"[T]o engage and enthuse people about science by offering accessible, creative and relevant activities to the broadest possible range of people". This is the mission statement, if you like, of The Oxfordshire Science Festival, on until 3rd July at various locations.
This evening, in the charming Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall, medical historian Leah Astbury and diabetes researcher Martijn van de Bunt collaborated with actors Nick Osmond and Natasha Rickman from Creation theatre to explore some of the medical references in Shakespeare's plays and how they relate to contemporary science.
The framework was snippets of theatrical performance alternating with lecture-style academic commentary, into which were woven several themes of scientific and cultural interest. Dr.Astbury reviewed medical practicesseen in Shakespeare's plays - from astrology (Romeo and Juliet) to Caesarian sections (Macbeth) –in terms of the thinking of the time.
For example, prevalent theories of disease centred on a lack or excess of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile) which, in turn, fuelled therapeutic practices such as blood-letting. During this period the body and soul were not regarded as such discrete entities as they might be today; emotions were also believed to circulate around the body - and this might be hold sway upon Shakespeare's prose and characters.
Religion, of course, was another parallel influence on theories of health and disease. For example, epidemics were regarded by many as a manifestation of God's displeasure with the sins of mankind, and having a lifestyle devoid of excesses was one's Godly duty.
Dr. Van De Bunt (sporting a suitably nerdy "I © research" T-shirt) went on to draw parallels between medical thought during Shakepeare's time and our own, deconstructing such themes as patient empowerment, the role of lifestyle in health, and breastfeeding. I noticed some potential tensions between empiricism and cultural relativism (e.g. around 'best' dietary practices), which often play out in real life.
There was more of this type of verbal-conceptual interplay, and many interesting facts and stories. There was a table filled with vials, weighing scales, and a skull, and I waited all evening for it to be used in some way, but it was just a dressing! Actually, it didn't really matter – in the absence of props all four participants did a sterling job of connecting Shakespeare with the science and art of medicine. In particular, the contextualisation of historical medical practices (some of which, to a modern audience, will come across as frankly bizarre) added a welcome layer of depth. The actors had comparatively little stage time, but were nonetheless very good. I recognised Natasha Rickman from her superb performance in King Lear, which I reviewed earlier this year.
The evening came with a reminder of just how much our health has improved – not only because of modern medicine but also largely due to public health measures such as sanitation. But there is so much more to be done. As Dr Van De Bunt cheerfully noted, "we've come a long way, but there's little between us and death still". Perhaps, then, if we don't want to shuffle off this mortal coil too readily, we should encourage the pursuit of science. Or Shakespeare. Or both.