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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 II "The poor agent despised": Commercialism and Syphilis in Troilus and Cressida Troilus and Cressida seems to be disturbingly intractable and un- classifiable. Critics, like baffled physicians, have remained divided in their diagnoses, disagreeing mainly about the play's unity, its generic form, and its focus. For some critics, the play moves back and forth between two equal themes or concepts. Theodore Spencer, for in- stance, argues that the play has two themes-love and war1-and that it also embodies "the conflict between the two views of man which was implicit in Shakespeare's age ... " 2-man as he ought to be and man as he is. David Kaula, too, discovers a duality in Troilus and Cressida, claiming that the play, rather than dividing into rival views of man, focuses on the conflict between will and reason-two irrec- oncilable "modes of thought" 3-represented by Troilus and Ulysses respectively. Thus, Kaula concludes, Troilus and Cressida contains no harmonizing principle, "the ways of Troilus and Ulysses remain far apart, both equally ineffectua1."4 Although the dual themes and con- cepts that Spencer and Kaula point out are clearly present in the play, 41 these critics overlook or dismiss much that binds the work into an organic whole. In contrast to their point of view, a number of other critics argue that Troilus and Cressida is unified and coherent. Analyzing the theme of the disintegration of values in the play, they find unity in discord. Una Ellis- Fermor, perhaps the first critic to make this claim,...

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