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Be still, my beating heart: reading pulselessness from Shakespeare to the artificial heart
  1. Claire Hansen1,
  2. Michael Charles Stevens2
  1. 1 English Department, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia
  2. 2 Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Claire Hansen, English, James Cook University, Douglas QLD 4811, Australia; claire.hansen3{at}


Today, patients with heart failure can be kept alive by an artificial heart while they await a heart transplant. These modern artificial hearts, or left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), remove the patient’s discernible pulse while still maintaining life. This technology contradicts physiological, historical and sociocultural understandings of the pulse as central to human life. In this essay, we consider the ramifications of this contrast between the historical and cultural importance placed on the pulse (especially in relation to our sense of self) and living with a pulseless LVAD. We argue that the pulse’s relationship to individual identity can be rescripted by examining its representation in formative cultural texts like the works of William Shakespeare. Through an integration of historical, literary and biomedical engineering perspectives on the pulse, this paper expands interpretations of pulselessness and advocates for the importance of cultural—as well as biomedical—knowledge to support patients with LVADs and those around them. In reconsidering figurative and literal representations of the heartbeat in the context of technology which removes the need for a pulse, this essay argues that narrative and metaphor can be used to reconceptualise the relationship between the heartbeat and identity.

  • cardiology
  • English literature
  • literary studies
  • literature and medicine
  • medical humanities

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  • Twitter @claireghansen, @Dr_MikeStevens

  • Contributors CH contributed to the research on the early modern history of the heart and the analysis of Romeo and Juliet. MCS contributed to the discussion on the development of the LVAD.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.