Transcript - Shakespeare's Restless World - Programme 17

Plague and the Playhouse: Plague Proclamations

In 1564, a quarter of the population of Stratford-upon-Avon died of plague. One of those who escaped was the infant William Shakespeare, who had been born in April that year. Shakespeare's life was, from its very beginning, marked by plague. His career was shaped by it, his audiences feared it and many of them died of it. In this series I've been looking at ideas that Shakespeare's public would have been familiar with and seen reflected in his plays. But there is no great play devoted to the plague, by Shakespeare or by any of his contemporaries. That absence is one of the puzzles of Shakespeare scholarship.

Plague never appears on stage, but it can rarely have been far from the thoughts of the audience or the players, and never more than in 1603, a year which the playwright Thomas Dekker commemorated in a pamphlet called, quite simply, The Wonderfull Yeare. What Dekker calls wonderful was for most Londoners terrifying.

On 24 March, after 45 years on the throne, Elizabeth had died.

'her death took away hearts from millions . . . a nation that was almost begotten and born under her; that never shouted any other Ave than for her name. . . How was it possible, but that her sickness should throw abroad a universal fear and her death an astonishment?'

Nobody knew what her successor, her foreign cousin James of Scotland, was likely to do, but they feared the worst. But worries surrounding James's succession were rapidly eclipsed by the most frightening of all the year's events.

'23 June 1603: Forasmuch as the infection of the plague is at this present greatly increased and dispersed as well in the Cities of London and Westminster, as also in the Suburbs thereof, the King's Most Excellent Majesty considering that great peril and danger. . .'

I suppose that taking on a new kingdom is always a stressful business. But James's reign began in a cruelly testing way, not with processions of rejoicing citizens, but in pestilence. Here in the British Library is the evidence of how in the first months of his reign James struggled to manage a totally unmanageable situation: it's a run of royal proclamations, each one issued separately on one or two large sheets roughly the size of a modern tabloid newspaper. Royal proclamations like this were the equivalent of today's rolling news:

Lovell: I hear of none but the new proclamation

That's clapped upon the court gate.

(Henry VIII 1.3.17-18)

Plague proclamations were intended for mass distribution across the country, read out and then pinned up in public view.

Henry: These things indeed you have . . .

Proclaimed at market crosses, read in churches'

(Henry IV part 1, 5.1.72-3)

At the top of the sheet is the crown or the royal arms, then in large Roman letters the words 'By the king'. The first letter of the proclamation itself is a large decorated initial and the proclamation is printed in a dense typeface used specifically for authoritative public documents.

James's proclamations, trying to contain the disaster of the plague, come thick and fast. You get a strong impression looking at these sheets of a king who is energetically on the case, but is also on the run. He issues the proclamations at a steadily growing distance from the infectious capital: 'Given at our Manor of Greenwich', at 'our Castle of Windsor', Hampton, Woodstock, and then on to Southampton, Winchester and Wilton. It was a wretched beginning to a reign. But the wisest thing to do in the face of plague was to run. Richard Barnett is a medical historian:

'Governments and states in Shakespeare's time are a little bit worried about people running away from the plague. On the one hand, if you are an aristocrat and you've got a country estate or if you are a priest or a physician and you've got a college at Cambridge or Oxford that you can retreat to, of course that is what you want to do. But there are great fears in this period that people running away will simply spread the disease much more quickly, so this is why governments and states start to jump in with new regulations about quarantine and confinement and restricting movement.'

'6 July 1603: Forasmuch as we find that the Infection within our City of London doth daily increase, and is like (to our grief) rather to augment than diminish . . .'

Those who were not in a position to run away, people like the groundlings that paid only a penny to stand in the theatre, were the ones likely to suffer most:

'The most common kind of plague, and the kind most associated with historical plague, is bubonic plague. The bacterium gets into the body, it goes to the lymph nodes, you generally find these in the neck and the shoulder, the armpit, the groin, they swell up, they go black, in some cases they sort of burst open and you get really nasty abscesses. With bubonic plague you fall into a deep fever, you get multiple organ failure, your body just really starts to shut down.'

The last great plague outbreak in London had been eleven years earlier, in 1592 when one Londoner in twelve had died. Once again Shakespeare had been lucky. The authorities closed the theatres, so the promising young playwright turned instead to love poetry. Venus and Adonis made him a star among the literati. But Venus seems acutely conscious of what's going on in the real world as she whispers the unusual compliment that her lover's lips 'drive infection from the dangerous year:

. . . the plague is banished by thy breath.'

Whatever his other assets as a lover Adonis is clearly a wise choice in an epidemic. For the rest of the 1590s London was more or less free of plague, crowds gathered, theatres reopened, Shakespeare went back to writing plays and made his fortune. But that all changed again with the plague of 1603.

'11 July 1603: The care we have to prevent all occasions of dispersing the Infection amongst our people . . .'

Plague had been endemic in Britain since the 14th century. Spread by fleas from the black rat, it was one of the hazards of hot summers. When it arrived, it was fast and fatal, it closed down the life and the traffic of the city so completely that even the busiest of London streets sprung weeds and grass.

The 1603 outbreak was first noted here in Southwark, in what was then the district where theatres, bear pits, cock pits and brothels plied their trade. Houses infected by the plague would have been easy to spot. Hazel Forsyth of the Museum of London:

'Families who were affected by plague were actually quarantined usually for a period of about a month. There were measures too about the way that properties were identified that had the victims in it: a pole should be suspended above the door or from the window with a bundle of straw attached to it. But then gradually printed or painted signs on paper were fixed to posts, and sometimes to door lintels and the door itself, with the words `Lord have mercy on us', and then sometimes also a painted cross on paper, and then the symbol that we perhaps most identify with plague today became the current one, which was the red cross. One foot two inches high, it was very very particular about the size, painted in oil, presumably because it was much much more difficult for people to remove.'

Quarantine and those frightening large red crosses painted on doors were things everybody knew. At a critical turning point in the plot of Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence is told why his crucial letter could not be delivered to Romeo:

John: . . . the searchers of the town,

Suspecting that we both were in a house

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,

Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth

(Romeo and Juliet 5.2.8-11)

Everyone in Shakespeare's audience would have understood exactly what it meant to be sealed up in a house and not let forth. But that scene in Romeo and Juliet is as near as plague gets to coming on stage.

Over the summer of 1603, plague deaths increased and the procession through London that would normally have accompanied a coronation had to be cancelled.

'29 July 1603: The infection of the Plague spreadeth and scattereth itself into diverse places of the Realm . . .'

On the next day, 30 July, James effectively declared a state of emergency. He issued national Plague Orders. I have a copy of these Plague Orders in front of me now. They're a bit like a Civil Defence pamphlet, instructing every citizen how to cope with an outbreak of plague. Organising committees are to meet in safe places. People must be appointed to count the infected and the dead, and to conduct the burials. Local taxes are to be levied to cover the costs. These Plague Orders have lots of helpful advice, some of which sound rather like a word from our sponsor:

'For the Poore take Aloes the weight of sixepence, put in the pappe of an Apple: and for the richer Pilles of Rufus to bee had in euery good Apothecaries shop. After letting of blood and purging (as shall bee needfull) some of the forenamed Cordials are to be vsed.'

No doubt the manufacturer of the 'Pills of Rufus' had been lobbying the King. These Orders are a kind of plague recipe book, telling you how to brew up rosemary and juniper, figs, sorrel, cinnamon and saffron. Hazel Forsyth:

'The tobacconist made an absolute killing at the time. This was the period when tobacco really begins to become extremely popular and the tobacconist realising that people could create a sort of haze of smoke around them profited by suggesting that people might have perfumed tobacco which they could buy expressly to protect them against plague and there were extraordinary recipes for plague protection in the form of treacle and gun powder which was supposed to provoke a sweat.'

One thing you could not do was cheer yourself up by going to the theatre. Playhouses were closed during plague outbreaks. Crowd control was one of the few effective ways of keeping the death toll down.

'8 August 1603: . . . we do charge and enioyne to all Citizens and inhabitants of our City of London, that none of them shall repaire to any Faires held within any part of this Realme, vntill it shall please God to cease the Infection now reigning amongst them.'

By late summer, it wasn't just the King and his young family who were moving progressively further from the capital. The London acting companies also headed for the provinces. The plague forced Shakespeare's company, now called the King's Men after the new monarch, to develop what we might now call a national outreach strategy. Unable to play in London, they visited Richmond, Bath, Coventry and Shrewsbury, where they would have presented well-tried and profitable favourites such as Romeo and Juliet. It's worth wondering how 1603 audiences reacted to Mercutio's dying curse:

Mercutio: I am hurt.

` A plague a'both houses!

(Romeo and Juliet 3.1.90-1)

But it did mean that people far from London could see Shakespeare performed by his own company. About a fifth of London's population died in the plague of 1603. But as the year ended, life began to return to normal and the court organised its traditional Christmas festivities. The King's Men performed at Hampton Court for a fee of �103 and were given an extra �30 in compensation for loss of income due to the plague.

When Thomas Dekker wrote his pamphlet on The Wonderfull Yeare of 1603, he likened the plague to a figure in the theatre:

'Death . . . (like stalking Tamberlaine) hath pitcht his tents . . . in the sinfully-polluted Suburbes: the Plague is Muster-maister and Marshall of the field'

One of those sinfully polluted suburbs was Southwark. On 9 April 1604, the Globe and the other public theatres there reopened. Actors and audiences must have noticed that many of the regulars, especially among the groundlings, were no longer in their usual place.

It was the last restriction on public gatherings to be lifted. Three weeks before, on 15th March, the new King James had finally made his triumphal procession through the streets of London. It was a supremely theatrical spectacle, unforgettable to everyone who saw it, and we'll be joining in the crowds that watched it in the next programme.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Henry VIII (London: Penguin, 2006). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01740-2

Henry IV part I (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-14-101366-4

Romeo and Juliet (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-14-101226-1