"Passion is Catching": Emotional Contagion and Affective Action in Select Works by Shakespeare

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






Growing out of recent scholarship on humoral theory and emotions in early modern literary texts, this dissertation explores the idea that Shakespearean emotions are contagious. Tears, rage, compassion, fear, affection, horror, and laughter travel invisible pathways from character to character in his texts, reinforcing an implicit scheme of emotional transmission harkening back to Plato and Aristotle. Whether generated internally or imposed from the outside, these passions have the ability to wreak havoc on individuals, communities, and even countries, because passions can, and often do, lead to action. This work examines three of Shakespeare's tragic works, the poem Rape of Lucrece and two plays: Othello and Julius Caesar.

In the chapter on <italic>Rape of Lucrece</italic>, beauty is the root of the violent, contagious action driving the tale.  Tarquin himself is ravished by Lucrece's beauty.  Overwhelmed by a &ldquo;rage of lust,&rdquo; the prince must exorcise his excess humors through rape to regain equilibrium.  Lucrece is infected with his &ldquo;load of lust&rdquo; during the rape and then kills herself, passing on Tarquin's beauty&ndash;inspired violence to Collatine and the nobles in a mutated form&mdash;the lust for vengeance. Through her act of self&ndash;violence, Lucrece transforms the original contagion into a force which purges Rome of the Tarquins' rule.

For <italic>Julius Caesar</italic>, I trace Shakespeare's descriptions of environmental events in Julian Rome and how these correspond to the emotional complexion of the agents in the play.  I identify fear as the main emotional vector in this play and illustrate how the imagination takes on a crucial role in the misregulation of the humors, a situation that, in turn, creates the ideal environment for violent action.  

The chapter dedicated to <italic>Othello</italic> examines the false transmission of emotion perpetrated by Iago to destroy Othello.  Iago develops false emotional paradigms, reframing his hatred for the general with trappings of love; successfully communicating the degree of his passion without the content, Iago is able to fool Othello into believing Desdemona is false.  Despite his demand for &ldquo;ocular proof,&rdquo; the Moor becomes overwhelmed by the force of Iago's emotions and becomes an instrument of &ldquo;honest&rdquo; Iago's virulent hate.