By Joseph Prestwich
Mercutio’s words from Romeo and Juliet, cried out repeatedly on his deathbed after a misjudged swordfight with Tybalt, are a subtle invocation of Shakespeare’s relationship to epidemics and disease. As we bolt up our doors and weather the storm of Covid-19, perhaps now is a good time to remind ourselves how Shakespeare himself was affected by pestilence, and how, despite the devastating effect the coronavirus is having on families across the world, great times of crisis also provide inspiration for great, lasting forms of art.
The Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665 are probably the two main epidemics students of GCSE History will well recognise. But there were, of course, at least 40 more outbreaks that affected London in that time period. Shakespeare himself was born in April 1564, just as a plague that wiped out a quarter of the population of Stratford-Upon-Avon was dwindling away. This early confrontation with disease has invited scholars such as Jonathan Bate to view plague as “the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare’s] life and those of his contemporaries”.
In 1606, another plague swept through London, causing many playhouses to close and forcing The King’s Men “to get creative about performances” (Cohen 2020). They toured to as many plague-free rural towns as possible, and Shakespeare used this opportunity to write “three really extraordinary tragedies”: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra (Shapiro 2015).
The word “plague” comes up in my favourite of these three plays, King Lear, at some interesting moments. Consider Edmund asking his goddess Nature why he must “stand in the plague of custom” and allow his “legitimate” brother to have all his family’s wealth. Here, Edmund see following the status quo as a threat, and so employs some dastardly deeds to alter it. Consider how vile an insult this would have seemed: “thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood”. That’s Lear to his daughter Goneril. Consider Gloucester’s chilling lines to the old man guiding him: “’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”
Returning to these lines in full knowledge of their context does little to alter their meaning, but certainly increases their effect. It attunes us to what’s important in this Lear: family, loyalty, compassion, love. Key themes that resonate now as they would have done then. But for me, and most of all, reading of Shakespeare’s ability to work despite the plague gives me hope. Theatres might close, but theatre-making can never stop. Of course, there are those right now who are not in a position to settle down and write plays. Financial and job insecurity, the possible economic burden of care, the threat of ill health: these are real issues faced by a lot of people. But for those who can stay at home in some comfort, now is the time to be creative. Re-engage with those projects set aside last year. Re-convene that writers’ circle online. Re-edit that script one more time. If Shakespeare could manage it, so can we.
Bate, Jonathan. Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. Random House, 2010.
Cohen, Ben. “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign.” Slate, March 10th 2020, https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Museum of London. “London Plagues: 1348 – 1665.” MuseumofLondon.org.uk, 2011, https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/5014/5434/6066/london-plagues-1348-1665.pdf. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Online version created by Jeremy Hylton, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/full.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shapiro, James. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Faber & Faber, 2015.
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