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  • Disease, Diagnosis, and Cure on the Early Modern Stage
  • Samuel Glen Wong
Stephanie Moss and Kaara L. Peterson, eds. Disease, Diagnosis, and Cure on the Early Modern Stage. Literary and Scientific Cultures of Early Modernity. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004. xvii + 218 pp. index. bibl. $79.95. ISBN: 0–7546–3791–3.

This stimulating collection of essays proves that what Caroline Walker Bynum once called "all the fuss about the body" is no longer a mere fuss but a well-trod and heavily settled area of early modern studies sustained by an established core of scholarly works (many by Bynum herself) and encompassing the entire range of [End Page 737] early modern writing. Yet as this collection also shows, the "fuss" has always centered around some texts more than others; and writing for the theater — with real bodies fretting on the stage — has become the signature genre for scholarly devotees of the body.

In these essays, Shakespeare is the chief focus — the collection grew out of a seminar at the Shakespeare Association — yet there is no doubting the general import of the theme: in this period, bodies, and the talk of them, were everywhere on stage and off. One of the most valuable aspects of this collection is to show how the exchange between dramatic and non-dramatic writing on the body worked in every possible direction. So several contributors — Kaara Peterson, Tanya Pollard, Carol Thomas Neely among them — are interested, not only in particular plays, but in the ways those plays were written "in dialogue" (Neely's nice phrase) with a host of non-dramatic texts on the body and its afflictions — texts that, in their turn, often drew on the stage and the stock of theatrical metaphors for ways of thinking about the body.

If the exchange between discourses of the body and of the stage was natural and inevitable, a number of essays also make clear that the exchange was not always amiable. In a concise analysis of Ben Jonson, Pollard reminds us of the many medical writers who drew "damning comparisons" (33) between false doctors and stage actors and goes on to consider how these examples of pseudo-medical mischief were taken up, to brilliant effect, by Jonson in Volpone and, what is more, transformed, when Jonson goes on to condemn, not only false doctors, but real doctors whose treatments often prove worse than the disease. So Mosca turns away Corbaccio's offer of an opiate in Volpone with a diatribe against doctors who kill more often than they cure; and in Sejanus the physician Eudemus displays his skill, not in healing, but in poisoning. These examples of a playwright who has fully digested a rich vocabulary of body and "physick," is familiar with all the stereotypes that attend it, and brings them to the stage to submit them to a series of dizzying, and often devastating, manipulations for the delight of the audience, are, as the essays here establish, typical of the period and, in the hands of a Shakespeare, Jonson, or Middleton, indicative of its genius. In each, playwrights take up the theme of the body and its trials and subject it to a gaze that could be sympathetic or unsparing but always witty and often transgressive. So Catherine Belling considers how Heywood and Shakespeare play on the idea of bloodletting — that mortally dangerous cure — as violent therapy both for individual bodies and for the body politic; Lynette Hunter finds a similarly witty play on "cankers," as worms and wounds, in Romeo and Juliet; and in two essays on Othello by Louise Noble and Stephanie Moss, the "mummy" that dyes Desdemona's handkerchief (a "cannibal cure" with many companion images in that play) and the bestial degeneration of the hero are read against the medical treatises and web of popular beliefs that inspire their use by Shakespeare.

In other essays on the biological basis of lovesickness, on early ideas of racial distinction, and on syphilis and commerce — this last a fascinating meditation on [End Page 738] the medical and mercantile by Jonathan Gil Harris — we are shown how playwrights were engaged, as their milieu allowed and as audiences desired...


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pp. 737-739
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Archived 2009
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