pleurisy.
- Malaria was endemic in Shakespeare’s day, including in Mediterranean islands such as Sicily. Attacks of malaria are known sometimes to present with cramping chest pains – and the anaemia of malaria could have made Caliban breathless, especially if were already anaemic. For example his inherited deformed appearance could have had a physical rather than imaginary basis. Thalassaemia – common in the Eastern Mediterranean setting of ‘The Tempest’ - may cause of chronic severe anaemia and is associated with facial deformity.
- And familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), a genetic disorder common in the Mediterranean, is a recurrent painful disorder of membranes, including the pleura. And FMF induced joint disease could contribute to a deformed appearance.
Prospero may thus simply have been reminding Caliban of previous or likely medical afflictions. Clearly the scientific details are modern, however these conditions were endemic at the time and present in the right geographical setting for the play.
More on history of pleurisy, stethoscopes and older treatments:
1. Hippocrates. Index of symptoms and diseases. vi. 33. Loeb edition. Translated by P. Potter. London, 1988.
2. Shakespeare's doctor son-in-law John Hall describes use of scabious as a herbal remedy for ‘pains and stitches in the side’.
3. Laennec, R. T. H. (1819) De l’Auscultation Médiate ou Traité du Diagnostic des Maladies des Poumons et du Coeur. Paris: Brosson & Chaudé.
4. The cyclopaedia of practical medicine: comprising treatises on the nature and treatment of diseases ... Volume 1 Edited by Sir John Forbes, Alexander Tweedie, John Conolly. Publishers Whitaker et al, Paternoster Row, London 1833.
5. The medical knowledge of Shakespeare by Sir John Charles Buckmill MD, Longman, 1860.
7. Wilson, A. (2000) On the history of disease concepts: the case of pleurisy, History of Science, Volume 38 (3), 271 – 319.
© DRJ Singer