Shakespeare/Measure For Measure term paper 12498

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References to venereal disease appear as early in the second scene of

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Syphilis, the primary and most horrible of

venereal diseases, ran rampant in Shakespeare’s time. By giving a brief

history of the disease in Renaissance Europe one can gain a better understanding

of the disease which will provide a greater insight into the play which would

have gone unknown. This brief history will include, the severity of the disease

in fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, believed origins and symptoms of the

time period, and methods of curing or combating the disease.. By reading and

analyzing passages referring to syphilis in Measure for Measure it is clear that

Shakespeare himself believed in most of the truths established by the poet and

physician Fracastor. Fracastor was the primary source and influence regarding

studies of syphilis in Renaissance Europe. The disease we now commonly identify

as syphilis is believed to have arrived in Europe for the first time in the late

fifteenth century. Though there are few statistics from that period available to

prove such an argument, there is plenty of evidence that supports that the

disease suddenly emerged in great abundance during this time period. It is also

believed that syphilis was much more severe then, than it has ever been since.

Zinsser writes in his book, Rats, Lice, and History that: “There is little

doubt that when syphilis first appeared in epidemic form, at the beginning of

the sixteenth century, it was a far more virulent, acute, and factual condition

than it is now (Rosebury 23).” The first time syphilis, called evil pocks at

the time, was mentioned in print occurred on August 7, 1495 in the Edict of the

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. In this document syphilis was believed to be a

punishment sent from God for blasphemy and was described as something “which

had never occurred before nor been heard of within the memory of man (Rosebury

24).” Between the years 1495 and 1498 there were a total of nine similar

documents that emerged through out Western Europe. In 1530 Fracastor, a poet and

physician, published the poem, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus, translated

“Syphilis or the French Disease.” The main character was a shepherd in

Hispaniola named Syphilis. Syphilis caught the disease for disrespecting the

Gods. At the time Fracastor believed in the previous documents, but would

provide his own original ideas concerning how the disease reached Europe. He

also alluded to possible treatments, that Shakespeare will later use in his

plays. Fracastor used the name “syphilis” for both the main character and

the disease he contracted. However, the name of the disease continued to be

known as “the French disease.” It was not until the 1850’s, more than

three centuries after Fracastor’s poem, that the disease was called

“syphilis.” Fracastor’s poem grew widely popular in Western Europe, and

was believed to be mostly factual at the time. It might seem odd that a

fictional poem with fictional characters would be widely regarded as truth, but

under the extreme circumstances of the sixteenth century syphilis epidemic it

makes perfect sense. Syphilis had caused terror in the hearts of the people in

the sixteenth century due to its rapid spread. Physicians seemed helpless to

cure it. No one could do anything, but believe in what Fracastor wrote. In the

poem Fracastor had answers concerning its origin, symptoms, and cure for this

new disease. He went along with the common belief that it appeared in the French

army before Naples around the year 1495. “From France, and justly took from

France his name, (Rosebury 31).” This quote provides the evidence concerning

syphilis’ former name, “The French Disease.” He also discussed how he

believed that it originated in America, and was brought back with Columbus and

his men. This was the popular view of the day, and many researchers still find

truth in it. What Fracastor truly believed, at the time, was that the positions

of the planets influenced the outbreak of the disease. He believed that they

lined up in such a way that provided great conditions for the emergence of the

disease. In the poem Fracastor also states that the disease had very often a

“extra-genital origin (Rosebury 34).” An observation he will later discuss

further. He also goes on to discuss possible treatments that became popular in

the sixteenth century, which also appeared in some of Shakespeare’s plays. He

recommends to get plenty of exercise, and to avoid wine and fish. He also

includes using mercury, a very popular method of controlling the disease, which

will be discussed later in detail. Sixteen years later Fracastor published his

serious medical work, Contagion, regarding syphilis. In this work he describes

the disease in thorough and convincing detail. In this very influential work he

presents the modern idea that the transmission of syphilis and many other

diseases infect their victim through “seeds” or germs. He also makes the

argument that syphilis is often transmitted by sexual intercourse. Fracastor

could not, however, dismiss his old beliefs that the planets played a role in

the outbreak of the disease. It is because of this constant, and somewhat

illogical, belief that makes it obvious that Fracastor was not a radical.

Another error Fracastor made in Contagion was that he believed that “late”

syphilis, when the symptoms are at their worse, is when the disease is

contagious. The opposite is proven today. This may seem like a small error or

detail, but this error caused many people great pain and anguish. In the next

section I will I will go into full detail concerning the painful and from

today’s perspective, archaic methods of combating this disease. At the time of

the syphilis epidemic in Renaissance Europe, there were many treatments that

were attempted and used regularly. The most common of these methods or

“cures” were compounds of mercury. It should be known that mercury is one of

the most harmful of elements to the human body. However, this information was

not available or known in Shakespearean times. In the past, prior to Renaissance

Europe, Arabs commonly used mercury to combat scabies and yaws. The sores and

lesions from syphilis look very similar to the sores caused by scabies. Hence,

when syphilis started to destroy most of Western Europe, it was the most

practical of solutions. Arsenic was also used as therapy around 1530, but this

treatment was rarely used after it became known that its toxic effects were

fatal. For the next four hundred years mercury was essentially the only method

of combating syphilis. Even though, it was not the cure there were no other

alternatives to be used. Mercury was given to the patient in four different

ways: orally, topically, by salves, and by fumigation. Mercury taken orally was

absorbed internally. When given topically, mercury would be rubbed several times

a day to different parts of the body. The metal would be absorbed into the skin.

Using mercury salves consisted of the same principle, but the metal was kept in

continuous close with the skin. Treatment by fumigation was the least

effective method and the most grueling. The patient was placed in a closed

compartment, with only their head sticking out. A fire was then set underneath

the cabinet, raising the temperature and causing the mercury to vaporize. This

method was not popular for long since it was such a painstaking ordeal and did

not treat the disease effectively. These four processes were all intended to

accomplish the same goal; to increase the amount of saliva. It was believed that

saliva carried away the venereal poison. Three pints of saliva a day was

considered a good prognosis. In the cases when the patient would not produce the

required amount of saliva, more mercury was used. “It has been recorded that

up to sixteen pounds of mercury was given in a single course of treatment

(Brown, 12).” The story of Ulrich von Hutten, a German poet, is crucial to

further understand how grueling and torturous this treatment was. He was the

first sufferer of syphilis to rebel in print against the method of using

mercury. Hutten had six treatments in eight years. He received the mercury

topically. He was kept in bed in a hot room, dressed in very heavy clothing to

produce sweating. He was kept in this room, not able to leave, for twenty to

thirty days at a time. Hutten explains that his “jaws, tongue, lips, and

palate became ulcerated, his gums swelled, his teeth loosened and fell out

(Brown, 14).” He says that the cure, or apparent cure, was so hard to suffer

he wanted to die instead. The syphilis came back, despite all treatments Other

possibly cures that were experimented with were guaiacum wood, “China Root,”

and sarsaparilla. All were proven to be ineffective against syphilis. As

expected, with no cure for syphilis charlatans cheated many patients with

promises of quick, permanent cures. After collecting their fees, doctors would

disappear before relapses and side effects from toxic dosages set in. In Measure

for Measure references to venereal diseases, in particular syphilis, appear as

early as the second scene. It is a reoccurring image that can not be overlooked.

Lucio speaks most of the references to venereal disease. The fact that Lucio is

the one who makes the references to syphilis is very important. Lucio translated

means “light” or “truth,” therefore what he says is true and should be

taken seriously. Shakespeare must have felt that the epidemic of syphilis was

important or he would have another character in the play make the references. In

Act I Scene 2 the First Gentleman responds to Lucio saying: “And thou the

velvet. Thou art good velvet,/ thou’rt a three-piled piece, I warrant thee (29

– 30).” This quote shows a common symptom of syphilis in the form of rectal

sores. Lucio responds to the First Gentlemen saying : “. . .I will, out of

thine own confessions, learn to begin/ thy health, but whilst I live forget to

drink after thee (34 –35).” Lucio is implying that he will not drink out of

the same cup top avoid infection. This shows that Fracastor’s theory that the

disease is spread through germs was accepted, and was considered to be true. The

next reference of syphilis in Act 1 Scene 2 occurs when Lucio states “…thy

bones are hollow (50).” It is known today that syphilis does not cause bones

to become brittle. However, at the time hollow or brittle bones was a symptom of

syphilis. It was due to the mercury treatments that caused this condition. The

next reference to venereal disease occurs in the very next line when the First

Gentleman says “How now, which of/ your hips has the most profound sciatica?

(52 – 53).” An ache in the sciatic vein in the hip was commonly associated

with venereal disease. Pompey delivers the last reference to syphilis found in

Act 1 Scene 2. He is talking with Mistress Overdone and states “You have worn

your eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered (90- 91).” This

quote could be interpreted in two ways. The word “eye” was commonly used as

slang to describe female genitalia. In that instance Pompey is saying that

Mistress Overdone has ruined her genitalia because of her profession. Pompey

states “…worn your eyes almost out….” This image can be associated with

blindness, another common symptom of syphilis. Either way the passage suggests

that Mistress Overdone has a venereal disease. Another reference to syphilis

occurs in Act 2 Scene1. It occurs when Pompey is speaking to Froth. He states

“…that such a one and such a one were past cure of the/ thing you wot of,

unless they kept very good diet, as I told/ you- (101- 103).” The “thing you

wot of” is a euphemism for syphilis. What is interesting about this quotation

is that Pompey suggests that if Froth keeps a good diet that he can be cured of

syphilis. This theory of maintaining or curing syphilis by eating right goes

back to Fracastor’s belief that if one maintains a healthy diet, avoiding fish

and wine, he/she has a better chance to recover from syphilis. This belief was

first given in his poem, and shows that Shakespeare must have seen truth in it.

In Act 3 Scene 1 a very important reference to venereal disease occurs in a

discussion between Lucio and Pompey. This reference provides evidence supporting

the theme of consumption and venereal disease in Measure for Measure. LUCIO How

doth my dear morsel thy mistress? Procures she still, ha? POMPEY Troth, sir, she

has eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub (307 – 309). Lucio

refers to the mistress as a morsel, something that is eaten and consumed. Pompey

takes this image of consuming or eating further when he says “…has eaten all

her beef.” The image of men consuming women through sexual means occurs many

times throughout the play. The reference to venereal disease may not be as

apparent as others but should not be missed. The “tub” refers to a sweating

tub that was used to treat syphilis. The sweating tub was used to administer

mercury through fumigation, which was discussed earlier. Though it was not one

of the most popular ways of treating syphilis, obviously it was sometimes used

when the play was written. The theme of consuming can be applied to both men

consuming women and the disease syphilis consuming its victim a little at a time

until the body is completely ravaged. With the brief history of the disease

provided above, a greater understanding of the references of syphilis in Measure

for Measure is established. What was widely understood as truth concerning the

disease in Renaissance Europe can be found in Shakespeare’s play. By reading

and analyzing passages referring to syphilis in Measure for Measure it is clear

that Shakespeare himself believed in these truths. Lucio, a character who speaks

only truth makes most of the references to syphilis in the play.


BibliographyBrown, Donohue, Axnick, Blount, Ewen, Jones. Syphilis and Other Venereal

Diseases. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusetts, 1970 Rosebury,

Theodor. Microbes and Morals. The Viking Press. New York, 1971

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