There can be very few still alive who remember anything of the Spanish ‘Flu Epidemic of 1918, though we have plenty of contemporary information and statistics about its origins and spread. First identified in the United States, the virus infected one in three people worldwide and killed 50-100 million, or 2.5 – 3% of a global population of 50 million. It seems a world away. But now, a mere century later, we are in the grip of a new pandemic which has already killed thousands and has radically changed our lives.
Who could have imagined the onset of coronavirus? Unprecedented was the overused word of the moment. But there is nothing unprecedented about the outbreak of deadly disease. In the ancient world, the great city-state of Athens of 5 B.C.E. was a magnet for traders from the Greek and Persian worlds. But where goods went, so did infection and, via the shipping lanes, the plague arrived. Its gruesome physical symptoms were observed by the historian Thucydides. He also noted how the bonds of law, citizenship and custom were disrupted by the disease, plunging the city into anarchy. Athens would never recover its former glory.
In England, the most deadly plague to strike the country appeared around 1348. This was the bubonic plague, or Black Death, so called because of the blackening of skin and tissues as the disease advanced. As in the classical era, it appeared to have been carried from China or Asia, leaving innumerable victims in its wake and ravaging Europe. Here, it was probably brought from Genoa, coming ashore in Dorset. A contemporary writer observed:
‘ (It was) a cruel pestilence hateful to all future ages….it wretchedly killed innumerable people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset….then travelled northwards leaving not a city, a town, a village or even, except rarely, a house, without killing most or all of the people there.’
The writer ruefully notes that the disease was –
‘just as cruel among pagans as Christians .’
Over the years 1347-53, up to 75-200 million people died worldwide. In England the population was halved, declining from 5-6 million in 1300 to 2.75 million in 1377. The plague had catastrophic, long term effects. Population levels took many decades, or longer, to return to normal and enormous economic, social and religious change diverted the course of our history.
Epidemic and pestilence arose in Tudor England during the last 50 years of the 16th century and appeared regularly in the 17th. England had become a maritime power, trading with the New World, Europe and beyond. We can plot the intensively-used sea routes where spices and perfumes were picked up, and where they might be exchanged for luxury consumer items such as furs, silks and gems. The greater the activity of ships, ports and people though, the more likely was the transmission of deadly pathogens. We don’t know what bacterium or virus was responsible for The Sweat of 1551 or how many lives it took, but the death-toll was huge. It was known, ironically, as ‘the scourge without dread,’ owing to its rapid onset: a person in normal health in the morning could be dead by midday. Nevertheless it inspired real terror; one commentator described it as a sickness
‘so sore, so painfull and sharpe, that the lyke was never harde of….before that time.’
Only seven years later, a strain of influenza appeared, killing one fifth of the population. The theologian Thomas Cooper wrote in his Chronicle:
‘In some shires almost no gentleman scaped but either himself or his wife, or both, were dangerously sick and very many died, so that diverse places were left void of ancient justices and men of worship to govern the country. At this time also died so many priests that a great number of parish churches in diverse places of the realm were unserved.’
Cooper is referring to a whole layer of the Catholic ruling class which was effectively wiped out. Even Reginald Poole, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died only 24 days after ‘Bloody’ Mary, the Tudor Queen who had reinstated hard-line Catholicism in England. It was a dark coincidence and a serious blow for the Catholic church, but a huge gift to the heir to the throne, Elizabeth, who would create a Protestant state as Queen of England. So a microscopic organism again influenced the course of history.
In Stratford-upon-Avon, a certain William Shakespeare was baptised in April 1564. There he is, on the famous, much-reproduced page of the parish register in Holy Trinity Church. But an ominous three words appear in the following July in the same register: Hic incipit pestis. Here begins plague. In the next 6 months just over a tenth of the town, or 237 people, died, four of whom lived on Henley Street: close neighbours of the Shakespeare family. Victims were buried in mass plague pits in Shottery, immediately outside the town, and present day Shakespeare tour buses rumble regularly over the site.
This was not the only outbreak of plague to beset Stratford. The disease lurked, springing up here and there, then seeming to die down again. It was an abiding threat to townsfolk, and the young Shakespeare, growing up, would have heard stories about the 1564 outbreak and kneeled in memory of the lost in church services. His father, John, was involved in relief measures, and records reveal his attendance at a meeting to help Stratford’s poorest. It was held in the open air to reduce the risk of infection, just as we are advised to do during our own pandemic.
In fact, the entire lifetime of Shakespeare – man, professional actor and playwright – was threatened by plague. His son, Hamnet, was a victim at the age of 11, a personal tragedy which might have inspired Hamlet – according to the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, the names were interchangeable at the time. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson also lost a son to plague and afterwards wrote the deeply affecting poem: On my First Sonne, an elegy for a seven year old.
Elizabethan doctors had no idea that the disease was transmitted by rat fleas, but they grasped that social distancing and isolation were necessary measures: as soon as an outbreak flared up, the authorities stepped in to forbid mass gatherings. In the epidemic of 1592-3, the playhouses were first to close: not only did the authorities regard them as hotbeds of immorality and vice, but disease usually struck in the summer months, which coincided with peak season for theatre attendance. Closure had disastrous effects for the industry; many actors died, or were forced into other trades. Companies broke up or had to tour in the provinces, where disease was less concentrated. Plague spelled the end for the Queen’s Men, a successful company which went into the country and never returned. Another company, the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, was also forced to disband, having pawned its props and wardrobe and been obliged to spend the proceeds on basic subsistence.
Life in London was grim. A previous Privy Council Plague Order had created a nationwide set of rules which confined the healthy along with the sick in their own homes. If they did not succumb, people had to live with the decomposing dead. Doors were sealed up and bore red or black crosses. These appalling measures were widely opposed for their inhumanity. On the streets outside, horrific sights and sounds were customary: the rumbling of death carts, cries of “Bring out your dead”, watchmen posted at city gates or outside infected houses, the continual chiming of funeral bells. The appearance of plague doctors was chilling: these wore long robes and sinister beaked masks, the cones of which were stuffed with herbs, in the mistaken hope that infection would be repelled. They carried long sticks with which to examine patients from a ‘safe’ distance. But no-one was safe. There were treatments such as poultices made from roots, herbs and animal fat applied to the dreaded buboes which swelled in the throat, armpits and groin. Cordials of hops, rue and other plants might be given, the whole body rubbed with snake or pigeon flesh, a dead toad bandaged to the abdomen. Draughts of vinegar, mercury, arsenic or powdered minerals were prescribed which did more harm than good. Cinnamon was thought to bring down high fever, dried rhubarb to drive contagion out. But none of it worked. What was needed was the antibiotic which usually cures those cases of plague (yersinia pestis) which still arise in modern day Asia and China.
In 1592, Shakespeare had only recently arrived in London but had already attracted notice with his Henry VI plays. Where was he when the playhouses closed? Probably he took refuge with his family in Stratford, or if he remained in London, he must have isolated himself to avoid infection. Denied the playhouse, he earned money by composing the two great narrative poems: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece, a ‘graver labour’, a year later. When the plague abated he resumed his playwriting career, probably writing Romeo and Juliet around that time. ‘A plague on both your houses’ cries the fatally wounded Mercutio. Later in the play, plague is used as a plot device when Friar John is sealed up in an infected house, fails to deliver the crucial message, and so brings about the tragic deaths of the lovers.
Another outbreak of plague hit London in 1603, causing more than 33,000 deaths. Theatre was by then the pre-eminent leisure industry in the city and the focus of huge economic activity. There were more than half a dozen playhouses on Bankside and an estimated 20,000 theatre visits each week. Entry was cheap and up to 3000 people at a time could be accommodated. This time, the closure of the playhouse lasted for 14 months and actors suffered worse privations than they had during the 1592 outbreak. Again they were obliged to support themselves as best they might. The new King, James 1, however, bestowed a gift on Richard Burbage, the great actor of Shakespeare’s company: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The order came from Court in 1604, granting the sum of £30 –
‘by way of his Majesty’s free gift… to Richard Burbage… one of His Majesty’s Comedians… for the maintenance and relief of himself and the rest of his Company… being prohibited to present any plays….by reason of great peril’
A foreshadowing of Rishi Sunak’s Arts Rescue Package perhaps? Soon after, James’ Court issued a proclamation by which Shakespeare’s Company became The King’s Men. It –
‘licensed and authorised….these Our servants….freely to use and exercise the art and faculty of playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories, Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, Stage-plays… as well for the recreation of Our loving subjects as for Our recreation and pleasure.’
The fortunes of the King’s Men were assured – except that they still had plague to contend with. After months of inactivity, theatre companies began cautiously to open in their own houses and to return to their repertoire. But restrictions still existed: they were only permitted to remain open –
‘ except there shall happen weekly to die of plague above the number of thirty within the City of London and the liberties thereof, by which time we think it fit they shall cease and forbear any further publicly to play until the sickness be again decreased to the said number.’
The authorities were wise: plague returned yet again in 1606. It was less severe than the 1603 outbreak but continued to spring up sporadically during the next few years. The playhouses opened, closed and re-opened. In fact, between 1603 and 1613, they were closed for an astonishing 78 months: more than 60% of the time. The vitality of the new genre carried it through, though plague changed its evolution. It would, as a living art-form, have changed anyway, but in 1604, defiant against all the odds, a new house opened: the Red Bull Theatre. This offered plays which provided rousing spectacles and had a nationalistic feel-good flavour. It appealed to the lower end of the market and audiences came, in the knowledge that a certain risk was attached to theatre-going – but came anyway. Shakespeare’s King’s Men, as they picked up the pieces after closure, went in a different direction. They now began to move up-market towards establishing a new indoor house, the Blackfriars Theatre. This would extend the season and would allow them to recoup the money lost from closures, whilst attracting more elite audiences who were willing to pay higher prices.
As for Shakespeare, some theatre historians suggest that he wrote King Lear during that 14 months’ lockdown, over 1603 – 4. He might have done so, for the play had its very first performance before the King in 1606, and was probably scripted that year, or the year before. It is noticeable that in the plays written after the outbreak of 1603, disease references appear regularly in Shakespeare’s work. In Lear itself, the servant Oswald is cursed with: ‘A plague upon your epileptic visage.’ Lear himself speaks of the ‘plagues that hang in this pendulous air,’ referencing the common theory that airborne transmission spread the disease. He even compares his daughter Goneril to the dreaded plague buboes, calling her ‘a sore, an embossed carbuncle.’ Lear may be Shakespeare’s bleakest play; it is saturated with death, despair and chaos, as London must have been at that time. In Timon of Athens, speeches are similarly full of references to plague: ‘Your potent and infectious fevers heap/On Athens!’, ‘send them back the plague/ Could I but catch it for them.’ And in Macbeth there are numerous references to the corrupt and ‘filthy’ air which was thought to engender plague, and the ‘infected’ air upon which the three witches ride.
In our own times, we have recently emerged from a period of lockdown. We understand now what it is to be ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confined, bound in,’ fearful of infection. Our theatres are dark, coronavirus is still very present and the threat of unemployment and economic hardship grows closer. At a stroke, we are suddenly closer to Shakespeare‘s world of dread and life-changing, virulent sickness. We are reminded how greatly the new playwriting industry of the 1590s and 1600s was afflicted by bubonic plague and how it changed Shakespeare’s creative life and output.
Some scholars suggest that Shakespeare might have written more plays, had continual outbreaks of plague not intervened and left us the poorer. But others believe that the presence of plague acted as a spur to his imagination during the years when his genius was in fullest flower. For evidence, we have only to look at what he created during those uncertain times.
Bettina Harris, Library Assistant