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Plague and the Playhouse

Episode 17 of 20

Neil MacGregor of the British Museum looks at how impact of the plague of 1603 as told through a series of early 17th-century proclamations. From May 2012.

Neil MacGregor, former 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.

This programme was originally broadcast in 2012.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

Available now

15 minutes

Last on

Wed 9 May 2018 02:15

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


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


  • 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.

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  • Tue 8 May 2012 13:45
  • Tue 8 May 2012 19:45
  • Tue 30 Oct 2012 14:15
  • Tue 31 Mar 2015 14:15
  • Wed 1 Apr 2015 02:15
  • Tue 2 Aug 2016 13:45
  • Tue 8 May 2018 14:15
  • Wed 9 May 2018 02:15