References to venereal disease appear as early in the second scene ofShakespeares Measure for Measure. Syphilis, the primary and most horrible ofvenereal diseases, ran rampant in Shakespeares time. By giving a briefhistory of the disease in Renaissance Europe one can gain a better understandingof the disease which will provide a greater insight into the play which wouldhave gone unknown. This brief history will include, the severity of the diseasein fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, believed origins and symptoms of thetime period, and methods of curing or combating the disease..
By reading andanalyzing passages referring to syphilis in Measure for Measure it is clear thatShakespeare himself believed in most of the truths established by the poet andphysician Fracastor. Fracastor was the primary source and influence regardingstudies of syphilis in Renaissance Europe. The disease we now commonly identifyas syphilis is believed to have arrived in Europe for the first time in the latefifteenth century. Though there are few statistics from that period available toprove such an argument, there is plenty of evidence that supports that thedisease suddenly emerged in great abundance during this time period.
It is alsobelieved 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 littledoubt that when syphilis first appeared in epidemic form, at the beginning ofthe sixteenth century, it was a far more virulent, acute, and factual conditionthan it is now (Rosebury 23).” The first time syphilis, called evil pocks atthe time, was mentioned in print occurred on August 7, 1495 in the Edict of theHoly Roman Emperor Maximilian. In this document syphilis was believed to be apunishment sent from God for blasphemy and was described as something “whichhad never occurred before nor been heard of within the memory of man (Rosebury24).” Between the years 1495 and 1498 there were a total of nine similardocuments that emerged through out Western Europe. In 1530 Fracastor, a poet andphysician, published the poem, Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus, translated”Syphilis or the French Disease.” The main character was a shepherd inHispaniola named Syphilis.
Syphilis caught the disease for disrespecting theGods. At the time Fracastor believed in the previous documents, but wouldprovide his own original ideas concerning how the disease reached Europe. Healso alluded to possible treatments, that Shakespeare will later use in hisplays. Fracastor used the name “syphilis” for both the main character andthe disease he contracted.
However, the name of the disease continued to beknown as “the French disease.” It was not until the 1850s, more thanthree centuries after Fracastors poem, that the disease was called”syphilis.” Fracastors poem grew widely popular in Western Europe, andwas believed to be mostly factual at the time.
It might seem odd that afictional poem with fictional characters would be widely regarded as truth, butunder the extreme circumstances of the sixteenth century syphilis epidemic itmakes perfect sense. Syphilis had caused terror in the hearts of the people inthe sixteenth century due to its rapid spread. Physicians seemed helpless tocure it.
No one could do anything, but believe in what Fracastor wrote. In thepoem Fracastor had answers concerning its origin, symptoms, and cure for thisnew disease. He went along with the common belief that it appeared in the Frencharmy before Naples around the year 1495. “From France, and justly took fromFrance his name, (Rosebury 31).” This quote provides the evidence concerningsyphilis former name, “The French Disease.” He also discussed how hebelieved that it originated in America, and was brought back with Columbus andhis men.
This was the popular view of the day, and many researchers still findtruth in it. What Fracastor truly believed, at the time, was that the positionsof the planets influenced the outbreak of the disease. He believed that theylined up in such a way that provided great conditions for the emergence of thedisease. In the poem Fracastor also states that the disease had very often a”extra-genital origin (Rosebury 34).” An observation he will later discussfurther. He also goes on to discuss possible treatments that became popular inthe sixteenth century, which also appeared in some of Shakespeares plays. Herecommends to get plenty of exercise, and to avoid wine and fish.
He alsoincludes using mercury, a very popular method of controlling the disease, whichwill be discussed later in detail. Sixteen years later Fracastor published hisserious medical work, Contagion, regarding syphilis. In this work he describesthe disease in thorough and convincing detail. In this very influential work hepresents the modern idea that the transmission of syphilis and many otherdiseases infect their victim through “seeds” or germs. He also makes theargument that syphilis is often transmitted by sexual intercourse. Fracastorcould not, however, dismiss his old beliefs that the planets played a role inthe outbreak of the disease. It is because of this constant, and somewhatillogical, 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 iscontagious. The opposite is proven today. This may seem like a small error ordetail, but this error caused many people great pain and anguish.
In the nextsection I will I will go into full detail concerning the painful and fromtodays perspective, archaic methods of combating this disease. At the time ofthe syphilis epidemic in Renaissance Europe, there were many treatments thatwere attempted and used regularly. The most common of these methods or”cures” were compounds of mercury.
It should be known that mercury is one ofthe most harmful of elements to the human body. However, this information wasnot available or known in Shakespearean times. In the past, prior to RenaissanceEurope, Arabs commonly used mercury to combat scabies and yaws.
The sores andlesions from syphilis look very similar to the sores caused by scabies. Hence,when syphilis started to destroy most of Western Europe, it was the mostpractical of solutions. Arsenic was also used as therapy around 1530, but thistreatment was rarely used after it became known that its toxic effects werefatal. For the next four hundred years mercury was essentially the only methodof combating syphilis. Even though, it was not the cure there were no otheralternatives to be used. Mercury was given to the patient in four differentways: orally, topically, by salves, and by fumigation. Mercury taken orally wasabsorbed internally.
When given topically, mercury would be rubbed several timesa 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 incontinuous close contact with the skin.
Treatment by fumigation was the leasteffective method and the most grueling. The patient was placed in a closedcompartment, with only their head sticking out. A fire was then set underneaththe cabinet, raising the temperature and causing the mercury to vaporize. Thismethod was not popular for long since it was such a painstaking ordeal and didnot treat the disease effectively. These four processes were all intended toaccomplish the same goal; to increase the amount of saliva. It was believed thatsaliva carried away the venereal poison. Three pints of saliva a day wasconsidered a good prognosis.
In the cases when the patient would not produce therequired amount of saliva, more mercury was used. “It has been recorded thatup 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 tofurther understand how grueling and torturous this treatment was. He was thefirst sufferer of syphilis to rebel in print against the method of usingmercury. Hutten had six treatments in eight years. He received the mercurytopically.
He was kept in bed in a hot room, dressed in very heavy clothing toproduce sweating. He was kept in this room, not able to leave, for twenty tothirty days at a time. Hutten explains that his “jaws, tongue, lips, andpalate 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 sufferhe wanted to die instead. The syphilis came back, despite all treatments Otherpossibly cures that were experimented with were guaiacum wood, “China Root,”and sarsaparilla.
All were proven to be ineffective against syphilis. Asexpected, with no cure for syphilis charlatans cheated many patients withpromises of quick, permanent cures. After collecting their fees, doctors woulddisappear before relapses and side effects from toxic dosages set in.
In Measurefor Measure references to venereal diseases, in particular syphilis, appear asearly 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 isthe one who makes the references to syphilis is very important. Lucio translatedmeans “light” or “truth,” therefore what he says is true and should betaken seriously. Shakespeare must have felt that the epidemic of syphilis wasimportant or he would have another character in the play make the references. InAct I Scene 2 the First Gentleman responds to Lucio saying: “And thou thevelvet.
Thou art good velvet,/ thourt a three-piled piece, I warrant thee (2930).” This quote shows a common symptom of syphilis in the form of rectalsores. Lucio responds to the First Gentlemen saying : “.
. .I will, out ofthine own confessions, learn to begin/ thy health, but whilst I live forget todrink after thee (34 35).” Lucio is implying that he will not drink out ofthe same cup top avoid infection.
This shows that Fracastors theory that thedisease is spread through germs was accepted, and was considered to be true. Thenext reference of syphilis in Act 1 Scene 2 occurs when Lucio states “..
.thybones are hollow (50).” It is known today that syphilis does not cause bonesto become brittle. However, at the time hollow or brittle bones was a symptom ofsyphilis. It was due to the mercury treatments that caused this condition.
Thenext reference to venereal disease occurs in the very next line when the FirstGentleman 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 associatedwith venereal disease. Pompey delivers the last reference to syphilis found inAct 1 Scene 2. He is talking with Mistress Overdone and states “You have wornyour eyes almost out in the service, you will be considered (90- 91).
” Thisquote could be interpreted in two ways. The word “eye” was commonly used asslang to describe female genitalia. In that instance Pompey is saying thatMistress Overdone has ruined her genitalia because of her profession.
worn your eyes almost out….” This image can be associated withblindness, another common symptom of syphilis. Either way the passage suggeststhat Mistress Overdone has a venereal disease. Another reference to syphilisoccurs 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 youwot of” is a euphemism for syphilis. What is interesting about this quotationis that Pompey suggests that if Froth keeps a good diet that he can be cured ofsyphilis. This theory of maintaining or curing syphilis by eating right goesback to Fracastors belief that if one maintains a healthy diet, avoiding fishand wine, he/she has a better chance to recover from syphilis. This belief wasfirst 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 adiscussion between Lucio and Pompey. This reference provides evidence supportingthe theme of consumption and venereal disease in Measure for Measure.
LUCIO Howdoth my dear morsel thy mistress? Procures she still, ha? POMPEY Troth, sir, shehas eaten up all her beef, and she is herself in the tub (307 309). Luciorefers to the mistress as a morsel, something that is eaten and consumed. Pompeytakes this image of consuming or eating further when he says “..
.has eaten allher beef.” The image of men consuming women through sexual means occurs manytimes throughout the play. The reference to venereal disease may not be asapparent as others but should not be missed. The “tub” refers to a sweatingtub that was used to treat syphilis. The sweating tub was used to administermercury through fumigation, which was discussed earlier.
Though it was not oneof the most popular ways of treating syphilis, obviously it was sometimes usedwhen the play was written. The theme of consuming can be applied to both menconsuming women and the disease syphilis consuming its victim a little at a timeuntil the body is completely ravaged. With the brief history of the diseaseprovided above, a greater understanding of the references of syphilis in Measurefor Measure is established. What was widely understood as truth concerning thedisease in Renaissance Europe can be found in Shakespeares play. By readingand analyzing passages referring to syphilis in Measure for Measure it is clearthat Shakespeare himself believed in these truths. Lucio, a character who speaksonly truth makes most of the references to syphilis in the play.BibliographyBrown, Donohue, Axnick, Blount, Ewen, Jones.
Syphilis and Other VenerealDiseases. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusetts, 1970 Rosebury,Theodor. Microbes and Morals. The Viking Press.
New York, 1971