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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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Appendix Since the middle of the 19th century, modern physicians have dis- cussed Shakespeare's medical knowledge and documented some of his references to syphilis. Two of the earliest works were stimulated by Lord Campbell's book Shakespeare's Legal Acquirements. Imitating this work, John Bucknill, M.D., wrote The Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare (1860). 1 Bucknill begins his introduction by acknowledg- ing his indebtedness to Campbell: The perusal of Lord Campbell's interesting work on Shakespeare's legal at- tainments brought to the author of the following pages the conviction that the knowledge of the great dramatist was in each department so extensive and exact that it required the skilled observation of a professional mind fully and fairly to appreciate and set it forth. 2 Fearing that readers would overlook the passages in which Shakespeare used significant medical information, Bucknill claims that they must be set forth by ''some one whom the bias of a medical education had qualified to execute the task." 3 After a long introduc- tion in which he traces the history of medicine during the 16th century and outlines the habit of mind that an Elizabethan physician must have had a habit of mind, Bucknill concludes, which Shakespeare did not 223 share (that is, Shakespeare's mind was not "warped" by any direct medical training),4 he simply lists Shakespeare's plays, pointing out a few salient passages in each and "diagnosing" some of the diseases mentioned. Bucknill makes no attempt to enumerate thoroughly the passages where Shakespeare refers to medicine or disease,...

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