Disease and Illness
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
"Ulcer of my heart." "Plague of Greece." "Jaundies." "Botchy core." "Scab." "Colic." "Neapolitan bone-ache."
Grab your hazmat suits, Shmooperinos, because there's more puss, blood, and body fluids oozing through this play than a wounded soldier's open "gash." Gross? Yep. But don't get mad at us. Shakespeare's the one who crams this drama full of disease, decay, and death. Let's kick off our discussion with some famous examples:
• Troilus declares that his love for Cressida has left him with an "open ulcer [in his] heart" (1.1.53).
• The Greek military leaders declare that their army is "infect[ed]" with a kind of moral "sickness" and lack of respect for authority (1.3.5-8; 101-102; 140-141).
• Thersites imagines what it would be like if Agamemnon had a bunch of nasty boils and running sores all over his body (2.1.2-9).
• Thersites wishes the entire Greek army would get the "Neapolitan bone-ache!" (a.k.a. syphilis) because they're willing to fight a war over a promiscuous woman (2.3.17).
• Pandarus tells us he's dying of a sexually transmitted disease (we're guessing syphilis) and that he hopes we all get an STD and die (5.10.35; 55-56).
What the heck is going on here? According to some literary critics, Troilus and Cressida is chock full of nasty disease because Shakespeare himself suffered from syphilis and was obsessed with STD symptoms (source). Okay. Even if we could prove this, which we can't, it doesn't help us with our analysis of the text. What we need to figure out is how Troilus and Cressida's references to disease and sickness affect our experience and understanding of the play. Here are a couple of our favorite theories:
When Shakespeare loads the play with references to disease, decay, and death, he establishes the idea that the whole world (or at least the world of the play) is a corrupt place that's full of moral decay. Come to think of it, this is a lot like what we see in plays like Hamlet, where Hamlet runs around saying that the world is like a "rank" (i.e. nasty and stinky) garden that's full of disease and rot. We talk about this more in "Setting."
Plus, the constant references to sexually transmitted diseases basically spit in the face of true love. It's hard to take Troilus and Cressida's love declarations seriously with all the play's talk about the "Neapolitan bone-ache," don't you think? And, in case you hadn't noticed, the whole play has a pretty pessimistic attitude toward love.
But, hey, what do you expect from a playwright who named a character in King Lear after a nasty sexually transmitted disease? (We're looking at you, Gonorrhea—we mean, Goneril.)