Is Shakespeare to blame for modern-day prejudice against people with skin problems?

Some experts are saying that Shakespeare may have handed down a fear of skin lesions along with his literary legacy.

In Elizabethan times, warts, sores and blisters were harbingers of contagious diseases such as plague, syphilis and smallpox, so the fear of them was well founded. But in a world of modern medicine such persistent distrust and dislike is unwarranted and often harmful to individuals.

But can the Bard be blamed for this?

From King Lear’s denunciation of “Thou are a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle” to the constant abuse heaped upon Henry IV‘s Bardolph for his nose like “an everlasting bonfire-light”, Shakespeare has no lack of skin condition-derived insults.

bardolph falstaff

Nina Goad, a spokesperson with the British Association of Dermatologists, believes that these barbs have perpetuated discrimination against those with skin problems.  Speaking with the Telegraph she said, “Nobody is suggesting that we edit Shakespeare but maybe we should ensure that new films and books don’t reinforce this stereotype”.

The paper “Is Shakespeare to blame for the negative connotations of skin disease?” presented at BAD’s annual conference says that while Shakespeare “may not have accepted Elizabethan society’s negativity towards skin disease, it can be argued that his success has led to its perpetuation”.

Scholars have been quick to defend the Bard.

“Has any writer in history ever suggested that the symptoms of skin disease are attractive?” Professor Michael Dobson, director of Birmingham University’s Shakespeare Institute, asked the Telegraph.

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