Ballads and Performance: The Multimodal Stage in Early Modern England

"'Greensickness carrion’: Re-reading Capulet through Broadside Ballads"

Romeo and Juliet have spent their first night together, Juliet’s parents try frantically to convince her she should marry Paris. During this argument in which Juliet resists her parents’ authority and refuses the match, Capulet calls his daughter “greensickness carrion. Ursula Potter reads this moment as proof of “the dual nature of Capulet’s fears for Juliet’s life and for the onset of sexuality in her. If, following Potter, we understand greensickness as “a disease of the leisured classes,” as “was standard by the seventeenth century,” then Capulet’s worries about honor, reputation, and Juliet’s budding sexuality are certainly the most salient aspects of his accusation. However, when we turn to the understanding of greensickness in another seventeenth-century textual form—the popular broadside ballad—Capulet’s motives take on another dimension. In broadside ballads that talk about greensickness, the disease is used more often as a joke about the insatiable female body. If we read Capulet as engaging with this popular understanding of greensickness, then we can recognize his response to Juliet’s resistance as a calculated use of a female disease to bring his daughter’s body back under his control. What Potter sees as an “inadequate handling of the onset of puberty in his only daughter becomes an informed choice of attribution to a “disease” that may even acknowledge Juliet’s actual sexual activity.

      Performances of Romeo and Juliet often use the “morning after” scene to illustrate the irrationality and violence of Capulet’s fathering. As can be seen in the excerpt below from Matt Toronto’s production of the play, this violence is often placed next to Juliet’s heightened sexuality. In Toronto’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet appears in a revealing nightgown. An angry Capulet tosses her across the stage and strikes out at her nurse:

The tension between violence and sexuality that runs throughout the play looms large in this scene that ostensibly deals with a father’s desire to see his daughter married. Juliet’s revealing nightgown may do some of the same work for modern audiences as “greensickness carrion” would have done for a late sixteenth-century English audience, who would understand a range of meanings being implied, because she appears at once sexually appealing and vulnerable.

      Greensickness, when used as a medical term in the early modern period, demonstrated the status of the female body as a cultural cipher. The disease allowed physicians and parents to read a daughter’s unmarried state as physically harmful, thereby justifying the cultural injunction to marry. According to early modern physicians, greensickness was a “disease of virgins” for which the best cure was sexual intercourse within marriage. By pathologizing virginity, diagnoses of greensickness reflect the shift from valuing virginity to valuing Protestant marriage for women in early modern England.

     One of the major markers of greensickness, according to the medical treatises, is obstructed menstruation. This calls to mind a woman’s body in a state of arrested sexuality—she cannot give birth if her body is stopped up, and she is thus excluded from the expected path of marriage and childbirth. Though some of the “disease’s” described symptoms change over time, an absence of menses is always part of greensickness, and that absence is often accompanied by “diverted menstruation. Because women are “leaky,” their fluids “could erupt from any orifice,” as Helen King puts it. Greensickness thus puzzlingly brings to mind both promiscuity and hindered female sexuality.

     Many alternative cures, in lieu of (and less effective than) marriage that doctors suggest involve attempts to restore the young woman’s body to its “proper” non-leaky, but also non-stopped-up state. For example, most of the herbal remedies the surgeon John Gerard advises in his 1597 manual are purgative. His location of both the cause and the cure of greensickness in his entry for “Water-Cresse," imaged below, is indicative: “it doth cure yong maidens of the green sicknesse, bringeth downe the termes, and sendeth into the face their accustomed lively colour, lost by the stopping of their Menstrua.

The herb watercress, as Gerard explains in the quotation above, removes the obstruction in the “yong maiden” with green sickness, which allows for menstruation to resume and for her color to return. A similar description is offered for watercress’s use in purging kidney stones. Some of the same herbs used in the treatment of greensickness, such as Monk’s Rhubarb and Rue, might be used as abortifacients in other contexts.

The potential for the herbal cures to induce abortion further speaks to the problem of illegitimacy in early modern English culture. A desiring virgin can cause some troubles for her family, but an unmarried pregnant women is detrimental to the parish more generally.

      Most early modern physicians agreed that marriage was the best cure for greensickness because it provided an opportunity to engage in condoned sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse (and certainly a pregnancy resulting in birth) would help to remove the obstruction caused by virginity. It is this cure that the broadside ballads pick up on to make their joke about the insatiable female body. The young woman in “A Remedy for the Greensickness” (1678-1680, Pepys 3.119, EBBA 21126), taking the sexual intercourse cure as her cue, actively seeks it out.

In this ballad, the young woman sings her lament of her illness in loud moans until a young man helps her by giving her a cure. We know she is suffering from greensickness not only because the title tells us so, but also because her symptoms are those of a greensick woman: she is a virgin, “panting,” “green as grass,” she “sighs and grieves,” and she does not have a specific love object in mind. Unlike the passive, languishing greensick girl of some early representations, this young woman performs her illness in her search for a cure.

     The young woman worries that she will become “quite mad” and needs a “bonny Lad” to “coole those burning flames of fire.” A couple of stanzas later, the consequences of greensickness become more severe than madness—she wants someone to “keep” her from her “grave.” She believes that if someone only knew how ill she really was and how close to death, he would come to help her. There is a young man nearby who overhears her complaints. Being a nice guy, he helps her very quickly. She is intrigued by his ability to cure her greensickness: “He has an Art / With out all smart, / Green Sickness to remove,” but it all happened so fast that she is not sure that he got it all: “oh! come again to me, / For I am half afraid / I shall not cured be, / At this first bout then prithee try / to help me once again.” So the young man repeats his cure as often as is deemed necessary.

     This story derives humor from its engagement with the stereotype of the young lascivious woman who performs purity. Greensickness always works in this balancing act—it is a way to diagnose and categorize the desire of young females and to resist the charge of lasciviousness. The story of “A Remedy” makes the most effective cure for the greensickness of young women into a joke while simultaneously revealing a central problem with the disease: to claim that a young woman suffers from the fact that she is not engaging in intercourse is to make virginity itself into a disease. The way that “A Remedy” treats the notion of the diseased desiring virgin shows that attempts to manage the needs of young women allow for the kind of mis- or re-interpretation in which the young woman in the story engages. If virginity is a disease, then a young woman like the one in the ballad should seek a cure.

     Another ballad from the Pepys collection centers on a part of the male anatomy (or a replica of it) as a metonym for the cure. This ballad is a lot less interested in the young woman’s symptoms than it is in what she is willing to give in order to have her virginity taken away. In contrast with the typical early modern depiction of chastity as a treasure to be protected at all costs, the ballad turns virginity into an illness that the young girl is willing to pay to have cured. As early as the title, we can see that this ballad’s depiction of greensickness will be a little different from the medical treatises: “The Maids Complaint for want of a dildoul This Girl had long time in a sickness been Which many maids do call the sickness green. I wish she may some comfort find poor Soul and have her belly fill’d with a Dil doul” (1681-1684, Pepys 4.50, EBBA 21716).

Far from the diagnosis meted out by the members of London’s Royal College of Physicians, the title has put the naming of the sickness in the hands of women: “Which many maids do call the sickness green.” The transfer of agency suggests that if you give women permission to engage in intercourse for medical reasons, it is only a matter of time before they start engaging in intercourse promiscuously. The first two woodcuts also reveal the content of the ballad because the young man has his hand on the hilt of his sword (a common representation for the penis in the period) and the young man offers him grapes (a common symbol of fertility).

     “The Maids Complaint” is addressed to “Young men” who are to “merriment inclin’d.” This story that the narrator promises will make such youths “to smile” is not about a young woman; rather, it is done by her: “of late done by a woman kind.” Unlike the fear of death demonstrated by the young woman in “A Remedy,” the heroine of “The Maids Complaint” worries that she will become “undone” if she cannot find a “dil doul,” a man’s penis, to satisfy her desire. Contrary to the belief that a young woman who loses her virginity outside of marriage is undone both physically and socially, this young woman believes she will be undone if she does not lose her virginity right away. “Undone” implies that she might physically explode if she stays in this obstructed state, as the young woman desperately looks for a release.

     Mimicking the trade of the physician, the maid’s proposed cure commodifies the dil doul as the story progresses: it is “such a pretty fine thing,” she says, that it is worth ten thousand times more than a maidenhead, and for it she would willingly “sell all [her] Coats & Smock from [her] back.” Her virginity (the cause of her illness), inversely lessens in worth from the moment she meets her sister, who is so happy to have gotten rid of her maidenhead that “if [she] had ten thousand [she] would give um all / For a dill doul.” The maid goes directly from this meeting in search of a dil doul to “rub on the place that doth itch,” promising “good red Gold and Silver bright” to the “bonny Lad” who will help her by taking a “good bargin while it is to be had.”

     “The Maids Complaint” does not concentrate on the symptoms and feared outcome of greensickness; it focuses on this young woman’s determined search for a “cure” for her desire. The dil doul or penis, then, becomes like an apothecary’s medical mixture that can be bought to ease suffering. The young woman marks her home just as a store might—she lives “at the sign of the Cup and the Can”—both connoting an open and willing vagina—and offers to “be loving to any young man / For his dil doul.” “A Remedy” makes the doctors’ intercourse cure into a joke, but the “Maids complaint” also lays completely bare the absurdity of prescribing sex by turning the young woman’s desire for intercourse—the prescribed medical “cure”—into an object of ridicule.

     In these ballad stories, doctors’ tales of young women suffering from greensickness and attempts to cure the maid’s pain through marriage, which are so popular in the late sixteenth century medical literature, are made out to be nothing but attempts to pander the bodies of young virgins. At the same time, the disease of greensickness reveals that popular ballads, like the medical treatises of the time, show women as untrustworthy keepers of their own bodies.

      If we are to sincerely read Capulet’s accusation of Juliet as “greensickness carrion,” then we must consider the fact that he may also be engaging with the understanding of greensickness that popular ballads reveal. As portrayed by and for the early modern “leisured class,” as Potter puts it, greensickness is a polite disease that allows parents and physicians to shuttle young women into marriage. Broadside ballads, however, reveal that greensickness is a construct. As King argues, we must always keep in mind that there may not be a one-to-one relationship between modern diseases and earlier diseases. Reading the ascribed maladies of the past, King explains, requires an effort to recognize that disease is a “construct” particular to its historical and cultural moment. What is striking about the broadside ballads that engage with greensickness tropes is that they recognize this very fact: that the disease is a product of historical and cultural pressures. Because they reveal greensickness as potentially a way to engage in economic bartering for bodies, the broadside ballads should further make us question seemingly straightforward uses of the disease in other early modern texts.

      Capulet’s concern with his daughter’s health in the first acts of Romeo and Juliet seems to focus on the dangers of becoming a mother too young. In his discussion with Paris about the possibility of their marriage, Capulet argues that Juliet is “yet a stranger in the world” and that “too soon marred are [mothers] early made” (1.2.8, 1.2.13). However, once the need for the Capulets to align politically with Paris through marriage becomes clear, the shift in Capulet’s approach is reflected in the language he uses to address and describe his daughter. When Capulet begins to fear Juliet will not be marriageable, he uses violent language to develop a metaphor about Juliet’s body, which he sees as having turned on itself to the point of undoing itself. Encountering his grieving daughter, Capulet responds by comparing her grief to both an intact ship sailing and the raging storm that could “overset” or destroy the “bark”:
In one little body
Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind:
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs,
Who, raging with thy tears and they with them,
Without a sudden calm will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body. (3.5.131-138)
Unlike Romeo, bitten by an “envious worm,” Juliet is the actor here: she mimics a bark, a sea, and a wind. In this confused metaphor, wherein she acts both the position of an object (a sailing bark) and a subject (the storm threatening the bark), her father imagines her as potentially self-destructive. Her bark-body is “tempest-tossed,” but the tempest is her own grief over which Capulet believes she should have some measure of control. He offers that control, indeed, insists upon it. When he calls her “greensickness carrion” and “tallow face” in 3.5, critics have argued, Capulet suggests that Juliet is wasting away because of her virginity and that she should appreciate the cure that her father (as physician) has brought her. Like a physician mixing up a cure of herbs, he has, after all, “wrought” or made this man Paris specifically to cure Juliet (3.5.145). If necessary, as her physician, he can force her to take the cure, threatening to bring her to the altar like a prisoner to an execution (3.5.156). He tells her to “fettle” her “fine joints,” which calls to mind either the image of cattle or of a human body preparing for war (3.5.154).

      The broadside ballads’ depictions of greensickness, however, should give us pause in this reading. Greensickness becomes a useful construct for fathers who need their daughters’ bodies to continue to be valuable in the marriage economy. By revealing greensickness as a construct that is historically and socially determined, broadside ballad depictions open up the possibility that Capulet is not ignorant to how Juliet spent the previous evening. On the contrary, the violent language he uses to describe her grieving body implies that he recognizes her incontinence. Juliet’s refusal of her father’s decree is in this sense enabled by her marriage to Romeo and her sexual maturity, and Capulet recognizes this.

      By the time of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (published 1633), greensickness can go so far as to work overtly as a way to cover up a pregnancy. Annabella, languishing from what is variably called “the maid’s sickness” (3.2.81) and “fullness of the blood” (3.4.8) in the play, is in fact pregnant with her brother’s child. In ‘Tis Pity, the cover story does not come from Annabella; rather, it comes from her father, the (fake) doctor, and her brother/lover. But again the woman is the constructed object. I argue, in sum, that the depiction of greensickness in broadside ballads allows us to see the potential for the use of this so-called “disease” by the men who have a stake in young women’s marriageable bodies. Capulet, in other words, may not be the bumbling father critics usually take him for; he may in fact be acting within a tradition that sees disease as a construct that can be used to economic advantage.


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