Word of the Day: Apoplexy

September 16, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is not a pleasant word, used from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century to describe any sudden death that began with a loss of consciousness. Its roots, like much medical terminology, lie in ancient Greek; in this case, an anglicisation of apoplexia (striking or hitting – ‘plexia’ – away – ‘apo’). The word only occurs four times in Shakespeare’s works, five if we count a variant that we find in Hamlet, when the prince attacks his mother for having married her husband’s brother:

> HAMLET [...] Sense sure you have,
> Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense
> Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
> Nor sense to ecstacy was ne’er so thrall’d
> But it reserv’d some quantity of choice
> To serve in such a difference.

Note here that apoplexy occurs only as part of a metaphor: for Hamlet, Gertrude’s senses must have all but shut down, since such a wedding could not have occurred otherwise, in spite of all (and here comes another Greek word) the “ecstasy” she may have felt. The language of the Prince of Denmark on this topic of remarriage is full of words with classical roots and references to classical myths: one thinks of his paralleling Old Hamlet and Claudius, the former being to the latter as “Hyperion to a satyr”.

Hamlet’s description of “apoplex’d” senses may well be a sign of his hiding behind the words he learnt at university in Wittenberg; another example of the word, this time in *Coriolanus*, is far more blunt , with the word employed to describe what the play’s eponymous hero considers the dullness of peacetime.

> CORIOLANUS [...] Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.

Coriolanus’ assessment of peace could not be further from that of Henry IV, the only character in Shakespeare’s works to die of apoplexy, and a man obsessed with maintaining the fragile equilibrium of peace installed after his rebellion and dethroning of Richard II. As Falstaff puts it, “This apoplexy [...] is a kind of lethargy, [...] a kind of sleeping in the blood, a tingling. [...] It hath it original from much grief, from study, and perturbation of the brain”. All his information, we soon learn, comes from “Galen”, quite possibly one of those books in Greek on the shelf of the young Prince of Denmark back in Wittenberg, and almost certainly present in the library of that other famous Wittenberg graduate: Dr Faustus.

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