Twitter has been taunting us: When he was in quarantine from the plague, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear.
He had an advantage, of sorts: Shakespeare’s life was marked by plague. Just weeks after his baptism at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, the register read, Hic incepit pestis (Here begins the plague). Mortality rates in the town were four times that of the previous, plague-free year. Shakespeare, the son of the town’s glover, survived it and many further outbreaks. Much of his work was composed, if not in lockdown, then in the shadow of a highly infectious disease without a known cure.
While the theatres were closed for an epidemic in 1592-3, the fledgling playwright produced his hugely successful narrative poems Venus and Adonis (a piece of beautiful erotica in which the goddess Venus throws herself at the unwilling Adonis) and The Rape of Lucrece (a queasily voyeuristic poem about sexual assault).
Study of civic corruption
Again in 1603-4, when plague prevented the coronation celebrations for the new king, James I, and one in five Londoners succumbed to the disease, Shakespeare was probably writing his study of civic corruption, Measure for Measure.
In the plague outbreak of the summer of 1606, Shakespeare may well have been working on King Lear, given that the tragedy’s first performance was at the Palace of Whitehall, the main London residence of Tudor and Stuart English monarchs, “on St Stephen’s night in Christmas holidays” the same year.
The impact of the disease on the play, though, is oblique. There are references to plague which have lost their specificity over time, but which must then have caused a shiver. Lear curses his daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall with “Vengeance, plague, death, confusion,” and berates her as a “plague-sore or embossed carbuncle / In my corrupted blood.”
Shakespeare is not interested in the statistics — what in his time were called the bills of mortality. His fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy, setting humane uniqueness against the disease’s obliterating ravages.
“Plague-sore” refers to the inflamed lymph glands that were such a feared symptom of the disease — it’s not something any parent should wish on their child. Perhaps the play’s particular violence on the younger generation allegorises that of the plague itself: The disease was most rampant among those in their 20s and 30s.
Shakespeare seems to have been able largely to shut out his immediate context. The plague is everywhere and nowhere in his work. In the language of King Lear and other plays it is ubiquitous — but otherwise it’s almost entirely absent.
Men and women, to be sure, die in any number of inventive ways. In Othello, Desdemona is smothered in her bed. In Titus Andronicus, the rapists Chiron and Demetrius have their throats cut and are baked in pastry. John of Gaunt dies of old age exacerbated by the absence of his exiled son in Richard II. In Hamlet, Ophelia drowns.
Documentary realism was not Shakespeare’s style
But no one in Shakespeare’s plays dies of the plague. Romeo and Juliet, who die because the friar’s letter is held up by quarantine measures in northern Italy, are the nearest his work comes to plague fatalities.
Just as Shakespeare never set a play in contemporary London, neither did he address directly the most prominent cause of sudden death in his society. Documentary realism was not Shakespeare’s style.
It is to other literary forms and authors — in particular Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker, who wrote a series of feverishly inventive, sardonic prose pamphlets on the plague, or the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, whose play The Alchemist captures the manic energy of a house during a plague lockdown left in the hands of the servants while the master is away — that we must look to find the direct effects of plague on 17th-century society.
Shakespeare does something different. Rene Girard, the French critic, wrote in a famous essay that “the distinctiveness of the plague is that it ultimately destroys all forms of distinctiveness.” Mass burial pits for plague victims were one visible symbol of the way the disease erased social, gender and personal difference.
Dekker noted that in the communal grave, Servant and master, foul and fair / One livery wear, and fellows are. Plague was indifferent to the boundaries erected by society, and its appetite was ravenous. Thousands of husbands, wives and children were led to the grave, Dekker recalled, “as if they had gone to one bed.”
The imagery common in late medieval culture — known as the “danse macabre,” or dance of death — depicted death, personified as a skeleton, moving obscenely among the living. He is with them, unseen, in the bedroom, at table, in the street, in the counting house.
While grimly terrifying, the depiction also domesticates death: Death cares about our particularity enough to stalk us as we go about our daily business. Shakespeare’s tragedies share this intimacy. Their response to plague is not to deny mortality but rather to emphasise people’s unique and inerasable difference.
The paradox of tragedy is that it underscores the significance and distinctiveness of the individual even as it moves him inexorably toward his end. It does not defy death; it re-endows it with meaning and specificity.
Elaborate plots, motives, interactions and obscurities focus our attention on human beings. No one in Shakespeare’s plays dies quickly and obscurely, thrown into a communal grave. Rather, last words are given full hearing, epitaphs are soberly delivered, bodies taken offstage respectfully.
Shakespeare is not interested in the statistics — what in his time were called the bills of mortality. His fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy, setting humane uniqueness against the disease’s obliterating ravages. His work is a cultural prophylactic against understanding disease solely in quantitative terms, a narrative vaccine.
A reminder of our shared humanity
King Lear does this, too: It deliberately sets aside numbers and scale to resolutely focus on individuals. When Lear realises, in the storm on the heath, that he has ignored the plight of his people, it’s less the discovery of an ancient British noblesse oblige and more the realisation that indiscriminate plague should remind us of our shared humanity:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are / That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, / How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you / From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.
The king’s own misery makes him see, for the first time, that other people’s lives have meaning, too.
Maybe our misery now, like Lear’s, will help us to see the meaning in the lives of others. Maybe, like Shakespeare, we should focus not on statistics but on the wonderfully, weirdly, cussedly, irredeemably individual.
— Emma Smith is a professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford and the author, most recently, of This is Shakespeare.