Shakespeare and Long-term Illness

Hermione livesWe recently discovered that a family friend has cancer. Luckily (happily? thankfully? not sure what the word is to use there) it is a reasonably treatable one with a life expectancy measured in decades.  But, you know.  Still.

That got me thinking. If her husband asked me over a beer, “So, what’s Shakespeare got to say about this?” I don’t know how I’d answer. For years I have spoken about finding the answers in the works of Shakespeare, how the entirety of human experience and emotion can be found within the pages.  “If you’ve ever felt it,” I bet you could find me saying, “Shakespeare wrote about it.”

Pretty sure Shakespeare never mentioned cancer.

So let’s talk about it.  I’m trying to think of places where a character is ill and not going to get better. Or perhaps a more reasonable comparison might be, “Knows that he is going to die before his time and there’s nothing left to do about it but contemplate what that means.” What about the characters around them?  The woman I’m thinking of is a wife and mother.  The journey they’ve been put on isn’t just for her and her husband, her kids are part of it as well.

Technically there’s the king in All’s Well That Ends Well, but that doesn’t really count – he gets better.

Hamlet is really one long contemplation on what life is all about, but it’s not really what this post is about.  Hamlet’s father’s murder is not the same thing – being taken suddenly is not the same as having a long time to prepare for it coming.  I suppose if we had Polonius or Ophelia say a single word about what happened to Ophelia’s mother, there could have been something there.

The Winter’s Tale?  I don’t have time to go through the text right now but if Leontes believes his wife to be dead, taken from him before her time, doesn’t he have some thoughts on the subject? True she ends up coming back to him, but at the time he thinks she’s gone forever.

Are there no examples of a sick character? Surely the idea of, “You are sick, and you are only going to get worse until you finally die” was a thing in Shakespeare’s time, regardless of the name they attached to it.  Did Shakespeare give us any characters in that situation? I suppose in a time of plague that was a pretty depressing topic, but he mentions it in places like Romeo and Juliet so it’s not like the subject was totally off limits.

Getting back to the original premise, I’m open to discussion on the idea.  If a friend of yours was suddenly confronted with their own impending mortality (or that of a loved one), what comfort can Shakespeare offer?




3 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Long-term Illness

  1. That Cardinal Beaufort is at point of death;
    For suddenly a grievous sickness took him,
    That makes him gasp and stare and catch the air,
    Blaspheming God and cursing men on earth.
    Sometimes he talks as if Duke Humphrey’s ghost
    Were by his side; sometime he calls the king,
    And whispers to his pillow, as to him,
    The secrets of his overcharged soul;
    And I am sent to tell his majesty
    That even now he cries aloud for him

  2. Richard III isn’t inspirational, but he’s got long term health problems, no?

    I don’t think he’s particularly comforting about death. Lots of characters contemplate their death, but not especially cheerfully.

    John of Gaunt?
    O, but they say the tongues of dying men
    Enforce attention like deep harmony:
    Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
    For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
    He that no more must say is listen’d more
    Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
    More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before:
    The setting sun, and music at the close,
    As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
    Writ in remembrance more than things long past:

  3. I’ve thought about this for a while. What about Henry IV (the character), especially in 2 Henry IV? I don’t know that play well, but it’s been clear for a while that he’s going to die in Jerusalem.

    Anyone know something specific about that play?


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