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.