Writing About the Plague in Shakespeare's England

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 154

Between 1348 and the early years of the 18th century, successive waves of the plague rolled across Europe, killing millions of people and affecting every aspect of life. Despite the plague’s enormous toll on early modern English life, Shakespeare’s plays refer to it only tangentially. Why is that? If Shakespeare didn't write much about the plague, who did? And what did they write?

Over the past 20 years, Rebecca Totaro has been collecting contemporary writing about the plague. She has written five books about its cultural impact. We asked her to join us for a conversation about what Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about the plague—and why, just as often, they turned away from it. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Rebecca Totaro is an associate dean and a professor of literature in the College of Arts & Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University. She has written or edited five books: Meteorology and Physiology in Early Modern Culture; Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, which she wrote with Ernest B. Gilman; The Plague Epic in Early Modern England: Heroic Measures, 1603–1721; The Plague in Print; and Suffering in Paradise: The Bubonic Plague in English Literary Studies from More to Milton.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published October 13, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “’Twas Pretty, Though a Plague,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: We’re recording this in the middle of a global pandemic, and as of now there’s been a lot of memorable journalism on the virus’s impact on our lives. But so far, at least, there hasn’t been a lot of art. Should we expect that to change? While we don’t know, there is a precedent.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

Dr. Rebecca Totaro is an associate dean and professor of literature in the College of Arts & Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University, and for most of the 21st century, she’s had what many might consider an unusual obsession. Over the past 20 or so years, she has collected writing that was done during Europe’s great plague epidemics; the years between 1348 and the first quarter of the 18th century when outbreaks killed millions upon millions of people. She has published these writings and written about them in five books.

The work she’s collected includes poetry, pamphlets by civic and church authorities, and utopian novels that look at what life might be like in the future. What you don’t find much of are plays. And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about—why Marlowe, Fletcher, Shakespeare, and most of the other great dramatists of the era avoided this topic like… well, avoided it “like the plague.”

Professor Totaro talked to us recently from her office in Ft. Myers. At a time when Florida was at the height of its battle with COVID-19. We call this podcast episode “'Twas Pretty, Though a Plague.” Rebecca Totaro is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You have written five books about the subject. How did that happen and why?

REBECCA TOTARO: Yes, I have. It was not a plan. I think the way a novelist describes characters taking over their work and writing the character, writes itself. Once I started looking into plague in Shakespeare’s time, one subject led to another, led to another, and I felt that I just had to examine each of the subjects. And as we know from COVID-19, unfortunately, very unfortunately, pandemic disease touches every aspect of lived experience. So, five books is only a fraction of what’s possible—not for me, for someone else.

BOGAEV: I mean, that… I can really get how that could happen. But I’m asking, I think, because it does seem like an overlooked subject. We searched all the people who write about it, and there are not that many. Also, the people who are alive in the midst of plague, like Shakespeare was; they don’t seem to want to write about it. And scholars didn’t really care to either. Given that it’s such a rich topic, why do you think it’s so overlooked?

TOTARO: You know, I was shocked when I was a grad student—this is when I, kind of, discovered it as a topic—and now we all know to be shocked as well; living in this pandemic time—how can you escape it? But the reason I think it has been overlooked is the simple, strange side effect of disciplinary specialization. Historians had it in their purview. It was their domain, you know, the Black Death of 1348. There’s your plague story, so why do you need to research much more than that? It wasn’t something that literary scholars were looking at. The door wasn’t even really open to thinking about historical context for literary works until about 20 years ago.

So, about 20 years ago, when I was looking into dissertation and starting this research, it was more acceptable to say, “Well, okay, Shakespeare’s sonnets, written in plague years. Most of his tragedies, written when theaters were closed.” And then as far as science was concerned, you know, anything prior to the scientific revolution just isn’t worth talking about when it comes to medicine and the history of medicine. So, that’s another reason that I think it wasn’t looked at.

BOGAEV: It seems so different from now, where everyone’s writing in their journals and blogging, and people are writing about what they’re experiencing in their daily experience of this. We also are seeing right from the start of this pandemic that you have this division in the world between the people who want distraction from it, just don’t want to think about it at all and are just watching romantic comedies or something. And then there are a lot of people wanting to read plague literature and watch movies like Contagion and want to dwell in that. What do you make of that?

TOTARO: Oh well, I suppose the two camps—and even calling them that, we know very well about polarization and what it does to people, which is it puts you in little boxes that are tidy and containable. And when you’re undergoing trauma, what we do is we comfort ourselves in the way that we can. Sometimes painting ourselves into a box, whether it’s the totally open box, “Oh, there’s no need for a mask, there’s no problem,” versus the box, which is, “I’m only going to order my groceries”.

I think those are probably—I haven’t looked at it in literature of Shakespeare’s time, but I’m going to assume those were also categories that people painted them into. I do think it was less the case in Shakespeare’s time for a couple of reasons, but the main one being that people knew their neighbors, so that people could live the experience a little bit more. They weren’t necessarily as saturated by, of course, by media.

BOGAEV: Right, they were living it themselves, they didn’t feel it outside of their own experience.

TOTARO: A fascinating, wonderful fact is that there was no equivalent of a zombie apocalypse narrative in Shakespeare’s time. We go to the doomsday’s tale, because again, we don’t know our neighbors, we haven’t lived in the same community, the same village, where families go back generations, so of course we care for them, we reach out to them.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s really fascinating. We’re going to talk a little bit about it as opposed to those dystopian narratives; you had Utopian narratives in Shakespeare’s time. But first, I do want to pick up on something you said right at the beginning, which is that once you looked into plague, it just led you down so many roads you wanted to pursue them. You also make this point that the plague is not just one thing. We’ve been talking about it as if it’s a monolith. You say in one of your books it wasn’t a static event and that it makes more sense to look at the plague as a process and as a fact of life in Europe that touched everything human for almost 400 years.

TOTARO: Well that’s right, and very unfortunately, it’s taken until now. Now we get that, because of COVID-19. There isn’t a single aspect of lived experience that a pandemic doesn’t touch.

BOGAEV: And you’re talking about economics and agriculture and global, biological and every kind of event.

TOTARO: That’s right. So, exactly, from the astrological to the bodily sneeze, right? To how you’re sleeping. To the words that you say to somebody else are; our language changes when diseases emerge.

One of the things that set me on to write about plague was the line in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, “A plague on both your houses.” Then when Mercutio shouts that, it would have been shouted. He projects that phrase. It’s a curse.

I thought, at the time, not living in a pandemic time myself, we would never, ever do that with the word “cancer.” We would not utter that curse on the stage and hurl it into an audience. So, what was happening then? How would they have heard that? So, yes, it touches every aspect of lived experience.

BOGAEV: What do you see in the writing from that period that gives us some insight, some understanding of how people coped and what they felt?

TOTARO: Coping, we see it in also so many ways, but one of the ways we see it is in their counting of plague dead using mortality bills. This was the first time that deaths were recorded and associated with a particular disease. The people on the ground using those numbers do what we do now, which is: “I’m in Florida, so I’m well aware that we’re looking at 9,000 deaths added to record today. Maybe it’ll be 10,000 tomorrow. It was 14,000 last week.” We count to comfort. They were also doing this, counting by watching the mortality bills.

And there is the bit about, “Why would want to dwell in it?” So, you dip in and you get the facts you need so that then maybe you can go have a walk and pretend that things are normal. That you could forget about it, or you can hug your child and count that when you wake up in the morning everyone will be okay. Now we know also that bifurcated experience of the nightmare that we remember is still happening, even when we can have those lovely dreams of something that’s not impacted by them.

BOGAEV: Well it sounds like another way they coped was practical in sharing plague cures and remedies. Some of which are just hilarious to read now, in a black humor way. Some of them show up in this book that you cite, William Bullein’s A Dialogue Bothe Pleasaunte and Playful. And that just sounds like a real find of plague writing. First, what is it?

TOTARO: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, this is a work written by, what someone who may have been a relative of Anne Boleyn. He is someone who writes essentially a morality tale at the end, tracing the beginnings of a citizen who decides he and his wife are going to flee from London to escape the plague. He’s got a lot of money. The moral of the story is you can’t run if God doesn’t want you to run.

So, they flee London and he still gets plague, but he’s, at the last instant, given the opportunity by the figure of Death to turn to the Christian salvation, and he does that. His wife, on the other hand—a little bit like Noah’s wife, who didn’t want to get on the Ark in Mystery Plays—his wife, on the other hand, basically says, “Oh no, there are all these little remedies, you don’t have to turn to Christianity.” Anyway, so it winds up being a kind of funny morality tale.

BOGAEV: So, that’s a morality story and a quarantine story. There are other first-person accounts of, kind of, quarantine or what life was like during the plague in London that do speak to what we’re experiencing now. I’m thinking of Thomas Clarke.

TOTARO: That’s right.

BOGAEV: Tell us about him?

TOTARO: That’s right. So, Thomas Clarke, Meditations in my Confinement. Thomas Clarke is writing in one of last plague years in the 1660s—and I mean the last plague years—the last time plague comes to England. He doesn’t know this of course. He takes it upon himself to quarantine his family. The only thing we know about him is from this poem.
He mentions that at least one of his children dies. He does not discuss it in detail. But this is a work that is all poetry, highly scripted verse, shockingly poignant, where, although he does not talk about the death of his children, he talks about the love of the friends that were willing to support him during his self-quarantine. They didn’t turn him into authorities. It seems that they probably brought him food. It is a lived experience. This is a rare glimpse into that lived experience, even though surely he wrote it after he was through with the self-quarantine.

It’s a beautiful piece, the amount of time that he spends, not complaining—other writers will complain—but talking about those friends. Also, he’s very sweet; he talks about the other friends that he has that gets him through are his books. And that he returns to them many times during this when he’s got nothing else to do, and they give him solace and entertainment.

BOGAEV: You mentioned that Thomas Clarke didn’t write about his child or children who died, and this also comes up in the plays of the time. You quote someone that we’ve had on this podcast, Barbara Traister, who points out that no dramatist in the period chose to dramatize those directly affected by plague such as victims or survivors mourning the loss of family or friends.

TOTARO: That’s right.

BOGAEV: And I wonder why? Because it’s not just Shakespeare who doesn’t write about the plague. You know, you tend not to see it in the theater much at all in those years.

TOTARO: That’s right, and a poignant, just heartbreaking example is Ben Jonson, who writes The Alchemist. I believe that’s 1603. It’s a comedy about… a lot like William Bullein’s Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence, where there’s a city dweller in London who has the money to escape to the country and he closes up his home and does that. The difference is, it’s a comedy, because these charlatans take over the house and play tricks on the Londoners.

But Ben Jonson, his son did die of plague, we know that. He did write a gorgeous sonnet to his son, and his best friend died of plague also, John Roe. He wrote a sonnet for John, and those are heartbreakingly beautiful about the loss of all hope, and the loss of all father. Why call himself a father anymore when his best piece of poetry—is what he calls his son—is no longer?

So, the heartbreak is so poignant, but yet it never makes it into his plays. And I think there’s the answer; it’s not because… There’s this error out there, and I think now because of COVID-19, we can understand it’s an error—It’s not because people got used to death.

BOGAEV: Right.

TOTARO: You know, I’ve heard that before. Five years ago I heard, students would say the last—as long as I’ve been teaching a literature of the plague class, they would say, “Well people got used to—all their kids died, so they got used to death.” That is wrong. 

BOGAEV: No one ever gets used to that.



TOTARO: The suffering, and if it’s your child. So, of course you wouldn’t put it into your fiction. You might have a private sonnet about it, share it with your family members.

BOGAEV: Well that’s interesting, you just said you might have a private sonnet about it. And I wonder whether, getting back to the theater, that whether this expresses more of a different attitude towards culture and entertainment. You know, there’s an etiquette that you don’t address this painful, private part of life in your low-brow theater or novels or other writings.

TOTARO: Right.

BOGAEV: And now we don’t have that etiquette. The low-brow and the high-brow, they’re all so mixed and the TMI situation is…

TOTARO: Yeah, and you know, I almost wonder if it’s as much the conflation of public/private more than high-brow/low-brow. Because as you were going there and giving examples, it didn’t exist in any place really—plague writing. I mean, writing about the death of your child wasn’t something that you did. Again, you might hire someone to write the poem that commemorates the death of your child… but to share that raw pain. And we’re just… with the internet, I suppose, people just do. It’s the more the TMI, putting it out there.

BOGAEV: Mm-hmm.

TOTARO: Also, to have done any kind of writing under those conditions, not just a text on your cell phone, not just a—but to have turned to writing and to literature to give expression to something. Even if you’re not recording your direct experience, is an expression of hope. You don’t write a poem if you don’t have some hope in humanity and in the future.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s really… and it’s as if you’re honoring that hope and that—I don’t even know what—sacrifice or just the pain that went so unexpressed during that time.

TOTARO: That’s right. I suppose—I guess I have thought about this before. But this reminds me that, in an era, also, that had trouble, because of Protestantism, that had trouble doing a plague painting. You know, this is a Catholic domain, is the plague painting of the Saint.

BOGAEV: Right, in the Middle Ages there’s plenty of art that’s related to death and plague painting.

TOTARO: Yep, and memorials. At the time there was also, you know, do you make a statue to your dead one? Isn’t that its own kind of icon? Maybe not. But writing, then, becomes that memorial.

Even Thomas Dekker, who winds up doing very dark, and kind of humorous scenes of ridiculous things that happen to the London citizens who flee from plague, talks about—he invocates sorrow and truth. He says, “All of you other muses get you gone, sorrow and truth sit on either side of me and all of the ghosts of the thousands who have died of plague speak through my pen, and let the tears of the ink flow through.”


TOTARO: It’s a powerful memorial. So even when he then turns to the crasser stories, he begins with this invocation of all of those plague dead astounding.

BOGAEV: I don’t want to overlook your work on the letters and letter-writing and the plague that you’ve done. Letters, of course, were the main way that people were communicating with each other. Especially, as you said, the people who fled to the countryside to avoid the plague.

There is the rare plague mentioned in Shakespeare involving the letter that never reaches Romeo, because Friar John gets quarantined because of plague and fails to deliver it. So, just as I was reading your work, I’m thinking, “Today, we’re so scared of our mail and tactile COVID transmission in the mail.” Were people also afraid they could get plague from letters?

TOTARO: Yeah, they were. I mean, I don’t know—although I should say, I don’t know that they all were. In the literature—and Thomas Dekker is one of the writers that does capture this fear by talking about people being concerned that the very letter that was going to bring them comfort could have their death written upon it. They thought it could be carried on air. They did see that it could be human-to-human transmitted, perhaps by breath. There’s a reason why the plague orders distributed throughout England in 1570s say that once a house has been quarantined and people have died within it, then you need to burn belongings. Yes, so...

BOGAEV: And that’s how they purified letters or money in the mail, right? Didn’t they burn it? I think that’s in Daniel Defoe’s Plague Year Journal.

TOTARO: Yeah, so the idea was maybe smoke it. We don’t have record of this being a common thing that occurred, and really it is just one or two mentions. So, I almost would be more likely to put it in a category of: it’s a fear that wasn’t something that really changed people’s practices. If you have the letter from your loved ones, your family in another city, I think you open the letter and you read it. I’m not sure you burn it.

BOGAEV: And then you blow a little smoke on it or you rub Purell on it.

TOTARO: Right, and their equivalent to Purell is even much more delightful than ours, which is something like lavender or some other herb. Because another wonderful detail—that I wish this was true—is that you could only smell one... this is kind of true by experience; you could only smell one thing at a time. So, if you can make sure you’re always smelling something good—this is the origin of the nosegay—if you can only smell that, then plague can’t make its way through that odor into you.

BOGAEV: Really?

TOTARO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Wow, that is really...

TOTARO: Isn’t that great?

BOGAEV: That’s really an interesting theory. I love that.

TOTARO: So, for example, oranges were something people thought you smelled. To an orange or lavender or some other herbs.

BOGAEV: And it literally pushes the plague out of the way?

TOTARO: Right, right.

BOGAEV: It just can’t make it into your nostrils?

TOTARO: That’s right.

BOGAEV: That’s something. You’ve led me right to the next thing I wanted to talk to you about which is, the theories of medicine at that time, Galenic medicine, that there was such a close connection between your emotions and your health. And this idea that your sorrow from reading a letter about a loved one’s death might make you catch the plague?

TOTARO: That’s right, that’s right.

BOGAEV: Am I understanding this right?

TOTARO: That’s a hundred percent right, which is exactly why when I thought about Mercutio’s words, “A plague on both your houses,” and the horror that that would incite, that it could make them more susceptible to plague. We do have lines in writings that say things like, “A woman was grabbed by a stranger on the street and kissed, and so feared that that person had the plague, that she died.” Your bodily constitution made you inclined to it or less so. Even then, that wasn’t certain, you know? Just like now, you could feel, “Oh, I got this, no problem, I’m strong, I’m healthy,” and they saw that that wasn’t the case either.

BOGAEV: So, if your imagination plays such a part in making you sick, then it would seem to make sense that playwrights and poets wouldn’t want to make people imagine the plague that much. I mean, it’s like infecting them.

TOTARO: Yeah, and that’s something I wonder about. In some cases, we could say the theater closings took care of that decision for playwrights. If they wanted to put the plague play on during plague time, they couldn’t have anyway. So, maybe thank goodness for everybody involved.

BOGAEV: Right. I mean, it does get to the heart, though, of this whole topic, or the background, the questions in the background of this. Which is, what is art good for if our imagination is so deeply connected to our physiology in this whole mind/body paradox? You know, what are we looking for in our art? And what does it do for us?

TOTARO: Well, better darn well make us sing, right? Better darn well be edifying. And I’m saying that thinking of, in Italy, we all heard the news reports about people going out onto their balconies when they were quarantined just recently with COVID-19. Having concerts together, even though they couldn’t be together, that kind of ad hoc, that power of our…

BOGAEV: Yes, it places such a huge amount of power in art. You write that one of the ways that it seems writers did deal with all of this was to talk about a future when it would all be gone basically.

TOTARO: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: You wrote a book called Suffering in Paradise that discusses a number of utopian books. First of all, just list some of them; which ones did you look at?

TOTARO: So, I looked at Thomas More’s Utopia, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World. These all are written over the course of about 150 years, and there are other works that I talk about as being utopian in spirit as opposed to.

So those three works take on imagining a world in which plague has been largely eradicated. Other works I look at where there are steps being taken that show a utopian impulse. So, for example, plague orders that are quarantine laws. Even the church prayers related to plague, I would say, are in that spirit of, “Let’s think about how we can do this differently and better now that we have some room to think about other options.”

BOGAEV: But they did put forth best practices. For instance, in Bacon’s New Atlantis, there’s a minister of health in Bensalem.

TOTARO: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: And then Thomas More’s Utopia, there’s a vision of clean water and a system of healthcare.

TOTARO: That’s right.

BOGAEV: Was he drawing directly from his experience? Because, what was he? Undersheriff of London, at some time during plague.

TOTARO: Yes, he was. As part of those responsibilities, he was commissioner of the sewers. So, we don’t think of Saint Thomas More—and he was executed by Henry VIII—as having been commissioner of the sewers, but that…

BOGAEV: Yeah, what didn’t that guy do? Yeah, go ahead. 

TOTARO: What, exactly. In that role, he not only was in charge of essentially fielding complaints and trying to make things slightly better, even as everybody was putting all of their waste right into the streets. But he—also in that role, he would be sent by Henry VIII ahead of the king. They would send him ahead to see whether the way was kind of clear for the king. If the king wanted to travel about England, they wanted to make sure that plague wasn’t in any of the spots he was going to visit.

BOGAEV: So, what best practices do they talk about? I mean, is it what we know now? Quarantine and social distancing and washing your hands?

TOTARO: This is interesting. So, in More’s time they had not gotten to the point of prescribing nationwide behaviors. But in Utopia, the protection is not especially helpful for us, which is, “Well, Utopia is an island.” So, the first thing you do is just make sure anyone who is coming to the island doesn’t have it. So, we are familiar with that narrative.

BOGAEV: Mm, oh yeah.

TOTARO: But you can’t keep everybody out. But back then, you kind of could; at least the Utopians could.

BOGAEV: So, they lean into the xenophobia?

TOTARO: Yeah, and it takes Queen Elizabeth the first contracting smallpox, and scaring her privy counselors because she hasn’t named an heir, for those privy counselors to say, “Look, we better get a nationwide plan here to keep everybody more safe so that our Queen doesn’t then also get plague, now that she’s recovered from smallpox. We don’t want to just have to be moving her around from place to place to place. She doesn’t have an heir; we want to control more other bodies than just the Queen’s.”

BOGAEV: And where does religion come into this with the utopian writers?

TOTARO: Well, with the utopian writers, I suppose that’s interesting. It’s more in the background, and I think that that makes some sense given that they’re all—the ones I’ve talked about—are Protestant writers. There’s something of a conflation in all of the cases that the leaders in Thomas More’s Utopia, the leaders in Utopia, the leaders in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, and the leader in Cavendish’s Blazing World (who happens to be a figure for Cavendish, the author herself), they are all also religious leaders. So they are kind of scientists, government officials, and religious leaders just like the Protestant head of England and head of the church.

BOGAEV: Okay, so how do we understand, then, the implications of utopian writers? Leaning, I guess, more on the science or medicine of the time and not on religion. Is this the rise of humanism behind that?

TOTARO: There are so many ways to answer this question, but I would make it focus on the audience needs. By the time these people are writing in the 16th century and the 17th century, plague has been around in England for a couple centuries.

And religion hasn’t worked, right? Just praying isn’t making a difference and by this time they certainly knew that plague was not associated with one individual sin. It was a disease that was being visited upon the innocent and the sinners, the sinful alike. On the wealthy, on the not wealthy, it was indiscriminate. And so, other answers were necessary.

You’re right about humanism because Thomas More was also someone who was a humanist and who was working with Thomas Linacre, a friend of his who studied medicine in Italy. They helped found the College of Physicians to advance a more secular approach to medicine.

BOGAEV: And utopian literature; that is, thinking of the alternative. You know, getting beyond the box.

TOTARO: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Getting back to Shakespeare though, we have to address this. What we hear over and over again in this time, that Shakespeare…there wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without the plague.

TOTARO: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: You do get to this in your writing, and you offer some support for the idea that the plague in 1563 – 64 may have given us the plays of William Shakespeare. With the caveat, though, that we don’t really know much of anything for sure about Shakespeare’s life. Why don’t you explain why some scholars believe this to be true?

TOTARO: Well, so when it comes to those particular years, Park Honan is a biographer of Shakespeare who has put forward the idea that in Stratford-on-Avon, in the year of Shakespeare’s birth, within 300 yards of Henley Street where Shakespeare was born and where he was living, 300 yards away, there was a family that had an apprentice and a child die of plague. There were many other children that died that year in Stratford, so the people he would have grown up with, then, the families the family knew had losses.

The idea that Honan puts forward is that this changes the way you perceive yourself as a human being. If you feel that there’s something, you were spared. There’s a survivor kind of quality about that. Then also how your parents see you, how your parents may care for you. Apparently Mary, his mother, had had miscarriages prior to Shakespeare being born, and that this may have inclined her to have cared for him in kind of a different, more conscientious way that we would think—I mean, certainly is happening right now in COVID-19 for new moms out there.


TOTARO: So, that’s from the 1560s. That influence on Shakespeare and then certainly, of course, the larger claim about its influence on Shakespeare—about plagues influence on Shakespeare from those theater closings. We probably wouldn’t have the sonnets or Venus and Adonis, or the Rape of Lucrece at all. And we probably wouldn’t have as many plays and we might not have as many tragedies. One after the other, after the other written in those years when pretty much between 1603 and 1611 theaters were closed.

BOGAEV: So, do you imagine that someone 400 years from now will see a lot of plague literature coming out of the early 21st century?

TOTARO: Oh, sure. Yeah, yes, I just don’t know where they’ll start. There’s going to be… to your TMI comment earlier, there’s so much more of it now. I don’t know, we’ll see. I think because COVID-19 fatigue is real and we’ll see what the productivity yields. It’s certainly got potential to be spectacular.

BOGAEV: I have to ask you, how does knowing what you know about plague shape your behavior or your thinking or your reactions to COVID now?

TOTARO: You know, it makes me… sadly, it makes me calmer and more thankful that my house is in order. I mean, this is… then that’s a 16th, 17th, there’s a 14th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th century way of thinking about how to prepare for a pandemic. But my goodness, I am thankful for my friends. I am thankful for my family and the love there, and those things don’t have to be changed. I suppose maybe I’ll say it that way; is that, for us all, when we think about, what has not changed? Or what has gotten highlighted in really beautiful ways? And our loves do, you know? Our connections to others do.

BOGAEV: You know, I was trying to imagine how you might answer that question, and I wondered whether you feel the distance between the centuries melt away?

TOTARO: Oh yes. And then everybody does. So, now, you know, I can finally say to my students in Literature of the Plague class—they would say, “Oh, it was a time of chaos, it was a time of lawlessness.” We already talked about, “When people died, you know, they got used to it,” and now they’ll know. I don’t have to say to them, “It was not a time of chaos and lawlessness, it was a time of earnest reflection, doing the best you could. Putting one foot in front of the other because you’re doing it now.” Exactly, it’s no different.

BOGAEV: And maybe a lot of pain and just tremendous boredom.

TOTARO: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: All of those things.

TOTARO: That’s right.

BOGAEV: And does it make you—in the same way that the distance between the centuries melt away—does it make you feel more of a connection to your sources into Shakespeare?

TOTARO: Yeah. You know, I was starting to have plague fatigue, and I do have COVID-19 fatigue. But I had actually been trying to get away from it because I thought, “Well, golly, you know, maybe it’s time to turn to the comedies? I like the comedies.” But there isn’t as much that’s, kind of, deeply edifying and hopeful and powerful as that plague writing that just... so I do. I’m brought right back into it. Why actors love Shakespeare is that Shakespeare gives you Life with a capital L, right? You know, Love with a capitol L, and yes, Death with a capital D. But when you’re living that life, when you’re living it, it is with a capital L, it is with a capital D. Loneliness, I mean, all of those things, so yes, it has. 

BOGAEV: Yes, COVID fatigue for sure, but you’ve really woken me out of it. Thank you so much for talking today.

TOTARO: Thank you. Oh, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. It’s a powerful time that we can use to be inspired and flourish. I mean, we see that. I would end by saying that Shakespeare gave us the romances in the very end. They’re about resurrection, right? They’re about reunion with our loved ones and change. So this is our chance.

BOGAEV: Oh, I wish you the best. Thank you so much.

TOTARO: Thank you.  


WITMORE: Dr. Rebecca Totaro has written or edited five books. They are: Meteorology and Physiology in Early Modern Culture; Representing the Plague in Early Modern England, which she wrote with Ernest B. Gilman; The Plague Epic in Early Modern England: Heroic Measures, 1603–1721; The Plague in Print; and Suffering in Paradise: The Bubonic Plague in English Literary Studies from More to Milton. Dr. Totaro is an associate dean and a professor of literature in the College of Arts & Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode “'Twas Pretty, Though a Plague” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

As always, I’d like to ask: Please rate and review Shakespeare Unlimited in the Apple Podcasts store. That’s the best way to let people know what we’re doing here.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.