“A nature but infected”: Plague and Embodied Transformation in Timon of Athens
University of Southern Queensland
Darryl Chalk. “ ‘A nature but infected’: Plague and Embodied Transformation in Timon of Athens.” Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 19 (2009) 9.1-28 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-19/chalplag.html>.
Theatre and the Plague,” the 1934 essay that features as the
opening salvo in Antonin Artaud’s book The Theatre and its
Double, the chaotic, incendiary power of the plague is harnessed
to express Artaud’s desire for a theatre that assaults the minds
and bodies of its spectators. The process of acting, in particular,
is figured as a kind of infection:
The state of the victim who dies without material destruction, with all the stigmata of an absolute and almost abstract disease upon him, is identical with the state of the actor entirely penetrated by feelings that do not benefit or even relate to his real condition …. Once launched in fury, an actor needs infinitely more virtue to stop himself committing a crime, than a murderer needs to perpetrate his crime. (16)Artaud advocates the cathartic purging and affective capacity of the stage; the plague is a psychic entity transmitted by almost invisible means and to him theatre is itself a plague, an “infectious madness,” capable of infecting and transforming both mind and body (17). “Above all,” he argues, “we must agree stage acting is a delirium like the plague, and is communicable” (18).1 Despite his radical tone, the ideas being espoused by Artaud were far from new. In fact, his formulation of theatre-as-plague harnesses centuries-old anxieties about the dangers of acting, sourced from Plato and St. Augustine (the latter is directly cited by Artaud), seeing in the supposed negative power of theatricality an opportunity for revelatory change.2 Indeed, he could virtually be quoting verbatim from the Renaissance antitheatricalists whose repetitive puritanical ravings hounded the playmaking enterprise throughout the entire period in which the business of theatre thrived in London’s teeming suburbs. Seemingly exploiting the constant threat of playhouse closures that loomed whenever plague deaths increased, the authors of antitheatrical tracts rhetorically associate playing and plague at every opportunity.
the hurt which it breedeth, principally to the actors, in whom the earnest care of lively representing lewd persons doeth worke a great impression of waxing like unto them; next, to the spectators, whose maners are corrupted by seeing and hearing such matters so expressed. (O4v)The “impression” that personation leaves on the actors’ being is explicitly figured in Rainolds’s treatise as an infection: the “lively” representation of “lewd persons” corrupts the actors’ body and mind and, crucially, this state is transferable to the spectators, who are contaminated merely by watching. Later, he paints teaching the craft of personating as dangerous, because in acting “[t]he venom and poison whereof goeth about to spred it selfe abroad through more parts of your body … by meanes that you likewise instill the same humour … into the rest of your players, their teachers and instructors, and in conclusion your whole house” (E4v-F1r). The construction of acting as contagion recalls the early modern understanding of plague as a venomous poison spreading through the air and invading the porous bodies of its victims. The metaphorisation of theatre as plague is confirmed in his conclusion where he laments “how the manner of all spectators commonlie are hazarded by the contagion of theatricall sights” (X4r).
alienation, and frenzie, blewnesse and blacknesse appearing about the sores and carbuncles, and after their appearances the sodaine vanishings of the same, cold in the extreame partes, and intollerable heate in the inwarde, vnquenchable thirst, continually soundings, urines white, and crude, or red, troubled and blacke: Colde swet about the forehead and face; crampes, blacknesse in the excrements of the body, stench, and blewnes, the flux of the belly, with weaknesse of the heart, shortnes of breath, and great stench of the same, lacke of sleepe, and appetite to eate, profound sleepe, chaunging of colour in the face, exchaunged to palenesse, blacknesse, or blewnesse, cogitation or great vnquietnes. (C3)6Lodge reveals how the disease was seen to violate all facets of the body; turning its victims a myriad of colours and inducing feelings of alienation, frenzy and insomnia as it reduced them to an insubstantial mass.7 Physicians like Stephen Bradwell also noted that plague patients were prone to extreme changes in demeanour, identifying “Losse of memorie … Foolish behaviour … Delirium, or Frenzy,” as advanced symptoms of the disease (G1). Victims were known to wander the streets raving and dazed. In The Wonderfull Yeare (1603), Thomas Dekker captured the madness and terror of the plague-stricken city when he advised that if one were to venture out into “still and melancholy streets” at night one would surely encounter “the loude grones of rauing sicke men” (C3v). As Colin Jones has argued, victims of the plague were aggressively reduced, sometimes within the space of a single day, to a formless shell of their former selves: “Racked with extreme, swiftly changing, paradoxical and poly-chronic symptoms, the sufferer lost the outward appearances of identity to become the hapless site of a fluidity transcending the normal boundaries of the body” (97). Plague transformed the behaviour and outward appearance of its victims, leaving little vestige of their previous identities. When someone succumbed to the plague everything associated with them—from clothing to the most meagre of possessions—was destroyed; their houses were purified, and virtually no trace of their existence remained (Slack 19).
The plague will turn the honest man into a thief, the virtuous man into a lecher, the prostitute into a saint. Friends murder and enemies embrace. Wealthy men are made poor by the ruin of their business. Riches are showered upon paupers who inherit in a few days the fortunes of many distant relatives. (“Plague” 136)The sudden experience of seemingly indiscriminate death en masse induces radical transformations in the identity of individuals.
There’s one, who in the morne with goldThe transmission of plague, whereby breath and touch were believed to carry infection, forced familial hierarchies to be subverted. Normal modes of communication and domestic interaction were suspended. Dekker here neatly articulates this frozen, silenced, fearful community lamenting the fact that “Owne brother does owne brother scorne, / The trembling Father is vndone, / Being once but breath’d on by his sonne” (E2v). The disease overtook households, decimating entire families; and individuals waited in paralysed horror for the contagion to reach them.
Could have built Castells: now hee’s made
A pillow to a wretch, that prayde
For half-penny Almes, (with broken lim)
The Begger now is aboue him;
So he that yesterday was clad
In purple robes, and hourely had
Euen at his fingers becke, the fees
Of bared heads, and bending knees,
Rich mens fawnings, poore mens praiers
… loe, (now hee’s taken
By death,) he lies of all forsaken. (E3v-E4r)
Matrons, turn incontinent!Youth subverts age, virgins become common whores, the lowly slave overthrows the powerful, bankrupts slaughter their creditors—a litany of disruptive reversals is conjured to crush the Athenian state. Elsewhere in the speech Timon intones that all possible differences be collapsed; all institutional structures be destroyed:
Obedience, fail in children! Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled Senate from the bench
And minister in their steads! To general filths
Convert, o’ th’ instant, green virginity!
… Bankrupts, hold fast!
And cut your trusters’ throats. Bound servants, steal!
… Son of sixteen,
Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains!
… Lust and liberty,
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may starve
And drown themselves in riot! (4.1.3-10, 13-15, 25-28)
Piety and fear,The fabric of the social order dissolves as each construct inverts itself, becoming its “confounding contrary.” Crucially, Timon explicitly characterises this deconstructive process in terms of a contagious epidemic:
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries
And let confusion live! (4.1.15-21)
Plagues incident to men,The notion of an infectious, poisoning breath demonstrates Shakespeare’s appropriation of the understanding of plague in medical discourse as communicable contagion, making regular modes of social intercourse a deadly exercise. Timon’s speech harnesses fear of undifferentiation and fear of plague. Contagious disease is intrinsically connected with processes of social dissolution—the levelling of degree, abandonment of social customs and observances, and the chaotic inversion of hierarchies.
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke.
… Itches, blains
Sow all th’Athenian bosoms, and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath
That their society, as their friendship, may
Be merely poison … (4.1.21-23, 28-32)9
ther is no one thinge off late is more lyke to have renewed this contagion, then the practise off an idle sorte off people, … I meane these Histriones, common playours; who now daylye, butt speciallye on holydayes, sett vp bylles, whervnto the youthe resorteth excessively, & ther taketh infection: besydes that goddes worde by theyr impure mowthes is prophaned, and turned into scoffes … (qtd. in Chambers 4: 267)The contagiousness of the players’ foul breath in this instance is synonymous with the foul language and ideas carried by it—the disease of theatre is here seen as a communicable entity in a sense remarkably similar to Artaud’s suggestion that plague and theatre are “communicable.” To William Rankins, just being “neare the view” of the player’s “vitious exercise” was enough to spread the “infectious poison” of theatricality “into the vaines of their beholders” (F1).12 Like Artaud’s “psychic entity,” the theatrical plague occurs by stealth, the spectators are unconsciously contaminated without their consent or knowledge. Stephen Gosson argued that the body of the spectator is assaulted by a theatrical pestilence, entering through the eyes and ears, which are figured as orifices vulnerable to infection.13 But the transference of theatrical disease occurs covertly, even though the spectator can see what is being presented, since the “impressions of mind are secretly co[n]ueyed ouer to [the] gazers, which [the] plaiers do cou[n]terfeit on [the] stage” (Gosson G4r). Gosson thus equates this process to the secret, invisible, passage of plague contagion. Once infected, the spectators then spread the theatrical contagion to the rest of the populace. As William Prynne wrote of those who resort to plays:
Such lewd companions that of a most infectious … captivating, ensnaring qualitie … they will quickly corrupt all those who entertain their friendship … making them as vitious as themselves … The Playhaunters are contagious in quality, more apt to poison, to infect all those who dare approach them, than one who is full of plague-sores (152).Like the victims of vampires, the vitiated spectator is transformed, becoming a vector through which the theatrical epidemic can be spread. In similar fashion to the explanation of plague in Lodge’s Treatise, theatre is metaphorised and defined as an invisible substance, a filthy thing or evil malignancy, that not only gets into the body, but can be transferred from body to body. Theatre is simultaneously a psychic and bodily contagion.
[H]ow much greater outrage of wickedness and iniquitie are the actors and players them selves likely to fall into? Seeing that diseases of the mind are gotten far sooner by counterfaiting, then are diseases of the body: and diseases of the body may be gotten so, as appeareth by him, who, faining for a purpose that he was sick of the gowte, became (through care of couterfeiting it) gowtie in deede. So much can imitation and meditation doe. (D2v)Merely pretending to have a disease and imitating its apparent symptoms can make that disease manifest in the body, and so the process of “imitation” can infect the actor with an even more disorderly array of ailments. Watching plays is enough to endanger the spectator, but Rainolds fears especially for actors, since their “passions” might so easily be “imprint[ed] in others”:
How much more in them selves? Whose minds in what danger they are of infection, by meditating and studying sundrie days, or weekes, how to expresse the manners of wantons or drunkards, or country-wooers lively, the seeing whereof played but an hower, or two, might taint the spectators. (Q1v)His point about the danger of the theatrical contagion is further illustrated when he cites, in similar fashion to Gosson, the example of a classical audience, who after watching a performance of Euripides’ Andromeda, found themselves afflicted with a peculiarly theatrical syndrome since, as Rainolds recounts, they
… did fall into a strange distemper and passion of a light phrensie. The which exciting them to say & cry aloude such things as were sticking freshly in their memorie, and had affected moste their minde, they grewe all to Tragedie-playing, and full lustily they sounded out Iambicall speeches … So that the whole citie was full of pale and thinne folke, pronouncing like stage-players, and braying with a loude voice … (Q1v)In Rainolds’ formulation actors pollute their bodies through imitation, and then threaten theatrical pandemic through contagion. The insinuation throughout his work is clear: players who impersonate the manners and inhabit the minds of others—embodying, in Artaudian terms, feelings that do not relate to their real condition—put their bodies at risk of lapsing into disease. Those who spend too much time at playing others or even viewing this aberration put their mind and body at risk of being transformed, of catching the “strange distemper” or “light phrensie” of theatrical infection. In antitheatrical discourse, players and playgoers alike were figured as vectors of a disease considered equally as deadly and destructive as any plague. The sickness of acting, the illicit, self-conscious personation of non-being, was not just an internal crisis but also a contagious infection.
for there is no passion very vehement, but that it altereth extreamly some of the four humours of the body; & all Physitians commonly agree, that among divers other extrinsecall causes of diseases, one, and not the least, is, the excess of some inordinate passion [and illustrates] how an operation that lodgeth in the soule can then alter the body. (4)Wright recommends a prudent monitoring of one’s emotional well-being, the first rule of which “is to perswade our selves when we are mooved with a vehement passion, that our soules are then as it were infected with a pestilent ague” (133). An excess of passion is itself a plaguy disorder and the potential source of bodily diseases.
Underlying the powers characteristic of the Protean actor there existed a theoretical substructure of considerable interest: a parapsychological explanation of communication founded on the ancient concept of pneuma. It was widely believed that the spirits, agitated by the passions of the imaginer, generate a wave of physical force, rolling through the aether, powerful enough to influence the spirits of others at a distance. (Roach 45)The notion that acting was a transferable psychic frenzy, a communicable passion endorsed by Artaud and feared by the antitheatricalists, is here given pseudo-scientific validation. Wright also sees emotional states as communicable; the humoural infection ravaging the bodies of the intemperate and passionately overheated individual is contagious by mere proximity. He exhorts his readers to “flie occasions which may incense the passions … he that willingly [and] without nessecitie dealeth with infected persons, may blame himself if he falleth into their diseases” (122).17 Read in the context of these correlations between the art of acting, the passions and contagion in early modern culture, as the following section will show, Timon of Athens presents its protagonist’s extreme shift in demeanour as an infection of passionate acting, and seems to betray an explicit awareness of the plague of playing imagined by Rainolds and his fellow critics.
You see how all conditions, how all minds,This clearly establishes the antithetical relationship between Timon, with his self-absorbed altruism tolerating even the “glass-faced flatterer,” and Apemantus as the self-hating misanthrope. Timon’s selflessness seems ultimately self-serving since it forces his beneficiaries, even those of equal or higher social status, to be subservient and attentive to his every whim:
As well of glib and slipp’ry creatures as
Of grave and austere quality, tender down
Their service to Lord Timon. His large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendence
All sorts of hearts; yea, from the glass-faced flatterer
To Apemantus, that few things loves better
Than to abhor himself; even he drops down
The knee before him. (1.1.53-62)
All those which were his fellows of late,It is precisely this vain, narcissistic fantasy of Timon and his world that Apemantus picks on in his critiques: “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’th’ flatterer” (1.1.227). His status as a figure harbouring an antitheatrical mind-set is established early after his entrance in dialogue with the Poet who has fashioned a work in Timon’s honour:
Some better than his value, on the moment
Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance,
Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air. (1.1.79-84)
APEMANTUS. Art not a poet?It is “feigning”—the gap between real identity, true intention, and what is merely acted—that most disturbs Apemantus about courtly ceremonies, and he relates his observations on this theatricality to the audience in a series of asides.26
APEMANTUS. Then thou liest. Look in thy last work, where thou
Hast feigned him [Timon] a worthy fellow. (1.1.221-24)
TIMON. O, joy’sApemantus abhors the Lords’ theatrical pretence and (like the antitheatrical polemicists he evokes) the falsity and the lying evident in artifice. The invective he levels at the masque of Amazons who arrive at the banquet to “feast” the “eyes” of the guests (1.2.120), is even more reminiscent of antitheatrical rhetoric:
e’en made away ere’t can be born: mine eyes cannot hold out
water, methinks. To forget their faults, I drink to you.
APEMANTUS. Thou weep’st to make them drink, Timon
SECOND LORD. Joy had the like conception in our eyes,
And at that instant like a babe sprang up.
APEMANTUS. Ho, ho, I laugh to think that babe a bastard.
THIRD LORD. I promise you, my lord, you moved me much.
APEMANTUS. Much! (1.2.98-106)
Hey-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!He derides the vain spectacle which Timon himself hints was of his own making: “You have … entertained me with mine own device” (1.2.142). Then, anticipating the disease-ridden tirades featuring later in the play, Apemantus implies the infected state of the performers since “the worst is filthy and would not hold the taking” (1.2.145-46), presumably because of venereal disease. Apemantus clearly embodies antitheatrical discourse, but this replication is framed within a self-conscious theatricality. As outlined above, he relays most of his attack on the theatricality of Timon’s world in a series of direct asides to the audience; his comments draw attention to the thinly veiled artifice of the banquet. Spectators at a performance of the play would be invited to see the feigned status of the whole scene, including the fact that Apemantus’s character is itself a role being enacted and that his antitheatricality is something merely staged. This self-consciousness is continually emphasised throughout Timon of Athens.
They dance? They are madwomen.
Like madness is the glory of this life
As this pomp shows to a little oil and root.
We make ourselves fools to disport ourselves… (1.2.124-27)
This was my lord’s best hope. Now all are fledHe is absent from the stage for some 250 lines, from the end of the second Act until the end of Act 3 Scene 4. In the staging of this scene, a clear delineation of onstage and offstage fictional place, inside and outside space, is created. If throughout the opening scenes one of the stage doors is established as the entrance to Timon’s private chambers, and the other door (or doors) are used for the comings and goings of visitors to the household except for when they go in to see Timon (as the mercer and the senators do in the opening scene), the audience would presumably remember the relationship between onstage and offstage fictional spaces. The servant’s direct reference to doors that have not been locked for such a long time (due to the constant influx of visitors), which must now be used to protect their master, becomes a theatrically conscious statement. The door he refers to, in the following scene, is the stage door behind which the actor playing Timon is now situated. The servants of Timon’s creditors enter through the other door(s) to, as the stage direction stipulates, “wait for his coming out” (3.4. sd). They refer to Timon’s conspicuous absence (“Is not my lord seen yet?” [3.4.10]), and throughout the waiting period his servants, who have been attending to him, enter from the door to his private quarters bearing news of his condition. Flaminius enters informing the creditors that Timon is not yet ready to come forth, and then re-exits through the same door. The steward Flavius enters from Timon’s door and despite being hindered by the creditors passes over the stage exiting through another door. Finally, Servilius enters from the door to Timon’s chamber and offers the clearest indication of Timon’s altered state yet:
Save only the gods. Now his friends are dead.
Doors that were never acquainted with their wards
Many a bounteous year must be employed
Now to guard sure their master;
And this is all a generous course allows:
Who cannot keep his wealth must keep his house. (3.3.34-40)
… for take’t of my soul,The shift in his “temper” hints at the turmoil in Timon’s humoural state. By this time, the audience’s attention would most likely be focused on the door from which Timon is about to emerge, and they would understand that he is going to be different upon entering. This is further emphasised by the fact that all the onstage figures’ attentions would be focused on the door as they physically crowd around it. Above all, the use of fictional space and the numerous pre-warnings, allows the playgoers time to adjust before Timon’s actual entrance “in a rage.” Timon’s first words upon entering—“are my doors opposed against my passage?” (3.4.79)—indicate that the actors onstage are indeed crowded around the entrance to Timon’s chamber. Timon’s transformation is thus not a “sudden” or “lightning” change, but a carefully and quite self-consciously rendered theatrical transition that would cause a Jacobean audience no more trouble than the commonplace performance conventions of disguise and the doubling of roles.
my lord leans wondrously to discontent. His comfortable tem-
per has forsook him. He’s much out of health, and keeps his
There’s nothing level in our cursed naturesIn direct address to the audience, Timon’s hatred of “throngs of men” becomes a conscious attack on theatre crowds and the guilty creatures sitting at a performance of the play. When visited by Alcibiades, who has turned revolutionary and intends to attack Athens, Timon asks that the captain’s army become like a plague and destroy the city. In particular, he advises Alcibiades to destroy those whose external identity is merely theatrical: “Strike me the counterfeit matron / It is her habit only that is honest, / Herself’s a bawd” (4.3.112-14). The statement recalls the connections between the plague and inversions of sexual behaviour in which the chaste become promiscuous. In this case, Timon exposes the duplicity that overtakes even honest citizens in the epidemic of theatricality he describes taking place in Athens.
But direct villainy. Therefore be abhorred
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men.
His semblable, yea himself, Timon disdains. (4.3.20-23)
Why this spade, this place,The legitimacy of Timon’s identity is thereby challenged as fraudulent and feigned: a mere “putting on” the way that players did on a daily basis—his hatred of pretence is itself merely an act of pretence. Timon’s imitation, Apemantus suggests, lacks authenticity:
This slave-like habit, and these looks of care?
Thy flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft,
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That ever Timon was. Shame not these woods
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Do not assume my likeness. (4.3.204-18)
If thou didst put this sour cold habit onApemantus’s antitheatricality and misanthropy are privileged as the true article, while Timon’s is tainted with the falsity and ceremony that marked his previous identity and position. It is as if Apemantus speaks of an antitheatricalist who was once a playwright—as many authors of the real tracts were—and having now “reformed” pretends to renounce his former lifestyle.28 Timon rejects the accusation. He is so infected with his role-playing that he, as the pamphleteers suggested, is unaware of his disease; its mode of transmission occurring, of course, by covert and secret means. This leads him to imply that he is without an identity in an angst-ridden but fundamentally self-conscious statement that affirms his impending death: “I am sick of this false world, and will love nought / But even the mere necessities upon’t. / Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave” (4.3.368-70). The scene seems to deliberately re-inscribe antitheatrical argument by staging antitheatricality in a self-reflexive way. It appears to satirize the argument in anti-stage criticism that theatricality was a contagion—a plague of passionate frenzy.
To castigate thy pride, ‘twere well; but thou
Dost it enforcedly. Thou’dst courtier be again
Wert thou not a beggar. Willing misery
Outlives incertain pomp… (4.3.239-42)
1 For further examinations of the importance of plague to Artaud’s vision for theatre see Goodall and Garner.
2 History’s long hate-affair with attacking the stage is comprehensively traced in Barish. Artaud cites Augustine’s The City of God in which he “points to the similarity of the plague that kills without destroying any organs and theatre which without killing, induces the most mysterious changes not only in the minds of individuals but in a whole nation” (17).
3 The debate was conducted between Rainolds, Alberico Gentili, and the playwright and professor William Gager over the effects of personation on Oxford students who had appeared in a trio of Latin plays staged by Gager in 1592. For a thorough reading of the debate, and Rainolds’s work in particular, see Sanders. Though an important contribution to study of the antitheatrical discourse and its significance for understanding the practice of acting in early modern England, Sanders neglects to consider the construction of acting as an infection in Th’Overthrow of Stage-Playes, which may have had implications for the analysis of Coriolanus given the prevalence of disease language in that play.
4 On the miasma theory of plague contamination, see Barroll 93-96. Barroll offers an important consideration of the potential impact of playhouse closure during plague outbreaks on the professional career of Shakespeare and his company. For a discussion of the plague during Shakespeare’s lifetime, see Wilson. For a thorough articulation of the paradigmatic shift during the period in the conception of disease from an endogenous to an exogenous phenomenon, and thus to an understanding of pathogens (venomous seeds) as ontological entities external to the body and able to infiltrate through vulnerable pores and orifices, see Harris, Foreign Bodies 20-30.
5 Stephen Bradwell’s 1636 treatise argued similarly that plague was caused by a venomous airborne vapour: “I define Infection or Contagion to be That which infecteth another with his owne qualitie by touching it, whether the medium of the touch be Corporeall or Spirituall, or an Airie Breath … the Plague infects by all these wayes, and such sicke bodies infect the outward Aire, and that Aire again infects other Bodies. For there is a Seminarie Tincture full of a venomous quality, that being very thin and spirituous mixeth it selfe with the Aire, and piercing the pores of the Body, entreth with the same Aire, and mixeth itself with the Humors and Spirits of the same Body Also” (B3v-B4r).
6 Bradwell lists similarly malignant symptoms: “Vomiting, and Loathing in the stomacke, … Head Ache, and pricking paines there … Sharp paines in the Eares … Inflammation in the Eyes … Bleeding at the Nose … The tongue and mouth enflam’d and furr’d … Spitting of Bloud … Swelling of the Belly with externall paine … Wormes … Swelling of the Testicles very painefully … Extreame heate, and paine in the Backe … Swelling of the Feet and Legges with intollerable paine” (G1v-G2r).
7 Once the disease has finally claimed its victim, Bradwell observes, the poison still “tyrannizing over the dead carkas,” the cadaver bares certain marks that distinguish it from other kinds of corpses (G4r). The body in death looks bruised, discoloured; the nose, ears and nails turn “blackish blewe” and the corpse is so softened by its devastation that it resists rigor mortis: “That whereas other dead Bodies must bee layed out straight while they are warme, or else when they are cold they will bee too stiffe to be straightned : In those of the Plague … the flesh is soft, and the joynts limber and flexible, after the Body is cold” (H1r).
8 Girard has noted that the correlation between mimetic contagion and a plague of undifferentiation can be witnessed in Ulysses’ famous speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida (“Politics of Desire” 1985). For a more detailed extension of Girard’s correlation of plague and undifferentiation in both Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet see Mallin; and for a further consideration of Troilus and Cressida in Girardian terms and as a direct response to the theatrical contagion identified by antitheatricalists, see my forthcoming book chapter (Chalk).
9 The passage picks up on both medical and moral conceptions of plague. “Stroke,” for example, plays on the original Latin word for plague meaning “to strike”: the plague is envisioned as a punishment Athens deserves, being “ripe” for it.
10 In the chapter on the “Cosmetic Theatre” (81-100), the corruptive and potentially contagious effects of face painting and cosmetics are explored in relation to Barnaby Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter (1606), but here, as elsewhere, the notion of infection is not specifically related to contemporary conceptions of disease or the plague.
11 The connection between theatre and plague in early modern England has previously been suggested by Mullaney (49-52). The recurrent figuring of theatre as a plague in antitheatrical discourse has been noted and briefly discussed by Elam (“In what chapter” 152-59). It is the intention of the present paper to take this connection somewhat further. For an examination of the conjunction between language, plague and the notion of the performative, see Elam, “I’ll Plague Thee” 19-27.
12 The full title of Rankins’s pamphlet clearly sees playing as a plague-inducing phenomenon: “A MIRROVR / of Monsters: / Wherein is plainely described the / manifold vices, &c spotted enormities, that are cau- / sed by the infectious sight of Playes, with the / description of the subtile slights of Sa- / than, making them his instruments” (title page).
13 Gosson suggests that it is through the eyes and ears in particular that the spiritual wellbeing of the spectators is put most at risk, and their protection must be rigorous:
“yf we be carefull that no pollution of idoles enter by the mouth into our bodies, how diligent, how circumspect … ought we be, that no corruption of idoles, enter by the passage of eyes and eares into the soule? We know that whatsoeuer goeth into the mouth defileth not but passeth away by course of nature; but that which entreth into vs by the eyes and eares, muste be digested by the spirite” (B8v). This scopic and auditory contagion penetrates its victim’s very soul, which like the poison of the plague is very difficult to expel.
14 For further examinations of cross-dressing and antitheatricality, see especially Levine, Howard 92-128, and Orgel.
15 This finale is consistent with the view repeated throughout antitheatrical discourse that theatrical contagion is even more dangerous than the plague itself because it destroys not only the body but the mind and soul. Prynne, for example, reiterates this when he states that plays bring “Greater plagues and infections to your soules, then the contagious pestilence to your bodies” (364).
16 See especially Roach 23-49.
17 Wright later adds that any negative quality can be transferred to those who chose bad company, imagining a contagion of vice: “Commonly by conversation you may discouer mens affections, for he that frequenteth good companie for most parts is honest, and he that useth ill company can hardly be virtuous: who euer saw a man very conuersant with drunkards to be sober? Who knew an individuall companion of harlots chaste? I am not ignorant that a physitian may conuerse with sick men without infection, and cure them: but manie physitians will scarce aduenture to deale with plague patients, lest in curing others, they kill themselues. Vices are plagues, and vitious persons infected; therefore it were good to deale with them a farre off, and not in such places where their vices are strongest, as with gullers in bankets, drunkardes in tauernes, riotous persons in suspected houses, lest thou discredit thy selfe, and be infected with the others vices” (224).
18 See especially Kahn, Wheeler, Greene, and Prendergast.
19 See for instance Cohen, Chorost, and Greene,.
20 One of the few exceptions is Smith & Bevington, who draw upon the work of Kahn and Goldberg to situate the play in the context of the politics of the Jacobean court.
21 See especially Bentley.
22 See Harris, Foreign Bodies and Sick Economies; Healy; Moss & Peterson (eds); and Gilman. Healy’s and Harris’s important studies have been particularly influential on the present paper, though neither offers consideration of the antitheatrical identification of the pathology of theatre. Curiously, apart from several brief references in Harris (Sick Economies), none of these recent works examine Timon of Athens.
23 See also Elam (“I’ll Plague Thee”) for a reading of the power of plague language in Timon.
24 The quest for the play’s authenticity and the problem of its completeness, combined with the fact that we have no record of it ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, has led most critics to assume that it was never intended for performance and thus did not receive an audience at The Globe, Blackfriars, or at court. This is in spite of the fact that we also have no direct evidence for contemporary performances of As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, or Antony and Cleopatra, and very slim evidence regarding Two Gentlemen of Verona, King John, and Coriolanus. The lack of evidence indicating contemporary performances of these plays is not evidence enough for most critics to suggest that they were never performed. The singling out of Timon amongst these plays as incomplete and unperformable has been primarily based on evidence provided by apparent inconsistencies in the text, its monotonous style and Timon’s seemingly unacceptable change.
25 For a more detailed examination of Timon’s gift economy, see Chorost 350-58. Chorost also divides the play into two irrevocable halves centred around Timon’s “drastic” change: Timon sudden shift dramatises two separate people embodying two antithetical ideological perspectives, from Timon Philanthrope and a gift economy to Timon Misanthrope and a money economy (365).
26 As Weimann has argued, Apemantus is a character inhabiting what he calls the platea: the flexible, non-illusionistic portion of the platform stage, from which audience-oriented characters can comment on the action occurring in the locus, the fictional location, that remains distanced from the audience (225-27).
27 See particularly the reading of Othello’s emotional transformation (Paster 60-76).
28 Both Gosson and Rankins were former playwrights, while Rainolds had
first-hand experience of cross-dressing on stage having once “played
the role of Hippolyta in Richard Edwardes’s Palamon and Arcyte at Christ Church in 1566” (Sanders 396 n28).
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2009-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).