The Paracelsan Philosophy and Plot in Romeo and Juliet


Jaecheol Kim


This essay surveys the discursive correspondence between Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the Paracelsan medical philosophy circulating among London apothecaries and print shops in the 1590s. Shakespeare lived during a time that experienced a significant medical turn, when syphilis displaced leprosy as the most pressing medical concern. Occasional plague outbreaks became an immediate social concern, and disease control became an issue of what Michel Foucault called “governmentality.” Traditional medical systems of the time, such as Galenic humorism, were helpless in dealing with this new epidemic situation. In addition, the Reformation sparked a questioning of pagan and superstitious beliefs in traditional medical practices. Such historical developments enabled the rise of Paracelsan medicine. In England, the apothecary and distiller John Hester first began to translate the writings of Paracelsus. Thus, we can locate the rise of Paracelsan medicine and the formation of Shakespeare’s early tragedies at the same historical juncture, and this new medical philosophy informed the plot in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare understood the analogical thought in Paracelsan etiology as linking the inside and outside of the human body as a literary principle, particularly relying on homeopathy for his plot’s framework. Furthermore, through the character of Mercutio—a personification of mercury, one of the tria prima in Paracelsan philosophy—Romeo and Juliet echoes the Paracelsan medical turn that occurred during Shakespeare’s time.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.