Share this page

Shakespeare and medicine: Susanna’s stomach complaint

Find out about the treatment prescribed by Shakespeare's son-in-law, John Hall, for his wife Susanna.

Rebekah Owens
Select Observations by John Hall, 1657
Select Observations on English Bodies by John Hall and James Cooke, 1657 (SR 97.8/). Hall describes his treatment of Susanna Hall, his wife, on page 24.

When Susanna, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, was afflicted with a rather painful stomach condition, she was able to seek treatment very close to home. Her husband, John Hall was a physician whose practice extended as far as Worcester and who was well-respected. Doctors from this period are popularly characterised as using leeches for everything, often bleeding a patient so much that their health worsened. Hall was more progressive. He was less inclined that most to resort to blood-letting, instead using mixtures and compounds of herbs in various forms to minister to the sick. He was especially noted for his use of purgatives (laxatives), and emetics (drugs to induce vomiting) being once described by someone who had benefited from such treatment as ‘most excellent in that art’ [Lady Tyrrell writing to Lady Temple; Ackroyd, p. 427].

How Hall treated his patients is a matter of record, as his case notes, originally written in Latin, were translated and published by the Warwickshire surgeon James Cooke. Sadly, there is no record of Hall’s treating his father-in-law, William – although he undoubtedly would have done – perhaps because there was another volume of the notes which is now lost [Lane, 2004, pp. 623-4] 

What we do have is an entry in the case notes in which Hall describes treating his wife, Susanna. It seems she was struck down by a rather bad bout of stomach ache. The notes describe her as ‘miserably tormented with the Colic’ which suggests abdominal spasms. Hall first gave her an enema, then called a clyster, made of substances familiar to us today, rhubarb and senna, which were held together by a mixture of oil of rue and milk. This provided only temporary relief and, as Hall recorded, after the treatment, she was still in pain. Hall then treated her with a second enema, this time ‘a Pint of Sack made hot.’ Essentially, this means he heated up a pint of white fortified wine (think of it as a cheap sweet sherry). This had the desired effect of relieving her pain, though in a rather noisy way. Hall described the treatment as bringing ‘forth a great deal of Wind.’


Sources:

  • Ackroyd, Peter. 2005. Shakespeare: The Biography. London: Chatto & Windus. [Reading Room 25/]
  • Hall, John & James Cooke. 1657. Select Observations on English Bodies. London: John Sherley [SR – 97.8/]
  • Lane, Joan. 1996. John Hall and his Patients. SUA: SBT Alan Sutton [97.8/LAN]
  • Lane, Joan. 2004. ‘John Hall’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol 24, Oxford: OUP [Reading Room 93.1]
  • Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1977. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press. [Reading Room 25/SCH]

 If you'd like to find out more about John Hall and Shakespearian era medicine, pay a visit to our Method in the Madness exhibition at Hall's Croft, or view the exhibition online.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs