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Shakespeare and the New Disease

The Dramatic Function of Syphilis in "Troilus and Cressida,</I> "Measure for Measure,</I> and "Timon of Athens</I>


Greg W. Bentley

This book makes several important contributions to our knowledge of Shakespeare and the Renaissance. First, Bentley's close and thorough analysis of the references to syphilis in Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens illustrates how Shakespeare not only transforms a medical topic into imaginative literature, but more specifically it demonstrates how Shakespeare employs this «image cluster» to define and reveal major themes in the plays - sexual commercialism, slander, and usury, respectively. Second, Bentley's investigation of the imagery and themes in these plays provides evidence about their generic identity: rather than view these plays as traditional comedies or even problem plays, they should be looked at as comic or tragic satires.


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Introduction The nature and function of Shakespeare's imagery has received much attention during the last half century. Caroline Spurgeon's description and classification of his word pictures has been invaluable. 1 However, her focus on the biographical information that the imagery provided, while valid in some respects, was overempha- sized. Her assumption, too, that ''the greater and richer the work the more valuable and suggestive become the images" 2 put the stick where the carrot should have been. Some of Spurgeon's successors have added important qualifications to both of these approaches. Una Ellis-Fermor, although not referring just to Shakespeare, holds that imagery enriches the work, not vice versa. 3 While she does not overlook the value that prosody, plot, and setting add to drama, she emphasizes that ''of these ways of deepening the imaginative significance of a play without increasing its length or bulk, imagery is perhaps at once the most simple and the most powerful."4 Much of its power, she rightly argues, stems from the fact that, with the possible exception of irony, imagery is the most eco- nomical form of verbal expression. 5 In contrast to Spurgeon, both Ellis-Fermor and Wolfgang Clemen focus on the nature and function of imagery in relation to its dramatic context or situation. While Clemen analyzes individual plays to dis- cover the "development" of Shakespeare's imagery throughout his dramatic career, 6 Ellis-Fermor illustrates how imagery reveals char- acter and often does the work of argumentation and reflection. 7 What is more important, though,...

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