Article Title

The Plague and Immunity in Othello


Jaecheol Kim


The present essay surveys Othello as a topical response to the plague outbreak in 1603. The textual corpus of the play is complete with traces of the epidemic crisis by recording the Jacobean state’s desperate trial to govern, quarantine, and direct the disease toward certain controllable ways. In other words, Othello as a discursive echo chamber represents Shakespeare’s contemporary concerns about the plague and related immunitary procedures. In the English language, “immunity” means “freedom or exemption from any liability” and “protection from anything evil or injurious” simultaneously; this concept is an interesting critical device since its semantic feature at once affirms community and negates it. In Othello, this ambiguity can define the subjective position of the Moorish general, who is a protective force against the Islamo-Turkish invasion working outside of the Venetian constitution. The play metaphorically depicts racial-cultural contamination, slanderous circulation of language, and Venetian woman’s unchastity as contagion, and all the main characters of the play—Iago, Desdemona, and Othello himself—are somehow allegorically depicted as infected subjects to be quarantined from the community. Throughout early modernity, quarantine orders were practiced under the pretense of moral and political reforms, often accompanying a suspension of constitutional rights. In order to contain the pathogenic entities, the narrative fashions Cyprus as a “space of exception” that stages a biopolitical crisis. The play’s most bloody spectacles toward the end—the scene of Othello’s uxoricide and suicide—happen in the enclosed domestic sphere, a communal body. Thus the catastrophe of the play represents an “autoimmune crisis,” where the protective force of the body becomes an invasive alien body that destroys the corpus politicum itself.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.