The Pandemic Ravaged Europe and Left Many Unemployed. One of Them Was William Shakespeare

Were it not for the plague, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ might have ended differently

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“The Great Plague of London,” by Kitty Shannon (1926).
“The Great Plague of London,” by Kitty Shannon (1926).Credit: Culture Club / Getty Images
Dori Parnes
Dori Parnes

An epidemic hits Europe, and wreaks havoc in England, where the authorities order all residents to remain indoors. Venues of public entertainment are shut down. Actors find themselves out of work and scramble to find alternative sources of income.

We are in the 16th century, and among the unemployed is the playwright and actor William Shakespeare, who, over the course of his life, experienced recurring outbreaks of the bubonic plague. In fact, Shakespeare’s life began in the shadow of the plague: When he was 3 months old, in the summer of 1564, the epidemic struck the English countryside, and his parents, John and Mary, who had lost their two elder children in previous outbreaks, secluded themselves in their Stratford home, where they sealed the doors and windows, to protect young William.

The child grew up and eventually moved to London, where he began to act and write for the theater. Throughout Shakespeare’s career, the bubonic plague – which in effect was present somewhere in Europe, continuously, between 1346 and 1671 – returned intermittently to paralyze the theater business. At the time, the source of the disease was unknown, but it was well understood that crowding in large groups accelerated its spread. The London city council thus saw theater halls as a source of contagion, and would order their temporary closure as needed.

A particularly severe outbreak occurred in London in 1592-93. Theaters remained dark for 14 months, a time when at least 10,000 Londoners found their death. When they reopened, Shakespeare mounted his tragedy of the star-crossed lovers from Italy. Actually, Romeo and Juliet’s deaths were caused by the plague: Juliet’s letter, intended to inform Romeo of her fake death, did not reach her lover’s hands because the messenger was forbidden to leave Verona, due to the plague, and was quarantined.

Friar John: Going to find a bare-foot brother out

One of our order, to associate me

Here in this city visiting the sick,

And finding him, the searchers of the town,

Suspecting that we both were in a house

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,

Seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth;

So that my speed to Mantua there was stay’d.

Friar Laurence: Who bare my letter, then, to Romeo?

Friar John: I could not send it, – here it is again, –

Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,

So fearful were they of infection.

Friar Laurence: Unhappy fortune! By my brotherhood,

The letter was not nice but full of charge

Of dear import....

A scene from Romeo and Juliet. Original painting by John Opie, engraved by G.S. and J.G. Facius.

Interestingly, this reference to the plague (Act V, Scene 2) is almost the only one in Shakespeare’s works, other than metaphorical ones. Among the dozens of strange and unnatural deaths he depicted, no one in his plays dies of the plague – as if (as noted by the celebrated Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro) this subject, which he experienced so personally and traumatically, is a taboo in his writing, as in that of all his contemporaries. The most common form in which the notion of the plague does appear in their plays, is as a curse: Remember, for example, Mercutio’s dying words in Romeo and Juliet, “A plague on both your houses.”

‘My little mouse’

Each time the epidemic struck again, theater artists had to find alternative means to support themselves. In 1593, when the halls were shuttered, Shakespeare wrote and published his pastoral, romantic and tragic poem “Venus and Adonis.” It was his first printed work, and it became an instant best seller, reprinted in 15 editions during his lifetime.

During resurgences of the plague, some acting companies from the capital took their shows on long, exhausting tours around England. One of the greatest actors of the age, Edward Alleyn, co-owner of the Rose Theater in London, wrote in August 1593 from Bristol to his wife, Joan, while he waited for his entrance in a play titled “Harry of Cornwall” (now lost). Addressing her fondly as “my little mouse,” Alleyn advised and cautioned her about the disease.

“Keep your house fair and clean,” he wrote, “which I know you will, and every evening throw water before your door and in our backside [i.e backyard] and have in your windows good store of rue and herb of grace and withal the grace of God which must be obtained by prayers, and by so doing no doubt but the Lord will mercifully defend you.”

The newly married Alleyn misses his home and his garden, and reminds his wife to turn the parsley bed over to spinach “for then is the time.” He would have done it himself, but there’s no chance the company would return to London before All Saints Day, on November 1.

Theaters remained dark for 14 months, a time when at least 10,000 Londoners died. When they reopened, Shakespeare mounted his tragedy of the star-crossed lovers from Italy.

Joan’s father, Philip Henslowe, Alleyn’s partner in the theater business (who was played with gusto by Geoffrey Rush in the 1998 film “Shakespeare in Love”), answers in her name, probably because she could not read or write (assumes Stanley Wells, who recounts this touching anecdote in his delightful book “Shakespeare and Co.”): The spinach was “not forgotten,” everyone is “glad to hear of your good health… for we heard that you were very sick at Bath and that one of your fellows were fain to play your part… we feared it much because we had no letter from you when the other wives had letters sent which made your mouse not to weep a little…

“Your poor mouse hath not been sick since you went, but [the sickness] hath been almost in every house about us, and whole households died” – including the wife of fellow actor Robert Browne, who was at the time in Germany, along with “all her children and household.” More than 1,600 people died in London that same week, in mid-August 1593.

The plague’s 1603 outbreak was especially devastating. Red crosses were painted on houses with infected family members, and those houses were quarantined.

This was the year in which Queen Elizabeth died, and King James ascended the throne on July 25. His extravagant coronation procession through the streets of London was cancelled; instead, the ceremony was brief, and participation was restricted, due to the epidemic raging outside.

A portrait of William Shakespeare. Credit: AP

‘Fly far, return late’

In August that year, about 8,000 died. September’s death toll was 10,000. In two months, a tenth of London’s population, which then numbered 200,000, had perished. The royal family, and fearful citizens with means – including doctors, who were in great demand to fight the disease – fled the city to the countryside. As one writer expressed it: “The first and chiefest remedy is fly far and return late.”

In mid-May, the theaters had shut down again, this time for what ended up being nearly an entire year, and most playwrights had to search for other income. Apparently, Shakespeare – who was financially well-off by then – did not stop writing that year. Instead, he worked on new material to be ready for the theaters’ reopening. Around this time he created two of his darkest and most harrowing tragedies – “Macbeth” and “King Lear.” The title character of the latter addresses his daughter Goneril (Act II, Scene 4) with the words:

But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;

Or rather a disease that’s in my flesh,

Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,

A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,

In my corrupted blood.

Herbs and rosewater

The playwright-turned-doctor Thomas Lodge was among those who stayed in London in 1603, and at the peak of the outbreak published a “Treatise of the Plague.” In the introduction he describes the disease as an “Epidemie, which violently ravisheth all men for the most part to death, without respect or exception of age, sex, complexion, government in life,” among whose chief symptoms are a heavy cough and shortness of breath.

Chapter 4 of the treatise instructs those who are healthy about avoiding infection: “It behooveth every man to have special care that he frequent not any places or persons infected, neither that he suffer such to breath upon him… The first part of preservation, is to purify and purge the air from all evil vapours, scents, stench, putrefaction… For which cause, it is necessary to make good fumes in our houses,… and to perfume the whole house and chambers with the fume of Rosemary, Juniper... dried Roses, Lavender, and such like, both Evening and Morning.”

During the 1603 outbreak that shut down theaters for almost a year, Shakespeare created two of his darkest and most harrowing tragedies – 'Macbeth' and 'King Lear.'

Lodge also recommends rubbing herbs, mixed with rosewater, on one’s body and especially “to wash your hands, bedew your forehead & nostrils, for such an odour and of so wholesome a quality, vehemently repulseth the venom... and the pestilence of the air.”

So much for personal hygiene. As to municipal governance, Lodge writes that, “policy and serious diligence, is not only profitable, but also necessary; because the sickness of the plague & contagion invading a city, is the total ruin of the same… The plague makes almost desolate and destitute of the better part of the citizens thereof, bringing with it both famine and fatal indigence.

“For which cause such as are in authority in Cities have the charge to oversee the sick, ought above all things to procure that their City remain in health, to the end that their citizens remaining in security, may communicate the one with the other by traffic and following their business, whereby there redoundeth a common profit and utility to all.”

Lodge emphasizes that those infected must stay indoors or be confined to hospitals “for fear lest by conversing with the healthy they should spread the contagion by breathing on them and touching them… They should be separated from the company of the healthy. Nevertheless we ought not to use such separation before it be truly known to be that disease, and that the sickness is of the quality, that it deserve shutting up.

“For in truth it is a great horror to separate the Child from the Father and Mother; the Husband from his Wife; the Wife from her Husband; and the Confederate and Friend from his Adherent and Friend: and to speak my conscience in this matter, this ought not to be kept, before that by the judgement of a learned Physician. And when it shall be found it is infectious, yet it is very needful to use humanity towards such as are seized. And if their parents or friends have the means to succour them, ought to suffer them to use that office of charitie toward their sicke.

"Lord, have mercy on London."

“For, to speak the truth, one of the chiefest occasions of the death of such sick folks (besides the danger of their disease)is the fright and fear they conceive when they see themselves void of all succour, and as it were ravished out of the hands of their parents and friends, and committed to the trust of strangers, who very often are but slenderly and coldly inclined to their good, wanting both service and succor.”

‘Enclosed’ for 60 days

According to the doctor, although the standard duration of quarantine was 40 days, each case must be considered independently. This period must be observed among those who have become infected, and even extended for safety’s sake: “they ought over and above remain enclosed [another] twenty days, which are in all sixty, before they be suffered to return to their houses, or frequent the company of their fellow Citizens… and change their garments, and put off their old, or rather burn them, for fear they should infect those that might happen to put them on.

“For in truth, the keeping of such things is very dangerous, and whereas after the plague is ceased, it oftentimes without any manifest occasion beginneth anew, it oftentimes proceedeth from such like accidents… If those that are sick be poor and indigent, let them be supplied by the charity and liberality of the city. And if they be rich and by reason of infection shut up, they ought to be supplied with all things necessary till such time, as being at liberty they may make recompense for that they have received.”

Later on in the “Treatise,” Lodge offers advice on how to build hospitals and how to maintain proper nutrition (by eating bread soaked in lemon, for example, as well as consuming white wine, cinnamon, almond milk, egg yolks, and between meals – imbibing lots of “fountain water” or boiled rainwater), and describes the practices that must be carefully observed by those who attend patients, as they “are in great danger to receive the same infection from those that are sick.”

First and foremost, he advises, caregivers must pray to God and beseech him to protect them; secondly, the caregivers must keep a safe distance from the patient, wash their hands frequently, change clothes every day, sniff apples and lemons, and keep in good spirits.

“Those that are fittest to be employed in this matter,” Lodge writes, “are such as have a good courage, and are merry, pleasant, and well complexioned that despise the danger of death, and are ready to do service to their parents and friends, wives or children. Nevertheless in this time men ought not to be too rash or hazardous, nor trust too much to their youth and force of body.”

He adds: “For the secret venom of the plague preventeth all this, and except a man be wary and prudent, it will then seize him when he least suspecteth: because a venom of that nature is accustomed to lie hidden in the body a long time without any effect, or at leastwise notable impression, after the nature of the biting of a mad dog, which suddenly before it be discovered takes a lamentable effect.”

It’s extremely important, Lodge stresses, to purify the house, the walls, the clothes and the cloths, “for where there is a pestilent sickness in a house, it continually infecteth the garments, coverlets, bedding, and sheets… wherefore it behooveth above all other things, that such household-stuff be carefully cleansed, aired, washed, and purged.”

‘The country was frolic’

One of the most prolific playwrights of the age, Thomas Dekker, finding himself out of work, turned to prose, and in 1603 published a pamphlet with the ironic title “The Wonderful Year,” in which he documented the events of those tumultuous months – the end of Elizabeth’s era and the rise of a new monarch in the shadow of the plague. Dekker probably did not have means to escape the city, as suggested by a satirical piece written by his actor-colleagues, where they claim that could he just lay hands on a horse, he would have been the first one to fly.

Dekker’s book is dedicated to his “well-respected good friend” Cutbert Thursby, the water bailiff of London: “If you read, you may happily laugh; tis my desire you should, because mirth is both Phisicall, and wholesome against the Plague: with which sickness (to tell truth) this book is somewhat infected. I pray, drive it not out of your company for all that; for (assure your soul) I am so jealous of your health, that if you did but once imagine, there were gall in mine Ink, I would cast away the Standish, and forswear meddling with any more Muses.”

The “wonderful year” Dekker writes about began on a happy note: “As the Country was frolic, so was the City merry: The Lark sung every morning, the Nightingale every night.” But then, Queen Elizabeth passed away, after 45 years of reign.

Dekker describes the funeral rites in a picturesque way: “Never did the English Nation behold so much black worn as there was at her Funeral.” He goes on to detail the circumstances that led to the proclamation of King James of Scotland as England’s new monarch, who will unite the crowns of that country and Scotland. As James Shapiro recounts in his fascinating book “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606,” it is no wonder that “King Lear,” written around this period, deals so much in matters of a kingdom divided, or united.

Everything was ready for the new king’s coronation, and then, writes Dekker: “A stiff and freezing horror sucks up the rivers of my blood: my hair stands on end with the panting of my brains: mine eye balls are ready to start out, being beaten with the billows of my tears.” The plague arrived suddenly and Death started reaping the city left and right.

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague, 1665. Watercolor painting by or after G. Cruikshank.

Dekker asks us to imagine the torment one would endure if he was “barred up every night in a hideous vast silent Charnel-house, where all the pavement should be strewed with heaps of dead mens’ bones: the bare ribs of a father that begat him, lying there: here the chapless hollow skull of a mother that bore him: round about him a thousand Corpses, some standing bolt upright in their knotted winding sheets: others half molded in rotted coffins, that should suddenly yawn wide open, filling his nostrils with noisome stench, and his eyes with the sight of nothing but crawling worms.”

This is what life is like in the sick city, the playwright-turned-author is saying. If you dare to go outside and roam the dreary streets at night, “what think you should have been his music? The loud groans of raving sick men; the struggling pangs of souls departing: In every house grief striking up an Alarum: Servants crying out for masters: wives for husbands, parents for children, children for their mothers: others fearfully sweating with Coffins, to steal forth dead bodies, lest the fatal hand-writing of death should seal up their doors. And to make this dismal concert more full, round about him Bells heavily tolling in one place, and ringing out in another: let us go further.”

The next scene he paints is of a father fleeing from town with his son. As soon as they leave the city, however, the child turns into a “lumpe of clay”: “The hand of pestilence hath smote him even under thy wing: Now dost thou rent thine hair, blaspheme thy Creator, cursest thy creation…”

Scene follows scene in “The Wonderful Year.” The plague is described as an enemy, invading and assaulting the city. All are trampled under its feet, “streets ransacked, beautiful maidens thrown on their beds, and ravished by sickness: rich men’s Coffers broken open, poor men used poorly.” In funeral processions around the city, “husbands, wives & children, being led as ordinarily to one grave as if they had gone to one bed… In this pitiful perplexity stood London, forsaken like a Lover, forlorn like a widow, and disarmed of all comfort.”

As for the doctors – “Never let any man ask me what became of our Physicians in this Massacre, they hid their heads: and I cannot blame them.” All their medicines, instruments, balsams and concoctions “had not so much strength to hold life and soul together.”

The pamphlet becomes a wild and grotesque Danse Macabre of skeletons and bones. Dekker recounts, for example, the case of a mad Dutchman who tries to escape England, “but death, to show him that there were other Low-country besides his own, takes one of my Dutch children and sends her packing, into those Netherlands she departed: O how pitifully looked my Burgomaister, when he understood that the sickness could swim!... So that for the mad tricks he played to cozen our English worms […] sickness and death clapped him up in Bedlem the second time, and there he lies, and there he shall lie till he rot.”

Later in Dekker’s work, we follow a respectable citizen escaping from London to Bristol, and stopping on the way at an inn. The moment the people within realize he’s a Londoner, and might be carrying the plague, they shelter inside, seal the doors and windows, and refuse to give the man even a glass of water.

Dekker’s style verges on the comical, for example, as he describes people fortifying themselves against the plague, using medicinal herbs, “muffled up and down with rue and wormwood stuffed into their ears and nostrils, looking like so many boars’ heads stuck with branches of rosemary to be served in for brawn at Christmas.”

Following “The Wonderful Year,” Dekker wrote “News from Gravesend”:

No music now is heard but bells,

And all their tunes are sick men’s knells,

And every stroke the bell does toll

Up to heaven it winds a soul.

The last wave of the plague during Shakespeare’s lifetime struck in 1609-10. In the midst of it, Ben Jonson wrote his comedy “The Alchemist,” set in a suburban London house whose owner has fled the city in fear of the epidemic, leaving it to three tricksters who start a business there, centering around snake-oil cures. This is a comedy depicting trapped citizens in a state of anxiety.

Jonson intended it to be performed in London, during the plague, but circumstances became so dire that theaters were again closed, and the play opened in Oxford instead. This is a rare example of a playwright of that period dealing with the plague on stage, in real time.

Shakespeare, as was his wont, did not respond to events directly, but if one insists on finding hints, then his play “Cymbeline,” written around that period, is full of medicinal elements: The queen experiments on dogs and cats with all sorts of poisons, and the good doctor prepares a sleeping potion for the play’s heroine, Imogen.

To end on a somewhat hopeful note, in this case, unlike Juliet, the heroine comes back to life – just in time for the happy end.