(Shapiro’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/24.)
In late July 1606, in the midst of a theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged – Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy – Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, lowered their flag at the Globe theatre and locked their playhouse doors. Plague had returned. Two years earlier, after an outbreak in which more than 30,000 Londoners had died, the privy council decreed that public playing should cease once the number of those who died every week of plague rose “above the number of 30”. In practice, though, there seems to have been some leeway, with players intent on earning a living occasionally bending the rules, resuming performances when plague deaths dipped under 40 or so. Privy council records for this era were lost in a fire in 1618, so we will never know exactly what number triggered any specific closure. But flexibility is hinted at in Lording Barry’s play Ram Alley (1608), where a character says: “I dwindle as a new player does at a plague bill certified 40.” In any case, by late July 1606, with the number of plague deaths well over that figure and rising week by week, public playing was finished, for the summer at least.
Stage Voices Publishing for archived posts and sign up for free e-mail updates: http 2015:// www.stagevoices.com/ . If you would like to contribute a review, monologue, or other work related to theatre, please write to Bob Shuman at Bobjshuman@gmail.com.