Shakespeare: the Plague Years

A city is under strict orders: bars and restaurants closed, public gatherings prohibited, and the theaters are locked up. Steamboat in 2020? Yes, but also London in 1603, amidst one of the plague epidemics that swept the City during the course of Shakespeare’s life. The earliest was the year he was born, 1564. That he managed to dodge that bullet as an infant is the first evidence of divine intervention that produced some of the greatest plays in the English language

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he began his writing career as well as acting in the productions he created. His fame and fortune grew until 1593 when another plague epidemic swept the City. Forced to abandon the theatre, Shakespeare embraced poetry and found success writing sonnets and a lengthy epic poem, Venis and Adonis. Like many of us, he was unable to find work in his chosen field and moved sideways to become successful in another.

Although the current coronavirus infection is a significant danger to public health, the bubonic plague of 1593 was horrific. Twenty percent of the London population died with black, swollen lymph nodes, high fevers, and multiple organ failure. Then, as now, there was no known cure (the discovery of bacterial infections was still centuries away) so restrictions on public gatherings and movement were the only way to mitigate the spread of the disease. Then, as now, royal proclamations from the newly ascendant King James (following the death of the historic figure, Queen Elizabeth) became increasingly severe. Then, as now, the population was not to be inconvenienced, even by piles of dead bodies which littered the streets of Suffolk, from visiting the brothels, bear baitings, and theatre performances unless absolutely required to by force of law.

Quarantine was more restrictive in those days. Houses with suspected cases of the plague were nailed shut and distinctive red crosses painted on the doors. In Romeo and Juliet, the fateful message to be delivered to Romeo explaining Juliet’s apparent death, is held up because the messenger is locked up in a plague house, and “not let forth.” Romeo and Juliet is, in fact, the only play of its time to even reference the plague and its impact. Mercutio’s final curse – “A plague on both your houses!” – would certainly have resonated with Shakespeare’s audience who knew all too well what consequences this curse would bring down on the Montagues and the Capulets.

In 1603, the year of the next outbreak, theatre companies like The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe) traveled to “the Provinces” to find meager work in towns and villages outside the capital city of London. Other companies simply closed up, went bankrupt, and sold their costumes (which were a real investment, then as now). The same fate awaits artists, actors, and theatre companies today. Very few have benefactors like the Earl of Southampton who was Shakespeare’s patron while he wrote his poems. In a single afternoon, a well-known professional actor based in Denver lost over three months of work with the prospect of only a couple of weeks of Actor’s Equity Union compensation to tide him over. The term starving artist has never been more real or inevitable. Actors who work on short term contracts without Union support have it even worse as they’re hired without any possibility of benefits or unemployment insurance.

In 1604, when the theaters reopened, Shakespeare’s company emerged with great costumes, the best actors, and the patronage of the king to begin performing once again. The first production before the royal court netted them over $30,000 in today’s money, and additional $10,000 for the inconvenience of being out of work for the previous year. We can only hope this same generosity awaits today’s actors and artists when we crawl out of hiding into the sun of a new day – the first of the After Corona era.

Quoting from Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column, “disaster-prone nations have learned the hard way over centuries: Tight rules and order save lives. Meanwhile, cultures that have faced few threats — such as the United States — have had the luxury of remaining loose. Our loose cultural programming needs to do a big switch in the days to come.” Which means for the Steamboat crowd: don’t crowd, avoid people whenever possible, stay home if you’re sick, follow all the public health protocols. We live in a very small, very public world where “a virus-laden bat bites another mammal in China which is sold in a Wuhan wildlife market where it infects a Chinese diner with a new coronavirus and in a few weeks all the public schools are closed in the US. This exponentially infecting virus is like a loan shark who charges 25 percent a day interest. We borrowed $1 (the first coronavirus to appear here). We then fiddled for 40 days. Now we owe $7,500. If we wait three more weeks to pay, we’ll owe almost $1 million. That’s why working every single day to slow the rate of infection and testing everyone possible is everything. Lose that battle, lose the war.”

Stuart Handloff, March 2020

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