The Diagnostic and Treatment Guide by William Shakespeare

Numerous symptoms which patients may consult with their doctors about have no obvious physical cause leading to confusion on both the side of the patient and the doctor. Many of these, Shakespeare claimed, were due to psychological problems resulting in emotional effects on the body.

Dr Kenneth Heaton, retired Consultant Gastroenterologist, believes that many doctors, particularly GPs, are reluctant to link physical symptoms to psychological problems and could “…learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare.” His research, published in Medical Humanities, focuses on the following symptoms which confused doctors due to the lack of an obvious physical cause:

• Dizziness
• Fatigue
• Fainting
• Disturbed hearing

Shakespeare frequently mentioned such symptoms in his works and related them to psychological illnesses such as shock, anxiety and grief. Dr Heaton believes that “Shakespeare had an extraordinary insight into the psychology of human beings…”

The risks of symptoms not being attributed to emotional problems are delayed diagnoses, unnecessary tests and inappropriate treatments. Indeed, Addiction Specialist Robert Lefever writes that people suffering from cancer, diabetes or heart attacks are offered help and are grateful to receive this whilst those suffering from psychological disorders such as addiction are less likely to be diagnosed and therefore are less likely to receive support.

Likewise, whilst eating disorders result in a physical outcome their intention is not physical, according to expert, Barbara Pearlman. She writes that people do not ‘starve’ themselves in order to look like a model but that they become anxious in emotional situations and have difficulty in putting their emotions into words. These eating disorders are not because of food but are due to psychological effects.

Might we then, learn something in how to care for ourselves and others through studying Shakespeare? Advocates of a broader curriculum for medical students suggest that learning literature and other humanities alongside their medical studies can make students view symptoms and diagnoses from a range of perspectives.