Molière’s 17th century take on physicians

I sat in the darkened theatre, laughing out loud along with my fellow play-goers at Molière’s 17th-century comedic portrayal of the physician in his play Don Juan (Dom Juan ou le Festin de Pierre). Although Molière wrote this play hundreds of years ago, there’s something strikingly modern about it, and something that may feel familiar to long-suffering doctors out there who are  feeling less respect than they deserve. In fact, Georgetown University even uses Don Juan as a case study in its course on Interacting With The Medical Humanities in a section called Medical Uncertainty & Error: Physician Arrogance.

Molière was famous for his merciless skewering of the powerful in the fields of politics, law, and (in the following scene) medicine. Don Juan is a cynical opportunist and hedonist. After ruthlessly abandoning yet another young woman, we see him fleeing in disguise along with his servant, Sgaranelle.  While more law-abiding than his master, Sgaranelle is also more of a simpleton. Don Juan’s character appears complex because his own hypocrisies allow him to see through the pretences of others, as Molière describes here:

SgaranelleSo what do you say, Sir? Admit that I was right: both of us are marvelously well-disguised.

Don JuanYou’re right that you’re looking good, though I don’t know where you unearthed that ridiculous outfit.

SgaranelleOh yes? It’s the garb of an old doctor who pawned it, and I paid a good deal for it. But did you know, Sir, this get-up has already made me respectable? People I’ve run into have greeted me, and several people have already consulted me the way they would a person who knows his stuff.

Don JuanHow’s that?

Sgaranelle – Five or six peasants I ran into along the way, came up to ask me my advice regarding various illnesses.

Don Juan – You told them you didn’t know a thing about it, I assume.

Sgaranelle Who, me? Not at all! I wanted to uphold the honour of this uniform, so I pondered their problems and made recommendations for each case.

Don Juan – And what sort of remedies did you recommend?

Sgaranelle To be honest, I grabbed at whatever came to mind—my recommendations were pretty random, and it would be a hoot if these patients actually got better and came back to thank me for what I told them.

Don Juan – And why not? For what reason wouldn’t you have the same rights as other doctors? They aren’t any better at curing illnesses than you are, and their art is pure façade. They do nothing but reap the glory of their successes and you can, like them, take advantage of the patients’ good outcomes, by attributing to your remedies what is actually the work of luck and the forces of nature.

Sgaranelle – What, Sir? Are you as cynical about medicine as you are about faith?

Don Juan – It’s one of the great errors circulating among humans.

Sgaranelle – What? You don’t believe in phlebotomy, nor in laxatives, nor in emetic wine?

Don Juan – And why should I believe in those things?

Sgaranelle – You are a real unbeliever. And yet, as you know, emetic wine has for some time now been all the rage. Its miraculous effects have converted even the biggest skeptics, and I myself was witness to its marvels three weeks ago—I saw its effects with my own eyes.

Don Juan – And they were . . . ?

Sgaranelle – There was a man who had been in agony for six days. Nobody knew what to prescribe, and none of the remedies were working. Finally they decided to give him an emetic.

Don Juan – He recovered, I assume.

Sgaranelle – No, he died.

Don Juan – Well, that’s a fabulous outcome!

SgaranelleWhat are you talking about?

Don Juan – He’d been in agony for six days, and this killed him right away. What better result could you possibly wish for?

From Don Juan, by Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin)

11 thoughts on “Molière’s 17th century take on physicians

  1. Very good quotation, although I would have expected something from “Le malade imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid), a laughing-out-loud comedy, during which Molière actually died, after being unable to complete its 4th performance; or “Médecin malgré lui” (7 years earlier).

    It is to be noted that Molière was always preoccupied by doctors and medicine, his earliest play on record being “Le médecin volant “The flying doctor” (1655 or earlier). The theme of those plays was nothing new, borrowed from the Italian “Commedia Dell’Arte” or from Spanish comedy (e.g. “El acero de Madrid” de Lope de Vega (1612)).

    English-speakers should however be reminded that Molière is as important to the culture of French-speakers as William Shakespeare is to English-speakers.

    Act 3, scene 3 of “Le malade imaginaire” is reminiscent of the theme of “King Lear”, while the whole play will strike a chord with feminists of every generation.

  2. Thanks Carolyn. Molière is a riot, and I think his thoughts on the medical profession are close. I don’t know if this adage applies to the human field, but in the animal medical field we are told that a third of our patients improve in spite of what we do, a third die no matter what we do, and if we are lucky our intervention makes a difference in the remaining third. If so, there is about a 66.66666666% chance that Don Juan was correct. LOL

  3. It is VERY unlikely that a full third of patients have outcomes improved by what we do. We flatter ourselves by these “statistics”. We might be necessary in the impact on 5% of patients. That is why we need humility and vigilance. And it is very important that patients understand those statistics.

  4. I remember when I was a graduate student answering an exam question regarding iatrogenic issues there were several studies citing the decline in death rates when doctors went on strike… In Israel in 1973 after a 1-month strike, the death rate went down 50%. In Colombia after a 52 day strike the death rate was down 35%, and in LA an 18% drop…

    These were studies in the 1970s- haven’t looked into this of late, hummmmmmm!

    • Does anybody else find mortality stats like that downright depressing?!?! The most recent study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, analyzed physician strikes around the world, all between 1976-2003, lasting between nine days and 17 weeks. Mortality rates stayed the same or decreased in all cases. Not one study found death rates increased during the strikes. Looks like elective surgery might be the culprit. Yikes…

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