A Shakespeare Connected exhibition in collaboration with Peter J Smith, Nottingham Trent University.

Shakespeare’s is the golden age of discovery. The great English sea-voyagers – Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and Richard Hakluyt – were laying claim to terra incognita (‘unknown lands’) and the Spanish Conquistadors were competing with these pirate-explorers to colonise the ‘brave new world’ of the Americas. Plays such as Pericles and The Tempest illustrate the sudden and exciting significance of these new horizons.

But, closer to home, another world was opening up. The hitherto unexplored mysteries of the human body offered further uncharted places. According to the Christian doctrine of the ‘resurrection of the body’, cadavers would one day be resuscitated. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Williams fears the prospect of ‘all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle [joining] together at the latter day’ (Henry V, 4.1.134). Dissection was therefore unsurprisingly prohibited by the Church.

One non-invasive way of diagnosing illness was to examine bodily products. Pathogens, which the body is eager to expel, would be present in its discharges which could be subjected to
medical scrutiny in order to diagnose ailments. This made sense in a world without antiseptic or anaesthetic, at a time when human terrain was being explored and diseases mapped.


With thanks to the Museums and Universities Partnership Initiative (an Arts Council funded project).