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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Osias Dyck painting

Object 88 - What does this Dutch oil painting, attributed to Osias Dyck, and currently hanging in Hall's Croft, have to tell us about medicine in Shakespeare's day?

Stephanie Appleton

Stephanie Appleton is a doctoral researcher in the History department at Birmingham.

'A Doctor Casting the Water', a painting by Osias Dyck and from the Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
'A Doctor Casting the Water', a painting by Osias Dyck and from the Collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

This Dutch oil painting, attributed to Osias Dyck, dates from around the 1660s and currently hangs in Hall’s Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her physician husband, Dr John Hall. Rather fittingly, it depicts a doctor ‘casting the water’ of a patient, or in other words, inspecting his urine in order to diagnose an illness. Shakespeare employs this concept as a metaphor in Macbeth (1605), where in this scene the ill-fated thane reflects on his troubles as the inevitable bloody conclusion draws near:

‘Macbeth: … If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee…’ (Macbeth, 5. 3. 52 – 55)

Ill health could be a particularly unpleasant business for early modern men and women, who did not have the benefit of the variety and availability of our modern treatments. Nowadays we have a wide range of pills and potions available for all manner of ailments, but this was not so in Shakespeare’s England. Any remedies tended to be drawn from nature’s resources with variable efficacy, and in fact for most ‘ordinary’ people visiting the doctor for a cure would probably have been out of the question, primarily due to the cost involved. Instead, people might seek out a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and ‘Carry [their] water to the wise woman’, as Fabian recommends when referring to Malvolio in Twelfth Night (3. 4. 94).[1]

Doctors charged – often handsomely – for the services they provided, and as a result their patients tended to be the wealthier members of a community or region. The doctors themselves also became wealthy, and indeed the physician in this painting certainly appears so; an elaborate carpet adorns his desk, full bookshelves are visible in the background, and he is well-dressed, although not in an ostentatious manner. He wears a hat of the style of the mid-seventeenth century, which suggests that he could afford the latest fashions, and is draped with a luxurious red cloak or covering, perhaps to keep him warm, but also no doubt to display his wealth and social standing. His patient – also well-dressed, although in a simpler style – has removed his hat as a sign of respect and stands patiently awaiting his diagnosis.

Dr John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, kept a record of some of the patients he treated, and these were published in the late seventeenth century. They make for fascinating reading. A cure for a cold, for example, recommends taking ‘Ointment of Orange-flower, with it anoint brown paper, and apply it to the Breast twice a day’,[2] while a solution containing such ingredients as fennel and white rose water were recommended to be dropped ‘into the Eye thrice a day warm’, for a gentleman who had been ‘hurt in the Eye with a Foil’ (a fencing sword).[3] Considering that the damage from such an accident might have been quite substantial, it’s difficult to imagine eye-drops having any real benefit! (See a previous blog post formore of Dr Hall’s remedies and some early modern theories about the common cold.)

Are there any odd or interesting early modern remedies that you’ve encountered? Do you know of any which are still in use today? Do get in touch and let us know!

[1] My thanks to Cathleen McKague for this reference.

[2] John Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (1679), p. 209. Accessed via EEBO (Early English Books Online), 29/09/13 <>

[3] Ibid, p. 210 <>