Metaphors of Plagues in Shakespeare’s Plays

Iris H. Tuan


On social ecology, COVID-19, though contagious either from bats and pigs or a biochemical weapon experiment in the labs, is also an environmental event. Mentioning the theoretical perspective of ecocriticism, this paper discusses the significance of Shakespeare’s plays which contain bubonic plague in light of our disastrous situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, comments on Julie Taymor’s film Titus (1999), the postmodern adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, and offers the theater review on the recent live theater performance The Madness of Titus Andronicus (2021, Taipei) in Taiwan for us to reflect while we live or co-exist with COVID-19 pandemics. While the COVID-19 pandemic and its various viruses threaten or kill many people from 2019 up to the present, let us think of the similar dangerous situation of the plagues in the 16 century and the 17th century in England in Europe by the mirror of literature, exemplified by William Shakespeare’s plays. Plagues and pandemics also happened several times in Shakespeare’s time. The situation of bubonic plague is found to be reflected in Bard’s plays, for example, Romeo and JulietThe Life of Timon of Athens, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, MacbethTwelfth NightMuch Ado About Nothing, and King Lear. Besides, the widely discussed lawsuit that occurred in late 1603 might have influenced Shakespeare’s writing about King Lear. In 1592 when the plague hit London, theatres across the city were closed. From autumn 1592 to May 1594, no new plays were demanded in London due to the serious plague. Thus, Shakespeare turned to write poetry during the plague period. This paper, utilizing New Criticism close reading, provides an informative overview of Shakespeare’s life in the shadow of the plague and his references to the disease in his plays. This article argues that plagues and pandemics can work as metaphors to symbolize diseases, lovesickness, and moral decadence. 


Shakespeare, Literature, Plagues, Pandemics, COVID-19

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