What Shakespeare Actually Wrote About the Plague

From The New Yorker:

Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of bubonic plague. On April 26, 1564, in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the vicar, John Bretchgirdle, recorded the baptism of one “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.” A few months later, in the same register, the vicar noted the death of Oliver Gunne, an apprentice weaver, and in the margins next to that entry scribbled the words “hic incipit pestis” (here begins the plague). On that occasion, the epidemic took the lives of around a fifth of the town’s population. By good fortune, it spared the life of the infant William Shakespeare and his family.

Such outbreaks did not rage on forever. With the help of strict quarantines and a change in the weather, the epidemic would slowly wane, as it did in Stratford, and life would resume its normal course. But, after an interval of a few years, in cities and towns throughout the realm, the plague would return. It generally appeared on the scene with little or no warning, and it was terrifyingly contagious. Victims would awaken with fever and chills. A feeling of extreme weakness or exhaustion would give way to diarrhea, vomiting, bleeding from the mouth, nose, or rectum, and telltale buboes, or swollen lymph nodes, in the groin or armpit. Death, often in great agony, would almost inevitably follow.

Innumerable preventive measures were proposed, most of which were useless—or, in the case of the killing of dogs and cats, worse than useless, since the disease was in fact spread by rat-borne fleas. The smoke of dried rosemary, frankincense, or bay leaves burning in a chafing dish was thought to help clear the air of infection, and, if those ingredients were not readily available, physicians recommended burning old shoes. In the streets, people walked about sniffing oranges stuffed with cloves. Pressed firmly enough against the nose, perhaps these functioned as a kind of mask.

It was early recognized that the rate of infection was far higher in densely populated cities than in the country; those with the means to do so escaped to rural retreats, though they often brought infection with them. Civic officials, realizing that crowds heightened contagion, took measures to institute what we now call social distancing. Collecting data from parish registers, they carefully tracked weekly plague-related deaths. When those deaths surpassed thirty, they banned assemblies, feasts, archery contests, and other forms of mass gathering. Since it was believed that it was impossible to become infected during the act of worship, church services were not included in the ban, though the infected were not permitted to attend. But the public theatres in London, which routinely brought together two or three thousand people in an enclosed space, were ordered shut. It could take many months before the death rate came down sufficiently for the authorities to allow theatres to reopen.

As a shareholder and sometime actor in his playing company, as well as its principal playwright, Shakespeare had to grapple throughout his career with these repeated, economically devastating closings. There were particularly severe outbreaks of plague in 1582, 1592-93, 1603-04, 1606, and 1608-09. The theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III, who carefully sifted through the surviving records, concluded that in the years between 1606 and 1610—the period in which Shakespeare wrote and produced some of his greatest plays, from “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” to “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”—the London playhouses were not likely to have been open for more than a total of nine months.

It is all the more striking, then, that in his plays and poems Shakespeare almost never directly represents the plague. He did not write anything remotely like, let alone as powerful as, his contemporary Thomas Nashe’s haunting “A Litany in Time of Plague”:

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone, surfacing in his characters’ speeches most vividly in metaphorical expressions of rage and disgust.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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