The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0631 Thursday, 30 March 2000.
From: Frank Whigham <
Date: Wednesday, 29 Mar 2000 15:52:10 -0600
Subject: Early Modern Skin Disfigurements
Mary Sidney did attend Queen Elizabeth in her illness, and was much the
worse disfigured. See the terrible details even of her husband Sir
Henry's response to her after her illness, cited at 4-5 in Osborne's
Young Philip Sidney (see also Appendix I, p. 518-19 for more details,
and the supposed effects on Sir Philip Sidney's appearance).
An unexpected possible link with Hamlet emerges from these records.
Philip Sidney's horoscope was cast when he was sixteen. His astrologer
asked for and received a list of "remarkable accidents" that would help
him in determining PS's true hour of birth. A record survives of some of
this material, in which the astrologer logs in the fact that "in the
course of the ninth year of your [PS's] life [ca. 1563] you suffered
from scabs and foul uncleanness throughout your body, just as if you had
been poisoned" (Osborne's translation of the astrologer's Latin).
What was newsworthy to me was the association of poison and scabs. It
made me realize that I habitually assume that poison is something
ingested (through the ear, if necessary): inwardly working, as Spenser
might say. But there seems here to be a ready assumption about poisons
that destroy outwardly: are these corrosives, acids? Is this, as it
were, just another "literal" use of the term "poison"? I have always
thoughtlessly thought that the register of the tetter was primarily
non-literal, to do with parental (or ghostly) narcissism and with some
kind of echo of such punishment-diseases as medieval leprosy of the sort
that afflicts Henryson's Cresseid (and perhaps a preview of o'er-sized
Pyrrhus as pasty). Was it instead or also in part just a literal
understanding of the idea of poisoning per se? Did a skin-ravaging agent
just get called a "poison" in the normal run of speech?
OED reports an origin for "poison" in the notion of a drink, a potion
(originally medical). The internalization grows more vague as the
sheerly negative use develops (early, by 1387): 2a-"Any substance which,
when introduced into or absorbed by a living organism, destroys life or
injures health." And the related "venom" would be internalized by the
For what it's worth, OED has for "tetter": "A general term for any
pustular herpetiform eruption of the skin, as eczema, herpes, impetigo,
ringworm, etc." Alas for us, "herpetiform" refers not to snakes but to
stuff like herpes. These are all diseases, it seems (the term dates from
very early: 700 CE).
On the other hand (or is it?), there is Sidney's "foul uncleanness
throughout the body." Is this internal? Alimentary? Or possibly ulcerous
Our distance from the hands-on experience of early modern illness often
blinds us to the presence of various "literal" meanings where we see
only figures, as Gail Paster's work on humors so richly shows.