1603: Shakespeare’s England and a terrible sickness

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A plague doctor, James I and Shakespeare. The clothing worn by plague doctors was intended to protect them from airborne diseases and was introduced around 1619. The beak shape around the nose area was stuffed with aromatic herbs such as lavender.

As the coronavirus continues to bring the world to its knees, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust researcher Holly Kelsey looks at a yet more deadly disease, the plague – an outbreak of which coincided with a new monarch in 1603. It too caused social isolation and impacted upon Stratford-upon-Avon’s citizens hugely during Shakespeare’s day.

The year 1603 in Shakespeare’s England was certainly, as Thomas Dekker noted wryly in a bestselling pamphlet The Wonderfull Yeare. On 24th March, shockwaves reverberated through the country at the news that Elizabeth I had died. In the absence of an heir, the title was passed to James VI of Scotland. Yet this was to be no easy transition. James had barely got comfortable on his new English throne before a devastating outbreak of plague swept through London and the surrounding countryside. This was to be one of the deadliest instances of plague in England’s history, eventually claiming around a quarter of London’s population.

Among James’ first actions as English monarch was to issue a book of orders relating to the plague outbreak, outlining rules and procedures to be followed in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease and to aid those suffering from it. There’s a fantastic copy of the Orders for Plague* in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library.

James I Orders about the Plague, 1603 (detail)

The first half of the text is dedicated to physical orders enforced to try and control the plague in London and the surrounding areas. Houses were ‘to be closed up’ for six weeks if one of the inhabitants fell ill, and the sick were encouraged to be “restrained from resorting into company of others” for fear of spreading infection. If they did leave the house, they were to mark their clothes so as to warn others of their disease – they could be overseen by watchmen and breaking these orders could be punished by a spell in the stocks. Moreover, “clothes, bedding and other stuffe as hath been worne and occupied by the infected of this disease” were collected and burnt. But James also took measures to ensure the sick would not lose everything: he ordered that collections should be made in order to support those who were locked in their houses and to replace their possessions.

The focus of the book then shifts to provide an illuminating insight into early modern medicine. In the second half, it prints several preventative and remedial cures recommended by physicians which were designed to be put up in public, ensuring even the poorest members of society had access to them ‘without great charge or cost’. These range from correcting the humours through purging and bloodletting, to herbal remedies. There are also some more intriguing treatments. For example, pregnant women were advised to shield themselves from plague by eating toast covered in vinegar, butter, and cinnamon, whilst the poor, who may not be able to afford vinegar and cinnamon, were told they “may eate bread and butter alone” because butter was seen as a “preservative against the Plague”. Those who were already suffering from sores could try and ease them with a warmed mixture of onions, butter and garlic, or if your cupboard was bare, you could try simply laying “a load of bread to it [the sore] hot as it commeth out of the oven”!

Although these cures seem bizarre to us, people believed in them and would try anything which might protect them from this dangerous disease. Even when out and about, people were advised to hold herbs in their hands (the same they were burning to clean the air in their homes, such as rosemary, juniper, bay leaves, frankincense, sage, and lavender), or breathe through a handkerchief dipped in vinegar – an early alternative to a medical face mask!

Thomas Dekker described the depressing sight of London’s streets strewn with ineffective dead herbs, lying alongside the sick and dying: “where all the pauement should in stead of greene rushes, be strewed with blasted Rosemary: withered Hyacinthes, fatall Cipresse and Ewe, thickly mingled with heapes of dead mens bones”.

Whilst Dekker clearly wrote vividly about “the diseased Citie” of London, another playwright (whom Dekker may have collaborated with on the play Sir Thomas More) was also unable to avoid writing about the pervasive plague.

In 1603 Shakespeare’s acting company, formerly named The Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Elizabeth I, became The King’s Men under James I. However their performances were infrequent – theatres had been closed for almost a year due to fears that plague would spread through the crowds. It was around this time (1603-4) that Shakespeare probably wrote Measure for Measure. The play is set in an unruly Vienna heavily afflicted with disease – perhaps inspired by the disruption Shakespeare witnessed around him in plague-sieged London.

Pestilence and the playwright

Plague was a frequent and devastating occurrence in England throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime. Those who contracted it could suffer from fevers, delirium, and painful plague sores, with a survival rate of just 50 per cent.

In 1564, the year Shakespeare was born, plague claimed over 200 people in Stratford upon Avon, including four children on his very street. The ominously brief and simple statement “hic incepit pestis” (“here begins the plague”) was written in the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church on 11th July; Shakespeare had been baptised there less than three months before.

As an adult, Shakespeare’s world was no less threatened by this horrible disease. His professional life was clearly influenced by its effects – for example, early in his career in 1592, an outbreak led to the closing of the theatres out of fears that their crowded conditions would cause it to spread. With reduced numbers of performances, Shakespeare spent this time writing poetry: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Theatres were to close frequently during outbreaks throughout the whole of Shakespeare’s career.

However, pestilence is not so conspicuous within Shakespeare’s works themselves – perhaps out of a desire to provide his audiences with light relief. Where plague does occur, it certainly brings with it destabilising consequences. In Romeo and Juliet (1595), an outbreak delays Friar Lawrence’s messenger, meaning Romeo does not receive notice of Juliet’s plan, and sparking the chain of events that culminates in the deaths of the lovers. The messenger recounts:

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, Act 5, Scene 3, lines 8-11

The practice of confining people suspected to be afflicted of the plague was common, and was encouraged by orders passed by monarchs at the time (such as those issued by James I, above).

Romeo and Juliet might also lay claim to having the most famous disease mention made by Shakespeare – Mercutio’s dying rally of “a plague on both your houses!”. Yet in the first quarto version of the play, the word “plague” was instead “pox”, referring to the (equally dangerous) disease smallpox. Plague is once more strikingly used as an insult in King Lear (1606), in which Lear laments about his daughter Goneril:

thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood
(King Lear, Act 2 Scene 4, Lines 218-20)

A different dramatic invocation of plague is used by the eponymous Timon in Timon of Athens. Here, writing some time before or perhaps at the start of a renewed 1606 outbreak of plague, Shakespeare explicitly nods to its power. In an extended speech in Act 4, scene 3 (lines 109-127), Timon instructs Alcibiades to be like the deadly disease and spare nobody when he ransacks Athens:

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one

The image of the plague being a remorseless force attacking a city was not uncommon – as in Dekker’s Wonderfull Yeare, mentioned previously. In a particularly vivid passage, Dekker describes the plague as if it were a soldier mounting “the siege of the Citie” of London: “here the Canons (like their great Bells) roard: the Plague tooke sore paines for a breach; he laid about him cruelly, ere he could get it, but at length he and his tiranous band entred”.

Timon goes on to elaborate that Alcibiades should be indiscriminate – the plague does not even take pity on the elderly, the very young, “priests”, and “mothers, maids nor babes”. The persistent presence and threat of this fearsome disease should not be forgotten when considering Shakespeare’s life and works.