Lord Have Mercy

James Shapiro

  • BuyPlague Writing in Early Modern England by Ernest Gilman
    Chicago, 295 pp, £24.00, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 226 29409 4

Alongside the burial record for Oliver Gunne, an apprentice who died in Stratford-upon-Avon in July 1564, are the words hic incepit pestis: ‘Here begins the plague.’ ‘God’s tokens’, the black or purplish spots that were a telltale sign of bubonic plague, had presumably been found on Gunne’s body. Over the previous six months, the vicar of Holy Trinity Church had registered a score of burials; in a town of just under 1500 inhabitants, that was more or less what would be expected. But in the half-year that followed he recorded more than 200 burials, a seventh of Stratford’s population. The plague’s fatality rate ranged from 50 per cent to 80 per cent, so as many as one in four townsfolk may have been infected. Women, who tended to the sick, suffered disproportionately, as did the old and the young.

Three months before plague struck Stratford, a young woman named Mary gave birth there to a son, William. She and her husband had lost their first two children, Joan and Margaret, in infancy. The prospects for their newborn’s survival – and perhaps their own – must have seemed grim. Just a few doors down from their home on Henley Street, their neighbours the Greens would lose four of their children to the epidemic. Windows were sealed, doors shut, prayers uttered, remedies sought (onions were peeled and scattered on the ground; dried rosemary, burned in a chafing dish, was also thought to help ward off the pestilence).

William Shakespeare survived and may even have developed immunity to plague, for he subsequently lived through a virulent outbreak in London in 1592-93 that swept away 10,500 people, and another in 1603 that killed 25,000. A string of lesser outbreaks battered London for the next eight years. Whenever deaths from plague in London rose above 30 a week – the number was later raised to 40 – the theatres were ordered shut, with the result (as Leeds Barroll showed in his groundbreaking Politics, Plague and Shakespeare’s Theatre) that from 1603 to 1610 public playhouses were probably closed two-thirds of the time.

Biographers, notably Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jonathan Bate, have struggled to determine the impact plague had on Shakespeare’s life and work. Did Shakespeare flee London during extended outbreaks, and so spend much of the first decade of the 17th century with his family in Stratford? Did he continue steadily producing two plays a year even when the Globe was closed for long stretches, or did he prefer to write them in inspired bunches when plague receded? Should we read the darkest of his plays – including Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, King Lear and Macbeth – as artefacts of these plague-ridden times?

Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists delved into almost every dark corner of their audiences’ imaginations: murder, witchcraft, incest, civil war, apostasy. Playgoers saw rape victims stagger onstage and flinched as throats were slit and eyes gouged out. But one thing they never saw depicted was plague or its victims. Despite its recurrence throughout the period, even passing allusions to plague were rare. Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theatres of the risks of communicable disease or because a traumatised culture couldn’t deal with it? Only a handful of plays from the time even flirt with the prospect of plague. Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, written for Shakespeare’s company in 1610, comes closest. In it, servants take over a house in Blackfriars after their master flees town, fearing infection. But the premise is merely a feint; while we are told at the outset that ‘the sickness [is] hot’ in London, we never see any evidence of plague or its victims. Shortly after, John Fletcher wrote The Tamer Tamed, in which a wife plays a trick on her domineering husband, having him quarantined after claiming to see the marks of plague on him: ‘The sickness … is i’ th’ house, sir,/My husband has it now, and raves extremely.’ But here too it’s a false alarm.

Glancing allusions to plague’s devastation, when they do appear, are all the more striking. The most haunting is surely in Macbeth, where we momentarily glimpse a world in which bells toll incessantly for the dead and dying, and in which the seemingly healthy are already sickening: ‘The dead-man’s knell/Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives/Expire before the flowers in their caps,/Dying or ere they sicken.’ But Shakespeare’s most explicit evocation of plague and its symptoms, weirdly, appears in an extended metaphor in Love’s Labour’s Lost, written around 1595. In the final scene the witty young lover Berowne, bantering with Rosaline, tells her that his three friends are stricken with love for her friends. He teasingly urges her to ‘Write, “Lord have mercy on us” on those three./They are infected; in their hearts it lies;/They have the plague, and caught it of your eyes.’ He then adds that Rosaline herself is unknowingly plague-stricken: ‘You are not free,/For the Lord’s tokens on you do I see.’ It’s hard to decide what’s more disturbing about the exchange: the casual joking about spotting ‘the Lord’s tokens’ on her skin – as close to a death warrant as you could get – or the joke about inscribing the warning ‘Lord have mercy on me’ on the infected.

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