Does Shakespeare make us fear bad skin?

A new study by British dermatologists draws a connection between the bad attitude shown towards skin conditions in Shakespeare's works and the way we think of it today.

Courtesy of Manuel Harlan/Brooklyn Academy of Music
Ian McKellan (l.) and William Gaunt (r.) star in a production of 'King Lear' at the Royal Shakespeare Company Compete Works Festival.

Do we have a negative view of acne because of the writings of Shakespeare?

A study by dermatologists in the UK recently examined whether our culture views skin blemishes negatively because of the amount of negative writings in Shakespeare’s plays about skin conditions.

“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,” the study reads.

The dermatologists note that many of the Bard’s works include people insulting others by mentioning skin conditions or by trying to curse someone with a skin affliction. A character says he wishes “a pox upon” another character in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” while in the text of “King John,” one character says that if another was “patch’d with foul moles and eye-offending marks, then I should not love thee, nor thou become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown.” However, they write that the playwright does say in “Hamlet” that those with skin conditions are not evil because of them, writing, “that for some vicious mole of nature in them, as in their birth – wherein they are not guilty, since nature cannot choose hisorigin – their virtues else, be they as pure as grace, as infinite as man may undergo, shall in general censure take corruption from that particular fault.”

Fear of those with skin conditions arose from the dangers of diseases like the plague, write the dermatologists.

“Tell-tale cutaneous signs heightened the fear of contagion,” they wrote. 

According to the Telegraph, British Association of Dermatologists member Nina Goad urged that the attitude not be passed down to future generations.

“Even now, many examples exist in films and literature where visible disfigurements are used to represent villainy or malice,” she said. “This is particularly concerning when such films are aimed at children, who learn that beautiful, flawless people are kind and trustworthy, and scarred or blemished people are to be feared. Nobody is suggesting that we edit Shakespeare, but maybe we should ensure that new films and books don't reinforce this stereotype.” 

However, some are doubtful of the dermatologists’ connection between Shakespeare and fear of skin afflictions. Guardian writer Alison Flood wrote that she found the conclusion “a stretch.”

“It sort of assumes we might not have noticed that skin diseases aren't exactly the most pleasant thing in the world, if it wasn't for Mercutio gasping ‘A plague on both your houses,’” she wrote. 

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