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On Shakespeare and cutaneous diseases

      Abstract

      Disorders with dermatologic features are intractable and rife in Shakespeare's world. For this reason, they occupy an unusual position in culture. “The plague” and “leprosy” are popular insults and epithets—indictments of not external pathogens but of moral failure. It may be no surprise to identify, as a present-day reader, syphilis and the plague in early modern England, but what about other dermatologic conditions at the time? “The plague,” “leprosy,” “the pox,” and “measles” are commonly used terms, although ultimately interchangeable in Shakespeare's plays. Rosacea and scurvy, however, are described by Shakespeare before they become named entities. Bardolph's skin characterizes his alcohol addiction and thievery, and Caliban's “monstrous” form mirrors his state as an untouchable in society. Shakespeare also documents the “royal touch” in Macbeth, which links the ability of a monarch to heal the skin lesions of extrapulmonary tuberculosisto political legitimacy. Shakespeare does little more than document this historic ritual around the skin, but he does catalogue the ways these acquired diseases of the skin are used in daily speech and character writing. At the end of Macbeth, the “royal touch” gives Prince Malcolm the backstory and political precedent to march on Dunsinane Hill to reclaim the Scottish throne.
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