Of the Plague and Playwrights
There have been a lot of comparisons recently between the current pandemic and the plagues of the past, particularly to William Shakespeare and his apparent ability to knock out a masterpiece like King Lear during quarantine. While there are many similarities between the epidemics of bubonic plague during the European Renaissance and the covid-19 pandemic, there are also huge differences. Maybe there will be great works of literature produced as a result of coronavirus, but if past pestilences are anything to go by, they might not be what people are expecting.
The two diseases are very different but both then and now, the death rate reached into the thousands. Plague had been causing havoc in human populations for centuries before Shakespeare’s day but little new knowledge had been gained. Each new outbreak was terrifyingly familiar. By contrast, covid-19 is new, scientists are finding out more about it every day and we are all learning to adapt as we go along. In both eras the desperate search for causes and cures was much the same, even if the conclusions were quite different.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, plague was seen by some as punishment from God, others blamed foreigners bringing in the pestilence from abroad, then there were those who blamed it all on the planets that formed an unfavourable astronomical alignment. Most common was the belief that plague was caused by bad smells, a not unreasonable conclusion given the likely stench of London streets and the prevalence of disease at the time, but it was wrong. The pestilence was not transmitted through the air and covid-19 is not transmitted by 5G; burning barrels of pitch or 5G masts won’t stop plague or coronavirus.
Tudor governments and civic authorities were not complacent in tackling plague. They tried to stop the spread of the disease by closing theatres and quarantining people inside their homes when they showed signs of infection. Plague was at least fairly easy to diagnose by the appearance of exquisitely painful swellings in the armpits, neck and groin: ‘a boil, / A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,’ as Shakespeare put it in King Lear. But plague was transmitted by rat fleas and not humans. Closing the theatres may have helped a little, but quarantining people inside their homes probably didn’t help much when rats could still get in and out of the poorly constructed Tudor houses.
The opposite is true of covid-19. Social distancing methods work with coronavirus because we know it can be transmitted easily between individuals, but diagnosing it is not so easy without a test. The symptoms of covid-19 are similar to many other conditions leaving us all agonising over every cough and hot flush.
In times of desperation people will try desperate and unproven remedies. In plague times, gunpowder and treacle mixtures were swallowed to ‘provoke a sweat’ and live chickens were plucked and applied to plague sores. Today, people take enormous risks with their health by swallowing home remedies and drugs with no proven efficacy against Covid-19.
Shakespeare lived surrounded by plague throughout his life and it was nothing new. He was used to work disruptions and people being isolated. It threatened his life and livelihood – it shut theatres, killed his patrons and fellow actors – but Shakespeare’s reaction to the plague was a practical one. In 1593, with the theatres shut he turned to writing poetry, and it proved to be both financially and artistically successful. Later in his career, when he was more economically stable, he could retreat from the epicentre of the plague outbreaks in London to his home in Stratford.
During the months and years of frequent theatre shut-downs in the early seventeenth century he wrote plays several plays including Macbeth, Othello and Anthony and Cleopatra. These plays are notably darker in tone than his earlier comedies but they are not about plague specifically. His work is full of references to disease and death but, despite it’s huge impact on Shakespeare’s life, plague is strangely absent from his work. Plague is used as an insult – ‘a plague o’both your houses!’ (Romeo and Juliet) – and there are vague allusions to pestilence and its impact on society – ‘good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken’ (Macbeth). However, there is no play that has plague at the forefront of the plot. The closest is in Romeo and Juliet where plague detains the letter sent from Juliet to explain to Romeo that she is not really dead. The friar carrying the letter is forced into quarantine and can’t deliver the letter in time, leading to the tragic consequences in the Capulet tomb.
Perhaps none of the plague plays of the era have survived (many plays from this time have been lost), or perhaps no one wanted to stage the horrors of an epidemic when audience members could see and experience it for themselves, up close and in person, every day outside the theatre walls. Theatre was entertainment and an escape from daily life. Maybe working in Stratford away from the bustle of London simply gave Shakespeare more time to work on and refine his plays and poems.
It could be that someone right now is using their time in isolation to pen the greatest literary work of the twenty first century. But, as the weeks roll on and the numbers rise, will they choose to write about coronavirus? Or will they only make oblique references to disease and epidemics? Perhaps their writing will be a diversion, utterly unrelated to anything in the here and now. Maybe there won’t be any great artistic outpouring provoked by the current situation and we will get through this with nostalgic looks at previous great works. Maybe we will just eat a lot and stare at the TV – and that’s fine too. We will have to wait and see.
Kathryn is a chemist and author. She completed a doctorate on her favourite chemicals, phosphines, and went on to further postdoctoral research before realising that talking, writing and demonstrating science appealed a bit more than hours slaving over a hot fume-hood. She writes and gives regular public talks on the disgusting and dangerous side of science.
Kathryn’s first book was the international best-seller A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, which was shortlisted for a Mystery Readers International Macavity Award and a BMA Book Award. She has also written Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her third book, Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts is out in May 2020.
Personal – harkup.co.uk