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).


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