Dr. Bill? Retired physician says medical lingo betrays Shakespeare

Retired emergency room physician Earl Showerman believes that a detailed description of syphilis symptoms in "Timon of Athens" helps prove that the Earl of Oxford is the real author of plays attributed to William Shakespeare.

Speaking to a pair of prostitutes, Timon directs them to sow a disease that will collapse men's noses, ruin their voices, make their hair fall out, cause their shin bones to develop sharp edges and quell their love-making abilities.

The symptoms reflect the effects of syphilis, a disease that ravaged Europe in the 1500s and was untreatable at the time.

Medical details abound in the plays attributed to Shakespeare, with more than 700 in the canon, Showerman said.

A retired emergency room physician who lives in the Applegate Valley, Showerman is part of a cadre of experts — some with medical backgrounds — who comb Shakespearean plays for medical references.

Showerman is among those who think the advanced medical knowledge displayed in the plays proves they were authored by the highly educated and well-traveled Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Showerman and others argue that Shakespeare — a successful merchant involved in the theater — didn't have the earl's access to learned people and extensive private libraries that included medical literature.

Supporters of Shakespeare as the author of the plays say he was exposed to medicine through his physician son-in-law, but the doubters — known as "Oxfordians" — say the son-in-law arrived on the scene after many plays were written.

Showerman said he thoroughly enjoys exploring the authorship question through the eyes of an outsider to academia.

"It's a fun thing to be involved in. It's edgy. It puts Shakespeare professors on edge," he said.

Showerman said that just because most professors believe Shakespeare is the author of the plays doesn't make it so.

He pointed to his medical training days in the 1970s. Since then, many commonly accepted ideas and practices of that era have been debunked, he said.

A former resident of Ashland and a fan of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Showerman has long been interested in Shakespeare and the authorship question. But he had more time to indulge that interest after retiring from Providence Medford Medical Center in 2003.

He took classes through Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College, then started doing his own research, aided in large part by collections at SOU's Hannon Library.

"I realized I could work on some of this myself," Showerman said.

He started publishing on the issue, giving presentations and teaching classes through SOU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

On the eve of the premier of the pro-Oxfordian film "Anonymous" in Ashland in 2011, Showerman had a lively classroom debate with SOU Professor Elizabeth Eckhart on the authorship question.

"She let me spread seditious information to her students," he said.

As for medical references in the plays, Showerman continues to analyze them while also considering other people's work on the issue.

He said the plays describe post mortem changes to the body in detail and reveal a sophisticated knowledge of the brain.

There are references to the "pia mater," the inner lining of the covering of the brain and spinal cord, as well as the ventricles of the brain.

In one line, a character refers to the "ventricle of memory." Some anatomists in the 1500s linked the third ventricle of the brain with memory.

Modern research has shown that people who damage that part of the brain can suffer memory disorders.

Showerman said the plays also have references to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, resuscitation, toxicology, a variety of infectious diseases, circulation of the blood and mental illnesses, among other medical topics.

Although Showerman likes to debunk the idea of Shakespeare as the author of the plays, he said his research into the canon has made him appreciate the works themselves even more. It has also enriched his experience as a theater-lover.

"It's fascinating. I haven't been bored at any time in my retirement," he said. "When you drill down on a play and really discover it, you can see how amazing these works are."

Showerman will teach a class called "The Shakespeare Authorship Question" from May 8 through June 5 at SOU's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. For more information, visit www.sou.edu/olli/courses.shtml or call OLLI Coordinator Sally Klein at 541-552-6048.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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