Analysis: from Romeo & Juliet and Pale Horse Pale Rider to Dracula and 1984, four centuries of disease and death on the page

Yersinia pestis is a name which doesn't usually feature among the great Shakespearean villains. In Romeo and Juliet, however, tragic responsibility lies neither in the fecklessness of the young lovers nor the intransigence of their parents, but with plague and the public health measures designed to prevent its spread. 

The second plague pandemic, which began with the Black Death in 1348 and ended only in the 19th century, left its mark on Shakespeare's life and work. He turned from plays to sonnets when an outbreak closed the London theatres, his great rival Ben Jonson lost his son to the disease (and wrote movingly about it) and Shakespeare’s own son Hamnet may also have been a victim.

In the play, Juliet fakes her own death and Friar Laurence is charged with getting a letter to Romeo which would let him in on the ruse. "I could not send it", the Friar ruefully recounts, "so fearful were they of infection". While the letter and its carrier languish on lockdown, Romeo dies in despair and the curse of Mercutio, who calls down plague on both the play’s warring families, is fulfilled. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, Niall MacMonagle on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

A star-crossed lover with the Shakespearean name of Miranda takes centre stage in Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), Katherine Anne Porter's short novel of the 1918-20 flu pandemic. This outbreak of H1N1, the viral subtype later to become responsible for swine flu, infected 27% of the world population and killed anywhere between 17 and 50 million. 

Young adults were disproportionately affected, a fact which Porter’s autobiographical novel reflects. Adam, a Texan soldier waiting in Denver to be shipped to the European front, nurses Miranda through the early stages of the disease, fatally pressing his face to hers as he does so. She awakes from a month of incapacitation to find "a letter in unfamiliar handwriting from a strange man telling her that Adam had died of influenza".

The novel is typical of pandemic fiction in that war, desire and disease form a triple threat. Paranoid fantasies and febrile visions are symptoms common to all three. Miranda’s fever transforms a doctor with a syringe into a figure in a "a German helmet, carrying a naked infant writhing on the point of his bayonet, and a huge stone pot marked Poison in Gothic letters". 

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From CUNY-TV, a 1973 interview with Katherine Anne Porter

Daniel Defoe's documentary fiction of the 1665-6 outbreak, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), describes mass hallucinations of "hearses, and coffins in the air". In The Last Man (1826), Mary Shelley's novel of the extinction of humanity by plague, sightings of a mysterious black sun portend the outbreak unleashed when western armies invade Constantinople only to breach the walls of an empty, plague-devastated city. Pale Horse, Pale Rider recounts rumoured sightings of a German ship in Boston Harbour, which brought with it a "thick, greasy-looking cloud". As well as a look forward to bio-weapons, the image looks back to the miasmatic theory of disease which identified foul air generated by rotting matter as the infectious agent. 

Such thinking informs Charlotte Stoker's account of the cholera pandemic which reached Sligo in 1832. She writes that the origins of the disease were traced to China, where it "rose out of the Yellow Sea going inland like a cloud". Images like this haunted her son in the writing of Dracula (1897). As Brainstorm contributor Marion McGarry notes, the vampire is able to take the form of a mist and claims his first victim on the same date as the first death from cholera in Sligo.

The count’s malign powers include the ability to embody more than one pandemic. Katherine Byrne’s Tuberculosis and the Victorian Literary Imagination traces the curious, enduring connection between the symptoms and alleged cures of vampirism and consumption. Dracula’s chilling refrain "the blood is the life" is echoed in the case of a consumptive in France who was driven to stab an eight-year old boy in the throat and drink his blood. Stoker’s novel infuses similar scenes with eroticism as well as terror: Jonathan Harker describes how, baring his throat in Castle Dracula, he closed his eyes "in a languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart".

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Arena, Darryl Jones looks at the influence of George Owell's 1984

While lived experience of disease enables authors to write convincingly about pain and fear, sex is often surprisingly high in the mix. Arraigned for unregulated sexual activity, the 39-year old Winston Smith has, by the end of his captivity and torture in 1984, acquired "the body of a man of sixty, suffering from some malignant disease". As John Ross describes it, Orwell’s own body was wrecked not just by the TB that killed him, but also the brutal treatments he underwent in hope of a cure. 

Noxious remedies have a long history. Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year attacks scammers descending on London during the great plague of 1665-6 to exploit a desperate populace who "poisoned their bodies with odious and fatal preparations". Some who lived through the London plague were less censorious: the diary of Samuel Pepys juxtaposes coded accounts of extramarital sex with observations on the rising death toll. 

Because of common associations with risk, transgression and punishment, pandemic fiction is often wrapped in erotic adventure. "Inventory", a 2018 story by Carmen Maria Machado, uses a record of all the narrator’s sexual encounters to frame a devastating viral outbreak. Like Shelley’s novel before it, the story concludes by reflecting on the end of all human life on a planet which remains utterly indifferent. "I realise the world will continue to turn even with no people on it", she says. "Maybe it will go a little faster".

From the polyvalent eroticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets to Machado’s queer odyssey, pandemic fiction shows us how the prospect of extinction has, down four centuries, set pulses racing with desire as well as with fear. But however, the mood takes you, just remember to wash your hands.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ