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The plague and immunity in Othello.

A miasma 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 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 nations 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 siecle 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 Moorish general, with James I as a foreign body; rather, what I do want to emphasize is that the entire English society was obsessed with invading foreign bodies through the commonwealth, and this sense also triggered the heightened social concerns of immunity. Thus the ambiguity--the sovereign immunity as and against the plague--was formed around the plague in this period, and the accession of the alien monarch caused great anxiety similar to the horror that made the audience in the Globe "affrighted."

In this historical valence, my study sets out from the fact that Othello is imbued with speech acts concerning Shakespeare's contemporary biopolitics, in particular, society's desperate attempts to quarantine the plague. (11) Of course, the mechanism of disease control through immunity was not accomplished overnight; it developed over a long time since the dawn of the sixteenth century As a critic of biopolitics, Roberto Esposito claims that the very condition of modernity is the advent of an immunitary paradigm, and "it is immunization that brings modernity into existence." (12) He offers a persuasive and interesting account of immunitary politics by focusing on the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English context. For instance, as this Italian philosopher observes, works such as William Averell's Merveillous Combat of Contrareties (1588), Edward Forset's Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Naturall and Politique (1606), and Thomas Dekker's Whore of Babylon (1607) maintain a state-body analogy by forming discourses of social immunity. (13)

Yet often this measure protective of life develops beyond a certain tolerable level and, paradoxically, causes the destruction of life. In other words, what safeguards the body often endangers that same body beyond a certain point by risking its own death. Thus the ambiguity of immunity--as being the healer and slayer of individual or social organisms simultaneously--functions like what Jacques Derrida has referred to as pharmakos. Inoculation is nothing more than implanting infection or death into a life to safeguard it as a sort of medicinal practice. At the dawn of modernity, the motif, "a disease with its remedy," as Esposito claims, "continued through Montaigne, Shakespeare and Rousseau" in their philosophical principles. (14) Shakespeare's tragedies imagine that the entire body politic of a society could be demolished with invasions of plagues, whether literal or metaphoric, along with subsequent collapses of the social order. (15) Throughout early modernity, when the mechanism of immunity was practiced in order to contain the disease and to quarantine the infected body, it was practiced under the pretense of moral and political reform. Othello should be read in this regard, as it represents the sovereign violence that "decides" to quarantine the diseased bodies away from those of the healthy. It is a fascinating narrative because in the play the protection of the body politic of the society, thus an immunitary apparatus against the foreign invasion itself, becomes an infiltrating alien body by forming an autoimmune crisis.

The Geography of Quarantine: Morte Mortuos Liberavit

Othello represents racial contamination of the Venetian community. As an alien and stranger, being defined against the properness of Lodovico--one of "the wealthy curled darlings of our nation" (1.2.69)--the Moorish general reveals the porous boundary of Venetian society as a racial community. Although critics have exhaustively analyzed its racial issues, few have observed that racial differences, figured as a contagion, become an immunitary alert in the play. When Othello says, falsely believing in Desdemona's unfaithfulness, "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face" (3.3.391-93), blackness is not simply considered as a corporeal feature, but an internalized subjectivity open to contamination. To be sure, in the play, blackness is a visible sign of depravity attached to the inner darkness, and inevitably the text is obsessed with visual signs and proofs. (16) The entire Venetian society is under a racial threat, and Iago's most powerfully echoing lines such as "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.87-88), "you'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse" (1.1.112-13), and "your daughter and the / Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.117-18) offer, with lucid chiaroscuro images, the fear of racial contamination. If the opening strategy of the play is to plunge the audience into collective anxiety of an immunitary crisis, perhaps, there could be no better contrivance than Iago's slanderous tongue.

Karen Newman rightly observes, "the play is structured around a cultural aporia, miscegenation," especially when the entire Venetian society is obsessed with racial infection. (17) Miscegenation itself could be an interesting issue when it is discussed in terms of "immunity"; as a process of racial hybridization, it does not create any immune reaction at an individual level, while often a racial community, which is of course imaginary, understands it as an immunitary problem--i.e., infiltration of a foreign body into the community. It is by no means surprising to hear from Richard Hakluyt, an early English colonizer, commenting on a black man's taking an English wife: "blacknes proceedeth rather of some natural infection of that man, which was so strong, that neither the nature of the Clime, neither the good complexion of the mother concurring, coulde any thing alter." (18)

The English angst about racial infection lingering around the textual body is not limited to miscegenational fear as the "infection" gets more and more metaphoric. The geography of the Italian city-states and their vulnerability to racial and cultural invasions are foregrounded in the play; in particular, its spatial turn from Venice (act 1) to Cyprus (act 2) is notable because it stages an immunitary crisis that the play deals with head-on. The Italian city-states and the so-called Mediterranean dramas could become such a fad on early modern English stages because Mediterranean borders and Italian city-states were conceived as places of racial contamination and thus derived immunitary crisis. (19) Immune crises--in both the medical and cultural senses--in the Mediterranean setting are not irrelevant to the hygiene of the English commonwealth since increasing commercial trade with the Continent was inseparably pieced together with circulation of the bubonic disease. (20) In English imagination, the Italian city-states, as advanced multicultural trade centers, had been considered the cradle of the plague, and the liminal Mediterranean islands such as Cyprus and Candia--marked by their Orientalness--were considered to be the origin of the plague. Thus Daniel Defoe records that "some said" the plague is "from Italy, others from the Levant... others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus." (21) In other words, the Orientalness that the Moorish general embodies is considered as the source of the plague, and the geo-cultural shift from Venice to Cyprus is a journey to the epicenter of the pandemic outbreak.

It is critically well established that English Renaissance literature was nourished by what Karl Marx dubbed "primitive accumulation." (22) Given that early modern English dramas set in Italy are often displacements of internal English politics, we need to pay attention to the fact that Othello as a stranger is called "wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere" (1.1.137-38). (23) During primitive accumulation, great social energy was consumed on punishing vagrancy and beggary and concentrating landless people. What should be noted is that one of the alibis for this accumulation was disease-control of the national body, and during its process the propertyless vagrants were stigmatized as intermediate hosts of epidemic contagion. This allegorical connection between the plague and vagabondage was prevalent in early modern England. For instance, William Perkins, an English puritan cleric, deployed a metaphor of infection to stigmatize vagabondage, saying, "it is foul disorder in any Common-welth, that there should be suffered rogues, beggars, vagabonds; for such kind of persons... are as rotten legges, and armes, that droppe from the body." (24)

Thus being a "wheeling stranger" was a sign of downward social mobility and moral degeneration, and it was increasingly identified with the plague; this is why vagrants could be readily scapegoated in the time of the plague. When Roderigo and Iago refer to Othello as a "wheeling stranger" or an "erring barbarian" (1.3.346-47), they want to trigger the anxiety of contagion lingering in the text. Certainly, this unrest transmits to Brabanzio, and when he hears his daughter has surrendered her "duty, beauty, wit, and fortunes" (1.1.136) to the Moor, his miscegenational fear forms around the question of "property" transmission. For Brabanzio, Othello, an "erring barbarian," is a parasite and plague carrier who consumes Brabanzio's property: a parasite, parasitos, etymologically means "one who eats at the table of another." (25) Thus, though not directly, the discursive subtext of the play associates Othello with the plague or its carrier--to simply put it, the "death." It is intriguing to note that critics of early modern racism often associate a Moor with a "death." The "Moors-Mors" punning was prevalent in this period and "Africans seem to be interchangeable with skulls"--as typically depicted in the Prince of Moroccos selection of the golden casket which only yields a skull, a death, in Merchant of Venice. (26)

Yet Shakespeare's rendering of the plague infiltration in Mediterranean city-states is more complicated, as the black general is more than the plague. The first act of the play shows that the Venetian society's attitude toward the Moor is ambiguous following the trajectory of a pendulum from enmity to reliance. Although he is considered to be an unwelcome racial contamination, he becomes a necessary protection for the Venetian community from an all-out racial threat--a Turkish invasion. Although he is a disturbing invasion into the community, his presence is as assertive as it is anxious and repulsive.
Iago: He [Brabanzio] will divorce you,
Or put upon you what restraint or grievance
The law, with all his might to enforce it on,
Will give him cable.
Othello: Let him do his spite,
My services which I have done the signory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. (1.2.14-19)

The complex dynamic of the racial anxiety formed around miscegenation is here simply reduced to a situation--the Venetian "law" versus Othello's "service." The Moor's recourse is his structural position as the protector of the Venetian government or the whole of Christianity's body politic. He is the "immunity" with which the Venetian society can defend itself from the Islamo-Turkish invasion. The state of emergency caused by a greater racial threat vests Othello with a full immunity, an exemption from a legal liability, and sovereignty by allowing him to govern Cyprus and thereby absolves his offense to Brabanzio (and to the Venetian state). The opening of act 2 of the play along with its Oriental shift from Venice to Cyprus, in this light, not only signifies the narrative's gravitation toward the plague source, but it also depicts a biopolitical turn to a martial law state. Othello's splendid storytelling about his own past--battles and sieges, his redemption from slavery, and the stories of the cannibals and anthropophagi--should be understood in this view (1.3.128-68). The Duke's immediate response to the Moor's exotic stories is "I think this tale would win my daughter, too" (1.3.170). Technically, this is his verdict on the standing conflict between Brabanzio and Othello--indeed, with this story Othello "out-tongue[s]" Brabanzio's "complaints," and wins over the Dukes and Venetian senators. Othello's storytelling is inevitably political, becoming the way he resolves his problematic presence in the Venetian state. Othello's tale actually has caused endless speculations among critics concerning his past along with the discursive matrix through which he exists by stressing the possessive power of his own storytelling. (27) Certainly, Othello's linguistic performance is spectacular, and crucial to understand the scene; yet what is more important is the fact that this process of silencing Brabanzio--which after all "shore[s] his old thread in twain" (5.2.213)--accompanies a suspension of the Venetian legal authority by opening a martial law state. The Duke's verdict further underscores the state's desperate necessity of an immune force against a metaphoric plague. More remarkably, what pardons Othello from his miscegenetic infection is not the power of his self-fashioning improvisation, but the Islamo-Turkish threat that made the Moor's individual level contamination more tolerable. This displacement is close to the very logic of immunization--allowing a smaller dose of poison to protect life from a greater invasion: the protection of life through negation of it--indeed, morte mortuos liberavit.

Slander, Handkerchief, and Immunity Shield

At the opening of act 2, we find that, quite anticlimactically, the Turkish fleets are annihilated by a providential tempest, and realize that the desperate defensive measure of the Venetian government, allowing the Moor full immunity, was actually unnecessary; it is not surprising that after the Turkish threat disappears the Venetian government replaces Othello with Cassio as the governor of Cyprus. As the stage shifts from Venice to Cyprus, other than the fear of miscegenation, we find two more spreading plagues that afflict the enclosed and claustrophobic Cypriot community--Iago's slander and Venetian women's alleged unchastity Even though early modern English people imagined the island as the origin of the pestilence, as the narrative approaches its spatial origin, quite oddly enough, the plague becomes a more mercurial and metaphoric entity. Of course, to associate the plague with a metaphor and its dissemination with a textual supplementation is a quite shopworn "white mythology" observable since Aristotle. (28) Rene Girard, for instance, says, "the plague is a transparent metaphor for a certain reciprocal violence that spreads, literally, like the plague." (29) Although in his phrase the word "transparent" is somewhat undefined, for Girard, the plague is a linguistic phenomenon that approaches the area we now understand as linguistic supplementation. When Gilman points out that the Hebrew word for plague, Deber, can simply mean both "speech" and "pestilence," no doubt "the plague itself is to be understood and even experienced as a species of language." (30)

To be sure, the tragedy is fraught with linguistic practices such as storytelling, rumors, mockeries, and defamations directed toward others. Iago as an "ensign"--a signifier--of the Moorish general with his forked tongue resides in the discursive domain of slander, which is conterminous with the areas of political sedition, heresy, and rebellion in early modern England. (31) Shakespeare reveals Iago's dark interior with his seditious speech acts earlier in the play: for instance, when he incites Roderigo to "call up her father, / Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,... Plague him with flies" (1.1.67-70), we know that his seditious and slanderous tongue is the "poison" and "plague" circulating in Venetian society. More precisely, when he says, "I'll pour this pestilence into his ear" (2.3.330), he identifies his slander with the plague or personified death itself. When we read the tragedy's morality play cast toward the end that fashions Iago as a timeless figura of the eternal death or Vice, we have pretty closely graphed Shakespeare's contemporary fear of the plague often simply called "death." (32) Thus his motto in the play, "I am not what I am" (1.1.65), by parodying Yahweh's presence and the identity sanctioned by God, signifies his slanderous presence with free-floating linguistic practices spreading like the plague. In other words, his ceaseless narrative invention that Greenblatt called Iago's "improvisation of power" is coterminous with the plague. (33)

Iago's confidant as well as his prime target is of course Othello; as Girard points out, Iago is "Othello's mimetic double" as they become "each other's mirror image." (34) His observation is understandable since both of them are jealous of Cassio, their rival in profession and love. Yet Girard's reading could be viewed from a different angle, and Iago could be Othello's double since, as I have discussed, they share their existential domain as the "plague" and "death" of the Venetian society. What Iago attempts to transmit to Othello is a fear of cuckoldry; he states in his evil invocation at the end of act 3, "I hate the Moor, / And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets / He has done my office" (1.3.368-70). Thus it is obvious that the self-deceiving fantasy of cuckoldry is first most symptomatically expressed by Iago himself, not Othello. What is more intriguing is that insofar as Iago's jealousy is a self-deceiving delusion, his revenge on Othello becomes not actually to defile his wife Desdemona but to transmit his own delusion to him.

No wonder, after the famous "seduction scene" (3.3.91-261), where Iago maximizes the language's free-floating undecidability, Othello believes that what he has is "forked plague" (3.3.280) referring to the imaginary horns of a cuckold. The play's frequent referral to the word "plague" (3.3.151, 277, 280) in act 3 scene 3 around the famous seduction scene indicates that the speech act of Iago is structured like a "pestilence." Since the "plague" is the best expression of his innermost being, Iago fashions all the Venetian women in terms of potential contagion. As Iago says, referring to Bianca's whoredom, "'tis the strumpet's plague / To beguile many and be beguiled by one" (4.1.94-95); for him, women's unchastity is understood as a sort of pathogen. Of course, in early modern England, prostitution was increasingly associated with a contagion to the communal body; it is typically depicted so by Dekker's Lantern and Candlelight and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. (35) Iago in his delusion views all Venetian women, including his wife Emilia, Bianca, and Desdemona, as infected bodies that should be destroyed; his self-deceptive fantasy is threatening, since there is no boundary between healthy bodies and diseased ones. The ultimate goal of Iago's slanderous rhetoric is thus clear enough; it is to strangle Desdemona "in her bed, even the / bed she hath contaminated" (4.1.197-98).
Iago: Her honour is an essence that's not seen.
They have it very oft that have it not.
But for the handkerchief--
Othello: By heaven, I would most gladly have forgot it.
Thou said'st--O, it comes o'er my memory
As doth the raven o'er the infectious house,
Boding to all!--he had my handkerchief. (4.1.16-22)

Few early modern literary texts offer a more vivid representation of the horror of a plague-stricken house: being deceived by Iago, Othello metaphorizes his own subjectivity as a plague pit over which ravens are hovering for dead bodies. The very function of the handkerchief should be discussed in this light. As the handkerchief slips from Desdemona's hand, it unleashes a wave of metaphoric plagues such as Iago's slander and Othello's morbid jealousy. Othello says,
That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it
'Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me. (3.4.53-61)

Despite Thomas Rymer's derogative criticism of the tragedy in 1693 as "so much ado... about an Handkerchief," certainly the handkerchief is not a trifle. (36) We now take it as "a snowballing signifier" because it gathers meanings with various critical receptions. (37) Since Lynda Boose's influential reading, we understand the kerchief's patterns of imprinted "strawberries" as a sign of the blood-stained sheet of the bridal night indicating her maidenhead. (38) Thus as a sort of a "fetish" it materializes Desdemona's love and fidelity; the handkerchief, as a visible sign of her chastity, can temporarily stabilize Iago's slander. Its origin in Egypt is also notable not just because it hints at textual prehistory, but because in early modern minds Egypt was always a country of the biblical plague as the divine scourge. (39) Thus, presumably, the function of this magical handkerchief is to contain all the scourges and plagues of Egypt including the morbid jealousy that is actually unleashed in the text. Its apotropaic function, protecting subjects from any contagion, is thus pretty obvious, and now we know that the handkerchief operates as the immune shield. Yet with its long defiling circulation--from his mother to Othello himself to Desdemona to Emilia to Iago to Cassio and finally to Bianca, a courtesan--the problematic handkerchief at last functions as "the ocular proof" (3.3.365) of Desdemona's unfaithfulness. Its unintended circulation to Bianca, a whore, is read by Othello as the sign of Desdemona's infection of "strumpet's plague." After that, it becomes the sign of a deeply-seated male anxiety, and, as Edward Snow notes, the handkerchief with its blood-spotted pattern signifies her "menstrual cloth" and her uncleanness; in Othello's morbid fantasy, it is "a lustful orgasmic discharge, the female equivalent of his semen." (40) Thus its improper transmission, after all, lets Othello decide her as an unclean and diseased subject and sentence her to death--"thy bed, lust-stained, shall with lust's blood be spotted" (5.1.37). With the loss of this protective shield or immunity, as the governor and protector of Cyprus, what possesses the Moor's psychology is to quarantine the "strumpet's plague" at any cost.

Uxoricide, Suicide, and Scenes of Autoimmune Crisis
By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in's hand.
O perjured woman! Thou dost stone my heart,
And makes me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.
I saw the handkerchief. (5.2.67-71)

As the immunity shield uncovers, the play heavily gravitates into Desdemona's bridal chamber as the locus of the biocalypse. For Othello, the murder of his wife is a sacrificial cleansing to contain the epidemic outbreak. Early modern plagues were mostly "bubonic" since they usually accompanied swellings of lymph nodes (buboes), which medical science believed to be the "cleansing places." (41) The bridal chamber--the alleged site of her corruption and contagion--becomes such a place of cleansing; once Othello as the paterfamilias decides on a demiurgic surgery of cutting out the diseased part, their wedding chamber turns into a concentration camp--indeed, a space of exception. Here Desdemona is reduced to a subject of an unconditional killing in order to maintain the proper boundary of the "patriarchal territory." (42) Othello in this spectacular murder scene takes on the punitive power of the Sovereign--indeed, the "fire and brimstone" (4.1.226) that destroyed and fumigated Sodom and Gomorrah. Deciding to kill his wife, Othello sees Desdemona half-asleep and first suggests, "If you bethink yourself of any crime / Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace, / Solicit for it straight" (5.2.28-30). If this could be called a trial scene, it is not a constitutional one, since Othello sways a supra-juridical or sovereign power: he fashions himself as the deputy of God (or God Himself) vested with vitae necisque potestas--indeed, the power of life and death. (43) Insofar as Desdemona is deemed an infected subject, his final recourse is murdering her, as if through killing her, he could reverse or at least stop the very process of infection and contagion--"else she'll betray more men" (5.2.6). Yet what should be noted is that the violence of his immune power hinges on the inner community of the "patriarchal territory"--the object to be protected. Thus, with its representation of uxoricide, what the catastrophe of the tragedy displays is an "autoimmune crisis." To put it another way, Othello, as the power protecting the state and household from invasion, attacks an innocent body part properly enclosed by his own patriarchy--thus what the final scene of the play stages is horror autotoxicus.

The rest is history. Othello immediately learns that he has murdered an innocent one, not a "cunning whore of Venice" (4.2.93) infected by "strumpets plague." Later, being disarmed by the Venetian authority, he takes out his "sword of Spain, the ice-brook's temper" (5.2.260). His Spanish sword presumably has been used for setting the dangerous proximity between the European civilization and the plaguing African-Oriental-Islamic-Moorish-Barbaric culture apart; thus his treasured sword as metonymy signifies Othello's own subject position as protective immunity against the Islamo-Turkish invasion. Yet he soon reaches his self-recognition by understanding his liminal and ambiguous subject position poised uneasily between a protective force and an invading plague. In his final speech he begs the Venetians to speak
of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th' throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him thus. (5.2.352, 355-65)

The narrative energy of the last scene is consumed on subduing his immanent ambiguity, and Othello smites himself as if he is the Turkish plague. Given that the word "plague" etymologically signifies in Greek and in Latin a "blow" or "stroke," Othello plagues himself. (44) In his own final definition, he is at once the protector of the Venetian government and the "turbaned Turk"; thus the final spectacle represents the only ephemeral presence in which the ambiguity of his subjectivity is fully negotiated; this short moment is structurally possible only with his self-slaughter. A better insight, nonetheless, lets us read the final scene as a most spectacular instance of an autoimmune crisis, where the immunitary force of the society destroys his community, including the force itself as it is viewed as an infiltration of a foreign body.

The excerpt offers rich discursive fields of orientalism that stigmatizes and vests Othello with otherness. A notable fact is that the First Folio, perhaps a better-edited version than the quartos, fashions him not as a "base Indian" but as "base Judean," evoking the long history of anti-Semitism. It is needless to say that political theology and biopolitics from Carl Schmitt to our contemporaries have been used to justify or criticize the extreme violence of totalitarianism formed around the Jewish holocaust. (45) At the final moment, he identifies himself with the millenniaold victims of Europe's totalitarian scapegoating. Is Shakespeare writing their pre-history? Anyway, this scene of spectacular butchery not only negotiates the liminal presence of the Moor in the European society, but also demonstrates the very logic of an autoimmune crisis.
Lodovico: Look on the tragic loading of this bed.
This is thy work. The object poisons sight.
Let it be hid.
[They close the bed-curtains]
      Gratiano, keep the house,
And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor,
For they succeed on you. [To Cassio] To you, Lord Governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain.
The time, the place, the torture, O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard, and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate. (5.2.373-81)

In the last tableau of the play, Lodovico as a "proper man" (4.3.34) translates the "tragic loading" of the play into a state business that should be properly contained by the constitutional body. Often, the catastrophic scenes of the Shakespearean tragedies depict the havoc similar to that of the plague pit: for instance, in Hamlet, act 5, facing the dead bodies in the Danish court, Fortinbras exclaims, "This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death" (5.2.308), as if he sees a plague-visited house. In Othello, what the Venetian nobles see at the last scene of the play--"the tragic loading"--is a massacre brought by a plague; thus, not surprisingly, Lodovico's desperate proclamation is a quarantine order--"The object poisons sight. / Let it be hid" (5.2.374-75). (46) Lodovico's order surely should have reminded the Jacobean audience of the frequent quarantine orders by Elizabeth I and James I during the frequent plague visits. Yet his quarantine practice--the desperate demarcation between the healthy and diseased bodies--only thinly veils the bodies of the plague pit. Still we can see through the curtain there exists a massive biopolitical disaster. As with early modern quarantine orders, what Lodovico offers is merely a temporizing measure, and the audience expects the plague will visit again, claiming its shares. Then what is the discursive, political, and clinical function of the tragedy? This deadly narrative that even poisons the audience's sights has certainly an iatrochemical function. As Totaro puts it, survivors of the plague carry with them a "memory of the past" and "warning for the future," and they usually reinforce the social understanding that "the plague was one of God's finest scourges." (47) One moral lesson the plague propagates is to maintain the boundary between what may count as self and other in a world obsessed with the partition between the healthy and the pathological. I find this is one reason that Shakespeare temporarily plunges the audience into the fictional immunitary crisis. In Othello, the foreign infiltrators with their mercurial metaphoric renderings--the "Moors," "Indians," "Judean," "strumpets," and the language itself as free-floating signifiers--finally become purgative medicines designed to promote expulsions. Thus the practice of Shakespeare's theatre directly faces the discursive domain of inoculation. Edward Forset, a Jacobean politician and playwright, epitomized the effects of the Gunpowder Plot as an invasion of pathogenic forces into the political body for the ultimate good of the commonwealth:
Our naturall bodies doe willingly and with a kind of chosing, endure
some diseases, because they find the same to free them from other more
extremely daungerous....and nature seemeth oft pleased to suffer,
yea and to entertayne some enemies contentedly, for the obtayning and
purchasing of an ensuing sounder welfare. (48)

We just returned to the beginning of this essay, which briefly epitomized the tragedy's historical subtext. Around the turn from Elizabethan to Jacobean rule, English society became more and more obsessed with medicinal practices immunizing the communal body; in particular, the dynastic shift was also the turn from Galenic science to an iatrochemical understanding of the body. (49) This medicinal practice got more and more metaphoric as it infiltrated society with various forms of discourses. Certainly, to identify the discursive matrix of the tragedy (or to reduce the play text to it) is not the ultimate objective of this essay. What is more important is that, in Othello, all the social alterities that invade the political body--whether directly or metaphorically--are temporarily allowed for medicinal purposes; among them, the single most salient function of the tragedy is to immunize the political body There is one very peculiar feature of Othello: the process of social immunization in the play is conterminous with the creation of the supra-juridical authority that suspends constitutional rights. Yet the disease or the poison itself does not dialectically or reductively transform into a social good; rather, its double-edged character of immunity attacks the very enclosed body of the community. Consequently, the immune force itself destroys the community and immunity indiscriminately by collapsing the in-and-out boundary of the corpus politicum. The autoimmune crisis that the play represents is one way the play could be read in terms of today's worldwide autoimmune crisis after the September 11 attacks.


Yonsei University


This work was supported by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF-2015S1A5A8010574).

(1) The term "immunity" is the thematic focus of this essay, and in the English language "immunity" means both "freedom or exemption (from any natural or usual liability)" and "protection (from or against anything evil or injurious)" (Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v., "immunity"). I would like to maintain this semantic ambiguity throughout this essay. Roberto Esposito's biopolitical understanding also explains political communities by employing this concept. For him, immunity at once affirms community and negates it: the sense of immunity presupposes a community that it protects from external invasions, but it negates the community by not being inscribed in the "common" as well. Thus the very attributes of the immunity are coterminous with "the sovereignty"--included within the community as an exception. For the concept of immunity, see Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 45-77.

(2) William Shakespeare, Othello, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. (New York: Norton, 1997). "Plague" occurs at 1.1.71, 3.3.151, 3.3.277, 3.3.280, and 4.1.94; "infect[ion]" at 4.1.21; "pestilen[ce]" at 2.1.239 and 2.3.330; and "contaminat[ion]" at 4.1.198. All subsequent quotations from and citations to Shakespeare's plays in this essay are taken from this edition and cited parenthetically in the text.

(3) Thomas Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare, 1603 (Oxford: Benediction Classics, 2007).

(3) Richelle Munkhoff, "Contagious Figurations: Plague and the Impenetrable Nation after the Death of Elizabeth," in Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, ed. Rebecca Totaro and Ernest B. Oilman (London: Routledge, 2011), 97.

(5) For more historical accounts, see James D. Mardock, "'Thinking to pass unknown': Measure for Measure, the Plague, and the Accession of James I," in Totaro and Gilman, Representing the Plague, 118.

(6) Rebecca Totaro, "Introduction," in Totaro and Gilman, Representing the Plague, 118.

(7) For the "huge eclipse," see King Lear (1.2.96) and Macbeth (2.4.4-9). Franco Moretti splendidly situates King Lear along with Gorboduc among the English regicidal narratives. The apocalyptic scenes in early modern English drama represent the radical changes including "deconsecrating of sovereignty," which is the very function of the plague; see "A Huge Eclipse': Tragic Form and the Deconsecration of Sovereignty," Genre 15 (1982): 7-40.

(8) See William Gouge, Gods three arrows plague, famine, sword, in three treatises (London, 1636 [STC 2nd ed., 12116]). Paul Slack's work discusses in detail the religious interpretations of and reactions to the plague; see The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003), 3-50.

(9) For the basic contents of the order, see Elizabeth's own treatise, "Orders thought meete by her Maiestie and her priuie Councel, to be executed throughout the Counties of this Realme, in such Townes, Villages, and other places, as are, or may be hereafter infected with the plague, for the stay of further increase of the same," in The Plague Book (University of Virginia, 2007), Even though it was frequently republished during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, the basic structure and tenor of the order remained intact.

(10) According to Munkhoff, around 1603, "these feared incursions are not just of disease but also of a foreign king, one who might be understood as metaphorically infiltrating the realm as he marched south to claim the throne." "Contagious Figuration," 98. Munkoff's discussion is based on Jonathan Gil Harris's work, Foreign Bodies and The Body Politic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 19-47.

(11) The term "biopolitics" is not new to early modern literary critics after the publication of Michel Foucault's later works such as The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave, 2008); and Security, Territory, and Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave, 2007). Biopolitics, in the most reductive definition, means the way power controls and produces life in a certain way. Indeed, early modern literary critics are indebted to Foucault's analysis of epistemic shifts and the capillary infiltration of microscopic power vis-a-vis discourses. Nonetheless, in this essay, I would like to pay attention to Foucault as a critic of power as "faire vivre et laisser mourir" not as "faire mourir ou laisser vivre"; he sees social immunization, in particular, the pox inoculation, as the foundation of the modern state and its "governmentality." Toward the end of his career, Foucault very implicitly maintains the division between the power model based on "sovereignty" and another model he calls "governmentality." If the former ruled the classical era based on blood--king's lineage and power to kill (thus thanatopolitics)--the latter is founded on ways of population controls--birth rates, life expectancy, and in particular the control of epidemic outbreaks.

(12) Timothy Campbell and Roberto Esposito, "Interview," Diacritics 36, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 49-56 (54).

(13) Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, trans. Zakiya Hanafi (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 126-27. Esposito's entire intellectual trajectory revolves around the opposition between "immunity" and "community." Etymologically these words are derived from a Latin word, munus, which variously signifies "office," "obligation," but most importantly "gift-giving" (Campbell and Esposito, "Interview," 50). This is why a member of community is under obligation of gift-giving while "immunity"--as the marker of "exception"--signifies exception to that kind of obligation. In this light, modern history seen from the perspective of immunity is understood as a trial to immunize society from communal dissemination. It is a necessary protection of life, and makes the division between the external communitas and its potential contamination and one's own proper (proprius) life. Thus immunity "decides," in the terms of Carl Schmitt, the difference between what is living and what is deceased.

(14) Esposito, Immunitas, 126.

(14) Rene Girard's observation is quite useful here as he argues Shakespeare was more obsessed with the collapse of the social structure rather than its system per se, and the plague is definitely a way of reformatting the structure. Actually, what Esposito called "immunitary crisis" is not irrelevant to what Girard called "mimetic" crisis; see Rene Girard, "The Plague in Literature and Myth," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 15 (1974): 833-50 (839).

(16) See Patricia Parker's "'Dilation' and 'Delation' in Othello" in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), 54-74; and Michael Neill "Opening the Moor," in Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), 141-67, for the play's obsessive exploration of the "openness" and "closure" of the inner self.

(17) Karen Newman, "'And wash the Ethiop white': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello" in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (London: Routledge, 1987), 145.

(18) Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (1600); quoted in ibid., 146.

(19) See Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570-1630 (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 25-44. Lawrence Danson's essay analyzes the discursive matrix of Othello as a Mediterranean drama. "England, Islam, and the Mediterranean Drama: Othello and Others," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 2 (2002): 1-25.

(20) In their Marxist accounts, Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz identify communicative diseases with the rise of multinational capitalism; see "Infection, Media, and Capitalism: From Early Modern Plagues to Postmodern Zombies," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 10 (2010): 126-47. Similarly, Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry discuss massive contagion and the rise of post-human bodies as a phenomenon of advanced capitalism; see "A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism," boundary 2 35 (2008): 85-108.

(21) Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (Mineola: Dover, 2001), 1.

(22) Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 896-904. See also Richard Halpern's The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) for a classical discussion of the relationship between early modern English literature and primitive accumulation.

(23) Rosalind A. Jones has shown that the Italian setting in early modern English drama is frequently a displacement of the Catholic-Irish issue in English society; see "Italians and Others: Venice and the Irish in Coryat's Crudities and The White Devil" Renaissance Drama 18 (1987): 101-19. Jean E. Howard also observes that Shakespeare never placed his tragedies in an English setting; perhaps King Lear could be an exception, but even in this case the play still represents the ancient history of the Britons; see Jean. E. Howard, "Shakespeare, Geography, and the Work of Genre on the Early Modern Stage," Modern Language Quarterly 64 (2003): 299-322.

(24) William Perkins; quoted in Paola Pugliatti, Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), 111.

(25) For the etymology of this word, see ibid., 119.

(26) See Neill, Issues of Death, 147.

(27) For Stephen Greenblatt, Othello's narrative is a representation of the self-fashioning "improvisation"; see Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 239-43. Emily Bartels stresses that "the exotic story" is a "leverage at a point of obvious crisis" used "to manipulate someone whom he has already represented as susceptible to his exotica"; see "Othello on Trial," in Othello, ed. Lena Cowen Orlin (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 161.

(28) For Aristotle, a metaphor is "the application of an alien name by transference," and as Ernest Gilman glosses the phrase, "Metaphor not only carries words across logical categories but across geographical frontiers as, in both senses, words migrate from one realm to another"; see Aristotle, Poetics, trans. S. H. Butcher (New York: Cosimo, 2008), 41; and Ernest Gilman, "Afterword: Plague and Metaphor," in Totaro and Gilman, Representing the Plague, 224. In this translation process, often the presence of an unacceptable alien is metaphorized as a pestilence visit. This is the typical motif of Sophocles's Oedipus the King. For the classical discussion of the poststructural notion of metaphor, see Jacques Derrida's "White Mythologies: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), 207-71.

(29) Rene Girard, "The Plague in Literature and Myth," 836.

(30) See Ernest B. Gilman, Plague Writing in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 94.

(31) For the seditious effects of slander in the play, see Kenneth Gross, "Slander and Skepticism in Othello" English Literary History 56 (1989): 819-52; and Robert Matz, "Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello" English Literary History 66 (1999): 261-76.

(32) Toward the end of the play, when Othello realizes that, having been tricked by Iago, he has killed his innocent wife, he evokes the medieval morality play tradition. He speaks as if he has surrendered his soul to the devil (5.2.279-82), exclaiming, "Will you, I pray, demand that demidevil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" (5.2.307-8).

(33) Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 232-54.

(34) Rene Girard, Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 292.

(35) Thomas Dekker records that "the plague that a whore-house lays upon a city is worse" than real plague itself, by evoking the situation of the suburban areas of London from which the venereal disease spreads to the city proper; Thomas Dekker, Lantern and Candlelight, ed. Viviana Comensoli (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 137. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure also contextualizes itself with James I's "proclamation" (1.2.76) of dissolution of suburban stews as the source of the French disease.

(36) Thomas Rymer, "A Short View of Tragedy," in The Critical Heritage: William Shakespeare, ed. Brian Vickers (London: Routledge, 1995), 2:51.

(37) Newman, '"And wash the Ethiop white,'" 156.

(38) See Lynda E. Boose, "Othello's Handkerchief: The Recognizance and Pledge of Love," English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 360-74; and Harry Berger Jr., "Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona's Handkerchief," in Orlin, Othello, 103-4.

(39) For this notion, see Graham Hammill's reading of Michael Drayton's Moyses in a Map of His Miracles as a plague narrative. According to him, "the plague represents the other side of the miracle" and the land biblically signifies that "one people's miracle is another people's plague," making it the locus of the plague; Graham Hammill, "Miracles and Plagues: Plague Discourse as Political Thought," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 10 (2010): 85-104 (86, 93).

(40) Edward A. Snow, "Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello" English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412 (392). Newman's interpretation is also notable since in her reading the handkerchief signifies irrepressible female sexuality: the handkerchief, according to Newman, "figures not only Desdemona's lack, as in the traditional psychoanalytic reading, but also her own sexual parts--the nipples, which incidentally are sometimes represented in the courtly love blason as strawberries, lips, and even perhaps the clitoris, the berry of sexual pleasure nestled beneath phalanged leaves." "And wash the Ethiop white,'" 156.

(41) For this, note Totaro's reading of William Bullein's A Dialogue of the Fever Pestilence published in 1564 (Totaro, "Introduction," 5-6).

(42) According to Peter Stallybrass, the bedroom scene in Othello is a representation of the property-maneuvering of patriarchy; in particular, how it makes the enclosed female body into the "patriarchal territory"; see Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

(43) See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 87-90, for the relations between sovereignty and vitae necisque potestas. Agamben's notion of homo sacer is especially helpful here, since he believes that Western biopolitics has risen not from the immediate political realm but from the household and the authority of paterfamilias, who takes a supra-juridical position within the oikos.

(44) Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v., "plague."

(45) It is a widely accepted notion that Schmitt's essays on political theology were written in support of the Nazi's suspension of civil rights. By developing and criticizing Carl Schmitt, Agamben's theory is actually formed around the sovereignty of Nazism and in a more biopolitical fashion, Esposito also deals with the extreme obsession of social immunity in terms of Nazism; see Agamben, Homo Sacer, 166-80; and Esposito, Bios, 110-45.

(46) Lodovico's quarantining order was properly carried out by the Victorians. According to Neill, during the nineteenth century it was fairly common practice to screen Othello's murder from the audience as it was thought that the scene should be quarantined and sanitized from the decent and proper Victorians; see Michael Neill, "'Unproper Beds': Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello" Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383-412 (385).

(47) Totaro, "Introduction," 8.

(48) Edward Forset, A Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Naturall and Politique (London, 1606 [STC 2nd ed., 11188]), K3. For readings of Forset's article in biopolitical views, see Jonathan Gil Harris, Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic, 57-63; and Esposito, Immunitas, 126-27.

(49) Harris observes that the accession of James I caused a total refashioning of the medical discourses: the first reason was the outbreak in 1603, and the other reason was that James himself popularized medicinal rhetoric by fashioning himself as the physician of the commonwealth; see Harris, Foreign Bodies and Body Politic, 54-57.
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