The author of this lively, probing but somewhat problematic book brings an impressive set of professional qualifications to his enterprise. Dr. John J. Ross practices medicine in Boston and is a professor at Harvard Medical School, so he brings a level of medical knowledge that most others writing about the lives of writers do not possess. His medical conclusions are thus highly informed and give every sign of being impeccable. But his inquiring mind is wont to go off into speculative byways where scientific deduction is mixed with too much guesswork. To his credit, Dr. Ross is clear about what is known and what he is deducing, so the reader must pay close attention to what is fact and what is not.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the eponymous tremor suffered by Shakespeare, which starts the book, is, according to Dr. Ross, part of the evidence that the bard had syphilis. There was undoubtedly a lot of this disease through the centuries, but is the cottage industry devoted to saying that various writers suffered from it really all that valuable? Or is it merely a hot-button topic, rendered suddenly relevant because of AIDS, which draws attention away from what is really important about the writers: their oeuvre?
There was a time a few years back when it seemed that all anyone was interested in about Gustave Flaubert was not “Madame Bovary” but whether he was syphilitic, just as the fact that Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders appeared to be all that people knew about these Founding Fathers. Unless you can really demonstrate that this — or any other disease — had an effect on what someone wrote, as is the case with Friedrich Nietzsche, isn’t this obsessive interest just prurient?
Wearing his physician’s hat, Dr. Ross writes, with admirable scientific method, that “the only medical fact known with certainty about William Shakespeare is that his handwriting deteriorated in his last years.” He does acknowledge that the cause for this was possibly “essential tremor, a common condition which affected the late Katharine Hepburn” and that “patients often find that alcohol alleviates essential tremor.” But, unfortunately, this is an excuse for a great deal of specious literary analysis of drunkenness in the plays, linking it to Shakespeare’s documented heavy drinking bouts, the last of which hastened or caused his demise.
But all this is only a sideshow to even more questionable identification of language and imagery in the sonnets and dramatic works as referring to syphilitic symptoms and consequences of mercury and other common treatments of the day. By the time the chapter has wallowed in the squalor of brothels and the welter of unpleasant symptoms and still more unpleasant nostrums, you feel like crying, in our contemporary phrase unknown to the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon: “TMI!” Shakespeare truly contained multitudes; and insomniacs and Freudians — among others — find evidence in his work that he was one of their number. That is key to his protean greatness.
Fortunately, with his next chapter, Dr. Ross is on more solid ground with what caused John Milton’s blindness: a double detached retina. Here his deductions provide a model of scientific analysis and are valid and important because Milton addressed his loss of vision directly in some of his most moving and accomplished poems, such as “On His Blindness.” There is a similar conclusion that the mysterious illness that afflicted W.B. Yeats in the Italian town of Rapallo, where he had been in the habit of wintering, was brucellosis. This brush with death spurred an amazing reinvigoration of the poet’s inspiration and output in the decade of life remaining to him, right up to his last days.
George Orwell’s tuberculosis was reflected in his fiction and clearly affected his way of life and ability to write. Here again, Dr. Ross‘ account shines. But it is unfortunate that his literary aspirations led him to invent scenes involving Shakespeare, Orwell and James Joyce, the last again bringing us up close and personal to venereal disease. More medicine and fewer literary flights and descents into the netherworld would have made this a stronger book.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.