A Pox on All Our Houses

An Interview with James Shapiro

Octavian Report: How does the history of Shakespeare's working life, or what we know of it, map onto the movement of pandemics through 16th and early 17th Century England? Which plays are plague plays?

James Shapiro: That's a challenging question for a number of reasons. The first is there's a taboo in the Elizabethan playhouse about storytelling that's about plague. And there are very, very few allusions to plague as a result of that. People have their heads cut off, their eyes gouged out, they're dismembered and raped. Every atrocity, every kind of death you can imagine is staged in the Elizabethan playhouse except for a plague death. The reason for that is pretty simple. They didn't know what caused bubonic plague back then. The transmission was unknown for many, many decades to come, but they did know that crowding in a theater led to an increase in the number of plague deaths. Any time there were more than 30 or 40 deaths in London, the theaters were ordered shuttered. Imagine writing a play about the transmission of coronavirus set in a subway car and then inviting people onto a subway car to see it. We'd all be a little nervous about social distancing in that way.

So that, in one sense, is something that stands in the way of it. On the other hand, when you do hear somebody on stage allude to the plague, it hits like a punch. So that when, say, King Lear curses his eldest daughter Goneril in act two of King Lear by saying to her, "Thou art a boil/a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle/in my corrupted blood," you just hear the audience going, "Whoa." A plague sore was one of the markers of the bubonic plague, and if you had it, it was fatal. That's the last thing you want the people in a playhouse to be thinking of, unless it was exactly the point you were trying to make.

I can take you through moments in Shakespeare's work where he does land on plague — sometimes in callous ways, more often in disturbing ways — and make that clearer. But it might help to frame it a little bit in terms of Shakespeare's own life and London's history in relationship to two outbreaks of plague.

Shakespeare is born in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town of about 1,500 people three days’ walk from London. There's a terrible outbreak of plague at the time of his birth. It's quite terrifying. People down the street are losing their children. Lots of people are dying in Stratford. It's a pretty serious outbreak. People are doing what one does — keeping rosemary, onions. The usual stuff that on the internet is circulating right now as a cure for coronavirus had its equivalents in Elizabethan days, all hack cures. They didn't know how to prevent it, but they did know to stay inside. So Shakespeare survived, and it was a near call, the outbreak of plague in his earliest months of life. For all we know he might've had a brush with it, might've developed some immunity from plague. We just don't know that much.

The next time plague would matter to Shakespeare is right around the first time he pops up in London in 1592. He probably had been acting and writing for about two to four years at most in the metropolis. And in 1592, a terrible, terrible outbreak of plague — the first in many, many, many decades — struck London and wiped out roughly a sixth of Londoners. Then, as now, when an outbreak occurs, you don't really know how long it's going to last. This outbreak of plague in fact lasted for 16 to 18 months or so, from 1592 up to 1594. Shakespeare was in a difficult position. Playhouses were shuttered. There was no bailout at that time for playwrights, and actors and dramatists scattered to the wind.

He could have sat down and tried to write plays in the hope and expectation that this would pass and those plays would be staged, but it didn't really work that way since you actually wrote for specific actors in a specific company and didn't know who was going to survive to tell this tale. What Shakespeare ended up doing was to stop writing plays and start writing poems: The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. He dedicated them to the Earl of Southampton. He chose an alternative career path. At the same time, other theater companies were going under and selling their props and their play texts. They just went belly up, as many industries and restaurants and stores and small theater companies are going to go bust in the months ahead. This was Shakespeare's first major encounter with plague. You see traces of it in Romeo and Juliet, written just on the other side of that infestation.

OR: Can you talk about those traces, about how that stasis and fear and disorder appear in the text?

Shapiro: There's that wonderful, wonderful line by Mercutio, "A plague on both your houses." That's an interesting phrase because in a way it means on both your households, but houses were a particular place where plague was experienced — not simply playhouses, but individual houses. When plague numbers went up in Elizabethan England, the authorities didn't really know what to do. And what is the case now was the case then: a lot of bad moves were made. The first move was to kill all the dogs and cats in town since they seem to be spreading plague — the very dogs and cats that were killing the rats that were spreading the plague. They didn't know that. Everybody had to watch as their beloved pets were slaughtered for a penny a piece, and people would go around killing the dogs.

If you were discovered with a plague sore or a member of your household was, your neighbors and the local authorities would nail you shut into your house for 28 days and post guards outside and would affix a red cross on the outside of your door. Above that would be a little paper slogan, which was quite scary: Lord have mercy. And you really did need the Lord to have mercy because if you didn't have enough food and hadn't supplied in advance, you might die of starvation rather than the plague. Twenty-eight days later, people stumbled out of their houses (or didn't). In which case the authorities sent people in to take the bodies out.