Sickness in the Body; Sickness in Society

Harriot devotes a sizable portion of his A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia to the issue of sickness, a theme central to Shakespeare’s Richard II. While Harriot looks at the diseases that plagued the Native American populations upon the arrival of the European settlers, Shakespeare draws out ideas on the sicknesses which plague humanity. Yet nowhere else are the similarities and distinctions in these discussions of sickness more apparent than in a comparison of the Bishop of Carlisle’s speech in the fourth act of Richard II and Harriot’s account of the state of the Native Americans in Virginia. The Bishop of Carlisle takes the concepts of war, treason, and the like and refers to them as “heinous, black, obscene” (IV.i.131)—crimes which go so far even as to effect the wrath of God. He warns Bolingbroke of the consequences of overthrowing a king of divine right—“disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny” (IV.i.142)—sicknesses in effect “stirred up by God” (IV.i.133) that would plague mankind for generations. Harriot in his Brief and True Report also refers to the impact of the Almighty, but in relation to the diseases spreading through the Indians. He calls these diseases a “special work of God for [the settler’s] sakes,” a result of God’s “divine will and pleasure” (28). He writes of the Indians not even being able to decide “whether to think [the settlers themselves] gods or men” (28). In both texts, though, the authors seem to accept the possibility of God’s involvement in response to human action in bringing about sickness. And just as both Carlisle and Harriot allow that God in some ways participates in causing disease, so do they both seem to agree that sickness has a tragic result. Harriot describes the sheer number of deaths in these small villages, sickness having nearly wiped out entire populations: “in some towns twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, and in one six score, which in truth was very many in respect to their numbers” (28). Similarly, Carlisle in Richard II predicts that the sickness that could overrun England would leave the country so devoid of life that it would be called “the field of Golgotha and dead man’s skulls” (IV.i.144). In addition, this biblical reference recalls again the hand of God in sickness, an idea which Harriot too seems to often present. Finally, the issue of “prophesy” presents itself in both Carlisle’s speech and in Harriot’s writings (Richard II, IV.i.136). Carlisle predicts the generations of illness that would be brought about if Richard were forced to abdicate under Henry’s terms, just as the Native Americans seemed to believe the eclipse of the sun and the passing of the comet foretold the disease they would soon endure. Both signs too are direct revelations from the heavens—Carlisle claims to be “stirred up by God” before making these predictions, while the Native Americans look to the skies for signals of their coming fate. Still, Carlisle’s warning remains a predication while Harriot’s text becomes an account of actual past events and an analysis of possible causes. In addition, Harriot speaks of bodily ills—physical diseases affecting the Indians—while Shakespeare, in Carlisle’s voice, speaks of societal ones. But while Shakespeare seems more interested in the intangible sickness of widespread horror and fear, and also, particularly in Henry’s case, of treason and war, clearly the idea of sickness plays a role in the retelling of both the history of Virginia and the history of Richard II.