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Welcome to Episode #91 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When you study the life of William Shakespeare, one of the first facts you will learn pretty quickly is that his wife, Anne Hathaway was pregnant when she and William were married. We know she was pregnant based on the birth records of Susanna Shakespeare, who was born just about 5 months after the November 2, 1582 marriage of Anne and William Shakespeare. But as anyone who has had children will tell you, until you are far enough along to start feeling the baby, you use a pregnancy test to confirm if a woman is pregnant, which brings up two important questions about the life of Shakespeare: Did Anne Hathaway know she was pregnant when she got married? Did William know it, too? And if they did know, what did they use to find out? Here to answer all of these questions and to help us explore the history of prenatal medicine, and 16th century pregnancy tests, is our guest, Alicia Andrzejewski.

Join the conversation below.

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No time to listen? Keep scrolling to explore more history on this topic right here on this page or if you would like to read the full conversation, you can download a transcript here at this link.

Dr. Alicia Andrzejewski is an Assistant Professor at William & Mary. She holds a PhD from the English program at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and an MA from Appalachian State University. Her current book project, Queer Pregnancy in Shakespeare’s Plays, addresses a conspicuous absence in queer readings of Shakespeare’s work: the pregnant body. This project reflects her ongoing research interests: early modern literature and culture, with an emphasis on drama and performance studies; queer and feminist theory; LGBTQ+ studies; the medical humanities; and critical race theory. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Shakespeare Studies, Shakespeare Bulletin, and The Tennessee Williams Annual Review.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Alicia about :

  • We think of pregnancy tests today as being either a blood test, or the most popular, urinating on a test strip which then changes color to indicate pregnancy. As I understand it, the idea of the proof of pregnancy being revealed in a woman’s urine has a 16th century basis in the concept called piss prophets. What did a piss prophet do and how did they determine pregnancy?
  • We know based on the birth date for Susanna Shakespeare that Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare were expecting their first daughter when they married in 1582. Do you think Anne Hathaway knew that she was pregnant when she married William?
  • If they did know that they were pregnant, would they have had to declare her condition before getting married?
  • … and more!

Books and Resources Alicia Andrzejewski Reccomends

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But wait! There's more!

These show notes expand to show these great bonuses:

  • The Pee Test for pregnancy
  • 1574 woodcut of a woman giving a urine test to her physician
  • 16th century painting of a doctor using the Ribbon Test to determine pregnancy in his patient
  • 16-17th century portrait of Jaques Guillemeau, French surgeon who was a pioneer in obsterics
  • The Wine Test for pregnancy

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O, 'tis pregnant, pregnant!

Cymbeline (IV.2)

An old woman gives a physician an urine sample for him to test. Woodcut by J. Amman, 1574? (right) A childbirth scene with Mercury in the background, a man leading a cow (possibly Argus and Io as a white heifer), a woman holding the mother's hand (possibly Juno as protectress of women and childbirth), and a snake on the ground (possibly fertility). Line engraving (left). Source: Wellcome Library. Original Source here

The Pee Test for Pregnancy

In the 16th century, there were “medical” professionals known as Piss Prophets, who read urine in a way similar to what you might think of someone reading tea leaves. Based on observations alone, these prophets could visually analyze a woman's urine and evaluate pregnancy. 

As crazy as it sounds to modern ears, they weren't always wrong, and were reasonably accurate. And if you think about it, that makes sense, because urine analysis is the primary way people today evaluate prengancy, too, though we are analyzing with much more information about the reasons behind why urine can indicate pregnancy than they were when Shakespeare's family was having babies.

Doctors of the 16th century, as well as piss prophets, would analyze urine with various tests including whether or not a woman gagged at the smell, forming the basis of their indication.  


With child, perhaps?

Measure for Measure (I.2)

Jan Steen's ‘The Doctor's Visit' showing the ribbon pregnancy test from the mid 1600s. Description from the Web Gallery of Art: “The melodramatic ailment of the patient is mocked as much as the pretentious demeanour of the doctor, who pontificates but may be missing the true problem. Steen made the point, a common motif of comedies, by giving the doctor an outmoded, perhaps theatrical costume, by letting the boy Cupid smile knowingly at the viewer, and by inserting a famous comic painting, Frans Hals's Jester Pickle-Herring at top right.. Contemporary jokes also ridiculed doctors for their inability to diagnose pregnancy, a condition here indicated by the mythic pregnancy test of a ribbon dipped in urine, smouldering in the brazier.” 1658-62 Oil on panel, 49 x 42 cm Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London. Description Source Image Source

The Ribbon Test

Physicians were routinely mocked for their seeming inability to diagnose pregnancy accurately. You can take that mockery and apply it to any number of pregnancy situations in Shakespeare's plays to surmise potential inferences into the mindset of the characters or possible puns and hidden meanings (oh, what fun!). 

It is possible the poor doctors simply did not have the science or tests developed yet to accurately test for pregnancy, and given the high rate of early pregnancy miscarriage which is still a reality even in the 21st century, it was probably very hard to tell if a woman was pregnant until she was far enough along to be showing and clearly, visibly, pregnant.

One particularly inaccurate test for pregnancy that doctors would use during Shakespeare's lifetime (though the urine tests were more popular, so this one may have actually been more widely used after Shakespeare's death in 1616), was the Ribbon test. Women were asked to pee into a bowl, then a ribbon was dipped in the urine. The soaked ribbon was held up for the woman to smell and if she gagged, that meant she was pregnant. 

Despite how ridiculous it may sound, there is some science to that approach since higher levels of hCG in a woman's urine can make a woman more sensitive to smells, and prone to nausea. However, smelling urine is never a pleasant experience even for someone who isn't pregnant, so the test was unreliable, at best. 

Sirrah, you giant, what says the doctor to my water?

Henry IV Part 2 (I.1)

The interior of a large L-shaped room containing alchemical and pharmaceutical equipment, a Roman sculpted bust, and a fish suspended from the ceiling (features of the museum of a curioso). Centre, a table on which are an oriental rug, a celestial globe, a drug-jar, a document with a seal, and a large folio volume open to show the heading “LIBRI GALEN I DE MEDECINA” and letterpress in double-column Left, a physician of the savant-type, dressed in a fur-lined gown, seated at the table, holds up a urine-flask in his right hand, and turns to look at it. Left, behind him, a young woman (presumably the bearer of the urine) and an older woman (perhaps her “chaperone”). Right foreground, an apprentice brings a pharmacy-jar towards his master. In the back-ground, four men performing alchemical and/or pharmaceutical operations at a kiln. Apparatus is littered all over the floor. A dog scampers in the left foreground. Gerard Thomas, c. 1688-1720 (Gerard Thomas lived 1663-1722). Source

The Wine Test

This pregnancy test is one you can do today, and is even popular among some youtube channels and bloggers who hail the Wine Test as a DIY method for determining pregnancy at home. During the life of William Shakespeare, women would have a physician perform this test. The way it works is for a woman to collect her urine, and it is placed in the “urine flask” (shown in the painting above) with an equal amount of wine. According to current instructions of how to administer this test, it can take up to 10 minutes for a change to occur, but if the original color of the wine is altered by being mixed with the wine, then the woman is pregnant. Like the Egyptian barley sprouting test where pregnancy hormones can actually cause plants to sprout, the proteins in a woman's urine can react with the alcohol in wine to produce certain color changes. Thus, if someone knew what color changes to look for (as we can assume a physician would) then this test could be accurate for predicting pregnancy.
First, methought I stood not in the smile of heaven; who had Commanded nature, that my lady's womb, If it conceived a male child by me, should Do no more offices of life to't than The grave does to the dead; for her male issue
Henry VIII

Henry VIII (II.4)

Portrait de Jacques Guillemeau, by Pierre Dubard. Date unknown. Jacques Guillemeau lived from 1550–1613. In 1609 he published De l'heureux accouchement des femmes (“The happy delivery of women”) which documented the first description of a method of assisted breech delivery popularized by other physicians, and sometimes known as the “Mauriceau-Smellie-Veit maneuver”. Guillemeau was a practitioner of the podalic version for use in cases of placenta praevia, a procedure earlier revived by Ambroise Paré. His work was translated into English in 1612. Source

The Eye Test for Pregnancy

In the 16th century, a doctor named Jacques Guillemeau, claimed that you could tell by a woman’s eyes whether she was pregnant. He wrote a treatise on opthamology that included a description of the change in a woman's eyes, which he claimed appeared during the second month of pregnancy. He claimed that “a pregnant woman gets deep-set eyes with small pupils, drooping lids and swollen little veins in the corner of the eye.” While it sounds a little cooky, it is, in fact, true that due to the changes to the body, rise in hormones, basal body temperature, and other alterations to a woman's body during pregnancy (not to mention fatigue), that the look of a woman's eyes will change during pregnancy.