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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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Chapter I The New Disease During the last four years of the 15th century and throughout the 16th, syphilis was one of the central topics in medical literature. For the most part, medical writers focused on seven controversies: (I) was syphilis an old or new disease, (2) did it originate from natural or divine causes, (3) did it originate on the continent or in America, (4) was it a disease itself or a complication stemming from another disease,(5) were the various treatments effective or ineffective, (6) were victims of the disease morally defective, and, finally, (7) was the nature of syphilis-or of any disease-physiological or ontological. Although some of these controversies are still debated today, by the 1580s, when Shakespeare began writing, most medical writers agreed that syphilis was in fact a new disease, that it originated in America, that it resulted from an imbalance of humors, and that having con- tracted the disease clearly indicated that one was physically and mor- ally "tainted." By the 1580s, too, most laymen shared these notions about syphilis, receiving their information in two primary ways. Because syphilis was so pervasive by the last quarter of the 16th century and because its symptoms were so visible, almost everyone had witnessed its devas- tating effects. Furthermore, between 1496 and 1600 medical writers 7 produced books and treatises on syphilis almost as quickly as the disease spread, and these works appeared not only in Latin but in Italian, French, Spanish, German, and many of the...

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