It was 1564 and in that year Shakespeare was born on April 23 just a few months after the bubonic plague which killed one tenth of the population of the Stratford-upon-Avon. Luckily Shakespeare survived the apocalyptic event but there were occasions enough to present before him the painful image of the epidemic and endless anecdotes about the plague he might have heard from his father John or other members of the house or from the neighbours. Stories when they come later come in manifolds and in a larger volume than that of the time of occurrence.
So Shakespeare grew up in this atmosphere of fears and apprehension of plague. In London too Shakespeare witnessed the terrible outbreak of plague again in 1592 and theatres were closed for nearly six months. He used to live that time in the house on Silver Street where the church bells tolled for the plague victims constantly. Plague raged through the summer and early autumn and the the city of London parish where Shakespeare saw Marie Mountjoy ,the landlady of his own house to have died As we know from the theatre historian James Shapiro, Shakespeare took refuge to the poetic world as he had to stay in lockdown. The congregation of people was not there and poetry best suited the loneliness and isolation of the young author. Quite interestingly he used his lockdown for poetic creativity and the outcome of this ghastly ambience is his long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece both of which were composed during this time, one main reason might have been the need for a reliable source of income besides the aesthetic pleasure.
The deserted streets, closed shops, dogs running free and the contant ringing of the curfew bells for funerals gave Shakespeare a tragic mood.But the worst is the the 1606 epidemic during which there was a long closure of the Globe Theatre. By that time Shakespeare became a professional actor, then a playwright and shareholder in a London company, and quite naturally the plague came as a professional threat. It was the peak season for the theatre and Shakespeare’s creative mood. He had to go to self–isolation.He had to work from home and it was not surprising that such a creative mind would use his time in the best way possible. He was not a man to waste his time by playing Tik Tok even if were available that time or playing cards. In fact, the Globe’s lengthy closure came to him more as a blessing than as curse as the myriad–minded Shakespeare regained his full mood for creativity.
Many other contemporaries like Ben Jonson in The Alchemist or Thomas Dekker The Wonderful Year made explicit references to the plague. But Shakespeare made his chilly text saturated by images of death, chaos, nihilism and desperation. Many made high conjectures that his masterpiece King Lear is also a plague text especially because of the deeply tragic note as is reflected in the words of Gloucester: “Love cools, friendship falls off , brothers divide ; in palaces treason and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father…we have seen the best of our time”. What Shakespeare called ironically ‘best of our time’ Thomas Dekker called it ‘the wonderful year’. This is the artless art of Shakespeare who can tell all by telling nothing directly.
Shakespeare’s plays contained references to plague and pestilence as it was, an ever-present reality for him since his childhood as for many other playwrights of his time. Even in the plot device, of Romeo and Juliet, plague is used. An outbreak catches the messenger sent by Friar Laurence and forces him into quarantine. It means the letter that contains news of Juliet’s pretended death doesn’t reach Romeo. Earlier in the play, Mercutio’s line in Act Three: “A plague on both your houses!”, refers to another epidemic of the time the smallpox.
It was a well known fact that time that even James I’s coronation too had to be postponed because of the outbreak of 1603 and Shakespeare never gave explicit details as he preferred implicit metaphors which abound in his plays like The Timon of Athens or Measure for Measure. In Measure for Measure we get a picture of complete lockdown of London with brothels and bars abruptly shut down by the government. In The Timon of Athens a man sends himself into exile and he repeatedly uses the word plague ‘ Plagues.. Your potent and infection fevers heap / On Athens !”… “ be crowned with plagues “.. “ Send them back the plague /Could I but catch it for them”.
The 1606 epidemic that made the closure of Globe Theatre sending the great dramatist to isolation resulted in the composition of the most outstanding drama obviously a tragedy, yes Macbeth. Just less than four lines long description of the epidemic seems to be the best picture of the malaise that the plague bore with it, the fearful speech : “ The dead man’s knell / Is there scarce asked for who and good men’s lives/ Expire before the flowers in their caps / Dying or ere they sicken”. Never before Shakespeare we get this blood-curdling account of the plague.
In King Lear which many guessed more confidently that Shakespeare wrote it during the plague lockdown contained direct reference as we find it in Kent crying in loud exasperation at the servant Oswald “ A plague upon your epileptic visage!” Kent is the right hand man of King Lear who himself thinks that the ‘plagues …hang in this pendulous air”.
Corona may not be airborne but it was a common belief that plague virus could be spread by airborne transmission. Lear again and again uses the word ‘plague’ in his consternation:’ He calls his own wicked daughter Goneril ‘a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my /Corrupted blood”. This is a graphic visualization of the nasty disease especially the enlarged lymph nodes symptom.
People in quarantine are now suffering from mental anxiety and passivity affecting physical and mental health. But for a creative genius like Shakespeare even a lockdown or quarantined compulsion can be a period for amazing creativity. This is a huge message for all of us who can try some unrealized dream of writing a novel or a poetry book in this lock down period.