Book Review: Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, by John. J. Ross, M.D.

Apparently, Shakespeare died of mercury poisoning and Emily Brontë had Asperger’s.

The full title of the book is Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers. The author, John J. Ross, is a medical doctor who has gone back to examine the symptoms of several famous writers from history and give them up-to-date diagnoses of their various illnesses. There are ten chapters, each focusing on a different writer (or family of writers, in the case of the Brontës), with each chapter functioning as part biography, part medical history.

I raided the clearance rack at the bookstore not far from the theatre where I’m working this summer and scored six books for less than $40. This was the first one I read from the pile – and really looked forward to digging into it – because the subject matter just sounded interesting on so many levels. And on that front, for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed the pure nosiness of digging into the various biographies and the sometimes sordid details of the lives these writers led. The medical history of various diseases, their causes and their symptoms is gruesome but fascinating. And the historic medical treatment for those diseases could be a horror story on its own.

That said, the book was not well-written – the author is clearly a doctor, not a writer. For the bulk of the book, where he was simply explaining the details of a writer’s life or disease, Dr. Ross’ style was casual and certainly readable. But in three or four chapters, Dr. Ross decided he was going to write a little scene, as though we were there with Shakespeare while he visited his physician, and he did not have the writing skill to pull that off. The scene was still all about cramming in as much information as possible (which kind of felt like bragging, actually, in a ‘look at all the research I did’ kind of way), and the result was clumsy and awkward.

Dr. Ross was liberal with his diagnoses of Asperger’s and bipolar disorder – it felt like someone in every single chapter had one or the other. Or possibly both. He also acted as apologist for the appalling behaviour of several writers. Anything was excusable because they had literary genius. And in the chapter on Nathaniel Hawthorne he floundered for too long in the biography section before he got anywhere near the medical issues.

I found the chapter on Shakespeare the weakest of them all. (And, having lived in the theatre world for fifteen years now, I was most interested in that chapter.) There is a dearth of actual information, so Dr. Ross falls into the trap of assuming that since Shakespeare wrote about something, he must have experienced it. Dr. Ross counted the number of times sexually transmitted diseases were mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, and used an increase in that number to conclude that Shakespeare himself must have contracted one, and a later decrease in number as evidence that Shakespeare was then cured of it. Using the text of the plays as illustration for a point based in fact is one thing, using it as evidence of that point is something else entirely.

[I read a terrible biography of William Shakespeare called Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt that was an egregious offender on that front (I ended up throwing the book across the room halfway through). It was full of ‘Shakespeare wrote such-and-such, therefore he must have…’. And indeed, when I flipped through the bibliography at the end of Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough, Dr. Ross cited Greenblatt’s book as a source. So clearly bad habits are catching. If you’re looking for a good biography of Shakespeare – or if you’re interested in the history of theatre or Elizabethan England in general – I highly recommend 1599 by James Shapiro. That man has done his research, and he is a magnificent writer to boot.]

But I digress.

Shakespeare’s Tremors and Orwell’s Cough is an interesting book only moderately well executed. That said, I probably would recommend it if this kind of history and trivia was your particular cup of tea.

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