Plague and Pandemic in Shakespeare’s Time

25 March 2020

  Or, All the World’s a Plague

  by Abi Cutler

Whilst we sit self-isolating in our homes, practising social distancing and streaming our favourite stage-to-screen adaptations, it may come as a comfort to know that the Bard himself went through similar periods of quarantine. Not only that, but some of his greatest work may well have been influenced by his experiences.

When plague hit London in 1592, theatres across the city closed down. They remained dark for virtually the entirety of this outbreak, lasting from the autumn of 1592 to May 1594. Even our predecessor, the original Elizabethan Rose Theatre, shut in 1593. London’s theatres closed once again when another severe bout of plague hit from April 1603 to April 1604. During these times, the only option for Shakespeare’s company and other actors was to tour the provinces. With no demand for new plays, the 1592-94 plague led Shakespeare to turn to poetry, and he is thought to have written narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece during this time.

But what of the references in his stage work? Romeo and Juliet, believed to have been written around 1595, contains the famous line from Mercutio, “A plague o' both your houses!” Written post-1603, Timon of Athens sees the title character isolate himself in a cave after cursing all Athenians by wishing a plague upon them. He even goes as far as to invoke, “Breath infect breath, / at their society, as their friendship, may / merely poison!” A little dramatic compared to today’s social distancing measures.

King Lear, highly likely to have been written between 1605 and 1606, could well have been influenced by the 1603-04 crisis or possibly even the big outbreak in the summer of 1606. If Shakespeare wrote the play in quarantine, it certainly shows in Lear’s desolate outlook as he cries into the storm, “Vengeance! plague! death! confusion!” Another of the playwright’s tragedies written around this time, Macbeth, again sees disease infiltrate the language he uses. When Macbeth is unsure about killing Duncan, he fears the repercussions which may arise to “plague the inventor” - that they might quite literally infect him.

So as you wonder when this will all come to an end, just remember it is very possible that some of the greatest theatre came from similar epidemics (and be grateful that, unlike in Shakespeare’s day, no one is coming to board up your house with you in it to prevent the disease spreading!) Before we know it, just like the Globe, the Rose will reopen stronger than ever. In the meantime, let the Bard end things on a cheerier note with this line from The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Hope is a lover's staff; walk hence with that / And manage it against despairing thoughts.”

Image credit: Hulki Okan Tabak (Unsplash)

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