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A pox upon him: Shakespeare accused of causing misery to people with skin conditions


Some people just cannot do anything right. Take the world’s greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. Centuries after he made his name, he is being blamed for bringing misery to millions. Not, as some might expect, from being forced to study his works at school, but for suffering stigma over unsightly skin.

In what is a departure from the numerous studies looking at everything from leprosy to skin cancer, medical experts are claiming that Shakespeare’s success has resulted in a painful legacy for people will skin disease.

The playwright is the subject of new research being revealed to hundreds of doctors during the annual conference of the British Association of Dermatologists.

The rash of Shakespearean insults based on people’s appearance, whether it is King Lear branding his daughter Goneril “an embossed carbuncle” or a prostitute calling a soldier a “scurvy companion” in Henry IV part II, is cited as a cause of the continuing persecution of people for the way they look.

In a paper entitled "Is Shakespeare to blame for the negative connotations of skin disease?", British researchers from the universities of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby claim that Shakespeare reflected the Elizabethan obsession with flawless pale skin, and while he “may not have accepted Elizabethan society’s negativity towards skin disease, it can be argued that his success has led to its perpetuation”.

Dr Catriona Wootton, a dermatologist at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, and co-author of the study, said: "Elizabethan London was a melting pot for diseases such as plague, syphilis and smallpox. Many of the diseases of the time involved lesions or sores on the skin, so skin imperfections were seen as a warning sign for contagious disease.” Shakespeare used these “negative undertones to his advantage, employing physical idiosyncrasies in his characters to signify foibles in their behaviour,” she added.

A spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists said: “Much of the Elizabethan stigma over disfiguring skin disease still persists today. Even now, many examples exist in films and literature where visible disfigurements are used to represent villainy or malice. Nobody is suggesting that we edit Shakespeare but maybe we should ensure that new films and books don't reinforce this stereotype."

But fans of the playwright are rallying to his defence. Stuart Hampton-Reeves, head of the British Shakespeare Association, told The Independent: “Shakespeare was a product of his era so we cannot expect him to confirm to modern attitudes and it is far-fetched to blame modern day prejudices on Shakespeare's works.”

And Professor Michael Dobson, the director of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute, said: “Has any writer in history ever suggested that the symptoms of skin disease are attractive? And have audiences for the last 400 years really been coming out of theatres saying ‘Ah yes – I’d nearly forgotten – pox is to be avoided. What a genius Shakespeare was!’ Next week: has the fairy tale of Snow White been creating a misleadingly favourable impression of dwarfism?” 

Pox, carbuncles and plague: Shakespeare's lack of skin care

Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines are insults over people’s appearance. Take King Lear for instance, when the beleaguered monarch berates his daughter Goneril: “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle”.

From phrases like “scurvy knave” used in Romeo and Juliet, to “a pox upon him” in All's Well That Ends Well and “foul moles and eye-offending marks” in King John, skin problems are referenced throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

In Henry IV part I, a man with a red nose is dubbed “an everlasting bonfire-light” and “knight of the burning lamp”. And in Coriolanus, Marcius (Coriolanus) curses his enemies: “Boils and plagues Plaster you o'er, that you may be abhorr'd.”

Herpes is alluded to in A Winter’s Tale: “If I prove honey mouthed let my tongue blister”. While in A Midsummer's Night Dream, a blessing to young couples includes the line: “Never mole, hare-lip nor scar... shall upon their children be”.