Welcome to Episode #54 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Whether it’s Lear calling Goneril a plague-sore, or Mercutio cursing the families in Romeo and Juliet by saying “A plague on both your houses!” Shakespeare’s works testify to the fact that rampant plague was a very real, and very prevalent, part of Shakespeare’s daily life.

But what were the concerns about plague that Shakespeare was considering when he wrote these works that refer to the disease?

For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, there was a real plague culture in England that impacted the entertainment industry including theater, literature, and even music. Here today to help us unpack what we can learn about plague for Shakespeare’s lifetime is an expert on this subject, Rebecca Totaro professor of literature and culture of early modern England at Florida Gulf Coast University and author of several books on plague including The Plague in Print. Rebecca joins us today to discuss her book, plague in general, and what surviving documents written about the experiences of living with plague can teach about the life of William Shakespeare.

Join the conversation below.

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Rebecca Totaro is Professor of English at Florida Gulf Coast University and Editor of Cultural Inquiries in English Literature, 1400-1700 – an award-winning book series with Penn State University Press (formerly Medieval & Renaissance Literary Studies, with Duquesne UP).

Recipient of the Monroe Kirk Spears Award from SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 for “Securing Sleep in Hamlet,” Totaro has served as a fellow and invited speaker at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. and as invited speaker at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Totaro is author/editor of five books on the premodern experience of plague and other complex disasters, including most recently, Meteorology and Physiology in Early Modern Culture: Earthquakes, Human Identity, and Textual Representation (Routledge, 2018).

Learn more and connect with Rebecca here. 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Rebecca about :

  •  I want to ask you to distinguish between the Black Death that swept through the Middle Ages and the plague outbreaks we know shut down theaters in Shakespeare’s lifetime. We don’t have a modern equivalent of a “plague”, so what does that mean medically and how could it be “Finished” after The Black Death and still have something else called “plague” closing theaters for Shakespeare? Were they the same illness? Why does it keep coming back?
  • What was the plague bill put out by the Corporation of London?

  • Why did a plague doctor wear that bird’s beak looking mask?

    …. and more!

 How now! 
Even so quickly may one catch the plague

Twelfth Night, I.5

Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514) Source

The Black Death

The medieval plague we think of as wiping out Europe in the 1300s is the same disease which attacked England repeatedly during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The disease was brought on by bacteria carried on rats and whenever, or wherever, the rat population was allowed to blossom–as it did in hygienically challenged London of Shakespeare’s lifetime, rounds of plague would rise up and attack the city. The plague was such an embedded part of every day life, much like dealing with mosquitos, pollen, or flu season today, that writers of the time period often included the plague in their poems and plays of the day. Woodcuts, as well as other forms of artistic expression document the realities of this disease. William Shakespeare was one of many writers during this time period who captured the plague’s hold on London through their work. 

A plague on thee! thou art too bad to curse.

Timon of Athens, IV.3

                                   The Pestlazarett in Vienna - Alsergrund - votive picture, around 1680 Vienna, St. Michael. Source

William Muggins

William Muggins was a poet and a contemporary of Shakespeare. He self-quarantined his entire family to try and avoid catching the plague. He wrote about his experience in a poem. His poem describes the plague as “London’s Mourning Garment” as described in the introduction to the digital copy of his poem: “Londons mourning garment, or funerall teares worne and shed for the death of her wealthy cittizens, and other her inhabitants. To which is added, a zealous and feruent prayer, with a true relation how many haue dyed of all diseases, in euery particuler parish within London, the liberties, and out parishes neere adioyning from the 14 of Iuly 1603. to the 17 of Nouember.”  You can read his poem online here, or Rebecca describes the poem in detail inside her book which you can purchase a copy of on amazon *affiliate link*

I thank them; and would send them back the plague
Could I but catch it for them.


Timon of Athens, V.1

Map of Plague in Europe 1550. Source

Thomas Moulton’s Plague Remedy 

it is through the literature of Thomas Moulton that we are able to identify clearly the general opinion of plague and it’s treatment during Shakespeare’s lifetime. For many, the air around you was suspect in relation to giving one the plague. Elizabethans thought that if you breathed bad air, or let it in through your skin and pores, that you were placing yourself at high risk. Thomas Moulton describes his remedy for preventing plague as “Also use no baths or stoves; nor swet too much, for all openeth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre to enter and for to infecte the bloode.’” While hygiene, and cleanliness, were important to the Tudors,  there was also a prevalent fear of bathing due to their association of nakedness and steam from a hot bath with the promulgation of plague. (Source)

What a plague means my niece, to take the death of her brother thus?
Sir Toby Belch

Twelfth Night, I.3

Thomas Vicary. Oil painting. Source

Chicken Butt Cure for Plague

Known as “the Vicary Method” in honor of the man who came up with this seemingly bizarre idea, Thomas Vicary, established the chicken butt cure for plague. The process was to take a live chicken, shave it’s behind, and apply the live chicken’s rear end to the plague sores on an infected person’s body. As you might have guessed, the chicken would then contract plague. According to Thomas Vicary, you continued applying the chicken to the plague sores until only the chicken was sick and the human being treated was well again. Then the chicken was killed and disposed. This often resulted in spreading of plague from the chicken, but it also worked in enough instances that the treatment was popular. There’s even a special lecture held still today at the Royal College of Surgeons in England to honor Thomas Vicary and his plague cure.

Shakespeare’s Place in History

A timeline showing Shakespeare’s life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.

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