Essay, Research Paper: Measure For Measure


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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 contact 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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