Plague Writing, the Bard and Covid19
Home quarantine is nothing new.
Nor is fear, paranoia and the peddling of unproven remedies in the face of a rampant infectious disease.
While I sit at work on a novel set in London at the start of the sixteen hundreds and Covid19 continues its rapid destructive sweep, I can’t help but notice the parallel experience, or be deaf to the echoes of history, particularly from the year of 1603.
For Londoners of Shakespeare’s time, plague and the threat of its return was as much a part of life as a trip to the theatre, while the fate of actors and the fortune of the theatres was very much linked to the vagaries of the disease. Bubonic Plague always peaked in the summer months but varied wildly from year to year. Some years would bring a merciful few cases, others, it would flare into epidemic proportions. People of the time did not understand the link between the increase in hot weather and humidity, the increased breeding of fleas on rats and the resultant surge in the dreaded disease, but they certainly knew the seasonal pattern well enough and kept data to track and predict the plague’s ebb and flow.
Every parish was required to keep records of those who had died along with a cause of death. These records were compiled into the weekly Bills of Mortality and publicly displayed in places such as Saint Paul’s Yard and The Strand. With plague deaths recorded in their own separate column, it became a morbid pastime for Londoners to read the Bills each week, a practise eerily echoed in our own times.
How many new cases? How many deaths?
Different disease but the same questions preying on everyone’s mind over four hundred years ago.
Should we stay or should we go? Business as usual or shut everything down? Do we have enough food and money to survive? Is there something we can take to make sure we don’t catch it? Is there someone we can blame?
No saliva swabs or lab reports then. Instead, when plague was suspected in a household, women ‘searchers’ were employed to examine the ill person, or the body of the corpse, for tell-tale signs of the disease. Symptoms might include a fever, rash, cough, bleeding orifices, and swollen lymph glands in the groin or armpit. The characteristic swellings were known as buboes and could enlarge so quickly and to such an extent that they would burst through the skin causing terrible pain.
Home-quarantine Shakespearean-era style was somewhat more draconian and deadly than the current fourteen day requirement but the principles of isolating the sick to protect the healthy were the same. Once plague was confirmed the house was boarded up, including all the residents healthy or otherwise, the doors nailed shut and painted with a red cross. Watchmen were placed on guard day and night to ensure no one left for forty days, (unless it was to be taken away to be buried). Food and supplies were hoisted via a basket to a window, if the occupants could find someone willing to deliver to a plague house, the Shakespearean era equivalent of contactless Deliveroo.
PPE was rudimentary to say the least. Plague workers wore a black cape and full face- covering mask, not unlike modern face masks, apart from the scary-looking bird-like beak which gave them the appearance of predatory crows. Plague workers had to carry a white staff so others could avoid them in the street and people walked down the middle of the road to avoid contact.
1603 was a particularly bad year for London, starting with the death of Queen Elizabeth late in March. Her funeral was delayed until 28th April bringing thousands of extra people into London for the funeral procession along The Strand and service at Westminster Abbey. Many people stayed on for the new King’s planned coronation, the sudden influx of people a possible factor in the subsequent spike of the disease. So quickly did the epidemic take hold that the King’s coronation planned for July in London had to be held at Windsor instead.
In the first week of August the weekly plague deaths reached just under two thousand, peaking in the first week of September at three thousand and thirty-five. By the time the year’s epidemic ran its course one in six of London’s population had died of the disease. It wasn’t until October that the numbers began to decline and not until the following March of 1604 that the theatres were finally reopened after being closed for most of the year.
Some of the parish burial entries are tragically poignant.
A poor wench died in a cage.
(There being ‘cages’ on the outskirts of the city where infected people were sent to die.)
A poor boy died under St John’s wall.
A poor child found at Mistress Baker’s door.
With the theatres closed, acting companies were forced to tour the country but the pickings were slim and they were not always welcome as suspected carriers of the disease. During the plague of 1603 Shakespeare did not go on tour with his Company. Thankfully for us, as he did during other plague years, he used the time to write. There is no definitive timeline for when he wrote his plays but there are two contenders for this particular deadly year.
Firstly Measure for Measure, a play fittingly about civic corruption given that many of the officials who were meant to ensure law and order were the first to flee in the face of the disease.
The other is a tragi-comedy with the perfectly apt and hopeful title All’s Well That Ends Well.
Cynicism balanced by hope.
The best and worst of humanity.
Contradictory but complementary themes.
It remains to be seen what lessons we will take from this current crisis and whether such lessons will change anything or will quickly be forgotten. I’d like to hope that Shakespeare’s simple recipe for life set down in All’s Well That Ends Well could be a legacy for this modern ‘plague’. His recipe simply states.
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none”.
But perhaps another quote might prevail in the aftermath of the pandemic, humans having a tendency to filter problematic memories.
“the bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.”