Printer Friendly

Beastly physic.

Animals are creatures we don't have sex with--that's how we distinguish them from ourselves. The very thought of sex with them makes us shudder. That is the level at which they are unclean--all of them. We don't mix with them. We keep the clean apart from the unclean.

"But we eat them." The voice is Norma's. "We do mix with them. We ingest them. We turn their flesh into ours." (1)

--J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

THE SECOND SCENE OF Ben Jonson's Volpone, which is frequently cut or altered in modern productions because of its abstruse references, features Nano, Castrone, and Androgyno parodying the doctrine of the Pythagorean transmigration of souls. Apparently conceived by Mosca for Volpone's entertainment, the interlude is written in the "tumbling" four-stressed verse of the old morality plays, (2) whose ploddingly insistent rhymes hilariously debase reincarnation: "If you wonder at this, you will wonder ere we pass, / For here is enclosed the soul of Pythagoras"(l.ii.6). Nano's lines acoustically replicate their meaning, of course, making the audience hear how the ancient philosopher's name contains within it an ass, the beast whose form Pythagoras will supposedly later assume. This auditory incorporation enacts the idea of ingesting other bodies that everywhere animates the play: the carrion birds, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino seek metaphorically to feed on the carcass they eagerly expect Volpone to become, and Mosca's role figures the sustenance that the parasitical flesh-eating fly draws from its host. Their names suggest the fluency with which the animal-human species divide is transgressed, not only through the medieval fabliaux that subtend the play generically, but also through the Pythagorean philosophy that is satirized in the opening interlude.

Most of the information about Pythagoras in this scene comes from Diogenes Laertius's Lives of the Philosophers (De Philosophorum Vitis) and Lucian's satiric dialogue, The Dream, or The Cock. (3) Lucian's text has been described as a "Cynic sermon in praise of poverty" that features Micyllus, a cobbler, and Pythagoras, reincarnated as a speaking cock or rooster. (4) In Nano's rendition of the "divine juggler's" shape shifting, we learn that the "fast and loose" soul was originally derived from Apollo, passed into Aethalides, Mercury's son, to "goldy-locked" Euphorbus, who was killed in the Trojan war, to Hermotimus, then to Pyrrhus of Delos, a Greek philosopher. The soul was reincarnated in Pythagoras "Pythagore"(I.ii.18), and migrated into Aspasia, a meretrix or prostitute, and then passed into another "whore"--we can hear again the floating echo of rhyme, "a philosopher" or philosphore, Crates, the cynic. (I.ii.20-21) The subsequent reincarnations become nameless--kings, knights, beggars, fools--and then they devolve to animals: ox, ass, camel, mule, goat, and brock or badger, until the soul manifests in the Lucianic cock, a speaking male fowl. Androgyno picks up where Lucian leaves off, describing "translations" of body that satirize the occupations and eating habits of lawyers, Protestants and Carthusians. Androgyno is, of course, the perfect heir and spokesperson for Pythagoras, as Nano notes, because the hermaphrodite "can the delight of each sex ... vary" (I.ii.54). He is a double body, as it were, incorporating both sexes and condensing two cycles of reincarnation into one. As an inheritor of the Pythagorean mnemonic "legacy," Androgyno registers the play's preoccupation with inheritance and wills, society's recognition of how a body reincarnates itself legally through its descendants, the "heirs of its body." Nano, Androgyno, and Castrato, all compromised and marginalized by their anomalous bodies, are, rumor has it, Volpone's "bastards" (I.v.43), fathered on whores and dispossessed of a potential legacy. They thus become the perfect ironic mouthpieces of Pythagoras's philosophy because they are precisely neither Volpone's legal descendants nor his reincarnative futures.

Androgyno's attention to the eating habits of the bodies into which the soul successively takes refuge, including the famous Pythagorean prohibition against eating beans because they were thought to resemble human genitalia, evokes what would have been for an early modern audience a familiar classical source: the appearance of Pythagoras in Book XV of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The philosopher's injunction to abjure ingesting flesh in Ovid's ac count is suffused with nostalgia for a lost golden age when human beings were content with "the fruit of the trees and the herbs which the ground sends forth, nor did men defile their lips with blood." (5) In this edenic world, birds, hares, and fish were safe and at peace, until a human being envied the lion's prey and "thrust down flesh as food into his greedy belly" (XV:105). The killing of animals became a punishment for transgression--the pig that rooted up seeds with its broad snout, or the goat that "browsed" the vines of Bacchus--and thus appeared to justify slaughter (XV. 111-15). However, even if one sacrificed animals, Pythagoras maintained, the real crime lay not in the slaughter but in the ingesting of animal flesh. As he puts it:
   All things are changing; nothing dies. The spirit wanders, comes
   now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From
   beasts it passes into human bodies, from our bodies into beasts,
   but never perishes.... I teach that the soul is ever the same,
   though it passes into ever-changing bodies.... I warn you as a
   seer, do not drive out by impious slaughter what may be kindred
   souls, and let not life be fed on life. (XV:165-75)

He continues even more graphically, "'when you take the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and realize that you are devouring your fellow-labourers'" (xv: 141-42).

Pythagorean belief in metempsychosis was a deeply contested doctrine in the Renaissance for philosophical and religious reasons. One central objection was that it threatened the hierarchy of the Aristotelian vegetative, sensitive or animal, and rational tripartite soul that was central to humanist philosophy. (6) If a soul could pass between animal and human bodies with impunity, the supremacy of the rational soul over the animal or sensible soul, and reason's place as the distinguishing feature of the human, were impugned. Pierre de la Primaudaye, in his influential encyclopedic treatise, The French Academie (1586), is, for instance, scathing in his condemnation of Pythagorean doctrine. (7) The references to metempsychosis in Volpone and in such Shakespearean plays as The Merchant of Venice (4.1), Twelfth Night (4.2), and As You Like It (3.2) testify to the popular currency of the ideas, and to the implications they had for the relationship not only between and among bodies and genders, but also for distinguishing species from one another. Belief in Pythagorean reincarnation interrogates the Aristotelian psychic architecture, the structure and composition of the soul, and it also raises disturbing questions about the human sovereignty over animals that was ordained and authorized by Genesis, the integral boundedness of the early modern subject, the supremacy of rationality, and the possibility of cross species interaction, or indeed contamination between animals and humans.

Perhaps nowhere is this more clearly set out in Volpone than in the question of physic or medicine. The tradition that links animals to health has a powerful classical antecedent in Plutarch's Moralia, and it is this theriophilic legacy, to cite George Boas's 1933 coinage, (8) upon which the Florentine humanist, Giovanni Battista Gelli's, sixteenth-century text, Circe, draws. (9) Gelli's text, which was translated into English in 1557, borrows from and elaborates on Homer: in Gelli's account, Circe has metamorphosed Ulysses's companions into animals, and although Ulysses tries to persuade them to return to their human forms, each in turn refuses, preferring their beastly incarnations. Each animal is linguistically occupied or animated by an eloquent narratorial voice that articulates the perspective of a formerly mute animal consciousness. This doubleness is accentuated by the fact that each creature remembers its earlier human occupation and can insightfully compare its beastly advantages to the shortcomings of its previous human profession. The second of Gelli's ten dialogues stages an encounter between Ulysses and a snake, formerly a physician. The snake's arguments center on the nature of physic; it asserts, following the lines of Plutarch's dialogue, "Beasts are Rational," that animals are by nature healthier than humans, more able to cure themselves should they become afflicted with sickness. As Gelli's snake asserts, animals intuitively know the herbal remedies for their ailments. The snake expresses from an animal perspective the medical primitivism of such empirics as Leonardo Fioravanti (1518-15-88), a sixteenth-century Bolognese physician who believed that humans should emulate beasts since animals supposedly understand instinctively how to cure themselves. (10) John Donne eloquently drew on these beliefs when he anatomized his own perilous illness in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
   We have the Phisician, but we are not the Phisician. Heere we
   shrinke in our proportion, sink in our dignitie, in respect of
   verie meane creatures, who are Phisicians to themselves. The Hart
   that is pursued and wounded, they say, knowes an Herbe, which being
   eaten, throwes off the arrow: A strange kind of vomit. The dog that
   pursues it, though hee bee subject to sicknes, even proverbially,
   knowes his grasse that recovers him. And it may be true, that the
   Drugger is as neere to Man, as to other creatures, it may be that
   obvious and present Simples, easie to bee had, would cure him; but
   the Apothecary is not so neere him, nor the Phisician so neere him,
   as they two are to other creatures; Man hath not that innate
   instinct, to apply these naturall medicines to his present danger,
   as those inferiour creatures have; he is not his owne Apothecary,
   his owne Phisician, as they are. (11)

Perhaps partly because animals were seen to be exemplars of health in the Plutarchan tradition, possessing a kind of natural medicine in their bodies, they came to represent a medical resource, what twenty-first-century terminology calls pharmazooticals, that is, medicine derived from animal bodies.

If the animal/human caesura split species according to their souls and the faculties those psyches represented, with human beings figuring on the positive side the superiority of a rational soul, and on the negative, the handicap of their natural propensity to "dis-ease," beasts and humans were also joined by the psyche they have in common, the sensible or animal soul, which was distinguished by its capacity for sensation and motion. As thinkers from Aristotle forward have recognized, humans and animals share psychic, physical, and anatomical characteristics. In his 1543 anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica, on the fabric of the human body, Andreas Vesalius relies continually on this anatomical parallel, even as he is also at pains to distinguish the species. It is thought that the dog and monkey, prominently displayed in the foreground of the famous frontispiece which depicts Vesalius performing a dissection, signify both his continued reliance on and his departure from the Galenic practice of using animal dissection for knowledge about human anatomy. (12) Vesalius chastises those surgeons and physicians who rely slavishly on inherited Galenic knowledge, for he asserts "that it is just now known to us from the reborn art of dissection, from the careful reading of Galen's books, and from the welcome restoration of many portions thereof, that he himself never dissected a human body, but in fact was deceived by his monkeys (granted a couple of dried-up human cadavers came his way) and often wrongly disputed ancient doctors who had trained themselves in human dissections." (13) Although Vesalius justifiably corrects many of Galen's errors, De fabrica is necessarily nevertheless shaped by the animal /human comparison: "In fact, you will find many things in Galen which he misunderstood even in monkeys, not to mention the most astonishing fact that among the many and infinite differences between the organs of the human body and the monkey Galen noticed only those in the fingers and the flexion of the knee; he would no doubt have missed these as well, had they not been obvious to him without dissecting a human" (3r). The vestiges of the animal/beast continuity nevertheless deposit themselves in anatomical language, which is apparent in such moments as Vesalius's description of teeth: our "canine" teeth, he says, is a name "given them because they correspond to the protruding teeth of dogs (in which these teeth are conspicuous)" 1.11,46. When he comes to describe the hyoid bone, that horseshoe-shaped structure that is suspended in proximity to the larynx and tongue, he corrects Galen's terminology. Galen's translators have mistakenly called it "the bone resembling a pig" (1.13, 55), he tells us, but Vesalius renames it "the bone resembling the Greek letter upsilon," "corpus ossis hyoidei" (1.13, 55), a fittingly alphabetic distinction of nomenclature for a bone that makes human vocal utterance possible.

Beastly physic thus relies on anatomical similitude and distinction. It is for this reason that animal testing has been and continues to be central to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals in our own culture, and it is for this reason that drugs that we take even today work. Obvious examples include insulin, which in its earliest, nonsynthetic form was manufactured from the pancreatic enzymes of pigs and calves, Primarin, an estrogen derived from pregnant mare's urine, and the anticoagulant Viprinex, which uses the venom of the Malaysian pit viper. There is, of course, a rich historical tradition of ingesting and using animal bodies for medicinal purposes. James Howell in his Therologia or Parley of Beasts, for instance, rewrote Gelli's dialogue in 1660, and he altered it in instructive ways. At the end of each dialogue with a metamorphosed animal, he has the creature describe the properties of its body that could be used for physic. The fifth dialogue features a mule that was a physician before his transformation. The mule nicely summarizes all of the diseases to which the frail vessel of the human is subject, and the vices to which physicians as a profession succumb, vices which are, of course, savagely anatomized in Volpone. Finally, though, the mule offers its own intrinsically healthy body as the stuff of physic: "Som of our hairs mingled with those of an Asse and dried and so put to a perfume, are good against the Epilepsie; the milt of one of us is good against the Falling-evill, nay the very dust wherein one of us hath tumbled, is good to mitigate the ardors of Love, being sprinkled upon the body." (14)

Listing the potential medicinal properties of animals is an ancient practice, and perhaps one of the best exemplars is Pliny in his Natural History, who offers a vast list of animal parts and how they can be used in the service of human health. The blood of the elephant, for instance, is efficacious in curing rheumatism, shavings of its ivory tusks mixed with Attic honey can banish "duskish spots" on the face, and even a touch of its trunk can alleviate the pain of a toothache. (15) The fat of a lion, mixed with oil of roses keeps the skin of the face white and supple, a camel's brain is good for epilepsy (28.8.311), and camel dung reduced to ashes and mixed with oil is an excellent prescription for curling or frizzing the hair. Hyaenas, which were thought to change sex every other year, were assumed to be endowed with extraordinary medicinal power, capable as they putatively were of transporting the mind of men and women and ravishing their senses (28.8.311). The skin from a hyena's head could, it was thought, cure headaches, and the pith or marrow of a hyaena's backbone, mixed with oil and gall, was supposedly highly beneficial for human nerves. These extensive and often wildly exotic lists, which were reproduced in miniature in such bestiaries of the period as Edward Topsell's History of Four Footed Beasts (1607), catalogued the remedies and medicines that each animal could supply, anatomizing the use of their excrements, their milk, organs, hair, and skin. Given the therapeutic potential that domestic and exotic animals possessed for human health and improvement, it seems miraculous that so many species survived.

With this background in mind, let us turn back now to Volpone. The central action of the play is set into motion when Volpone, the fox, disguises himself as a mountebank in order to hawk his Oglio del Scoto in the Venetian piazza. Of what is this magical oil composed? Volpone does not, of course, reveal his ingredients. Indeed, he is at pains to keep its components secret: the song alleges that had "Old Hippocrates or Galen" known the "secret" of this Oglio, they would never have wasted so much paper and so many candles on their medicinal recipes (II.ii. 123-34). Volpone gestures to its properties by means of an occupatio: there is a countless catalogue of patients and diseases it has cured, which he does not have time to detail because it is so long, but the numerous depositions of those who have appeared before the Signiory of the Sanita or the "most learned College of Physicians" to extol its virtues have authorized him to "disperse" the "rare and unknown secrets" of his medicaments to magnificent states of Italy (II.i.130). Whereas many aspiring physians and apothecaries, have, like apes, tried to imitate this oil through their use of alembics, stills, and continual fires, as well as their conglutination of human fat, the final decoction is "blow, blow, puff, puff, and all flies in fumo." (II.i.160). When he details what his remarkable potion can cure, the diseases replicate the lists we find in Pliny or in the theriophilic literature that details human susceptibility to illness: "the mal caduco, cramps, convulsions, paralyses, epilepsies, tremor cordia, retired nerves, ill vapours of the spleen, stoppings of the liver, the stone, the strangury, hernia ventosa, illiaca passio" (II.ii. 107-11). And when Volpone sees Celia at her window, the list of benefits extends to beauty, a treatment for time's ravages: his potion is, Volpone tells her, the powder that made Venus a goddess, kept her perpetually young, cleared her wrinkles, firmed her gums, filled her skin, and coloured her hair"(II.ii.241-44), a kind of early modern botox.

But Celia's husband, Corvino, is certain he knows what Scoto's oil is made of, and when he hears that the potion he is convinced is worthless has been poured into Volpone's ears and nostrils and revived him, he exclaims that he is familiar with each of the components to a dram: "All his ingredients / Are a sheep's gall, a roasted bitch's marrow, / Some few sod earwigs, pounded caterpillars, / A little capon's grease, and fasting spittle"( 18-20). The list reads as if it were a parody of Pliny's recipes of beastly physic. Mosca tells Corvino that they applied the ointment as a "fricace," a kind of rubbing that allowed the skin to absorb the animal ingredients into the interior of the body. "Pox o' that fricace" (, retorts Corvino, in a singularly fitting expletive, for pox was a disease that manifested itself in pustules on the surface of the skin. Pox, could of course, refer to any contagion of the skin, especially syphilis, but it also denoted an infectious condition diagnosed and named by Richard Morton in the seventeenth century as chicken pox, a disease that crosses in its nomenclature the species boundary. More significantly for our purposes, Corvino's expletive directly precedes Mosca's description of the college of physicians' search to restore Volpone's health. Several of the proposed remedies involve skin: "a flayed ape" "clapped to his breast," a dog skin applied to his body, or an oil made of wild cats skin rubbed on him ( Finally, the physicians understand, Mosca says, that only the naked skin of a "lusty" young woman, "full of juice" ( will cure Volpone. These proposed remedies suggest a complementary version of the animal physic that human patients ingest, for each involves covering the sick human in the skin of an animal, as if that cutaneous layer could confer not only its healing and curative powers on the invalid, but also provide a translation of nature, a kind of dermal transmigration of identity. We might think here again of Vesalian anatomy, of the famous ecorche figures in the De fabrica, who were flayed of their skins in order better to exhibit their bones and muscles. Vesalius himself offers a recipe for preparing bodies for dissection, and he tells us that Galen was reluctant himself to flay the apes he was about to anatomize. (16) Vesalius himself displays no such hesitation. The fragile human cutaneous boundary is frequently criticized in early modern theriophilies, for human beings lack the feathers, shells, hair, and thick hides that protect and define animal bodies. Volpone is a play that is of course fascinated by the relationship between exterior form and interior nature, particularly when it crosses the species border, and this may help us make new sense of the joke played on Sir Politick Would-Be, "Sir Pol," the parrot traveler. A disguised Perergrine brings the merchants to search Sir Pol's study, forcing Sir Politic to hide in the "engine" of a tortoise shell (V.iv). The merchants then prod him, goad him, poke him, all supposedly in the service of understanding this creature. The hilarious hybrid that results, a tortoise shell covering a human body with legs and garters, figures not only Sir Politic's relentlessly English propensity to carry his national home on his back as it were, but also the play's interrogation of animal and human crossings. This exploration suggests that however much a culture seeks to define its strict division from the beasts over whom they have dominion, the beastly and psychic roots of the human continually undermines the rupture, insisting rather on the contiguity between human and animal.

Volpone offers an especially complex case study for examining the boundary between the animal and the human. All of the categories that might serve to define and demarcate species are compromised throughout the play: most obviously through names, the linguistic markers of identity. Names in Volpone--Mosca, Volpone, Corvino, Voltore, Corbaccio--continually trangress both national borders/languages and the animal/human divide, a translation in which f the animal names simultaneously identify the characters with the traits the creatures ostensibly embody and just as clearly distinguish the human figures from the animal bodies to which the linguistic labels refer. It is as if the characters has swallowed the animals for which they are named, manifesting beastly qualities from the inside out. Bodily borders are continually transgressed through the play's insistence on clothing, on rubbing, flaying, and piercing (the fly's bite) the skin, on what emerges from within the body (sweat, spit, mucus, vomit, feces, urine), and on what is ingested, whether food or medicine. Clearly, the border between the animal and the human cannot lie in appearance, or habit, or the attributes typically associated with the human. That the play is stuffed with references to animal and human body parts registers the fragmentation and substitutability of these organs and limbs, as if they were detachable and potentially saleable. The central trope of Pythagorean transmigration renders the suturing of body to soul an almost accidental process; human souls do not necessarily or inevitably reside in human bodies. That souls migrate suggests a kind of casual errancy that tugs subversively at the humanist celebration of Pico's Oration, insisting instead on the contiguity rather than the segregation between Aristotle's three souls. Over and over Jonson complicates definitions and territories supposedly sovereign, demonstrating repeatedly that the tenuous superiority of the human disavows the inextricable mingling and fundamental kinship among beings.


(1.) S. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (New York: Viking, 2003), 85.

(2.) Ben Jonson, Volpone, or The Fox, ed. Brian Parker rev. ed. (1983; repr., Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), 95, n. 4. All citations to the play are from this edition.

(3.) For an account of Diogenes Laertius's and the tradition of mocking Pythagoras, see Christopher Riedweg, Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching, and Influence, trans. Steven Rendall (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), 49. Todd A. Borlik discusses the English Renaissance reception of Pythagoras, including the doctrine of metempsychosis, in Ecocritism and Early Modern English Literature: Green Pastures (New York: Routledge, 2011), 24-74.

(4.) A. M. Harmon in Lucian, The Dream, or the Cock, Lucian, vol. II, Loeb Classical Library (1915; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1999), 171.

(5.) Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library (1916; repr., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), xv: 96-98. Subsequent references are cited in the body of the text and refer to this translation.

(6.) In his recent study of vitality, Sleep, Romance, and Human Embodiment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), Garrett Sullivan claims that Aristotle's tripartite soul is one of the authoritiative theories that supports Renaissance claims for human sovreignty over plants and animals.

(7.) See my essay, "The Souls of Animals: John Donne's Metempsychosis and Early Modern Natural History," (in Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England, ed. Garrett Sullivan and Mary Floyd-Wilson (Houndsmills: Palgrave, 2007), 55-70 for an in-depth discuss of La Primaudaye.

(8.) George Boas, The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 133).

(9.) John Baptista Gelli, Circes, trans. Henry Iden, 1557.

(10.) See William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994, and Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1984).

(11.) John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, ed. Anthony Raspa, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 20.

(12.) Andrea Carlino, Books of the Body: Anaotmical Bitual and Renaissance Learning, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 48-51.

(13.) Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, trans. Daniel Garrison and Malcolm Hast, Northwestern University, 2003, 3r: http://vesalius.northwest All other references are to this edition.

(14.) James Howell, The Parly of Beasts, London, 1660, 85. I have silently modernized i, j, u, v, and long s, and expanded contractions in all quotations from unedited early modern texts.

(15.) The Historie of the World Commonly called, The Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus, trans. Philemon Holland, London 1601, 28.8.310. Subsequent parenthetical references are to this translation.

(16.) Vesalius, "To the Divine Charles V" in De fabrica, 2r.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Associated University Presses
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:FORUM: Manimals: Early Modern Animal/Human Interfaces
Author:Harvey, Elizabeth D.
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Previous Article:The bee and the sovereign? Political entomology and the problem of scale.
Next Article:"I cannot tell wat is like me": simile, paternity, and identity in Henry V.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters