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  • The Plague and Immunity in Othello
  • Jaecheol Kim (bio)

Amiasma of plague hangs around Shakespeare's dramatic corpus, and Othello is a topical response to its occasional outbreak in 1603. Inevitably, its textual body is not only a palimpsest of traces recording epidemic outbreaks, but it is also a field of politico-clinical discourses that attempt to govern, quarantine, and direct the disease toward certain controllable ways. In other words, Othello is a representation of the rise of modern medical science. We know that as a medical term "Othello Syndrome" indicates a pathological and delusional jealousy, which is not primarily, however, the clinical subtext of the play that interests me; rather, the play's metaphoric depictions of the plague-stricken corpus politicum and its safety measure that is encapsulated by the word "immunization" fascinates me.1

The reason I would like to read Othello as a plague narrative by focusing on its representation of an immunitary crisis is not just because the play's semantic features obsessively revolve around words such as "plague," "infection," "pestilence," and "contamination."2 It is also because the play was produced in the heavy referential web of the plague visit in (and around) 1603—the year that Thomas Dekker called "The Wonderfull Yeare" when the Tudor-Stuart dynastic shift occurred.3 It is a truism to say that the history of English Renaissance is also the history of the plague, and inevitably literature produced between Shakespeare's birth and Milton's death provides records of pandemic outbreaks. It is quite intriguing, however, to remember that, as Richelle Munkhoff points out, the dynastic transitions in early modern England accompanied massive outbreaks—from Elizabeth to James in 1603 and from James to Charles in 1625.4 In particular, around the time of Elizabeth's death and James's accession, England had a severe outbreak, and James's passage through [End Page 23] London did not happen until March 1604 because he remained in the north by ordering the Privy Council to bury Elizabeth without him.5 Thus the situation was very much as though, as Rebecca Totaro puts it, "the plague itself took the throne in the interim."6 The plague, which people simply called "death," was not just an unwelcome visitor in the suburbs and the ghettos of the metropolitan margins; rather, in popular imagination, even though Elizabeth's own death was not directly related to the plague, it was vested with regicidal power. Its presence is vicinal with the rise and fall of the nation's body politic. Othello was produced during such a period, and the apocalyptic circumstance created by the dynastic shift along with the lingering sense of fin de siècle defines the general tenor of the play. Othello remarks, "Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon, and that th'affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration"(5.2.108–9). These metatheatrical comments wittingly evoke the reactions of the audience watching a spectacular scene of uxoricidal slaughter. Yet we need to remember that the "huge eclipse" that backdrops Othello's final scene is repeated in both King Lear and Macbeth—two of Shakespeare's regicidal tragedies written in the time of the dynastic shift and plague; in other words, the total disintegration of the social bond effected by the "huge eclipse" accompanies the "deconsecration of sovereignty."7

The political "alteration" created right after Elizabeth's death and James's accession includes the effect of the plague. For early modern minds, a pandemic outbreak was usually considered an expression of divine disfavor and punishment.8 Insofar as the plague was the will of the Sovereign and the kingship was considered His earthly deputy, to properly control or quarantine it was the work of the crown; consequently, proclaiming the "plague orders" was an expression of the queen's and king's sovereign immunity.9 Yet there are some inevitable differences between Elizabethan and Jacobean plague politics as, during his accession, English society understood James I, a Scottish monarch, as a foreign body visiting with the plague.10 Of course, by reading this full-fledged Jacobean tragedy in terms of sovereign immunity, I am not tempted to identify Othello, a...


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