A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, October 28, 2005

All's Well That's Stem Cell


In Act II of All's Well That Ends Well, the King is on his deathbed with all hope abandoned by his court physicians when in walks a commoner named Helena. She is the surviving daughter of the court physician of a neighboring court, and she tells the King of her inheritance (On's means on his):

"…On's bed of death
Many receipts he gave me, chiefly one
Which, as the dearest issue of his practice,
And of his old experience th' only darling,
He bade me store up as a triple eye
Safer than mine own two, more dear…"

Helena has come into the possession of a medical miracle, a treatment for just what happens to ail the King (touched means ill; tender means offer; appliance means technique):

"And, hearing Your High Majesty is touched
With that malignant cause wherein the honor
Of my dear father's gift stands chief in power,
I come to tender it and my appliance
With all bound humbleness."

We are not short of medical miracles today that could stand in for the "triple eye" that Helena offers the King. The eerie image of a triple eye, though, suggesting something even more valuable than Helena's own eyes, evokes the most advanced of science's intrusions into nature, such as artificial hearts or embryonic stem cells, the individual DNA of an unborn man or woman, whose use in medicine is now the subject of ethical anxiety and discussion. An anxiety the King seems to share (credulous means gullible or believing):

"We thank you maiden,
But may not be so credulous of cure
When our most learned doctors leave us and
The congregated college have concluded
That laboring art can never ransom nature
From her inaidible estate…."

Another modern question pops out from Shakespeare. We are asking this question still, or more to the point are surprised to find that he was already asking it: Can laboring art never ransom nature from her inaidible estate?

With longevity and good health ascendant, our answer is more optimistic for the moment, even as there lurks at the margin of our awareness a Hitchcockian flock of avian-flu-infested fowl, slowly flapping its way around the globe, the scourge of AIDS, the latest antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Nature indeed that laboring art can never ransom from her unaidible estate. The King continues (empirics means experiment; dissever means sever; deem means declare):

"…I say we must not
So stain our judgment, or corrupt our hope,
To prostitute our past-cure malady
To empirics, or to dissever so
Our great self and our credit, to esteem
A senseless help when help past sense we deem."

The King has led a dignified life and wishes to face death with the same dignity. He fears that pursuing so untried a remedy, such a quack-like, snake-oil miracle cure, in the face of the learned judgment of his advisors, would be unseemly. And indeed how many thousands of families around the globe each day face the same end of life collision of medical technology, hope for renewed life, and acceptance of the inevitability of death? Nobody wants to die, but if we must, we certainly also don't want to "sever our great self and our credit," our character.

But Helena has not exactly given up. First, while pretending to accept his denial (he's a king after all), she gently scolds her majesty, comparing him to the Pharaoh that mixed it up with Moses:

"…great seas have dried
When miracles have by the great'st been denied."

The King essentially plugs his ears. When she presses on, he challenges her to ransom something of her own against the possibility of failure. She offers, actually, to be tortured if she is unable to cure him. We mere citizen patients of today might believe that we are not in the same position to require such a warranty from our physicians.

Medical malpractice attorneys might disagree.

As it is, we ourselves are still in the midst of working out the deal we wish to make with medical science over the extension of life and its ending. In the meantime, I will conclude with what the King tells Helena about the deal she has struck with him:

"Methinks in thee some blessed spirit does speak
His powerful sound within an organ weak;
Sweet minister, thy physic I will try,
That ministers thine own death if I die."

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