The Shakespeare and 2020 Pandemic Series: Plague and COVID-19 (Part 1)

Image Courtesy of slate.com

By Anna Harvey

Over the course of 2020, the world has witnessed many alarming events from COVID-19, to religious turmoil, riots, and political commotion.

Little do many know, however, that a famous literary figure from hundreds of years ago shared similar tribulations. During his lifetime, William Shakespeare observed several horrific resurgences of plague, as well as occasional political tumult and violent religious unrest.  

In order to fully examine the similarities and differences between Shakespeare’s time and our modern age in the midst of the pandemic, Dr. Daniel Gibbons of the English Department and Dr. Lawrence Poos of the History Department generously gave historical and literary background on Shakespeare and his age in the midst of the plague.

Firstly, as both professors highlight, the plague was nothing new to Shakespeare’s era. When Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, a resurgence of the plague emerged, ravaging his town and killing nearly a quarter of its inhabitants. Shakespeare also witnessed smaller outbreaks during his time in London, although, as Gibbons noted, it was not nearly as catastrophic as “the Great Plague” in London from 1665-66, almost 50 years after Shakespeare’s death. 

Furthermore, similar to how different strains of the coronavirus have wreaked havoc around the world, as Poos notes, the plagues that Shakespeare’s generation experienced were somewhat different from the often-mentioned Black Death, which occurred from 1347-1350. 

“When I use the word ‘plague,’” Poos said, “ I mean the specific disease caused by the pathogen Yersinia pestis, which took several clinical forms but in the time we’re talking about it was almost exclusively bubonic plague, with the pathogen present in rodent populations and spread to humans by fleas.”

 Like the coronavirus, the disease was prevalent in cities, but it followed transmission routes to larger towns such as Shakespeare’s via trade and travel routes.

Another interesting similarity between Shakespeare’s society and ours is the two cultures’ emphasis on recording deaths due to the disease. 

“By Shakespeare’s time, the epidemiology of plague meant that plague was constantly present in London,” Poos said. “We know this because, starting intermittently as early as Henry VIII’s reign, but continually from the 1590s, the City of London conducted the first systematic public health record-keeping in English history. Each parish had to collect weekly statistics of deaths including cause of death.”

During Shakespeare’s time in London as a playwright, these smaller outbreaks beginning in 1593 and 1603 nevertheless impacted his livelihood and his writings to some extent. During this first half of his dramatic career, Shakespeare became a shareholder within a theatrical company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In his time within the company, Gibbons noted, he wrote some of his finest plays such as Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet

“When there was a surge of plague in London, theaters were shut down just as they have been in most major cities because of COVID,” Gibbons said. “One of the most serious of these shutdowns took place early in Shakespeare’s career. We don’t really know what Shakespeare was doing at that time, but he did write two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis; The Rape of Lucrece.”

These outbreaks in 1593 and 1603 had a tremendous impact during Shakespeare’s time, as between 15-20% of the population in London died of the plague, according to Poos. Consequently, the city’s government took steps similar to those of the CDC, one of which included closing down public institutions, which included the theatres. 

“During the decade 1603-1613, it’s been calculated, London’s theatres were closed about 60% of the time because of orders from the privy council and city government for this reason,” Poos said. “These closures were devastating to the actors and theatre companies of course because no visitors to the plays meant no revenue coming in; everyone involved had to find alternative work though sometimes companies went on tour in the country to wait out the epidemic.”

Similar to current strategies on the part of arts performers to promote their businesses in the midst of COVID-19, Shakespeare honed his craft during times of closure as well. 

“Shakespeare may even have used the times of closure in the 1600s to write famous tragedies like Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra in order to be ready for a big re-opening in 1608,” Gibbons said.

Despite having written his plays during this time of epidemic, however, Shakespeare did not necessarily draw upon the content matter for inspiration. Gibbons reports that Shakespeare will refer to the concept of love in his plays as a sort of sickness that wafts through the air and infects people. If Shakespeare directly mentioned plague itself within his plays, more often than not, it was often meant as a joke. 

The only serious references to the plague were in Romeo and Juliet, in which Mercutio uses the reference as a curse, and in Henry V, where King Henry poetically insinuates using corpses of soldiers for biological warfare. 

“There were very many ways to die in Shakespeare’s time, and people didn’t usually imagine that they could do much to control these afflictions,”Gibbons said. “Plagues were just a part of life in this fallen world, and had long been considered one of the many ways in which God would punish humankind for our wickedness. Shakespeare’s literary response to this fact of life often seems like gallows humor. Sometimes laughter is the best way to face our fears.”

Perhaps Shakespeare’s lack of interest in the plague in his writings was not so much superstitious fear as it was a firm attempt to maintain an upbeat attitude within a time of crisis. Looking to the present day, perhaps we too ought to find creative measures in order to forget the present pandemic troubles and look to a brighter future.

Part 2 Coming Week of 11/2! 

Political Tensions, Religious Rebellion, & More: The Shakespeare and 2020 Pandemic Series Continues!

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