Did Shakespeare Write During Plague?

Elizabethan theaters were frequently shuttered in London during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which claimed nearly a third of the city’s population. The official rule was that once the death rate exceeded thirty per week, performances would be canceled. 

London officials worried about groups gathering in large numbers, or in close quarters, which the playhouses were both of these things and therefore top on the list of closings.

In the first decade of King James I’s reign, the plague meant that London theaters were likely closed more often than they were open.

It’s long been thought that Shakespeare turned to poetry when plague closed the theaters in 1593. That’s when he published Venus and Adonis, where goddess begs a kiss from a beautiful boy by saying “to drive infection from the dangerous year.” It was thought that poetry could banish plague.

 James Shapiro suggests that another closure of theaters, in 1606, allowed Shakespeare, an actor and shareholder in The King’s Men, to get a lot of dramatic writing done. 1606 is when Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Source

As Professor Jonathan Bate writes in his biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age:

Plague was the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare’s] life and those of his contemporaries.


RELATED EPISODE YOU MIGHT ENJOY: Jonathan Bate visits with us to talk about the Genius of Shakespeare. Listen Now

After the theater closings in 1603, only three principal companies were allowed to resume performances in 1604, and only then so long as deaths remained below 30 people a week. 

According to David Grote, author of The Best Actors in the World: Shakespeare and His Acting Company, from 1606-1610 the theaters were closed more than they were open. Plague houses under quarantine in London were marked with red crosses, adn there were even complaints from local authorities that too many people were washing them off!

As the plague numbers grew substantially into the thousands The lord mayor promised to respond with harsher measures, and promised to expelling beggars from the city, posting watchmen outside every infected house, “and suffering no persons to go more out of the said house” This posting of watchmen outside the house and not letting anyone leave is why the friar in Romeo and Juliet who was charged with delivering Romeo’s letter, was unable to do so. He was trapped in a house that was quarantined. 

Practically speaking for London during this time, however, there were not substantial enough resources to be this watchful of every house, there were simply too many and the city did not have enough resources. 

When plague spread through much of London in July, Shakespeare’s parish, St Olave’s of Silver Street, located in the north-west just inside London’s city walls, had been spared. St Olave’s was a tiny parish, and in the decade before 1606 its church bells had only tolled for the dead an average of twice a month (with the exception of the plague year of 1603, when 125 parishioners died). Even as dozens were dying every week of plague elsewhere in London in the summer of 1606, not a single burial had been recorded in the backwater of St Olave’s since April, and only two others died in the parish before the end of August.

Around 1606 as Shakespeare was writing plays like King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, many players fled to the country to avoid being clustered in the city with disease and Shakespeare’s company, too would follow suit that July as plague deaths in London surpassed 30/week which was the official marker at which point they shuttered the theaters. Some companies were completely dissolved purely because so many of their members died from plague. 

Shakespeare’s company performed several times for King James to please the visiting Danish dignitary. But even they, once the plague numbers were too high, fled to the country and toured with performances in Dover, Maidenhead, and Oxford that summer.

When they returned to London the huge bout with plague in 1603 which had killed thousands per week, followed by the smaller but still as damaging round of plague in 1606 left a wound on the theater industry, and Shakepseare’s career in particular. 

By the year of 1607, There is some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was intentionally phasing himself out of the King’s Men management and into formal retirement which coincided with the severe decline in playhouse performances due to plague. In his book, David Grote provides evidence to suggest Shakespeare may not have been in London at all during the summer of 1607 as his company was performing in London, but instead that Shakespeare was in Stratford for the wedding of his daughter, Susanna, to John Hall which happened on June 5, 1607 (that is my birthday! Fun fact.) 

The normal pattern for plague was to decline in winter months, and while we know Shakespeare’s company performed at least 9 times in the winter of 1606-1607 that doesn’t necessarily mean those performances were at The GLobe or another playhouse and it is worth noting it also doesn’t mean Shakespeare himself had to be there. A Sharer in the company was required by law to be there,but that could have been any one of the sharers not Shakespeare specifically. Additionally, revenue was happening during times of plague, even if not at public gatherings, since court performances would continue even when theaters were closed. 

The King’s Men were back in London definitely by November of 1607, and would perform at court 13 times before Christmas. 

Winter almost always brought a cessation of plague, adn the winter of 1607-1608 was one of the coldest on record. It was the year the Thames froze over, and people could not only walk on the ice but actually were able to build cold fires on the ice. 

So important were the plays to the general public that they braved such cold to attend the performance of perciles that winter which was quite popular. 

When we look at the rise and fall of plague in Shakespeare’s lifetime, it is incredible he was spared as often as he was while fellow playwrights and Londoners about him were taken by the disease. As much as anything else in his life, it seems plague shaped much of what we know as Shakespeare’s career. 

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I hope that helps! Thank you for watching!

I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.
I’ll see you next week.