During this past year, the crisis around Covid 19 has had a huge effect on live theater performances. Broadway is still closed, and theater companies are just beginning to open again with safety measures in place. In Tudor and Stuart England, the waves of plague similarly affected the budding theater business.
William Shakespeare’s life and career was shaped by the deadly disease (we will be using “plague” here to cover various outbreaks of disease, as there were a few infectious diseases that were described in this way). Shakespeare’s family was affected by plague very early in his life. Two of his siblings died during an outbreak of plague, and Shakespeare’s parents put their house in lockdown to protect the infant William. When Shakespeare grew up and moved to London to pursue his career, the plague and the associated shutdowns became a constant obstacle.
In 1593, London was gripped by a horrifying wave of plague. Historians estimate that 10,000 Londoners died over the course of 14 months. During this time, the theaters were closed in an attempt to stem the infectious disease. This was well before the acceptance of germ theory, but there was an understanding that people seemed to get sick if they were around other people who were ill. The early 1600s saw several outbreaks, and in their version of watching the infection numbers, the Privy Council decreed that the theaters had to close when more than thirty people in the city died within the week. In the summer of 1606, theaters were forced to close in a season when Shakespeare’s company was performing King Lear and Macbeth. Ironically, Shakespeare probably wrote these plays when the theaters were closed during a 1603 outbreak of plague.
Image Courtesy of the The Folger Shakespeare Library
The plague appears in Shakespeare’s works in subtle ways. Interestingly, Shakespeare does not have any characters who die of the plague. This may have been because so many theater goers would have lost friends and family to the plague and wouldn’t have wanted to see it acted out on the stage. The threat of plague was a device that Shakespeare used. In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence’s critical message to Romeo doesn’t get to him because the messenger is quarantined and cannot travel. Shakespeare also brings up the plague in King Lear when he curses his oldest daughter. The biggest influence the plague closures may have had was the amount of time that Shakespeare was able to dedicate to writing some of his best plays. In addition to the plays listed above, he also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens when the theaters were shuttered.
Sources: "He Didn't Flee": Shakespeare and the Plague. Here and Now, WBUR.org.
"How Shakespeare's Great Escape From the Plague Changed Theater". The Guardian