The following is a bit of text taken from my dissertation chapter draft which sums up some of the points I was driving at in the previous post– namely that the play’s treatment of plague centers upon ideas of bodily checks and balances and does not, perhaps contrary to common readings, figure plague as a mere gateway to civil chaos.
To best understand the seemingly paradoxical nature of plague’s status within Timon, it is worth revisiting some lines from Measure for Measure. Late in the play, Escalus encounters the disguised Duke and asks him “What news abroad i’the world?” The first of Vincentio’s responses, before he launches into a series of riddles, is “None but that there is so great a fever on goodness that the dissolution of it must cure it”(III.ii. 225-227). There is some ambiguity in the Duke’s statement– is fever or goodness to be dissolved for the sake of curing the latter? The idea that “goodness” or the healthy limbs of the political body must be sacrificed in order to cure the whole is certainly not as farfetched as it might initially seem. As Gil Harris points out, “By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the seemingly paradoxical notion that social poisons might have medicinal properties had come to supplement, and even eclipse, the earlier models of political cure”(50). As a real-life example within early modern courtly life, Dominic Green provides a colorful portrait of the political character Anthony Perez, dubbed “The Monster of Fortune” who recommended a prescription during plague-time which “almost killed [The Earl of] Essex’s secretary, Thomas Smith… Smith did not have Perez’ addict constitution, and when he took Perez’ habitual dose, he collapsed”(175).
Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet Friar Lawrence reflects upon the double nature of medicinal plants, musing aloud: “Within the infant rind of this weak flower, poison hath residence and medicine power (II.iii.23-24); his declaration of the flower’s dualistic properties only heighten the sense of tragedy for the young lovers for whom the poison is destined. Despite the fact that it is uttered only half as much in Timon of Athens, however, the word “poison” possesses an equal, if not more potent function in the play as both a remedy and a toxin. Its paradoxical nature is summed up by Timon himself, who counsels a group of bandits to: “trust not the physician;/His antidotes are poison, and he slays/More than you rob”(xiv.431-432). Notably, the word “poison” becomes synonymous with a more general type of infirmity, plague-like, representing both the corrupted friendship between Timon and the senators of Athens and embodied in the curse Timon threatens to unleash upon his faithless city: “Destruction fang mankind! Earth, yield me roots!/Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate/With thy most operant poison!”(xiv.22-24). When Timon commands Alcibiades to deliver retributive justice upon Athens, his condition is that he “Be as a planetary plague, when Jove/Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison/In the sick air”(xiv.109-111).
To simply read plague as an embodiment of corruptive practice, or as a curse levied by Timon upon his prodigal countrymen, unfortunately detracts from Shakespeare’s treatment of plague within the play as a historically cyclical process– both natural and naturalizing. The vision of the plague that Shakespeare presents us in Timon of Athens is not anarchic at all, but a necessary step for for the greater project of civilization. Understood within these terms, Timon is neither a victim nor the embodiment of a city’s plaguey curse; rather, Timon acts as a marginalized spectator for own civilization’s narrative, embodying the sole power of the exiled to appear prophetic even from beyond the grave.