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Shakespeare & Beyond

Living through the plague times - Excerpt: 'Death By Shakespeare' by Kathryn Harkup

book cover
book cover

book coverWhat would it have been like to live through the plague outbreaks of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? And what insight does that give us into the mentions of plague in Shakespeare’s plays?

Kathryn Harkup has looked at the science behind literature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the mystery novels of Agatha Christie, and she turns her attention now to Shakespeare with a new book, Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts. In it, she devotes a chapter to the plague, excerpted here.

There were at least five major outbreaks of bubonic plague in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime and though these outbreaks didn’t reach the devastation of the Black Death, they all had a major impact on the population, particularly in towns and more populated areas. Wealthier Londoners often took Chaucer’s advice, written during the Black Death, to ‘run fast and run far’. At that time there were few uninfected corners of Europe that you could run to. At least a quarter of Europe’s 75 million population died in the mid-fourteenth century.1 The plagues of the Renaissance were a different matter. Escaping the city during the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century outbreaks would have significantly improved a person’s chances of survival. Shakespeare was fortunate to have a house and family in Stratford that he could retreat to when plague appeared in London.

There was some recognition that plague was contagious, even if the mechanism was far from understood. Some suspected it was brought to London by foreigners. Others tried to blame outbreaks on an unusual alignment of the planets. The 1593 plague was blamed on the position of Saturn in the night sky ‘passing through the uttermost parts of Cancer and the beginning of Leo’ as it had done 30 years earlier when there had been another terrible outbreak. Shakespeare was certainly aware of the planetary theory, as in Timon of Athens the playwright has Timon urge Alcibiades to take revenge on Athens: ‘Be as a planetary plague, when Jove / Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison / In the sick air’.

The mention of vice in the same passage acknowledges that many saw plague as punishment from God. It was just reward for the licentious living for which city dwellers were renowned. This position was difficult to maintain when priests, expected to visit the sick and dying and therefore especially susceptible to infection, suffered particularly high mortality rates from the disease. What was clear was that when one person died of plague others closely associated with the sick often became ill themselves.

Civic authorities did what they could to manage outbreaks when they occurred, but without a true understanding of the disease and how it was transmitted, they could put up only limited effective defences. Public health measures during disease outbreaks were patchy at best. Bonfires were lit in the streets in an attempt ‘to purge and cleanse the air’ and stray dogs were culled. But most efforts were concentrated on trying to contain an outbreak when it occurred. Ships were held at anchor, travellers on foot were held in special hospitals for forty days (quarantine derived from quaranta, Italian for ‘forty days’) before entering the city and playhouses were closed, though churches remained open.

Some plague victims were taken to ’spitals (hospitals) or the ‘pest-house’ where nursing care was notoriously poor. Once inside you were not expected to re-emerge. Mortality rates in the pest-houses have been estimated at 98 per cent during the 1665 plague outbreak. Many of these measures amounted to simply separating the sick poor from the nervous rich.

If plague was discovered in a home, the house would be sealed up with the sick and the well trapped together inside until the plague had passed. A red cross was painted on the door as a warning to others. But red crosses and locked doors did nothing to prevent rats from moving in and out of houses, and in fact the idea of preventing the spread of plague by containing it may have resulted in more deaths. Cooped up together, transmission between individuals would have been easy. And at least one family died of starvation because they were shut up in their house in London during the 1592–3 outbreak.

The unpleasant and potentially risky task of entering houses looking for signs of plague was given to searchers. These were recruited from the ranks of the most disposable members of the community – elderly women of low social status. They were ‘honest, discreet matrons’ who lived apart and received four to six pence for each plague body they identified. These women had no medical training and undoubtedly made mistakes, not necessarily through malice but through plain ignorance or fear.

Households locked up and separated from the outside world were a familiar sight and therefore a credible plot device for how important messages could be unfortunately delayed. In Romeo and Juliet, plague, or fear of it, prevents Friar John from bringing Romeo the vital information that Juliet will not be killed by the poison she has drunk but merely appear to be dead. Friar John explains:

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,
So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.

Shakespeare borrowed the plague plot device from earlier versions of the Romeo and Juliet story and it is surprising that such a simple and credible way of diverting, delaying or even killing off characters wasn’t used more. Plague may be conspicuous by its absence onstage but many others were writing about it. People made huge profits from the sale of treatises, pamphlets and books on the prevention and cure of plague (23 books were published on the subject between 1486 and 1604). Yet more money was made by those selling remedies and supposed cures.

Contemporary treatments for plague were staggering in their number and diversity. And they were all almost completely useless. That didn’t stop them from being sold or bought in great quantities. Exotic ingredients were suggested to those that could afford them. For example, treacle and gunpowder could be used ‘to provoke a sweat’. But the poor were not forgotten and it was suggested that they ‘may eat bread and Butter alone, for Butter is not only a preservative against the plague, but against all manner of poisons’. One recommendation was that a live plucked chicken should be applied to the plague sores to draw out the disease. Smoking came highly recommended as the haze of smoke would ward off the foul smells thought to cause disease. Tobacco, recently introduced to Europe and popularised by Sir Walter Raleigh, was therefore seen as a wonder drug. It was a relatively rational approach to plague prevention as it was understood at the time; unfortunately, the disease was not in the air. Smoking didn’t stop plague but tobacconists made a killing.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission by:

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Bedford Square, London UK
Copyright © Kathryn Harkup, 2020


  1. At the time King Edward III was on the throne in England, but when Shakespeare collaborated with Thomas Kyd to write a play about the King they made no mention of plague at all. Instead the play focuses on Edward’s successes fighting the French and completely ignores the devastation from pestilence.


Actually, the process of dealing with the plague is a major plot device in Fletcher’s “The Woman’s Prize (The Tamer Tam’d),” his sequel to “The Taming of the Shrew.” In Act III scene 4, Maria and the women have Petruchio sealed up in a house for plague by the city watch, several old women are sent forth to attend to his needs, and the doctor and apothecary come to diagnose him. Of course, Petruchio does not have the plague, and breaks out of his confinement, chasing away the two watches; but it is one of the things Maria does to break him of his pride and high-handedness (much as he had used against Katherine in “Shrew”). When the RSC brought their production of “Woman’s Prize” to the Kennedy Center, the set included the front of a house with the red cross on it and the plague doctor work the traditional hat, robe and gloves, carried a rod, and wore a plague mask with a long beak to hold aromatic plants.

steve — May 6, 2020

[…] run to. At least a quarter of Europe’s 75 million population died in the mid-fourteenth century.1 The plagues of the Renaissance were a different matter. Escaping the city during the fifteenth- […]


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