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Pestilence and playwright

Exploring some of the references to plague in Shakespeare’s works

Holly Kelsey

Plague was a frequent and devastating occurrence in England throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Those who contracted it could suffer from fevers, delirium, and painful plague sores, with a survival rate of just 50%. In 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, plague claimed over 200 people in Stratford upon Avon, including four children on his very street.  The ominously brief and simple statement ‘hic incepit pestis’ (‘here begins the plague’) was written in the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church on the 11th of July; Shakespeare had been baptised there less than three months before.

As an adult, Shakespeare’s world was no less threatened by this horrible disease. His professional life was clearly influenced by its effects – for example, early in his career in 1592, an outbreak led to the closing of the theatres out of fears that their crowded conditions would cause it to spread.  With reduced numbers of performances, Shakespeare spent this time writing poetry: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Theatres were to close frequently during outbreaks throughout the whole of Shakespeare’s career.

However, pestilence is not so conspicuous within Shakespeare’s works themselves – perhaps out of a desire to provide his audiences with light relief. Where plague does occur, it certainly brings with it destabilising consequences. In Romeo and Juliet (1595), an outbreak delays Friar Lawrence’s messenger, meaning Romeo does not receive notice of Juliet’s plan, and sparking the chain of events that culminates in the deaths of the lovers. The messenger recounts:

‘the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth’
(Act 5 Scene 3 Lines 8-11)

The practice of confining people suspected to be afflicted of the plague was common, and was encouraged by orders passed by monarchs at the time (such as those issued by James I, discussed in my last post 'Sovereign and the sick city in 1603'.

Romeo and Juliet might also lay claim to having the most famous disease mention made by Shakespeare - Mercutio’s dying rally of ‘a plague on both your houses!’. Yet in the first quarto version of the play, the word ‘plague’ was instead ‘pox’, referring to the (equally dangerous) disease smallpox. Plague is once more strikingly used as an insult in King Lear (1606), in which Lear laments about his daughter Goneril:

‘thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood.’
(Act 2 Scene 4 Lines 218-20)

A different dramatic invocation of plague is used by the eponymous Timon in Timon of Athens. Here, writing some time before or perhaps at the start of a renewed 1606 outbreak of plague, Shakespeare explicitly nods to its power. In an extended speech in Act 4. 3 (lines 109-127), Timon instructs Alcibiades to be like the deadly disease and spare nobody when he ransacks Athens:

‘Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o'er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one’ 

The image of the plague being a remorseless force attacking a city was not uncommon – it is also used by Thomas Dekker in his 1603 pamphlet The Wonderfull Yeare, which I explored as part of my last blog post. In a particularly vivid passage, Dekker describes the plague as if it were a soldier mounting ‘the siege of the Citie’ of London: ‘here the Canons (like their great Bells) roard: the Plague tooke sore paines for a breach; he laid about him cruelly, ere he could get it, but at length he and his tiranous band entred’.

Timon goes on to elaborate that Alcibiades should be indiscriminate – the plague does not even take pity on the elderly, the very young, ‘priests’, and ‘mothers, maids nor babes’. The persistent presence and threat of this fearsome disease should not be forgotten when considering Shakespeare’s life and works.

Further reading:

Shakespeare and plague in 1606

James D. Mardock, ‘“Thinking to pass unknown”: Measure for Measure, the plague and theaccession of James I’ in Rebecca Totaro and Ernest B. Gilman eds. Representing the Plague in Early Modern England

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