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“Were not that a botchy core?”: the Function of Disease in 2 Henry IV, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, and Twelfth Night

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posted on 2021-11-15, 09:39 authored by Joule, Catherine

The social currency of disease has developed and changed dramatically over the centuries, and this thesis focuses on how Shakespeare used the currency of early modern disease in his plays. Shakespeare’s use of disease and disease metaphors is discussed within the context of four plays: Henry IV Part Two, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida. The first chapter (of three) finds that the purpose of disease within the body politic metaphors is, inevitably, complication. In order to counter and resolve the disease of the state, advisors become physicians, extending the potential of the analogy further until it permeates the social structure of the plays and our perception of the characters. Disease is employed to imply division, instability, and disorder within the imagined body of the state.  The second chapter shows how the idea of infection is used to highlight interpersonal concerns within the plays. The chapter uses references to early modern sources and beliefs about the four humours to illustrate how Shakespeare connects social disorder, disease, morality, and status. The discussion focuses on Galen’s “nonnaturals” which were believed to affect humoral balance, highlighting the significance of early modern conceptions of diet, exercise, miasma, sleep, and stress which serve to create a pervading sense of disease in the social worlds of the plays.  The personal and often horrifying experiences of mental disease we are presented with in King Lear and Twelfth Night are the focus of the third and final chapter. The display of suffering is found to primarily serve to emphasise the commonality of man. In both plays (though at different levels of seriousness) insanity causes a loss of social status for the sufferer and, through this loss of status, their humanity is stressed. The dramatic potential of madness allows the theatre of the courtroom to be parodied to draw questions about injustice into the plays, though without offering any definitive conclusions to them. The literary nature of madness within these plays, furthermore, allows for the clear presentation of issues of class and justice. Generally Shakespeare abandons absolute realism in favour of using disease and disease metaphors as a disrupting influence on social and political order so as to emphasise a wide range of themes and ideas.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Miles, Geoff; Ross, Sarah