(Harkup’s excerpt appeared in Shakespeare & Beyond, 5/5; via Pam Green.)
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What would it have been like to live through the plague outbreaks of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? And what insight does that give us into the mentions of plague in Shakespeare’s plays?
Kathryn Harkup has looked at the science behind literature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the mystery novels of Agatha Christie, and she turns her attention now to Shakespeare with a new book, Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts. In it, she devotes a chapter to the plague, excerpted here.
There were at least five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime and though these outbreaks didn’t reach the devastation of the Black Death, they all had a major impact on the population, particularly in towns and more populated areas. Wealthier Londoners often took Chaucer’s advice, written during the Black Death, to ‘run fast and run far’. At that time there were few uninfected corners of Europe that you could run to. At least a quarter of Europe’s 75 million population died in the mid-fourteenth century.1 The plagues of the Renaissance were a different matter. Escaping the city during the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century outbreaks would have significantly improved a person’s chances of survival. Shakespeare was fortunate to have a house and family in Stratford that he could retreat to when plague appeared in London.
There was some recognition that plague was contagious, even if the mechanism was far from understood. Some suspected it was brought to London by foreigners. Others tried to blame outbreaks on an unusual alignment of the planets. The 1593 plague was blamed on the position of Saturn in the night sky ‘passing through the uttermost parts of Cancer and the beginning of Leo’ as it had done 30 years earlier when there had been another terrible outbreak. Shakespeare was certainly aware of the planetary theory, as in Timon of Athens the playwright has Timon urge Alcibiades to take revenge on Athens: ‘Be as a planetary plague, when Jove / Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison / In the sick air’.
The mention of vice in the same passage acknowledges that many saw plague as punishment from God. It was just reward for the licentious living for which city dwellers were renowned. This position was difficult to maintain when priests, expected to visit the sick and dying and therefore especially susceptible to infection, suffered particularly high mortality rates from the disease. What was clear was that when one person died of plague others closely associated with the sick often became ill themselves.