• 瘟疫蔓延中的羅密歐與朱麗葉|戴啟思
  • 2020-04-20    


Infection and Invention-Shakespeare and the Plague

There is not much to be said about the hardships and privations that afflict us because of COVID-19, but plagues and viral epidemics sometimes bring out the best in creative minds.

Shakespeare was born in a prosperous English Midland county town in 1564. The Stratford parish church birth and death's registers for that year recorded Shakespeare's birth but also included the later-recorded death of a teenage trainee weaver.

Against the name of the unfortunate apprentice appeared the Latin words 'Hic incipit pestis'-'Here began the plague'. The town of Stratford lost some 200 people to the disease in the following months, about 20 per cent of the population, but it spared the infant Shakespeare.

Shakespeare would grow up knowing the fragility of life, aware of the gaps in the town's families left by plague victims as the disease returned on two further occasions before he was eighteen years old.

Between the 1560s and 1610s, roughly the span of the playwright's life, the bubonic plague was a regular visitor to England. It always hit towns severely and London, the capital, hardest. When it came to settle in a household, it infected all the inhabitants and usually killed at least fifty per cent of them. In 1603, some thirty thousand Londoners died of the plague. The city then had a population of just over 200,000, so about one in seven died.

A successful writer, the kind who would today be writing sensationalist feature columns in popular illustrated weekly magazines, was Thomas Dekker. He was a playwright by calling, but the plague had closed places of popular entertainment like theatres, and he had to turn his pen to other employment.

He decided to shock Londoners by writing about the gruesome aspects of the plague. Here is an extract from his pamphlet 'The Wonderfull Yeare' (1603) describing the burial grounds on the outskirts of the city:

"Imagine then that all this while, Death (like a Spanish Leagar, or rather like stalking Tamberlaine) hath pitched his tents, (being nothing but a heape of winding sheets tacked together) in the sinfully-polluted Suburbes: the Plague is Muster-maister and Marshall of the field: Burning Feauers, Boyles, Blaines, and Carbuncles, the Leaders, Lieutenants, Serieants, and Corporalls: the maine Army consisting (like Dunkirke) of a mingle-mangle, viz. dumpish Mourners, merry Sextons, hungry Coffin-sellers, scrubbing Bearers, and nastie Graue-makers:..."

Shakespeare was trying to make a living in London as a playwright and actor all this time. When the plague struck London in 10 years earlier in 1593 when he was 29 years old, the theatres closed. Rather than writing plays and acting, Shakespeare, like Dekker, had to find something else to do.

Shakespeare turned to poetry. His long poem 'Venus and Adonis' strikes a topical note. The mortal Adonis captivates the goddess Venus. Social distancing was unknown then so Venus asks for a favour from Adonis that we might consider potentially suicidal today. She wants a kiss from Adonis and to taste his sweet breath which has miraculous qualities. It can drive away infection in what was called the 'dangerous year'-the year of the plague.

'Long may they kiss each other, for this cure!

O, never let their crimson liveries wear!

To drive infection from the dangerous year!

That the star-gazers, having writ on death,

May say, the plague is banish'd by thy breath.'

When Shakespeare returned to writing plays, he drew upon his audience's experience of social upheaval in plague years. Quarantine and social distancing were practised then as now. Shakespeare was not slow to spot an opportunity to create a dramatic turning point turning out of how personal relations could be upset by new social practices during the plague.

Shakespeare wrote Romeo & Juliet around 1593-1595 and memories of the plague were still fresh. Most people know the outline plot of the play. The action takes place in Verona, Italy: boy meets girl: they fall in love: their families hate each other and oppose the match: the couple plan to run away: the escape project fails because of a complication: they each commit suicide separately.

The complication in the plan to run away from is quarantine. Friar Laurence plots a risky plan to unite the 'star-crossed lovers' by administering a potion to Juliet that puts her in a death-like coma.

When Juliet is given up for dead by her family and buried in a vault, Romeo is supposed to come from the nearby city of Mantua where he is staying. He is to go to the tomb and wait for her to come round. When she does, Romeo is to take her to a safe place and live with her happily ever after.

Friar Laurence has to get the details of the plan to Romeo. He asks a fellow friar, Friar John, to take the message to Mantua but he never makes it there. Friar John is locked up in a house in Verona by public health officials-'searchers'- on suspicion that its inhabitants are plague-stricken and that he is one of them.

Romeo receives news from another source that Juliet is dead. He returns to Verona and sees what appears to be the corpse of Juliet in the family vault and stabs himself in despair. Juliet then comes out of the coma and sees the bloodied body of Romeo and ends the play by stabbing herself.

The following exchange between Friar Laurence and Friar John explains to the audience the tragic cock-up that meant he never left Verona to deliver the message.


Welcome from Mantua. What says Romeo?

Or, if his mind be writ, give me his letter.


Going to find a barefoot brother out,

One of our order, to associate me,

Here in this city visiting the sick,

And finding him, the searchers of the town,

Suspecting that we both were in a house

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,

Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.

So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.


Who bare my letter, then, to Romeo?


I could not send it—here it is again—

Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,

So fearful were they of infection.


Unhappy fortune!

To a critical coronavirus-aware audience Friar John appears on the scene suspiciously soon after the plan has gone wrong, which suggests he has broken quarantine. Still, we must forget basic epidemiology if we are to enjoy the tragedy.

The plague returned in 1606. Shakespeare was now a successful playwright and actor-manager. He was able to take the entire company into the country and tour county towns at a leisurely pace for the best part of a year. Shakespeare had the time to write in that time to write or finish off three great blockbuster tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.

When he returned to London, he found that the plague had decimated members of rival companies of players that had not left the city. Shakespeare prospered and, with others in the theatrical world, was able to take over an indoor theatre in Blackfriars in 1608 when a troupe of child actors had to give it up.

Moving to the Blackfriars Theatre meant moving into an intimate candle-lit indoor venue. Shakespeare's plays had usually been performed at the spacious open-air Globe Theatre. At that venue, Shakespeare's plays and the production techniques had to cater to the demands of a noisy audience, so there was much declamatory speaking and lots of open stage business.

Blackfriars was upmarket. The admission charge was about ten times the charge for watching a play at the Globe. The Blackfriars audience was seated comfortably and was not exposed to the elements. Actors did not have to shout their lines but could whisper them.

Shakespeare could make use of overhead hoists and trapdoors to surprise patrons. He could deploy musicians to play soft music and have artists to perform elaborate and graceful dances. He could change effects by managing the artificial lighting.

Shakespeare's plays written for the Blackfriars Theatre, like Cymbeline and The Tempest, are unlike anything he wrote before. It is not fanciful to say that we owe these outstanding late plays to the consequences of the plague in 1606.

I suspect that we will see works of fiction, plays and films come out of the COVID-19 experience. It is not likely that there is another Shakespeare out there, but there will be artistic invention for us to appreciate when the pestilence ends.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.


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