A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Purchased as many Diseases Under Her Roof


(We currently are blogging Measure 4 Measure, a Shakespeare play with striking parallels to the major issues of our era).

Lucio, an outsized, Mercutio-like character, and two others described only as "gentlemen" begin a rapid-fire comic trade of insults. The references are beyond obscure to any modern reader who isn't a tenured English literature professor of the sort who elects not to write for a general audience, but the dispute centers on which of them is more a commoner and which more a gentleman, with the implication that whoever is more a gentleman is also more likely to have the French disease, or syphilis.

As the scene progresses we begin to see that this subject, erotic excess and its somber consequences, is being offered for far more than comic relief. Shakespeare is describing a collapse of public morals, and, in the form of Angelo, a reactionary and authoritarian response.

We could be in the U.S. around 1915, watching temperance matrons campaigning – successfully, come to think of it – to outlaw alcohol, or we could be in Iran in 1975, watching the Ayatollah Khomeini return in glory to an Iranian people (well, the 50% who are Persian) who were recoiling from the Shah's attempt at modernization, or we could be watching in 1925 the libertinism of the Weimar Republic, that led of course to history's most infamous reaction.

And obviously, we could be watching in 1995 as the Taliban sweep across Afghanistan, removing ancient alien statues from their settings, removing girls from school, or as the Taliban's honored guest Al Qaida proceeded to train tens of thousands of fighters from throughout the Middle East in preparation for the most ambitious of reactions, against the supposed decadence and libertinism of the entire Western – but really modern – democratic project.

But I digress. Returning to the play, we witness the arrival of a favorite creation of mine, Mistress Overdone. Lucio refers to her as Madam Mitigation, because her occupation as a lady of the evening mitigates her customers' desires.

Luc: ""Behold, behold, where Madam Mitigation comes! I have purchased as many diseases under her roof as come to –"

2 Gent: "To what I pray?"Lucio answers, as come to judge, suggesting a larger justice at work in all this purchasing of sex. More jokes follow about venereal diseases and how they hollow out a person's bones, amidst Mistress Overdone's complaint about how her tough times have been getting for her:

Overdone: "O thus, what with the war, what with the sweat, what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-shrunk."

The sweat presumably refers to the plague, though why the Vienna of this Duke would be experiencing war, plague, a spate of hangings, and poverty is not explained. It's worth noting however that London was suffering all these things in the winter of 1603-04. So Shakespeare may be allowing himself a wink at the audience here, though the deeper parallel he seems to be offering is it may be because the fictional Vienna he is describing is itself undergoing a similar time of troubles. A time of troubles that Angelo, however, intends to rectify.

Overdone tells Lucio that a Signior Claudio, known to all as a perfectly fine fellow, has just been arrested:

Over: "Nay by I know 'tis so. I saw him arrested; saw him carried away; and which is more, within these three days his head to be chopped off."

Luc: "…Art thou sure of this?"Over: "O, I am too sure of it; and it is for getting Madam Julietta with child."

More later….

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