#MindTheBard: Leprosy (Henry VI, part 2)

Henry VI, part 2 at Shakespeare’s Globe (2013)
Photo credit: Gary Calton

Ah, leprosy. A disease (along with gout, syphilis & rabies) that for some reason makes me snigger, despite how terrible it would actually be to have it. It’s mentioned in a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but as the Henry VI Henriad is such a rarity, I thought this was the one to go for. This part of the trilogy concerns itself with the in-fighting of the English nobility, and includes both Jack Cade’s rebellion and the First Battle of St Albans, marking the beginning of the Wars of the Roses.

Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease, and is caused by Mycobacterium leprae. It’s a chronic infectious disease which tends to affect the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosa of the upper respiratory tract, and the eyes. Despite what you may have been led to believe (by anything from Bible tales to popular media), the disease is curable – but disability may ensue if not treated in its early stages. Leprosy is transmitted via droplets from the nose & mouth, in the same way as another disease caused by a Mycobacterium vector: tuberculosis (M. tuberculosis). Patients can be asymptomatic from 1-20 years (or more), but when symptoms do manifest they are easily observable; skin lesions develop, which usually have different pigmentation and can be raised or nodular – patients may also experience a loss of sensation in the skin on these lesions. Skin smears are used to confirm a diagnosis of leprosy. Due to the hardy characteristics of Mycobacteria, a multidrug therapy is required to treat the disease; if only one drug is used, the bacteria will develop resistance to that drug.

Photo credit: Healthline
Photo credit: CDC
Photo credit: Healthline
Image credit: Shakespeare’s Words

“Be woe for me, more wretched than he is.
What, dost thou turn away and hide thy face?
I am no loathsome leper; look on me.”

Queen Margaret, Henry VI, part 2 (Act 3 Scene 2)

Margaret is addressing her husband (Henry VI) here, in the wake of Gloucester’s murder; he was due to stand trial for treason, but the Duke of Suffolk took it upon himself to have Gloucester killed before this could happen. Despite Henry’s dislike of Gloucester, the murder upsets him and causes him to ignore his wife; Margaret, who has been conducting an affair with Suffolk, finally loses her temper with the king and lets her true feelings show – she feels she’s been badly treated, and wishes she had never left France for England.

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t a huge amount of Henry VI, part 2 productions or films out there to watch – and if any do get made, they’re usually all-in-one Henry VI (or similar combination jobs), so there’s non real time to flesh out all the plots & subplots. TSMGO, of course, did each individual play in the Henriad, and there are also two complete trilogies on Globe Player: one in English, one in Albanian. The second series of The Hollow Crown deals with the Wars of the Roses, so you can see Henry VI split into two parts – this is available on DVD/Blu-ray or digital. Texts of all Henry VI plays are free to download via Kindle.

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