“Diseases desperate”

“———–diseases desperate grown

By desperate appliance are relieved,

Or not at all.”

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene III

Thanks to Pamela for sending this along and keeping me in line. I have good intentions with this silly thing, but of course we all know where that road leads. I’m going to take a bit of advice from my Violence and Metaphor professor and just start writing and see if any ideas actually come out….because right now I must admit I am a bit stumped. 😦

The proverb is found in many variant forms. Cf. L. extremis malis extrema remedia, extreme remedies for extreme ills.

“A stronge disease requyreth a stronge medicine.
[1539 R. Taverner tr. Erasmus’ Adages 4]

Diseases desperate grown By desperate appliance are reliev’d, Or not at all.
[1600-1 Shakespeare Hamlet iv. iii. 9]

Desperate cuts must have desperate cures.
[1639 J. Clarke Parœmiologia Anglo-Latina 200]

According to the usual Proverb, A desperate disease must have a desperate remedy.
[1659 J. Rushworth Hist. Collections I. 120]

I must‥have an interview with the charmer of my Soul: For desperate diseases must have desperate remedies.
[1748 Richardson Clarissa VI. 292]

These circumstances are wholly exceptional. Desperate diseases, they say, call for desperate remedies.
[1935 ‘A. Wynne’ Toll House Murder ix.]

She’d have sold the roof over her head sooner than have you know. Desperate situations require desperate remedies.
[1961 ‘A. Gilbert’ She shall Die xi.]

Desperate times call for desperate measures, which are often sensible when you consider the bleak alternative.
[2001 W. Northcutt Darwin Awards II 2]”


Just a little list of the variations of this proverb. For fun.

Let me break this down a little bit, and see if that helps.

“diseases” I probably don’t need to get into too much here. We can quibble all day about this one, whether within the context of Hamlet or without… (is he crazy? is he not crazy? are WE crazy? are we a blight upon the earth? are we a plague to nature?)

Yes. All of that. So let’s skip over that for the time being and move onto desperate. The OED lists its numero uno definition as “having lost or abandoned hope” — which in Act IV is where we find our “hero” — it is the King who speaks these lines and is speaking to his attendants telling them that he’s sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and Polonius’ body. Later in this scene is the famous line (and maybe my favorite part) about Polonius being at a supper “not where he eats, but where he is eaten”….(which calls to my mind that idea of blood and flesh being consumed, though here in death, the only life Polonius provides is to the worms….not to an infected human–though Hamlet as a zombie tale should totally happen…) I’m getting side-tracked…

Though now, if we want to pull this out and apply it to our disease ridden humanity…one might call us desperate. Despairing, hopeless, in an impossible situation. But really, “desperate” is not meant to describe us, or Hamlet…it’s meant to describe the disease. Our diseases are hopeless….or possibly incurable. Now I would go as far to say that WE are the incurable disease to the earth….but I really think an apocalypse would take care of us…(“What is amiss, plague and infection mend” Timon of Athens, Act V, Scene I)

–so let’s say that it is OUR diseases, the ones we carry with us every day that are incurable. Rage, people killing people, this drive for self-preservation, insanity….perhaps an individual could overcome one of these afflictions, but as a global society…?? I don’t know…I’d like to think so….but–thinking back over history…has there ever not been rageful, bloody war and murder? If I really need to go biblical here…wasn’t one of the first acts of humanity one brother murdering another?

“This is in thee a nature but infected.”

Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene III

But I digress… we can’t look at either of those words without the context of the word “grown” — (increased in size, arrived at maturity) — “grown” to me implies a certain amount of self-inflicted, self-perpetuated “despair” and “disease” — our incurable afflictions are created, perpetuated, and spread by our own bodies. (“breath infect breath” Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene I).

In the following line, “By desperate appliance are relieved” — “appliance” is a word which should have some consideration. It calls to mind more than just a mode or a plan of action in relieving disease. It represents a physical tool. What appliance would we use to physically remove disease from our bodies? –there is also “medicines applied to a disease” –but what medicine cures our contagion? And in Hamlet’s case, what kind of medicine is the act of sending him away? It’s more of a type of quarantine…in the hope that his insanity does not spread?

And then of course there is the bleak final line…”Or not at all” –which in true apocalyptic, gloom and doom style, leaves us with that warm, fuzzy feeling that we might destroy the earth before it destroys us. Or that no amount of medicine, counseling, working, lobbying, yelling, murdering, or action in general will cure what we have.

Is that dark enough, Jettboy?

Okay Pamela…your turn! I bet you will spin this thing around and bust it wide open. 🙂

Rob, I’d love your thoughts as well.