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Plague and the Playhouse

Episode 17 of 20

15 minutes
First broadcast:
Tuesday 08 May 2012

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 17. PLAGUE & THE PLAYHOUSE - May 1603 saw not only a new king but the worst plague outbreak since the Black Death. Its impact and reach is told through a series of early seventeenth century proclamations.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

  • Plague Proclamations

    Date: 1603  

    Made in: London  

    Made by: Unknown  

    Material: Paper  


    Shakespeare’s life was marked by plague. His life started at the height of the first great Elizabethan outbreak in 1563-4, when the plague wiped out a quarter of the population of Stratford.


    Later, when he was working in the theatres of London, the plague was to return once again and change the shape of his career. In 1603, a fresh epidemic swept through London forcing the theatres to close for almost a year and leaving Shakespeare’s company little choice but to head out on the road to tour the provinces.


    Meanwhile, the newly-crowned King James I had to with establish himself as the head of a people who were more than a little bit suspicious of Elizabeth’s Scottish cousin, while also faced with impossible task of protecting the nation from the advancing threat of the vile and deadly plague.


    This object is from the British Library


    British Museum Blog: Avoiding the Plague by Dr Richard Barnett, Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow and Honorary Research Fellow, UCL

  • Quotations

    'I hear of none, but the new proclamation/That's clapped upon the court gate.'   Henry VIII, Act 1 Scene 3
  • Background

    • Shakespeare was born during the first great Elizabethan plague outbreak (1563-4)
    • In February 1564, the Lord Mayor prohibited the performance of plays because of the plague. This was probably the first time such a ban had been issued.
    • The 1603 outbreak of plague was the most severe in England since the Black Death of the 14th century and about a fifth of London's population died.
    • Print was one of the great weapons against the plague - proclamations were printed, distributed, read out in churches and town squares and then pinned on billboards and posts for all to read
    • When the plague was not raging, instead of proclamations there would be playbills posted up to advertise the plays.
  • More from Radio 4: Boils and Buboes

    Boils and Buboes

    Melvyn Bragg explores how alderman John Ivie saved the plague ravaged town of Salisbury in 1627. With extracts from Ivie's written personal accounts.


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  • More from Radio 4: The Origins of Infectious Disease

    The Origins of Infectious Disease

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the origins of infectious disease.


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  • More from Radio 4: The Anatomical Renaissance

    The Anatomical Renaissance

    Thanks to a renaissance in anatomy in the 16th century, the art of surgery had been perfected in Bologna to the extent artificial but living noses, ears and lips could be supplied.


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