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Welcome to Episode 206 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

In a 16th century painting by Casper Stromayr, two men, presumably doctors, are standing behind a table on which a set of surgical instruments are laid out very neatly. In the notes for the painting we discover that some of the instruments are specifically for surgery of the eye. 

Cataract surgery like the one being prepared for in this painting was just becoming widespread in Shakespeare’s lifetime and was performed to remove the pearly film that developed over the surface of the eye. 

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ferdinand uses the phrase “Those are pearls that were his eyes:” Again in Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare calls attention to pearly eyes when he writes “His eye drops fire, no water thence proceeds; Those round clear pearls of his…” 

Additionally, in both King Lear and Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II, there are references in the dialogue to specific procedures and even specific diseases of the eye. The novelty of this new surgery, combined with the very public and performative nature of the procedure itself– often being performed in the street on public display– it’s plausible to think William Shakespeare may have been studying up on this new science. Based on the parallels found in Shakespeares plays, some scholars even suggest that William Shakespeare may have read Charles Estienne’s Defence of Contraries, translated from French to English in 1593, or Thomas Cooper’s 1578 medical dictionary that defines “cataractia” as “a disease of the eyes, when a tough humour like a gelly droppeth out.” 

To help us explore the history of cataract surgery as well as the references to the procedure and eye disease we see in Shakespeare’s plays is our guest and professional ophthalmologist, Dr. Chris Lefflfer.

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Dr. Chris Leffler is Opthamologist and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of The history of cataract surgery: from couching to phacoemulsification published in the Annals of Translational in 2020, currently practices ophthalmology at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, and is Associate Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the Virginia Commonwealth University. 

cataract surgery, 1594
Le chirurgie françoise recueillie des antiens médecins et chirurgiens. Avec plusieurs figures des instrumens necesseres pour l'opération manuelle / Par Iacques Guillemeau.. Credit: Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark | Translated from French: The French surgery collected antiens doctors and surgeons. With several figures of the instruments necessary for manual operation / By Iacques Guillemeau.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark | Wellcome Images, Public Domain | Source

This week, I'll be asking Chris Leffler about:

  • What were the signs and symptoms used to diagnose cataracts in the 16th century?
  • Did the field of ophthalmology exist in Shakespeare’s lifetime, or what kind of physician was performing these procedures?
  • What was the process of getting cataracts surgery done in the 16th century? Was the patient awake, Was there a special chair or surgical time used, and what was the recovery time like for patients, how did they heal?

Books and Resources Chris Leffler Recommends:

Articles Chris has written on cataract surgery and shares these links to his work:

More resources Cassidy thought you might find useful:

Author Sara Read has been a guest on That Shakespeare Life to talk about John Hall, Shakespeare's Son in Law that was himself a medical professional. Explore that episode here.

Dr. Leffler’s staff page:

The history of cataract surgery, Annals of Translational Medicine:

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What's inside this week's Detailed Notes:

  • 1757 Cataracts and Eye Surgery instruments.
  • 1195 Medieval Eye Surgery Painting
  • 16th Century eye surgery implements (two doctors in a painting with their supplies laid out)
  • 16th century anatomical diagram of the eye
  • Engraving by Horace of an immoral man having his eye removed
  • Two 16th century images of monks performing cataracts surgery
  • Two woodcuts demonstrating cataract surgery

…and more!

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