Troilus and Cressida: The Trip to Bawdy-ful, Part Three–lost in disease


A couple of days back, I kicked off our Trip to Bawdy-ful and our exploration of bawdy in Troilus and Cressida. Yesterday, I looked at the view of homosexuality in the play (both negative/bawdy and positive/touching). Today, let’s slip back into the purely bawdy and nasty, as we look at what is one of the final destinations of sex: disease.

Early on, when Pandarus employs sexual innuendo with Troilus, cautioning him to have patience for the “grinding … bolting … (and) leavening” (I.i.15, 17, and 20), he also warns the prince not to “burn (his) lips” (I.i.26). The skin slough resulting from a burnt lip would be very much like the result of a venereal disease. Later, when Pandarus attempts to make Cressida jealous by noting how Helen praised Troilus, Cressida responds, “I had as lief Helen’s golden tongue had commended Troilus for a copper nose” (I.ii.104). False noses (and other body parts) were made of pliable metals to cover areas that had been decayed through venereal diseases.

These two are relatively subtle references. Thersites has no need for subtlety. When he rants about Ajax and Achilles, he ventures an opinion on what he would do if he was a god:

vengeance on the whole camp! Or rather, the Neapolitan bone-ache! For that, methinks, is the curse depending on those that war for a placket.
  • II.iii.17-9

The Neapolitan bone-ache was English slang for syphilis, which would be the perfect result of fighting a war for pussy (remember the meaning of “placket” a few days ago). Later in the play, this scurrilous Greek commentator describes in more detail of

the rotten diseases of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs, loads o’ gravel in the back, lethargies, cold palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing lungs, bladders full of impostume, sciaticas, limekilns i’ th’ palm, incurable bone-ache, and the rivelled fee-simple of the tetter
  • V.i.17-23

[CONTENT REDACTED: In this blog entry, I made reference to Dr. Pauline Kiernan’s work and book on bawdy in the Bard, Filthy Shakespeare; in doing so, I have offended her by my tone and use of her material. I apologize for the offense, and have thus redacted the reference.]

nasty cough, like the one Pandarus later has: “A whoreson tisick, a whoreson rascally tisick so troubles me” (V.iii.101-2). In the same speech, Pandarus also complains, “Such an ache in my bones that, unless a man were cursed, I cannot tell what to think on’t” (V.iii.105-6). Can you say “Neapolitan bone-ache”? I knew you could. But all of this is prelude to Pandarus’ final speech.

In what amounts to “The. Worst. Epilogue. Ever. (Or at least thus far in the project*)” Pandarus is left alone on stage, alone with his diseases, and–of course–us, the audience:

A goodly medicine for my aching bones! O world, world, world! Thus is the poor agent despised. O traitors and bawds, how earnestly are you set a-work, and how ill requited! Why should our endeavor be so loved and the performance so loathed? What verse for it? What instance for it? Let me see:

Full merrily the humble-bee doth sing,
Till he hath lost his honey and his sting;
And being once subdued in armèd tail,
Sweet honey and sweet notes together fail.

Good traders in the flesh, set this in your painted cloths:
As many as be here of panders’ hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made.
It should be now, but that my fear is this:
Some gallèd goose of Winchester would hiss.
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeath you my diseases.

  • V.x.35-56

The opening prose returns to the idea of the Neapolitan Bone-Ache, and there’s some weak attempt at gaining sympathy. He then calls out to “traitors and bawds,” in hopes they–who work hard but aren’t being compensated–will support him. He aligns himself to them when he says, “our endeavors.”

But he’s talking to us.

He sings us a song, then address us, “good traders in the flesh” (any aural similarity between “traitors” and “traders” is purely purposeful), to deliver his final message to us–in five rhyming couplets, no less.

We, “of panders’ hall,” should weep for “Pandar(us)’s fall.” And if we can’t cry for him, then we should groan for him, and if not for him then at least for our own “aching bones.” We are as diseased as Pandarus, of whom we are brothers in “the hold-door trade” of prostitution. His disease is so bad, he tells us, that within “two months” he’ll be dead.

And this is where it goes from weird to flat-out disturbing. He says at the end of the poetic line, “My will shall here be made.” It’s an interesting order of words: typically, it would be “my will here shall be made.” It is particular this order and it is chosen to put the penultimate stress of the line on “here” rather than on “shall.” We’re not in Troy anymore. We’re in Troynovant, Troia Nova, or New Troy. If there was any doubt, he removes it by his reference to the “galled goose of Winchester,” a diseased (“galled”) whore (“goose”) of the Southwark section of London, an area notorious for brothels that were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester. He and we are all in current-day London, where the dying pimp–after attempting to “sweat” out his malady–leave us his “diseases” as his and our legacy.

Like I said: Worst. Epilogue. Ever.







* yes, I know Henry V ends with a downer, but I didn’t feel the need to shower after reading that one.


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