Friday, May 1, 2020

Plague in Shakespeare's Time

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, when Shakespeare was writing his plays and living, for the most part, in London, plague was an occasional but expected social evil. At various times from the middle ages through the seventeenth century, the bubonic plague spread from country to country via flea-bearing vermin on ships, and so entered port cities, London being one, and spread from there. Those who could afford it, or had rich friends who owned country manors, fled the town. Those less fortunate "sheltered in place," or didn't, in London, and many caught the "pest." The proportion of fatalities was astronomically higher than any nation is experiencing from Covid-19. In the 1592-93 outbreak, ten percent of the London population died. By comparison, in New York City at the time of this writing, fewer than two-tenths of one percent of the population have died of Covid-19. Not as many people recovered from the plague as now get over Covid, though a lot did, especially as its strain apparently mutated and grew less virulent. People could hope.

There was a second outbreak of plague in London while Shakespeare was there, in 1603, and a milder one in 1605. During none of these plague years did civic authorities outlaw church services, and they rarely interfered with people's shopping, but they did outlaw morally sketchier gatherings in which people pressed