On Bad Blood and Blocked Fleas

(In which I explore the significance of exchange as a (potentially debilitating) instinct within the play)

In addition to “bribing” Alcibiades and the courtesans to obey their natures, Timon also gives gold to the thieves who find him at his cave. The gold is handed over with one condition: that these rascal thieves:

Go suck the subtle blood o’th’grape

Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth

And so scape hanging. Trust not the physician;

His antidotes are poison, and he slays

More than you rob. (428-433)

The analogy of the thief as a parasite is certainly nothing new; in this instance, the thieves find themselves sucking the blood of infected city, thus getting perhaps more than they bargained for. The initial image is perversely sweet; the “blood o’ th’ grape” evokes the extravagance of a city in which wine flows freely among the lords and senators (and formerly for Timon). The Eucharistic element is unmistakable as well, tempting the reader to think of Athens as a martyred body politic. It is important to recall that the image of the “sucking parasite”– specifically the leech– was also associated with cure in early modern Europe. Serving to balance poorly distributed humors, the leech would have been attached to patients as a means of drawing out the bad fluids and leaving the good– though the cure understandably exacerbated symptoms in many cases. The leech best embodies the disturbingly ambiguous concept of healing through harm, inflicting collateral trauma upon the body as a means of winning the war against disease.

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

A leech (Hirudo medicinalis). From Brockhaus Kleines Konversationslexikon 1906

As was previously stated, this particular “patient” is a city rife with corruption; as a result, the leeching thieves will inevitably develop a “high fever” which will “seethe your blood to froth.” The death would be a merciful one according to Timon; by succumbing to the infection brought on by the bad blood, they would escape the hanging that otherwise awaits them as thieves. Timon’s imagined scenario produces a cycle of parasitism, transmission, the subsequent killing of the host, and the eventual demise of the infected population: the thieves figuratively gorge themselves on the city spoils (“You must eat men” (425)) and, true to Flaminus’ curse, the poisoned meat turns in their stomachs.

Although neither Shakespeare nor his contemporaries were likely aware of theories of transmission involving the plague bacterium and its preferred flea host, the image of the infected thieves feeding upon the body of Athens is striking in its similarity to modern understandings of epidemiology associated with Y. pestis (the bacterium responsible for the bubonic plague). Conventional theory states that the rat fleas living in early modern England (purportedly X. cheopis, although this is now the subject of debate) would come into contact with the strain, which would produce a blood blockage in their digestive tract. The blockage would then cause the fleas to regurgitate, as the  blood was unable to be digested fully; the backwashed blood (carrying the bacteria) would then be transmitted through flea bites to a new host, thus perpetuating the cycle. The blocked fleas would become ravenous, as the digestive plug prevented them from fully feeding on their hosts; as a result, they may have discriminated less between potential food sources and bitten more often.


A blocked flea (X. cheopis).

Flaminus’ curse in many ways was more prophetic than even the fictional servant would have realized. All of these elements, ranging from the image of the corrupted Eucharist, to the seething leech, and even the malicious physician testify to the ways in which the early modern body was understood to be both delicate and absolutely permeable. Moments in which the play seemingly reminds us of Athens’ solidarity also invoke the horrifying reality of interconnectedness, proximity, and exchange. All of this naturally echoes the same citywide claustrophobia experienced by Londoners during plague-time; those who had the means to flee often did so at the expense of familial bonds and social obligations. The instinct to perpetuate exchange is not necessarily the result of kinship or even compassion; in this case the thieves are described as vectors of contagion whose motives for “transmitting” gold/plague are instinctive, even survivalist. Ultimately, what is most illuminating and terrifyingly realistic about these lines is its characterization of humanity as a species which cannot help but infect– be the contagion pathological, behavioral, or even informational.

The impulse is as natural as the instinct to feed.

The Planetary Plague and the Nocebo Reaction

1961   W. P. Kennedy in Med. World 95 203   “It is somewhat surprising that little attention has been drawn to the existence of the contrary effect [to the placebo]—which I may call the nocebo reaction…”

The most explicit instance in Timon of Athens of a character deliberately invoking the power of the plague occurs in Scene 14, in Timon’s address to Alcibiades:

Be as a planetary plague when Jove
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air. Let not thy sword skip one.
Pity not honoured age for his white beard;
He is an usurer. Strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd. (14.109-115)

Alcibiades, having been shunned by the senators of Athens, has decided to return in full force with his army at his back, ready to lay “proud Athens on a heap”(101). Encountering Timon on the way, Alcibiades has trouble recognizing his old friend: “I know thee well, / But in thy fortunes am unlearned and strange” (55-56). The moment is a heartbreaking one; Alcibiades carefully chosen words betray his sense of Timon’s drastic transformation– not simply in appearance but in his conception of humanity.† Timon, learning of Alcibiades’ intentions, subsequently orders him to “Be as a planetary plague,” sparing no one during his siege. The image of a supernatural pestilence recalls Gabriel Harvey’s writings on the plague’s origins (mentioned in the previous post) but also endows Alcibiades with the unearthly power to terminate with extreme prejudice. By calling the old man a “usurer” and the matron “counterfeit,” Timon implies that Alcibiades holds the power to rid the city of its corruption, moral and/or financial.

In Suffering in Paradise, Rebecca Totaro likewise notes the consistent connection between plague and gold; everywhere within the play, gold appears as a vector of contagion, changing hands and invading the semi-permeable fabric of society. In her words, Timon of Athens is a greater tragedy if we take gold and plague in more literal terms, interpreted from within an era when golden promises persuaded men and women to pay dearly for their ill-placed hopes” (96). Totaro’s argument is especially convincing given her observation that the terms “gold” and “plague” appear together more “than in any other case” (95). The primary issue with this reading is that it threatens to reduce Timon of Athens to an allegory about money as the root of all evil. Both roots and gold certainly appear in great abundance throughout the play; they also have the tendency to disappear just as arbitrarily. Setting aside this reading, one nevertheless faces the simple fact that Timon gives gold to both Alcibiades and his traveling courtesans with specific instructions to “infect” the population of Athens. While the former is to be like a “planetary plague,” Timandra is instructed to:

“Be a whore still. They love thee not that use thee.
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths, bring down the rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet” (14.83-87).

"Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Pleasure" by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1791)

“Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Pleasure” by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1791)

Timon’s injunction to lay pestilential and syphilitic waste to his former city might initially seem shocking, except that he asks for nothing more than the maintenance of the status quo. Recalling Scene 2, Timon had already observed Alcibiades’ preference for the “defiled land” of the battlefield, in which all his living was “…’mongst the dead” (226, 224). Twice, Timon commands Timandra and Phrynia to “Be whores still, And he whose pious breath seeks to convert you, / Be strong in whore, allure him, burn him up” (140-142). The emphasis within these two lines is on the word “still,” implying that the women are being paid simply to continue their daily trade. Thus, the seemingly simple analogy between gold and plague does not seem quite as sound, since both Alcibiades and his courtesans already possessed the power to infect without financial incentives. Alcibiades and the women were “always already” a planetary plague.

If gold does not represent infection, then what exactly does it symbolize within the play? In many ways, Walter Kennedy’s description of the “nocebo reaction” seems highly relevant to the role currency fills within Timon. Contrasting with the meaning of “placebo” (“I shall please”), the concept of the nocebo (“I shall harm”) is the former turned on its head: it is a benign substance or process which provokes an irrationally negative response in the patient to him it is administered. By giving his friends gold, Timon is essentially bribing them to continue playing their prescribed roles. The gold, however, lends significance to their actions; it is the authoritative justification for violence and validation of their own infectious behavior. Ultimately, the power of gold commands little else besides “Do thy right nature” (14.44).

Gold might not represent the plague in Timon; it does seem to represent something potentially more dangerous, however; as a nocebo, it relies upon the power of the imagination to infect and give license to infect, thereby crippling the power of Timon’s society to route its presence.



† I personally recall the moment in Paradise Lost in which Adam receives Eve after she has eaten the fruit; immediately perceiving the change in her state, he exclaims: “How art thou lost”! (900).

O blessèd breeding sun

Of all of the soliloquies within the play, Timon’s from Scene 14 are arguably the most vitriolic, and the most “diseased.” Scene 15 calls to mind Lear’s famous own words (“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”) from Act III, Scene 2 in that both invoke Nature to restore a terribly upset and neglected balance. The injunctions are strategic; it is not enough that the men have been wronged but that Nature too has been usurped and that, consequently, it is time to reestablish her precedence. When Lear commands the thunder to “Crack nature’s moulds” so that “all germens spill at once / That make ungrateful man” (10-11) one cannot help but compare it to Timon’s demand that Nature “Ensear thy fertile and conceptious womb;/ Let it no more bring out ingrateful man” (188-189). The power invoked is as primordial as it is apocalyptic; allusions to conception, the womb, and monstrous births suggest that both Timon and Lear believe “ungrateful man” to be inherently corrupt. Viewed within the context of Paracelsian theories of cure, only an epidemic could arguably “cure” a population so heavily afflicted. Timon’s opening soliloquy from Scene 14 certainly seems to confirm this philosophy:

“O blessèd breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air. Twinned brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth
Scarce is divident, touch them with several fortunes,
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune
But by contempt of nature.” (14.52-59)

"Paracelsus", attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

“Paracelsus”, attributed to Peter Paul Rubens (date unknown)

Within the first two lines, Timon ascribes the power of miasmic contagion to the sun, which draws “from the earth / Rotten humidity” and subsequently infects the air. His language succinctly and poetically expresses a common early modern belief that planetary alignment, as well as mysterious vapors, contributed to the spread of the plague. Physician Gideon Harvey’s “Discourse on the plague,” despite being published after Shakespeare’s death, sheds some valuable light on the perceived relationship between the earth, the air, and microcosmic infection. Writing on the cause of the plague, Harvey appears singular in his determination:

“The Earth can only be supposed the Womb of such venene fumes, which imbibing all sorts of stinking or putrid Bodies, embraces them within her close recesses, coagulates and kindles them into Pestilential Arsenical flames; so that all manner of stinks or rotten Bodies expiring into the air, are returned by moderate Rains, and so suckt in by the Earth” (5).

"Astronomer" by Albrecht Durer. From "Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis" (1504)

“Astronomer” by Albrecht Durer. From “Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis” (1504)

Rather than let the Earth simply “embrace” the putrid bodies once more, Timon implores the blessèd sun to draw their contagion out, infecting the air of all terrestrial inhabitants. Nature, “To whom all sores lay siege,” is herself infected; the only remedy for man’s ingratitude is to resort to a state of chaotic inversion, thereby forcing mankind to effectively cancel itself out. In response to “contempt of nature,” Timon demands to “Raise me this beggar and deject that lord” (59-60). Digging in the earth, Timon finds a hidden cache of gold and subsequently praises its ability to bring about such chaotic inversion:

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again.
She whom the spittle house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature.” (34-44)

Critics from Rebecca Totaro (who has written extensively on the plague in early modern England) to Karl Marx have analyzed the complex role gold plays within the drama. It would be naïve in many ways to suggest that Timon of Athens is not a critique aimed at the greediness of those in power; consequently, gold finds itself at the epicenter of infection, spreading contagion as often as it changes hands. In many ways, however, the play’s many morals revolve around the notion of currency as a mythical construction, paradoxically transient even as it is tactile. While the first half of the play emphasizes gold’s relative scarcity, the second half depicts gold as an elemental, even common product of the earth. When Timon demands a humble root to satisfy his hunger, the earth vomits up gold in response. Such inversion is patterned in the effect the same gold has on society: to raise the status of beggars, whores, and pocky widows despite their lack of “natural” merit.

Ultimately, while the value of a proto-capitalistic critique cannot be denied, it nevertheless dismisses the plague-ridden context in which the play was written. The gold within the play functions less as a figurative embodiment of the plague than as a harbinger of chaotic inversion brought about by natural forces– forces like an epidemic. Much like Thomas Dekker, who proclaimed in 1604 that “the plague’s the purge to cleanse the city,” Timon’s vision of a cure involves nothing short of a total pestilential sweep. Those harboring (gold) “tokens” (a colloquialism for the red spots which appeared on plague victims) will be marked for the culling.

The Worst Dinner Party Ever

(Some notes on Timon’s “second” dinner party, in which he trades the Amazonian women for a good stoning)

The second dinner party to occur within the play affords some interesting moments for the disease sleuth. Second only to Act III of Macbeth in terms of disruptive dinner occasions, Scene 11 of Timon seemingly marks the beginning of his descent into misanthropy-fueled madness. After uncovering the dishes to reveal a meal of “steaming water [and stones] the host proceeds to hurl both curses and rocks at his ungrateful guests:

May you a better feast never behold,
You knot of mouth-friends. Smoke and lukewarm water
Is your perfection. This is Timon’s last,
Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,
Washes it off, and sprinkles in your faces
Your reeking villainy (11.87-92)
[he throws water in their faces]
Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er (92-98)
[A Senator is going]
What, dost thou go?
Soft, take thy physic first. Thou too, and thou.

As “smoke” is frequently glossed to mean “steam,” the line “smoke and lukewarm water / Is your perfection” implies that the water is not at all lukewarm, that it has been heated by the stones. By sprinkling their “reeking villainy” in their faces, Timon forces a dose of the lord’s medicine upon them. Strikingly, the steamy, lukewarm water also invokes imagery related to bathing and, more specifically, the sweat tub. A common subject of sly mockery in early modern literature, the sweat tub was meant to cure ailments of all sorts though it eventually came to be associated with syphilis (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle provides some creative examples).


“I sit on the throne of Venus, I suffer in the tub.”

By commanding “Uncover, dogs, and lap!” (11.84) Timon likewise adds dogs to the list of mammalian epithets he bestows upon the offending lords; additionally, they are “affable wolves” and meek bears, susceptible to the “infinite malady” of both “man and beast.” Of all these the dog almost undoubtedly represents the most offensive; as I explored earlier in my dissertation, dogs were frequently thought to be carriers of the plague in early modern England and were subsequently killed to avoid spreading a little-understood contagion. Having used the water to cleanse himself of “spangled flatteries” Timon throws it back at the lords in a manner consistent with Flaminus’ earlier action of throwing the coins back at Lucullus in Act 5 (“May these add to the number that may scald thee” (50). Timon’s injunction to “take thy physic” as they flee in confusion is thus meant to be ironic; much like the scalding coins, Timon’s “remedy” harbors the crusty infection of flattery. What Timon intends to perpetuate is an endless cycle of self-infection, mixing cure and contagion within the same elixir. Just as Flaminus wishes for his lord’s meat to turn to poison instead of nutriment, so can Timon’s words be read as a desire to form a contained system of self-consuming violence, as the lord’s perpetuate their own degeneration. This, in turn, invites comparison to quarantine strategy– a civil tactic not unfamiliar to early modern denizens of London in plague-time.

No doubt– the “crust” of the infinite malady suggests an immediate connection to syphilis, which digresses somewhat from the issue of plague. But as has been observed by multiple disease historians, plague and pox were often described in interchangeable terms during the period; it was as convenient for the early modern author as it is confusing for the contemporary epidemiologist. Although it is sometimes helpful to sift through the text in order to distinguish possible allusions to plague symptoms versus those of venereal diseases, my aim is to highlight the inextricable nature of tropes involving the body politic and the ailing body during this pestilential period. In the case of Timon’s Athens, the disease infecting the social and political body betrays a myriad of frightening symptoms– both similar to and unrelated to the plague. If anything, this literary conflation of plagues, poxes, and pestilences only added to the mystifying, and terrifying, aspect of the very real epidemic occurring in England at the time.