Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Willy Shakespeare's Naughty Bottom Bits

Generally speaking, I don't like to duplicate post content between different blogs that I contribute to, but this was just too good to leave languishing at Life Science Tools of the Trade. So here you go, fortunate readers.

Some of you may know that I spend my days in a research lab (ok, in an office adjacent to a research lab, if you must split hairs) and, as a sideline, yammer on in various science-related discussion groups. Recently, in researching (and I use the term in its modern sense, roughly translating as "looking on the internet for approximately three minutes") in order to find something to contribute to a discussion about inappropriate scientific article titles, I came across this absolute gem of a paper:

All's Well That Ends Well: Shakespeare's treatment of anal fistula, by B.C. Cosman, published (appropriately enough) in the glamourous journal, Diseases of the Colon and Rectum.

I had no idea. With morbid fascination, I read the abstract:

Textual and contextual evidence suggests that the French king's fistula, a central plot device in Shakespeare's play All's Well That Ends Well, is a fistula-in-ano.

Really? I'm fairly certain I've seen this play performed, at least in a television adaptation. It was a long time ago, and certainly long before I began to do research on gastrointestinal disorders, but I would have thought that I would remember references to the French king's backside. And I've already learned something else: I don't think I've ever come across the term 'fistula-in-ano' before.

Reading on:

Anal fistula was known to the lay public in Shakespeare's time.

I suppose that makes sense. I hadn't really thought about it.

In addition, Shakespeare may have known of the anal fistula treatise of John Arderne, an ancestor on Shakespeare's mother's side. Shakespeare's use of anal fistula differs from all previous versions of the story, which first appeared in Boccaccio's Decameron and from its possible historical antecedent, the fistula of Charles V of France.

Ok, now the author's getting serious. Or the article's getting silly. If you've read Bill Bryson's excellent biography of Shakespeare, you'll recall that precious little is actually known about the Bard. I'm willing to give Cosman the benefit of the doubt, and presume that the venerable John Arderne really was a relative. He certainly did write a treatise on the indelicate topic of anal fistulae, which you can even read online. Go on, you know you want to. All the rest of that, about Boccaccio and Charles the Fifth, I really can't be bothered researching.


This difference makes sense given the conventions of Elizabethan comedy, which included anal humor.

Again, I hadn't thought about it - but no surprise there, really.

It is also understandable when one looks at what wounds in different locations mean in European legend. In this light, it is not surprising that subsequent expurgations treat Boccaccio's and Shakespeare's fistulas differently, censoring only Shakespeare's.

Well, ok - they removed the reference to the King's bum. I'm not really surprised. Other 'wounds' were much more socially acceptable, I suppose. After all, we're talking about a culture that endorsed public beheadings.

Cosman's abstract ends with this screechingly funny statement:

This reading has implications for the staging of All's Well That Ends Well, and for our view of the place of anal fistulas in cultural history.

Indeed it does. I know that I shall never view the cultural history of anal fistulas in the same way again. Or perhaps at all. And I'm certainly going to be paying closer attention the next time I see All's Well That Ends Well performed. Paying closer attention, but ready to run for the door if the King's nether ailments are about to be revealed in glorious and personal detail.

It's a good thing there are curated literature search engines, like PubMed. Otherwise, how would I ever learn about these things?


The Wrath of Dawn said...

And that's why I love theatre.

Alethea said...

You were quite right to cross-post, because this is where I saw it first :-)

Louis XIV was operated for an anal fistula as well, in 1686, after the poor operation of a "tumor" (an abscess) on his thigh, and this was common knowledge.

Boccaccio came up in the Decameron with the basic plot for All's Well that Ends Well - but the fistula resulted from the poor operation of a "tumor" on the king's chest. So I presume the fistula was as well.

What is amazing here is that Shakespeare wrote his play, based on Boccaccio's story... in 1598. Methinks that Dr. Cosman's conclusions are a wee bit anachronistic. But I can't access the original article to make sure.

Ricardipus said...

Alethea - thank you for the analysis! I should have known that, where French history is in question, you should be the first person I ask :)

I shall endeavour to ferret out the original article. If I'm successful, I'll email it to you for your perusal.

@Dawn - I am LOLZing. :D