Nameless woe: medical themes in Richard II

As part of our continuing effort to catch up on our backlog, here is Dalrymple in the BMJ (subscription required) on his favorite author:

More has been written about Shakespeare and the law than about Shakespeare and medicine, yet you could still fill a small library with the second group; and it is my contention that every play of his contains much to interest doctors. To test this hypothesis I took one play, Richard II, to scan it for medical interest.


The medical interest of Richard II falls into three categories: the image of doctors, the use of illness as metaphor, and clinical observation. In the play Richard II is depicted as spendthrift and feckless, in thrall to “the caterpillars of the commonwealth,” his greedy and thoughtless courtiers. He is overthrown by his first cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV.


The most pertinent clinical description in the play is that of anxiety and depression, which Richard’s queen feels when she is parted from him and has an intimation of disaster. She suffers from an anxiety state:

“Some unborn sorrow ripe in Fortune’s womb

Is coming towards me, and my inward soul

With nothing trembles”

One of the “caterpillars of the commonwealth,” Sir John Bushy, who is executed before the play is over, tries to console her by telling her that “with false sorrow’s eye” she “weeps things imaginary,” but it does not help her:

“For nothing hath begot my something grief,

Or something hath the nothing that I grieve –

But what it is that is not yet known what,

I cannot name: ’tis nameless woe, I wot [I know].”

This, surely, is an excellent description of her state of mind; and, as usual, Shakespeare is able to convey subjective experience in such a way that we almost experience it for ourselves. How did he do it? Did Shakespeare himself have anxiety? Yes, if he had been ambitious, cautious, reckless, prudent, drunken, sober, brave, cowardly, licentious, puritanical, hypocritical, honourable, foolish, wise, romantic, cynical, and a thousand other things as well.

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