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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: February ::
Littered Under Mercury
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0098  Thursday, 14 February 2008

From:		Stephanie Kydd <
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Date:		Wednesday, 13 Feb 2008 06:21:50 -0800 (PST)
Subject: Littered Under Mercury
Comment:	SHK 19.0066 Littered Under Mercury

Larry Weiss writes: "Before we get too excited about the possibility 
that WS was referring to Mercury as a treatment for syphilis, can we 
find out when that therapy was first used? I am under the impression 
that it was used in the 19 th C...."

Mercury was, indeed, used in Shakespeare's time as treatment for 
syphilis. The OED describes "Mercury" as "used extensively in western 
medicine from the late 15th to the early 20th cent., notably for the 
treatment of syphilis."

This jest is by no means unique to Shakespeare. Note this exchange 
between "Mother Pratle" and "Mag-py" from William Sampson's "The Vow 
Breaker" (1636):

Pra.    I surely Gossip Mag-py , and it is a great  signe of frugality 
if the Starrs, and Planets be concordant, for saith  Artimedorus; if it 
be borne under Venus, it will be faire as you are, if under Sol, Rich as 
you are, and if under Mercurie .

Mag.  Good Mother Pratle what is that god Mercury? Is it he that makes 
the white Mercury waters, Ladies scoure their faces withall!

I am puzzled as to why David Evett should completely dismiss this sense 
of "Mercury" because the joke only operates "in the moment." The theme 
of a play grows, little by little, from the minute building blocks from 
which it is made. In a drama, the theme is made up of the words and 
actions of the characters, who truly only exist "in the moment." In 
performance, the moment passes and is supplanted by another, and yet 
another, and yet another. It is impossible to discuss a larger theme 
(i.e., the summation of these moments) without close examination of each 
individual "moment" and the words and actions that comprise them. It may 
therefore be considered ill-advised to dismiss anything in a drama as 
unworthy of the greater theme simply because it occurs only "in the 
moment." This is somewhat akin to discarding the layers of an onion in 
hopes of finding what's in the middle.

Jennifer Pierce puts it very well in stating that "It's both.... 
Multiple definitions were not just a fun trick of language - it had 
philosophic import and the choice was intentional for comic effect AND 
meaning. That's what makes Will what you Will."

"Philosophic import" aside, it is the bawdy sense of "Mercurie" that 
would have drawn the laugh.

   - Stephanie Kydd

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