To Cull and to Coggle

“Coggle” is an interesting Google creation I was exploring earlier following the advice of Professor Irr at Brandeis. This tool seems to be especially useful for linking up word etymologies, although I’m sure it has a fairly limitless number of uses. I tinkered with Coggle for a few minutes to see if it would help to organize some of my thoughts on the verb “to cull,” a word which suffers multiple definitions. In the following passage,  the senators of Athens plead for Alcibiades to spare their city as a whole, conceding that they should “Let die the spotted” (17.34):

FIRST SENATOR All have not offended;
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges: crimes, like lands, 2600
Are not inherited. Then, dear countryman,
Bring in thy ranks, but leave without thy rage:
Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin
Which in the bluster of thy wrath must fall
With those that have offended: like a shepherd, 2605
Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,
But kill not all together.

Interestingly the editor of the Oxford World Edition of Timon of Athens glosses “to cull” as “select out the infected”; he then adds the caveat that the OED’s closest definition, “To select and kill (wild animals or birds), usu. in order to improve the stock or reduce the population”, is an implausible one, given that it came from 1934.

coggleAnd yet, the meaning of the Senator’s words seem anything but equivocal here. By the 21st century, the word “cull” has come to mean everything from selective data arrangement to selection for quarantine. The OED is an unparalleled source for tracing linguistic origins; however, I do feel as if this particular verb deserves a bit more consideration than it has thus far been given.

EEBO boasts more than one early modern text in which the verb “to cull” occurs; furthermore, these are instances in which the objective of the culling is not to separate the healthy and the strong from the weak to improve the stock, but to separate the sick or the wicked to diminish their influence. In a peculiar, potentially apocryphal text, “The Ploughman’s Tale,” the author writes:

As byrde flyeth vp into the ayre
And lyueth by byrdes that ben meke
So these ben flowe vp into dyspayre
And shended sely soules eke
The soules that ben in synnes seke
He culleth hem, knele therfore alas
For brybry goddes forbode breke
God amende it for hys grace (1309-1324)

A sermon published in 1573 (ascribed to Thomas Cooper, Bishop of London) invokes “cull” as it paraphrases parts of Numbers from the Old Testament:

In this sort of iudgement God here Protesteth that he will deale with the wicked Israelites, and by such meanes, as it were, cull out and purge away the obstinate and rebellious transgressours from the other, so that they shall neuer enioy the lande of Israel agayne wyth comfort and quietnesse.

In the King  James translation of the OT, two of the said “wicked Israelites” are punished for their transgressions by Phinehas, who thrusts a javelin through “the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:8). As a result, “the plague was stayed from the children of Israel” (25:8). To an extent, one could argue that is this crude, often violent process of “culling” which ultimately stays the hand of the pestilence for the Israelites in this chapter. In Timon, the senator refers to Alcibiades as a “shepherd” approaching his fold, but nevertheless the scenario he envisions is one of a blood-debt being paid– for those who have offended: “revenge” (37).

Quarantine barricade around houses in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Queensland, 1900 (outbreak of bubonic plague).

Quarantine barricade around houses in Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Queensland, 1900 (outbreak of bubonic plague).

As always, Foucault comes to mind. For that matter, it is all to often useful to bear in mind moments from Discipline and Punish which highlight the fundamentally utopian aims of a quarantined society. Foucault muses:

“The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies– this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power” (199).

Although Alcibiades is ostensibly invited to “take control” of Athens, it is the very act of deputizing him as a governor-disciplinarian which negates any potentially positive/cleansing effects, figurative or literal, which a plague might have had in Timon. Alcibiades has become complicit with the instrumentation of plague, sustaining its mythological status even as he hopes to liberate the populace of Athens. By “culling” the city of its corrupted, infected stock, Alcibiades presumes to work in pestilence’s stead; in reality, it is possible he has only given rise to a new strain in mankind.

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.

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.

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"

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.