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Bills of Mortality

Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times


Patrick Reilly

Bills of Mortality: Disease and Destiny in Plague Literature from Early Modern to Postmodern Times explores the dynamic between the fact of plague and the constructs of destiny deadly disease generates in literary texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The volume is of interest to readers in both literary and scientific, especially medical, fields. In addition, it serves as an accessible introduction to plague literature and to the arena in which it has evolved since ancient times. To undergraduate and graduate students, Bills of Mortality affords an opportunity for scholarly engagement in a topic no less timely now than it was when plague struck Milan in 1629 or ravaged Venice in 1912 or felled Thebes in antiquity.
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Chapter One: Authoring Destiny

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We are not meant to live thus, Sir. Flaming swords, I say my Philip presses into me, swords that are not words; but they are neither flaming swords nor are they words. It is like a contagion, saying one thing always for another (like a contagion, I say; barely did I hold myself back from saying, a plague of rats, for rats are everywhere about us these days).


Death blackly stalks the streets of seventeenth-century London in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. A mysterious retrovirus is epidemically felling young, mostly gay men in the 1980s New York of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, and a plague ravages the ancient city of Thebes in the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles. For centuries—for millennia, at least since the myth of the Plague at Aegina—the subject of plague has been generating an aesthetic that distinctly characterizes its manifold texts. While plague texts, no matter how various and culturally particular may be their elements of character and plot, repeatedly share certain identifiable metaphysical themes and mythical motifs, they are more fundamentally wed to each other by their aesthetic response to the overwhelming fact of depredatory pestilence. To classify such texts as apocalyptic is already to be approaching them in terms of their aesthetic, as the designation is not only a way of defining plague texts but also, and more importantly to an exploration of their aesthetic, a way of perceiving...

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