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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 III. "the vice o' th' top": SYPHILIS AND SLANDER IN MEASURE FOR MEASURE 101


Chapter III "The vice o' th' top": Syphilis and Slander in Measure for Measure Like Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure has proven elusive. As with the earlier work, critics remain divided about the play's focus and generic form. A number of recent critics, for instance, aligning themselves with G. Wilson Knight, R. W. Chambers, and Roy Battenhouse, 1 emphasize the drama's religious elements and its Chris- tian framework. Centering primarily on allusions to the Gospels, par- ticularly the parables, Arthur Kirsch claims that "the language and action [of Measure for Measure] are explicitly and deeply concerned with central truths of Christian experience."2 Kirsch is in part correct, but he overlooks or ignores much evidence that qualifies his thesis. In a more balanced presentation, but one that still emphasizes the play's Christian elements, Louise Schleiner argues that the plot moves from moral thesis to immoral antithesis, ''tit for tat, measure for measure. The forces of human corruption . . . give back blow for blow to the duke's initiatives as a Christian ruler trying to imitate God." 3 After describing the "battle" between moral thesis and immoral antithesis, 101 Schleiner asks: "Is there a final synthesis?" and concludes, "No; the duke wins, but on points- there is no knock out. And the losers will doubtless soon challenge again."4 Like Kirsch, Schleiner is partly accurate; the Duke wins, but the losers, as I illustrate later, are not only knocked out for the full count, they are forced to retire from the sport...

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