So when Mercutio says "A plague on both your houses," it's also evoking for Elizabethans a sense that we have plague, we're locked inside our home, we're going to watch our loved ones die in the room or bed next to us, and there's nothing we can do about it.
We for a long time at least lost the edge of what Mercutio says at that moment. And I, for one, have been teaching and writing about Shakespeare for 40 years. I'm going back to these lines now, thinking of them in a much richer, deeper, and more terrified way. I should also say that Romeo and Juliet is a story that Shakespeare had lifted from Brooks's earlier version. He doesn't make the story up, but he adds things to it. One of the things that he adds to it is the subplot of the friar giving to another friar, Friar John, a message to carry to Romeo that will avert the disastrous and tragic end of the play. But unfortunately, Friar John is suspected of plague and put in quarantine for such a long period that he is unable to deliver that message. It's the one instance we have in Shakespeare a quarantine that has such terrible, terrible effects in an outcome.
OR: Are there are other great attacks of the plague in London while Shakespeare is there as a working playwright?
Shapiro: Yes. I described Shakespeare and the Elizabethan outbreak of plague in 1592 and 1593, but a far more brutal and sustained outbreak returned to the city in 1603, and it was just at the moment when Queen Elizabeth had died and King James is ready to come down from Scotland. Of course he can't come down because plague has broken out in the city. Once again, it is terrifying. One out of every six or seven Londoners — we're talking about 30,000 people in a population of just under 200,000 — would die. That probably means that twice as many were infected and survived. This is affecting everyone and everybody. The theaters are once again closed.
This time, Shakespeare did not have to turn to writing poems and sucking up to aristocrats to make enough to get by. This time, he was a shareholder in his company and part owner of a theater that was hemorrhaging money when it was closed. He had to, in a way, sit it out until the theaters reopened, but the theaters would be shuttered between 1603 and 1611 for maybe a third of the time or even as much as half of the month when playing took place. My guess is it's probably closer to a third of the time, but that meant that every time things started going well, plague would return, usually in the summer, and shutter the theaters once again, creating anxiety, creating fear that this was another big outbreak, creating consternation among Londoners about whether to return to the theaters when they reopened at risk of their health.
The plays Shakespeare wrote in the aftermath of this major Jacobean outbreak were significant. He writes Timon of Athens, where there are allusions to the plague. He writes King Lear, which I've mentioned already. He writes Macbeth, which has one of the most, for me, powerful and terrifying allusions to the plague. It reads, " . . . where violent sorrow seems/ a modern ecstasy, the dead man's knell/ is there scarce asked for who and good men's lives/ expire before the flowers in their caps/ dying or 'ere they sicken." That's a really dense line. What Shakespeare is talking about is the dead man's knell — the tolling of the parish bells when somebody dies. There's a soundscape that goes with infestation. You can imagine the incessant tolling of the bells of the 126 or so churches in London at this time.
As for “Good men's lives expire/before the flowers in their caps:” a young man wakes up, he sticks a flower in his cap, he goes outside, and he's dead before that flower fades. That's how dangerous and sometimes how explosively fast plague worked at that time because people were already succumbing to it without showing signs of it, which again is the case now.
In Antony and Cleopatra, which is written in late 1606 in the summer or early fall at a time when the plague has shuttered the theaters, there's a great exchange where a Roman soldier, Enobarbus, asks an Egyptian — they're fighting on the same side at this moment — "How appears the fight?" And the reply is, "On our side, like the tokened pestilence where death is sure." We're being defeated so badly that it's like the tokened pestilence. That is to say: you can see the plague sores, you can see these tokens that signify that death is sure and imminent. Dropping a line about the “tokened pestilence where death is sure” in a playhouse that's barely opened after a sustained outbreak of plague in late 1606 is to me kind of extraordinary on Shakespeare's part. It's the last thing you want people to be thinking of in the theater, as they nervously look around to see if they see signs of tokened pestilence among the other groundlings.
OR: Does the unrest and anxiety around the plague leach into the text of these works in a more sublimated way?
Shapiro: That is what we used to call the $64,000 question.
I would say there are a couple of possible ways of thinking about this. One is that Shakespeare is clearly turning to darker, tragic stories at this time. This is a plague that begins in 1603 and didn't really fully run its course until 1611, a year or two or three before Shakespeare stops writing plays, retires to Stratford, and dies there (though not of the plague). The second half of his career is just marked by this.
You can talk about two trends in the second half of his career. One are these dark, apocalyptic tragedies that I'm describing, tragedies of a world that has changed. Anthony and Cleopatra is about a world that's radically changed. It's a world that goes from a Roman republic to, essentially, dictatorships. Macbeth is a world that's radically changed. King Lear is a world that's radically changed. I remember the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King and 9/11. These are the moments that changed our lives. But I don't think anything will have changed our lives as profoundly as COVID-19, and we're only at the beginning of that. I think Shakespeare is always responding in complicated ways to what's going on. I think the more or less apocalyptical world-shifting stories that he's telling at this time speak to that.