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Brandie R. Siegfried on Shakespeare and the Plague

How can poetry, plays, and art flourish during a deadly pandemic? Learn how Shakespeare used the time of plagues to spur his creativity!

In October of 1562, Queen Elizabeth I was diagnosed with smallpox. The young queen—only twenty-nine at the time—survived and would go on to rule for another forty-one years, but England’s most remarkable monarch would carry the scars of survival to the end of her days. Shakespeare was born two years later, in 1664, and like the queen, seems to have avoided death from the four main diseases of the day: smallpox, bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria. The bubonic plague, or “black death,” was particularly virulent, a disease that reached pandemic proportions several times; the most written about cases—noted by a variety of international observers—occurred in 1582, 1592-3, 1603, 1607, 1610, 1625, and 1665, but there were more.

Each time plague broke out, the theatres were promptly closed, apothecaries were suddenly in demand (despite being a favored comedic target among playwrights and poets), and those with means headed to their country houses. We don’t know much about what Shakespeare might have been up to during these episodic outbreaks, but some evidence suggests that the King’s Men headed for provincial destinations outside the city, taking their performances to other parts of the kingdom. We know, for instance, that in 1610, the troupe was hired by the municipal government of Oxford to perform Ben Jonson’s satire, The Alchemist, and Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. Epistolary evidence from Henry Jackson (a scholar of Corpus Christi College) tells us that the actor playing Desdemona managed to wring both tears and groans from the audience in her death scene, and that, with a similar responsiveness, the audience also laughed at Jonson’s jests. Othello is only one among several plays in which Shakespeare makes reference to the plague. Others include Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. Forming pleasure from plague may have been part of Shakespeare’s genius.

Interestingly, some scholars have suggested that the pandemic-induced lulls in theatre work led Shakespeare to write some of his best poetry. Certainly, Shakespeare’s preoccupation with death, loss, memory, and the preciousness of surviving friendships support the possibility, as in Sonnet 30:

“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since canceled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.”

The poem doesn’t eschew the reality of grief: “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night” gives us a searing sense of the enduring nature of real loss. Yet the volta at poem’s end reveals the nature of restoration to be a function of remembrance—friendship doesn’t really end, if we continue to recollect the particular preciousness of the individual person. We’re not sure whether the “dear friend” of the conclusion is still living, or one among the others lost to death, but in either case, taking time to reflect brings, somehow, a renewal and “sorrows end”—at least for the duration of “while I think.”

—B. R. Siegfried (Professor of English, BYU)

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