Lord Have Mercy

James Shapiro

  • Plague 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.

There couldn’t have been many in the playhouse unaware of what Berowne’s words signified. Elizabethan authorities required plague-infested houses to be sealed, with their inhabitants – infected along with healthy – inside. To warn passers-by that it was a plague-infested dwelling, a red cross was either nailed to or painted on the door and a printed bill was hung above on which was written ‘Lord Have Mercy on Us.’ Survivors of the plague that two years earlier had killed more than 10,000 Londoners would have been agonisingly familiar with those words. How could Shakespeare or anybody in the audience think this funny? It’s the sort of thing that reminds us how little we know about what it was like to live back then, how unfathomable and alien Shakespeare and his world can seem.

Ernest Gilman’s Plague Writing in Early Modern England hopes to close the gap in understanding what it was like ‘to live and write in the shadow of a pandemic’. Rather than dig deeper into the archives or rehash familiar arguments (which he knows exceedingly well), he invites us instead to view Shakespeare’s plague-ridden world as a ‘historical moment uncannily similar to our own’. For Gilman, it wasn’t really possible to see how closely our world resembles theirs until fairly recently. In identifying the turning point he quotes René Girard’s overconfident claim in 1974 that plague was no more than a metaphor now that we lived in ‘a world where the plague and epidemics in general have disappeared almost altogether’.

Girard’s timing could not have been worse. It wasn’t long before outbreaks seemed ubiquitous, as ‘mad cow disease, hantavirus, MDR-TB, X-TB, Legionnaires’ disease, dengue, Marburg virus, “flesh-eating” bacteria, Sars, “super” germs, Ebola, [and] bird flu’ each took their turn. Of course the darkest shadow of all was cast by the Aids epidemic, which he calls ‘the Black Death of the late 20th century’. His book is full of provocative statements like this. While he is surely right that our post-Aids vantage point is superior to Girard’s, he habitually presses analogies between past and present histories further than the facts can bear. The Black Death of the 14th century may have killed off every third person on the planet; to be its equivalent, Aids would have to kill more than two billion people indiscriminately worldwide, and hundreds of years would have to go by before anyone figured out where it came from or how to combat it. Gilman is perfectly aware of this, but also knows that if he is to concede that there are fundamental differences between then and now – that history isn’t a two-way mirror – his larger arguments will crumble. And he is unwilling to give ground in any case, since he is convinced that we stand today on the edge of doom: ‘Finishing a book such as this,’ he writes, ‘is a race against the clock of the next pandemic.’

The first quarter of the book is spent erecting elaborate scaffolding. We are told, for example, that all writing from Shakespeare’s day can be read as plague writing, even when it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the plague – as presumably all writing today must be powerfully inflected by Aids and other epidemics. As Gilman puts it: ‘So pervasive has our awareness of Aids become, so deeply ingrained in our imagination’, that like ‘the exegetes of 1603 attempting to connect the reign of Elizabeth with that of her successor over the chasm of an intervening epidemic, we find ourselves reading our own fin de siècle cultural history as a prolepsis’. Again, the analogies are rich and productive, but limited, and raise all sorts of questions. Did this also hold true during the visitations of the 14th century? How do you know what the half-life of plague writing is if you can’t tell from the texts themselves? If the last visitation struck England in 1665, when did early modern plague writing end, if it ever did? These are questions that Gilman is not much interested in, and I suppose he’d write them off as hopelessly historicist.

This is a censorious book. Foremost among Gilman’s targets are ‘triumphalist’ modern scientists (‘this book stems from, and responds to, our impending crisis of faith in the ability of medical science to conquer epidemic disease’). Not far behind are sanctimonious preachers, from Lancelot Andrewes to Jerry Falwell, for whom plague is a sign of divine retribution, what Gilman derides as ‘plague theodicy’. Their eagerness to blame the sinful victim backfires once sceptical scientific minds prove them wrong: ‘The crisis of the plague puts theodicy under the most intense pressure it can face (in a pre-nuclear and pre-Holocaust age), and … its one recourse, the only strategy by which it can preserve itself from collapse, is to adopt what … later analysts will call a psychotic structure.’

Post-Reformation England’s obsession with the word also comes in for its share of abuse. When it comes to dealing with plague, Gilman much prefers the visual resources of Catholic Italy: plague processions, altarpieces and especially paintings, which provided a source of comfort lacking in Protestant England, and in which the mediation of saints, especially St Sebastian, proved ‘efficacious’ in confronting the horrors of plague. But if saintly intervention through the visual arts had this power, why wasn’t there nostalgia for it during the plague of 1563, just five years after the end of the reign of the Catholic Mary over England? And why don’t we see evidence of 17th-century English Catholics producing or embracing such images, or recusant writers making more of it? Could it simply be that English Protestant survivors took comfort from prayer or from reading or writing about the plague? Gilman isn’t much interested in counter-examples, such as the words of the musician Thomas Whythorne during the outbreak of 1563 (quoted by the historian Paul Slack in his still unsurpassed 1985 study, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England): ‘I looked every minute of an hour when I should be visited as the rest were. I doubting the worst … did now gather so many comfortable places of the Scriptures as I could find, the which I did always think upon … as the chief physic for my soul.’

Gilman is also unforgiving of early modern English authorities for refusing to concede that plague was something ‘unjust and merciless’, a ‘merely natural and casual event’ that was either ‘the work of a God who had no interest in justice’ or had ‘no particular significance because there is no God’. That’s asking a lot of a God-fearing early modern culture that couldn’t explain where plague came from or why it kept returning. Indeed, he argues, as the old order cracked under the strain of inventing false explanations of plague, modernity was born. Only a few atheists and sceptics were brave enough to speak the truth. John Donne – the young Donne at least – was one of the few at the time who anticipated Gilman’s conclusion, that ‘knowledge itself is sick,’ that we ‘are never well’ and that it is best to accept ‘a history that begins (and ends) with diseases rather than cures’.

English authorities are also castigated for creating what he deems a cruel Foucauldian world of surveillance and control. By 1603 civic officials were ordered to quarantine individuals in affected homes for at least six weeks. Those caught sneaking out who didn’t have the mark of plague on them could be whipped; those with ‘God’s tokens’ on them were guilty of a felony and subject to execution. Funeral attendance was limited to six. It was forbidden to move bedding from house to house. Dogs, thought to spread plague, were massacred. Defoe writes that 40,000 dogs were caught and killed in London in 1665 alone, and Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady (c.1609) offers a rare protest against this practice (‘I would ’twere lawfull in the next great sickness to have the dogs spared, those harmless creatures’). But what else were civic authorities, charged with protecting the populace, to do, since they were unsure of what caused plague: interplanetary alignment? Divine anger? Miasma? Shakespeare’s Timon hedges his bets and seems to opt for elements of all three when he speaks of plague’s mysterious source: ‘Be as a planetary plague, when Jove/Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison/ In the sick air.’ Centuries would pass before scientists learned that the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, a strain of bacterium transmitted either through the bite of an infected flea (invading the lymph nodes and producing painful swellings or buboes) or, alternatively, passed from person to person by coughing or breathing, which soon overwhelmed the lungs and led to sudden collapse.

Visitations that repeatedly wiped out a tenth or so of the population must, for Gilman, necessarily have been traumatic; accordingly, he argues, we have to consider what was written then with the lessons of modern trauma theory in mind: ‘Faced with traumatic writing, critical reading in turn must reconceive itself in some measure as clinical interaction.’ This means ‘listening with the third ear – paying attention to silences, refusals, omissions and displacements’. And since plague was both recurrent and imminent, ‘theirs was an instance of pre as well as post-traumatic stress.’ The skilled critic must double as therapist, teasing out unspoken trauma. I’d be happier with this argument if there were a contemporary equivalent to or acknowledgement of trauma in the psychological sense in which Gilman uses the word. ‘Trauma’ only seems to have entered the vocabulary in the 1650s, to describe physical wounds, and wasn’t used to refer to psychic damage until the 20th century. Much depends on whether the concept of psychic trauma is transhistorical, or whether it is being imposed on an early modern society that wouldn’t have recognised it.

Gilman’s conviction that the experience of trauma was not much different back then frees him to pass over familiar plague narratives, and he focuses instead on major works by Jonson, Donne, Pepys and Defoe that have rarely been regarded as plague writing at all. He deftly locates these literary works within a larger network of social, theological and political writing about the plague. Jonson’s poetry enables Gilman to cover the 1603 plague, Donne’s that of 1625, while Pepys and Defoe’s narratives speak to the Great Plague of 1665, when more than 100,000 died in London. His choices reveal a bias towards the confessional and autobiographical, genres in which he expects to find evidence of personal trauma that is suppressed and remains largely unspoken. This works better for Pepys and Jonson than it does for Donne. And to shoehorn Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year into this scheme, Gilman needs to argue that Defoe, writing in the early 1720s (at an anxious time – plague had reportedly broken out in Marseille), is recalling the ‘enduring traumatic residue’ of his own childhood experience of the 1665 plague. Unfortunately for this argument, Defoe’s family had fled London during that outbreak; but Gilman concludes that the flight from the city itself, along with what Defoe might have learned subsequently from his uncle Henry (who remained in London and shares the initials of Defoe’s narrator), compensates for this. Gilman is a superb close reader, which goes a long way to redeeming an often tendentious book.

Gilman is at his most persuasive in a powerful reading of Jonson’s poem on the loss of his seven-year-old son, who died of plague in 1603. We know from Jonson’s conversations with William Drummond 15 years later that Jonson, who was living outside London, had a frightening vision in which he saw ‘his eldest son … appear unto him with the mark of a bloody cross on his forehead, as if it had been cut with a sword, at which, amazed, he prayed unto God.’ When an anxious Jonson shared this vision with his friend and mentor William Camden, Camden did his best to reassure him, but then letters arrived from Jonson’s wife telling him ‘of the death of that boy in the plague’. Jonson also told Drummond that his son appeared to him ‘of a manly shape, and of that growth he thinks he shall be at the Resurrection’.

What’s mystifying about Jonson’s ‘On my First Sonne’, one of his most famous poems (it begins ‘Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;/My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy’), is the material that Jonson leaves out: it contains no mention of his harrowing vision of the bloody cross, or of his prayers, or of the Resurrection, or even the crucial fact that his son died of the plague. If Gilman is right, the poem, usually taught as an example of Jonson’s stoicism and his Roman frame of mind, is typical of much of the writing of the period, in which recollections of plague are both unspeakable and unspoken. On this reading, it is a poem about Jonson’s suppressed guilt for having abandoned his family during plague-time. Moreover, the poem holds the key to the next three decades of his writing life: ‘Jonson will spend the rest of his career dragging the plague after him as an autobiographical narrative, reliving the part of the father to a succession of “sons of Ben” both in his verse and in the adoption of his literary tribe.’

The alternative to this Freudian narrative is less dramatic: that this was hardly an unspeakable story for Jonson, who shared it first with Camden, then with Drummond, and for all we know with others as well; that it was the remarkable vision that gripped him, not the loss itself, or the plague; that Jonson hadn’t lived with his family for a while and wasn’t particularly guilt-ridden about it, and in any case wasn’t a ‘runaway’ as Gilman describes him, but was living out of town trying to secure patronage and work in anticipation of King James’s arrival in London. Had Jonson wanted to write a sentimental poem about losing his son to plague he could have, but he chose instead to write about the death of his son in self-aggrandising terms, as having lost his ‘best piece of poetry’. I’m curious how Gilman would fit into his narrative the revelation in the updated Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that Jonson, who was ‘likely to have fathered other children, both legitimate and illegitimate’, may have been the father of a second ‘“Benjamin Johnson fil. Ben”, baptised at St Martin-in-the-Fields’ in 1610. And on the matter of what might have constituted traumatic experience for Jonson: he had at this point lost his own father before he was born, fought and killed in the wars on the Continent, killed an actor in a swordfight, spent time in prison, converted to Catholicism, lost a baby daughter (he wrote a poem about her too), and no doubt, like everyone else at the time, had dodged many life-threatening horrors that were a regular feature of Elizabethan existence, including famine, sweating sickness, spotted fever, the burning ague, smallpox, dysentery, influenza and syphilis.

How can we be as confident as Gilman, then, that bubonic plague, and this loss in particular, was singularly traumatic for Jonson? And could it also be possible that he, like others at the time, as the Elizabethan translator John Stockwood acknowledged, had become habituated to outbreaks of plague: ‘Albeit it were somewhat feared at the first, yet use hath now at length made it unto many so familiar, that there is little more regard had of it than of any other common and light malady?’ This alternative reading may be less appealing, but it may also be closer to the truth. If Gilman is right about trauma, Shakespeare and Jonson are truly our contemporaries in ways we are only beginning to grasp. If not, they remain at some level inscrutable, their experience of the plague, and what they felt in general, no longer readily accessible, either through their words or their silences.