Shakespeare and the plague
Shakespeare and the plague
by William H. Benson
April 13, 2020
In Thomas Dekker’s first pamphlet, The Wonderfull Yeare, he highlights three events that occurred in England in the year 1603.
First, on March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth of England died in her bed of natural causes. Six months shy of her 70th birthday, she had ruled England for 44 years, since Nov. 17, 1558.
Dekker writes, “She dyed, resigning her Scepter to posterity, and her Soule to immortality. The report of her death (like a thunder clap) tooke away hearts from millions.”
Second, Dekker writes of the ascension of James I of Scotland to England’s throne.
“England and Scotland are now made sure together, and king James, his Coronation is the solemn day.”
Third, Dekker describes the plague that struck London that summer of 1603.
King James fled the city, but before leaving, he dictated a book of Orders, a list of procedures intended to halt the plague’s spread. In it, he ordered houses of the sick sealed for six weeks, and the sick were “restrained from resorting into company of others.”
Remedies he listed in his Orders included: eating vinegar, butter, cinnamon, and onions; purging and bloodletting; wearing over nose and mouth “a handkerchief dipped in vinegar;” and holding onto a bunch of herbs, such as “rosemary, juniper, bay leaves, frankincense, sage, and lavender.”
Dekker described the depressing sight of London’s streets, littered with ineffective dead herbs, lying alongside the sick and the dying.
“Where all the pavement should instead of green rushes, be strewed with blasted Rosemary, withered Hyacinthes, fatall Cipresse, thickly mingled with heapes of dead men’s bones.”
Dekker did not know that a bacteria caused the plague, Yersinia pestis, carried by fleas that would bite an infected animal, like a rat, a mouse, or a squirrel. Because London was filthy then, rats proliferated. Once the bacteria passed from rat to flea to people, it then spread person to person.
The bacteria caused buboes, or swollen and painful lymph nodes under the arms, around the neck, and in the groin; bleeding under the skin, or from the mouth and nose; severe belly pain, diarrhea and vomiting; or, in its worst form, pneumonia.
A usual first symptom was the red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin. “Ring around the rosy.” People would stuff their pockets and pouches with sweet-smelling herbs. “A pocket full posies.” Mass cremations replaced burials. “Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.”
One of the first London businesses to close its doors whenever a wave of the plague appeared was the theatre. After the Globe Theater closed its doors in the summer of 1603, the young playwright William Shakespeare fled the city to live for months in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
One writer said it best, “William Shakespeare lived the whole of his life under the terrible cloud of Death,” caused by repeated waves of the Bubonic Plague, that struck down young and old alike.
John and Mary Shakespeare’s first child Joan died after her baptism, as did their second child, Margaret. William, their third child, was born in April of 1564, and he lived, but then their sixth child, Anne, died in 1579, when just seven years old. The plague took three of William’s siblings.
William Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, gave birth to three children, Susanna, and a set of twins, Hamnet, a son, and Judith, a daughter. At the age of 11, Hamnet died from the plague.
The plague struck down, not only family members, but also nephews, nieces, cousins, and actors in Shakespeare’s two acting companies—the Lord’s Chamberlain’s Men, and the King’s Men.
Shakespeare used his time away from London wisely, to think about his next plays. In 1593, the plague forced the Globe to close its doors, and when it re-opened in 1594, he wrote “Romeo and Juliet.”
“Romeo and Juliet” did not receive the message that the friar’s drug would not kill her, but cause her to appear dead. The messenger said, “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 go forth.”
Once the Globe Theater re-opened its doors in 1604, Shakespeare began to write his greatest tragedies: “Othello” in 1605, “King Lear” in 1606, “Macbeth” in 1606, and “Anthony and Cleopatra” in 1607.
A Columbia professor, Edward Taylor, once revealed his admiration for “King Lear.”
“This is the greatest thing written by anyone, anytime, anywhere, and I don’t know what to do with it.”
Life handed Shakespeare a lemon, a summertime plague, and he made lemonade, “King Lear.”
The plague of 1603 killed 33,347 of London’s citizens, a quarter of the city’s population. From then until 1665, only four years had no recorded cases of people dying from the plague.
Shakespeare died 404 years ago this month, on April 23, 1616, of mysterious causes.