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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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CONCLUSION Many Renaissance texts end with an epilogue, that brief addition primarily intended to deflect criticism and garner public endorsement. Such an epilogue seems in order here, for I can imagine readers ques- tioning the foregoing discussions on at least two counts. First, some readers may object that the study as a whole seems to be a checklist, a catalogue in which I have identified, tagged, and filed references to syphilis. To some degree I have intended it as such. Many of Shakespeare's references to this disease have gone unnoticed because they have been lost in unfamiliar language, veiled in epithets, or hid- den in puns. Part of the function of this study, therefore, has been to "foreground" the numerous references to syphilis in these plays. Readers may also find fault with the shape of individual chapters, arguing that the discussions too closely follow plot. This design, too, was intentional. Simply pointing out the numerous references to syph- ilis in these plays was not enough; it seemed extremely important to illustrate how they color and define specific contexts, and to show how they frequently proceed from previous actions or images and how they influence and shape the events and episodes that follow them. What may often seem dramatically jerky or disconnected in these plays is, if we recognize and correctly understand the references to syphilis, 215 wholly fitting, at least by association if not always by strict logic. Part of my overall design has been to provide thorough and close...

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