Plague and the Theatre in Shakespeare’s London
Barbara Taylor of the Globe Research team delves into the murky world of the Plague to see if theatres were to blame for its spread. Grab your nosegays as you enter the Plague-stricken village of Eyam.
In 1577, clergyman Thomas White offered a pithy analysis of the relationship between plague and theatre. ‘The cause of plagues is sin,’ he wrote, ‘and the cause of sin are plays: therefore the cause of plagues are plays’. Such a view wasn’t the opinion of a single preacher. The aldermen of the city of London wrote to the Privy Council in 1584, claiming that to put on drama during times of sickness ‘is to draw the plague by offending God on occasions of such plays’. Whether or not it was widely believed that plays, actors, and the sinful temptations of the public theatre were directly responsible for the plague, it was common practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to shut the whole sordid business down whenever the plague reared its ugly head.
A book of prayers to ward off the plague (1603)
Since the fourteenth-century Black Death, which wiped out huge swathes of Europe’s population, the plague came and went from England in waves, periodically sweeping over the country and taking thousands of lives with it. Because its true cause – diseased rats infecting humans through the bites of fleas – was unknown, boundless theories, superstitions, and so-called treatments emerged. The plague was a punishment from God; or the result of planetary alignments; or an imbalance and corruption of the body’s humours; or a combination of all the above. Preventions and remedies included surrounding yourself and your home with specific herbs, or peeling onions to leave in the street so they might absorb the infection of the neighbourhood. ‘Treatments’ also included fasting and praying. Needless to say, despite onions and prayer, chance of survival for the infected lingered optimistically at 50%.
Shakespeare’s life was affected by the plague. It probably took the life of his son Hamnet in 1596, and regularly closed the public London theatres that were the primary source of income for Shakespeare and his family. During these periods of closure Shakespeare and his fellow company-members could take their plays on tour to the provinces, although as arrivals from the plague-hit capital city they couldn’t be sure of a warm welcome. During an 11-month shutdown between 1603 and 1604, the new King James helped to tide the company over with financial hand-outs and the chance to perform at Court.
The plague-struck early years of the seventeenth century affected the demand for new plays, as touring companies took their tried-and-tested repertory on the road. The playwright Thomas Dekker complained in 1607 that these companies were ‘making fools of the poor country people’ who had to make do with old fare passed off as new work – ‘which here [in London] every punk and her squire […] can rant by heart, they are so stale and therefore so stinking’.
An illustration from the title page of Thomas Dekker’s ‘A Rod for Run-Awayes’ (1625), a pamphlet decrying those who fled London during the Great Plague.
After Shakespeare’s death in 1616, London would see its worst plague yet: the so-called ‘Great Plague’ of 1625, which killed an estimated one-sixth of London’s population, and drove flocks of people to flee the city. One of the victims of this plague was John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s collaborator who had taken over as playwright for the King’s Men. The shock of the 1625 plague lived in the city’s memory for decades, only to be dislodged by the horror of the 1665 outbreak – a pestilence that spread along trade routes from London all the way to the remote village of Eyam in Derbyshire…
Header image: Runaways fleeing from the plague, from ‘A Looking-glasse for City and Countrey’, (1630)