References to venereal disease appear as early in the second scene of Shakespeares Measure for Measure. Syphilis, the primary and most horrible of venereal diseases, ran rampant in Shakespeares 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 1850s, more than three centuries after Fracastors poem, that the disease was called syphilis.
Fracastors 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 Shakespeares 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 todays 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,/ thourt 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 Fracastors 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 Fracastors 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 Shakespeares 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.
Brown, 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