On Fortunate Poisons

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).

"Enter Apothecary" by William Blake, after Fuseli

“Enter Apothecary” by William Blake, after Fuseli

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.


Thou disease of a friend…

Some thoughts on the significance and power of Flaminus’ curse

In Scene 5 we witness a rather heart-wrenching display of loyalty from Flaminius, a servant of Timon’s. Flaminus has just tried and failed to convince Lucullus to lend Timon money; after the latter tries to bribe the former into “seeing him not,” Flaminius curses him in a bitter rage. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

FLAMINUS. May these add to the number that may scald thee.
Let molten coin be thy damnation,
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself.
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights? O you gods,
I feel my master’s passion! This slave
Unto this hour has my lord’s meat in him.
Why should it thrive and turn to nutriment,
When he is turned to poison?
O, may diseases only work upon’t;
And when he’s sick to death, let not that part of nature
Which my lord paid for be of any power
To expel sickness, but prolong his hour. (5.50-62)

These lines once again plunge us into the prevailing trope of the body as it is seen from the inside-out, conjuring up the image of meat turning to poison within the stomach while “prolonging the hour” of the victim. Throwing the coins back at Lucullus, Flaminus vows that they “scald” their lord as “molten coin.” The invocation of infernal heat, combined with Flaminus’ epithet for Lucullus (“Thou disease of a friend”) recalls the favored early modern treatment for syphilis– hot water tubs and thermal soaks. A certain “A.T., practitioner in physicke,” prescribes molten allum, strained through a “coulender, or else thorough some course linnen cloth, and put yt into a Gallypot or Glasse” as a remedy for sores or bruises. Lucullus, in Flaminus’ eyes, is no better than a walking infestation of the pox.

Dürer's "Syphilis", c. 1496

Dürer’s “Syphilis”, c. 1496

At this point Flaminus’ description takes a peculiar turn. Rather than curse Lucullus’ life, Flaminus expresses his desire for a sort of living death. In a moment which exemplifies many early modern attitudes toward disease, the servant wishes contamination upon the contaminator, desiring for the meat to turn sour within the lord’s stomach. The curse, paradoxically, turns the concept of a “cure” on its head, given that Renaissance remedies often often incorporated potentially dangerous components with a “fight fire with fire” mindset. Common recipes for treacle, for example, traditionally contained viper flesh as a primary ingredient in the hopes that its poisonous properties would counter the poison of any infectious agent. As it stands, any diseased meat would serve to partially combat the lord’s inherent sickness, though it would not cure him completely. Flaminus’ words thus condemn Lucullus to a life of extended misery as if two infectious vipers were to forever battle within his body.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a "medical symbol." In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

A caduceus, commonly mistaken as a “medical symbol.” In reality it is debatable whether the symbol was used before the 19th century within a medical context.

The idea of diseased human flesh corrupting the body of its consumer also resonates with an early modern Italian text, “Capricci medicinali”, studied at length by William Eamon in his article “Cannibalism and Contagion: Framing Syphilis in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Written by “Bolognese surgeon,” Leonardo Fioravanti, the text “advanced the strange and novel theory that the syphilis epidemic was caused by cannibalism” (3). Fioravanti’s theory is ultimately based upon the notion of linked taboos; as cannibalism epitomized the most grotesque of stigmatized behaviors in early modern Europe, so it followed that the most grotesque of stigmatized diseases must be inevitably related. Such causality had value on a figurative level as well; as Fioravanti’s experiments seemed to confirm that cannibalism resulted in syphilitic symptoms within the body, his rationale could be extended to include the body politic. As Eamon summarizes:

“Fioravanti believed that the cause of Italy’s moral and political decline was an internal pollution that began in the courts and spread outward to contaminate the entire commonwealth. Just as the ‘bad quality of the stomach’ spreads its contagion to all the body’s organs, so corrupt rulers and their fawning courtiers ruined the whole body politic” (20).

The fluid ease with which Fioravanti transitions between discussions of the body physical and the larger, more dynamic political body is unsurprising to the reader accustomed to blurring between medical and social contexts typical of the era. What is most interesting in this case is the direct link Fioravanti supposes between the consumption of human flesh and the resulting pox-like symptoms– one of the more unique theories of its kind. The text in many ways sheds a different light upon Flaminus’ words, in which he desires diseases to work upon Timon’s meat in Lucullus’ stomach. More than the curse of indigestion, Flaminus’ injunction addresses the offending body politic as a whole, essentially foreshadowing a shared stigma among the lords who had voluntarily “tasted Timon” without regard for reciprocity. Anticipating Timon’s later curse, Flaminus has essentially wished a morbid and painful fate upon all of the gluttonous, and arguably cannibalistic, denizens of Athens.

A graver beginning

An addendum to the previous post in which I consider the pathology of friendship and the dangers of dinner parties in Timon of Athens

Scene 2 sees Timon wrapping up yet another fantastic dinner affair, the partygoers drunk off of the enormous bounty that their host has seen fit to provide. He is, as usual, at the center of attention, caught up in the flurry of his own self-created storm. The ominous quality of the scene is underscored by this seemingly unstoppable momentum; the true nature of his gift-giving seems born out of compulsion rather than compassion. Timon cannot receive without reciprocating first; the gift “milk-white horses trapped in silver” (183) must be “worthily entertained” with presents in return (184). Similarly, the two brace of greyhounds are not to be received “without fair reward” (191). Jewels, trifles, and more horses are exchanged, until Timon’s steward reaches the point of despair. This rapid-fire exchange of commodities further depersonalizes the lords, who are designated only by the order in which they speak and by the gifts they receive. Not surprisingly, when Timon vows to “call to you” (visit them), the lords respond in unison: “O, none so welcome” (217).

The lords have thus transformed into an anthropophagous band of parasites, clinging upon Timon’s words and responding as a chorus. So banal are their responses to Timon’s generosity that even he dismisses their praise:

FIRST LORD. We are so virtuously bound—
TIMON. And so am I to you.
SECOND LORD. So infinitely endeared—
TIMON. All to you. Lights, more lights!

From ‘Cock Robin’s Picture Book’, printed in colours by Kronheim & Co. (classmark 1874.7.207)

From ‘Cock Robin’s Picture Book’, printed in colours by Kronheim & Co. (classmark 1874.7.207)

The single moment in which Timon pauses his frenzied cycle of giving highlights his obliviousness to the truly dear cost of such transactions. Perhaps with a wine goblet in hand, Timon addresses first the room and then his friend Alcibiades:

I take all and your several visitations
So kind to heart, ’tis not enough to give.
Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,
And ne’er be weary. Alcibiades,
Thou art a soldier, therefore seldom rich.
[Giving a present] It comes in charity to thee, for all thy living
is ‘mongst the dead, and all the lands thou hast
Lie in a pitched field. (218-225)

It is important here not to discount the significance of the word “visitations” in this passage– a term which was fraught with religious and medical significance. Tracing its way back to the Bible, a “visitation” often was synonymous with a plague epidemic or otherwise supernatural affliction on a massive scale.


The plague, too, has historically brought kingdoms to their knees; Timon, however, remains unaware of the inherent irony in his words when he claims that he could “deal kingdoms to my friends / And ne’er be weary.” Perhaps the one “worthy” recipient in this scene of any gift is Alcibiades, the Athenian captain who will later banish himself before returning to the city with his army behind him. It is significant that Alcibiades is included in this fortunate circle of Timon’s; on the other hand, he also remains apart as a named, personalized member of Timon’s fraternity. Strikingly, the principle reason for Timon’s charity toward him is not because he is “a solder, [and] therefore seldom rich,” but because “all thy living / Is ‘mongst the dead, and all the lands thou hast / Lie in a pitched field” (223-225).

The rather morbid imagery of these lines is lightened somewhat by a quick joke from Alcibiades but nevertheless the reader inevitable feels the contradictory pull toward sympathy and revulsion for the captain. Earlier in the scene he too reveals himself to be a part of the strange, anthropophagous society of Athens when Timon remarks upon his reluctance to leave the battlefield:

TIMON. You had rather be at a breakfast of enemies than a dinner of friends.
ALCIBIADES. So they were bleeding new, my lord, there’s no meat like ’em. I could wish my best friend at such a feast. (2.75-78)

Alcibiades’ insatiable bloodthirst for warfare is tempered only by his loyalty to Timon– the quality which truly separates Alcibiades from the rest of the company. Thus, the captain as well as the lords are figuratively portrayed as necrotizing agents, swiftly devouring the flesh of those around them under the guise of civility and military imperative. They are not, however, one in the same in terms of their “pathology”, so to speak. While the lords operate “internally”– both within Timon’s social circle and within the city itself, Alcibiades’ camp lies beyond the city limits in his “pitched field.” If the lords represent a disease of any sort, it is a disease which deteriorates the body from the inside out. Alcibiades and his army, by contrast, represent an external assailant which is no less ruthless in its destructive capability.

Confluent epidemal necrosis

Confluent epidemal necrosis

A grave beginning

A brief introduction in which I meditate on the presence of cannibalism and other unsettling images within the play which are related to plague.

“Yet you do well/To show Lord Timon that mean eyes have seen/The foot above the head” (I.93-95)

Each time that I revisit Timon of Athens and, subsequently, the criticism that it has spawned, I find myself astonished that so few readerss have remarked upon the prevalence of plague imagery in the text. In their defense, Timon is a very strange work indeed. Often classified as a “problem play,” Timon has arguably been relegated to the back burner in terms of formal analysis; its awkward structure and status as a potentially co-authored piece no doubt have contributed to this. Strange qualities aside, the play is one of my favorite early modern dramas and deserves to be spotlighted as a significant work which draws heavily upon the power of disease imagery, channeling its tale through the visceral elements of human corruption. For this reason it seems almost appropriate that the “war” within the play (Alcibiades’ siege against Athens) is only alluded to; the audience never finds itself on the battlefield. The majority of the violence is contained instead within Timon’s curses, levied against his former friends and colleagues with enough speech-act power behind them to ignite an epidemic in their own right.

Richard Cosway's "Timon of Athens Before His Cave" http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARichard_Cosway_-_Timon_of_Athens_Before_His_Cave_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Richard Cosway’s “Timon of Athens Before His Cave” (c. 1805, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Sorrow and truth, sit you on each side of me, whilst I am delivered of this deadly  burden: prompt me that I may utter ruthful and passionate condolement: arme my trembling hand, that I may boldly rip up and anatomize the ulcerous body of this Anthropophagized Plague…” (103)

In 1603 Thomas Dekker, a self-fashioned pamphleteer (which coincided with his unemployment as a playwright, due to the shuttering of theaters during plague-time), published the above sentence in his short work, The Wonderfull Yeare. Although “anthropophagized” appears here ostensibly in the past-participle form, one senses the main gist of Dekker’s words: the plague is a decaying but cannibalistic body, devouring as quickly as it deteriorates.

Likewise, more than one reader has remarked upon the frequency with which flesh-eating is alluded to within Timon of Athens– most specifically, the eating of Timon’s flesh. In Scene 2, Timon chides Apemantus’ mood-killing behavior, imploring him to “let my meat make thee silent”(37). Apemantus senses the strings of reciprocity attached to such a meal, and responds:

I scorn thy meat. ‘Twould choke me, for I
Should ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me to see
so many dip their meat in one man’s blood; and all the
madness is, he cheers them up, too (38-41).

Later, witnessing the hypocrisy of Timon’s “friends,” the First Stranger remarks to the other:

For mine own part,
I never tasted Timon in my life,
Nor came any of his bounties over me
To mark me for his friend (6.73-76).

Francisco de Goya's "Mala Mujer" (1801-1802)

Francisco de Goya’s “Mala Mujer” (1801-1802, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Stranger’s words reveal a certain sense of relief that he never “tasted” Timon himself; furthermore, he has been spared the “mark” of friendship. In many ways these lines underscore the sense that Timon’s bounteous giving represented a methodical process of marking, even stigmatizing. It’s worth noting that the word “mark” frequently was used in early modern medical discourse alongside “token” to describe the physical imprints the plague was known to have left upon the body– spots or rashes brought on by inflammation. Their having “dip[ped] in the same dish,”(63) Timon’s flatterers have subsequently been marked as members of the anthropophagous society. To the modern reader, the communal aspect of all of this dish-dipping and blood-dipping is unsettling; in terms of contagion, it may also conjure up a more upsetting connection to the pathology of prion-based infections. It serves as a reminder that the involuntary, visceral reaction to these lines experienced by Shakespearean audience members (and today’s readers) perhaps anticipated later microscopic revelations concerning the dangers of sharing and bodily fluids.