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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 IV. ''gainst the stream of virture": SYPHILIS AND USURY IN TIMON OF ATHENS 139


Chapter IV "gainst the stream of virtue": Syphilis and Usury in Timon of Athens Unlike Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens has never been formally classified as one of Shakespeare's "Problem Plays." 1 Although the chief proponents for categorizing a group of plays as "Problem Plays" were largely dissatisfied with the idea, it seemed the only suitable designation under which to group those works that shared such "dark" qualities as intense gloom, dis- illusionment, and morbidity. Besides these characteristics, the desig- nation hinted at other qualities that these plays had in common. For instance, their complexity seemed almost to defy analysis and they were perplexing to a frustrating degree. In addition, some were thought to show signs of multiple authorship, of structural unevenness, or seemed simply to be unfinished. Though omitted from this group, Timon could easily have been included, for it not only discloses deep currents of gloom and disillusionment, but also because critics, for decades, have assumed that the play was either a collaboration, or incomplete, or uneven. 2 As scholarly and critical research continues, however, commentators are discovering that Timon-like the so-called 139 Problem Plays-is more coherent and complete than previously thought. Critics still have vigorous disagreements about Timon, producing numerous and varied interpretations of the play. But the reasons for their division differ considerably from those of the previous genera- tion. While few critics today assume that Timon is immature or in- complete, most agree that its richness and complexity allow for-and...

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