A plague On All Their Houses — Shakespeare’s Message In Lockdown Times

Dawn Sanders, of New Zealand’s Shakespeare Globe Centre, says Shakespeare wrote bitingly about the plague years in Europe. And his descriptions make our Covid-19 Outbreak seem like a walk in the park.

She starts her column with this quote:

‘A plague on both their houses’ – Mercutio

A plague on both their houses – Mercutio’s dying wish on the Capulets’ and Montagues’ ‘houses’.

‘What a death sentence Shakespeare was wishing on those families in Verona.

Memories of the Black Death

Although Romeo & Juliet was written sometime between 1595-97, the Elizabethan’s knowledge of the Black Death of the 14th century was still raw, particularly in visual images.

In 1340, the world’s population was estimated to have been about 450 million.

Fleas, which fed on infected rodents, then bit people, caused the Great Bubonic Plague, the worst pandemic ever recorded till then.

By 1400, the population had been reduced to between 350 and 375 million, and by between 30% and 60% in Europe alone. It was not until some 200 years later that the population figures had recovered.

Stratford Upon Avon loses 25% of its citizens

Roll forward to 1563, and many more records of pockets of the plague in between. There was “probably the worst of the great metropolitan epidemics of the plague”, followed by a major national outbreak of it.

This included wiping out a quarter of the population of Stratford Upon Avon.

1564 — and Shakespeare was born

William Shakespeare was born a year later in 1564. Twelve years on, in 1576, The Theatre opened in Shoreditch. Built by James Burbage, it became home to Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men

Assuming, in those days, that contamination was transmitted by people, every time there was an outbreak of the plague, theatres were forced to close by the ‘Fathers of London’ – disastrous for actors, directors and playwrights.

1599 and the opening of the Globe

The reconstructed Globe Theatre in Southwark, London

When the Theatre’s lease expired in 1598, rather than renew it, the theatre was pulled down that year and reconstructed south of the Thames in Southwark as the Globe, opening in 1599. 

In 1604, after an outbreak in which more than 30,000 Londoners had died, the Privy Council decreed that public playing should cease once the number of those who died every week of plague rose “above the number of 30”.

A preacher of the time purported: “The cause of plagues is sin, and the cause of sin is plays.” However, players, intent on earning a living, did from time to time bend the rules, performing still when plague deaths dipped under 40 or so. 

Late July 1606, these rose considerably, in the midst of a theatrical season which included the highly acclaimed clutch of new plays – Shakespeare’s King Lear and MacbethBen Jonson’s Volpone,  and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, had to lower their flag at the Globe and lock their playhouse doors, sadly echoed through COVID-19 in March 2020.

The horrible symptoms of the Plague

The plague’s symptoms were described as horrible: fever, a racing pulse and breathlessness, followed by pain in the back and legs, thirst and stumbling. Some also suffered “great dolor of head with heaviness, solicitude, and sadness in mind”.

Buboes, hard swellings of a lymph gland, formed in the groin, armpit or neck, then ruptured, causing pain so agonising that some threw themselves out of windows.

The majority of those afflicted were between 10 and 35 (as opposed to COVID-19, where this human-borne contamination has caused deaths to an average age of 81 year olds.)

King James VI became concerned that Londoners were washing off the red crosses on their doors, designating infected and quarantined households. Extra vigilance was imposed, including use of oils rather than water-based paint.

More outbreaks in 1609 and 1610

In 1609 and 1610, there were several outbreaks of the bubonic plaque in towns throughout the country, causing a prolonged closure of theatres, reopening late that year. Cymbeline, written in 1610, was first performed in 1611, along with subsequent plays, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. 

During a performance in 1613 of Shakespeare’s  penultimate play, Henry VIII, the ‘plague’ on the Globe playhouse, caused by ‘wool’ from the canon igniting the thatch, saw it sadly burn down.

After co-writing The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher between 1612-13, Shakespeare returned to spend the last three years of his life with his family in Stratford Upon Avon. 

  • Dawn Sanders ONZM, QSM
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