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James Shapiro on Shakespeare’s Plague Years

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.

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.

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.

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.

The other argument I could make, although this sounds a little more of a stretch, is that his later plays are about people dying and in a sense being reborn — and there must be a hunger at such times for bringing back the dead — whether it’s a play like Pericles or the statue coming to life in The Winter’s Tale.

I’m one of those Shakespearians who’s really, really, really scrupulous about not projecting biographical information onto the plays. We don’t know what Shakespeare was thinking or feeling when he wrote any given play. But when I allow myself to speculate in that way, and I don’t do that often, I think about the statue of Hermione, this beloved older woman in The Winter’s Tale. She has seemingly died and is now reborn — comes to life — having been hidden away for 16 years or so.

Then I think back to late 1606. Shakespeare is living on Silver Street in a house of French Huguenots, Mr. and Mrs. Mountjoy. Marie Mountjoy is somebody that we know Shakespeare spoke with and seemed to have gotten along quite well with. In fact, we know more about his verbal exchanges with her than we do about his verbal exchanges with his wife Anne Hathaway. The Mountjoys had wanted to marry their daughter off to a young man and negotiations over the dowry fell through. There were some lawsuits. Shakespeare had been invited to intervene to bring together the couple and to reconcile everybody, which is a lovely thought when you think about his comedies and reconciliation. In late 1606, Shakespeare is living in a well-to-do pocket of northwest London that has largely avoided the outbreak of plague — and then it becomes one of those places that becomes plague stricken. We have enough records to know who’s dying where and when, and enough multiple deaths in one household to suspect that those are plague deaths.

Mrs. Mountjoy dies in October of 1606. She’s a young woman. There’s no other cause of death. And she seemed to have been healthy from what we know at the time. So it’s likely that plague came to Shakespeare’s doorstep. I can’t help wondering when he’s creating characters like Hermione coming back to life, if somewhere in the back of his head is not an image of Marie Mountjoy. That’s wildly speculative. All I can say is every playgoer in Shakespeare’s London had lost somebody, knew somebody, lived close to somebody who had been snatched away during these recurrent outbreaks of pestilence in the first decade of the 17th Century. Shakespeare did as well.

OR: What does the body mean to Shakespeare? What do health and sickness mean to him?

Shapiro: There are two separate issues here. One how illness figures in the body, and that’s a really complicated question because their notions of bodily illness and humoral theory and the like are not the same as ours. We don’t know exactly how much Shakespeare bought into those theories or not.

But we do know, then as now, that plague becomes a metaphor for something. In other words, it’s not just about disease. The plague becomes politicized. That is something that is happening in Shakespeare and is happening in the culture of that time. And “plague” becomes a verb. In Macbeth, Macbeth says, “We still have judgment here, that we but teach/bloody instructions, which being taught, return/to plague th’inventor.”

So what happens when plague, if you will, infects and infests our language? What happens when plague becomes a means to political ends? What happens when it enters into our vocabulary in unexpected ways and then becomes normalized in those ways? I’ve tried to track the ways in which that is happening silently in our own cultural moment, the ways in which coronavirus — COVID-19, call it what you will — becomes more than simply a term for a disease or an infection, but becomes something larger than that with economic or political ramifications. That’s much more complicated. Edmund in King Lear says “I stand in the plague of custom.” In other words: Custom has its rules. Order has its rules, and I’m plagued by that. I’m disadvantaged by that.

So all of a sudden plague becomes more than simply an illness. Plague becomes something that we negotiate or fight over. What I’m trying to suggest is that then, as now, plague enters into the life stream of our words and thoughts. And once that happens, it gets complicated.