Ben Jonson on Doctors

A few weeks ago, I had made note here of a brief excerpt from Molière’s Love’s the Best Doctor, which rather pungently satirized doctors. Today, here is another master of comedy–Ben Jonson–on doctors. (A personal reminiscence follows.) As an added bonus there is some skepticism directed at the cost of medicine, the products of the pharmaceutical industry, and the legal system. (Sort of.)

From Volpone, Act One:

CORBACCIO: How does your patron?

MOSCA: Troth, as he did sir; no amends

CORBACCIO [deaf]: What? Mends he?

MOSCA: [shouting]: No, sir. He is rather worse.

CORBACCIO: That’s well. Where is he?

MOSCA: Upon his couch, sir, newly fall’n asleep.

CORBACCIO: Does he sleep well?

MOSCA: No wink, sir, all this night.  Nor yesterday, but slumbers.

CORBACCIO: Good! He should take

Some counsel of physicians. I have brought him

An opiate here, from mine own doctor –

MOSCA: He will not hear of drugs.

CORBACCIO: Why? I myself

Stood by while ‘t was made, saw all th’ ingredients,

And know it cannot but most gently work.

My life for his, ’tis but to make him sleep.

VOLPONE: [aside]: Ay, his last sleep, if he would take it.

MOSCA: He has no faith in physic.

CORBACCIO: Say you, say you?

MOSCA: He has no faith in physic: he does think

Most of your doctors are the greatest danger,

And worse disease t’ escape. I often have

Heard him protest that your physician

Should never be his heir.

CORBACCIO: Not I his heir?

MOSCA: Not your physician, sir.

CORBACCIO: O, no, no, no,

I do not mean it.

MOSCA: No, sir, nor their fees.

He cannot brook; he says they flay a man

Before they kill him.

CORBACCIO: Right, I do conceive you.

MOSCA: And then, they do it by experiment,

For which the law not only doth absolve ’em

But gives them great reward; as he is loath

To hire his death so.

CORBACCIO: It is true, they kill

With as much license as a judge.

MOSCA: Nay, more;

For he but kills, sir, where the law condemns,

And these can kill him too.

Possibly irrelevant aside: In my time here in the US, I have been misdiagnosed precisely twice. These occasions still remain the only two such instances in my life thus far. In the first case, I was living in Harlem and sought treatment at a doctor’s office that promised walk-in consultations. A brusque, cursory check-up later, I was presented with a diagnosis that seemed wildly off-base. Despite my protestations, I was quickly shown the door. Shaken at this treatment, I made an appointment with an Upper West Side physician who was on the money. In the second case, I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and desperate to secure a doctor’s appointment quickly, wandered over to Myrtle Avenue and sauntered into a rather dingy looking clinic. I was only a few blocks away from the considerably more well-heeled DeKalb Avenue. The doctor conducted a rushed examination, pronounced his diagnosis, and once again, I was ushered out the door quickly. I was diagnosed correctly a week or so later after I had sought a second opinion.  The common element to these encounters was that in each case I was seeking medical help in what might be termed a ‘not-so-fortunate’ neighborhood.

Excerpt from: Ben Jonson, Three Comedies, Penguin Classics, London, 1985. (ed. Michael Jamieson) pp. 60-61

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