The great pox, or syphilis, crops up a fair amount in Shakespeare – ‘pox’ appears 23 times across 15 plays, basically thanks to it being a byword for ‘curse’ (kind of like ‘fuck this’ or ‘screw that’ now). Giant Microbes went for All’s Well That Ends Well, which I’m glad about as I’ve only seen it a couple of times before and am grateful for the opportunity to revisit Helena’s attempts to win over the thoroughly undeserving Bertram.
Treponema pallidum is the causative agent of syphilis: a spirochaete bacterium that’s normally 6-15μm long & 0.1-0.2μm wide. It’s transmitted sexually, and only between humans. Like leprosy (seen earlier this week), people can have syphilis but be asymptomatic for years, plus the main first sign of the disease (a painless sore called a chancre) can be missed, making it difficult to diagnose. Syphilis presents in four distinct stages: primary, secondary, latent & tertiary. The disease is at its most infectious during the primary & secondary stages, via contact with the chancre; it becomes asymptomatic (while remaining active) during the latent stage, and is most catastrophic to the sufferer’s health in the tertiary stage. Whereas early symptoms could point towards something as potentially mild as the ‘flu (headache, fever, swollen lymph nodes), by the time it reaches the tertiary stage the patient could go blind or deaf, suffer from memory loss, mental illness & heart disease. It could also develop into neurosyphilis – an infection of the brain or spinal cord. Penicillin works well in treating syphilis (though other antibiotics can be used if the patient is allergic) early on, but its efficacy wanes by the later stages and any treatment tends to be more palliative in nature.
“A pox on him!”
Bertram, All’s Well That Ends Well (Act 4 Scene 3)
The quote chosen by Giant Microbes is aimed at Parolles, after Bertram is shown proof of his associate’s disloyalty & cowardice. Some of the lords dress as enemy soldiers and kidnap Parolles, then manage to induce him to defame Bertram whilst blindfolded (all so Bertram can watch). The disgust Bertram feels at this act of treachery is channelled into his words, and Parolles ultimately falls out of favour.
All’s Well That Ends Well is another rarity, so there are very few film or stage versions available should you be curious about watching it. As ever, there is a free TSMGO reading available on YouTube, which is a good introduction to the play. If you are willing to pay, there are two options on Globe Player: English and Gujerati. Wordsworth Classics is a good option should you wish to read the play.