The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0098 Thursday, 14 February 2008
From: Stephanie Kydd <
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
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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