Plagues cease(d) plays

As of posting, Seattle has been under quarantine for one week. (insert party streamers emoji here) But I have hot water again, so who cares, blog’s canceled, everyone go home.

Anyway, I thought I’d start us off on a downer, in the hopes that it can only go up from here: two weeks ago The Atlantic ran an article by a professor at Linfield College that basically boiled down to “hey, does anybody else think maybe this whole worldwide theatre shutdown thing could actually be kind of, idk, good for theatre?” which, as takeaways go, feels a bit like a slap in the face.

The main gist of this article is that, in the author’s words, plagues caused plays. Basing his entire article on James Shapiro’s book 1606: The Year Of Lear, he says that Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest works – Lear, Macbeth, and Antony & Cleopatra (in that order) – while public playhouses were closed for the plague in 1606.

I mean… sure, I guess. It’s pretty clear that he read Shapiro’s book and decided that was enough, or at the very least looked in the index for every instance of the word “plague” and read those pages. I don’t mean to rag on this guy; he’s got a PhD in English from Harvard. He’s just part of a frustratingly large group of people who think that just because they know a lot about Renaissance literature they also know a lot about the Renaissance itself.

So I just wanna go over my problems with this article in a vaguely educational and not-at-all-roasting way. I’m not an expert, but I re-skimmed The Year of Lear so I do feel at least decently qualified to give a book report. 1 And I feel like the easiest way to do that is through a timeline, because no one wants to read paragraphs, least of all me. But it’s long, so I put it at the bottom so you can skip it if you want. 2

My belief is that Shakespeare wrote most or all of Lear and Macbeth in the latter part of 1605 and the first half of 1606, and had begun or was beginning work on Antony & Cleopatra around the time plague deaths crossed 30 a week and the theatres were shut down (see timeline). But kind of more importantly, that closure wasn’t really anything special; plague periodically stopped playing between the massive outbreak in 1603 and its annual resurgence post-1606, and continued to plague (ha) London through 1610. 3 From 1603 to 1611, London theatres spent more time closed than they did open.

Looking at it that way, the fact that Shakespeare (maybe) wrote three of his greatest works during a year when the playhouses were open for six months or so could maybe possibly mean that, I dunno, having a place to put on his plays inspired him to write them. Crazy thought, but you never know.

1606 was an incredible year for Shakespeare. And it was a year marked by the return of the plague in earnest. But plague was a constant presence in Shakespeare’s life for a solid eight years. Shapiro’s point is that a number of factors – political instability, a sensationalized media frenzy, and yes, plague – contributed to Shakespeare’s artistic success in that year.

But Shapiro has this problem where because he’s claiming that 1606 was an exceptional year for Shakespeare, he has to sort of ignore the years surrounding it. So yeah, it’s The Atlantic author’s fault for taking Shapiro at his word and not doing any research of his own, but it’s also Shapiro’s fault for presenting his narrative like it’s the only narrative. He’s like a Shakespeare Digest, except that he presents it like the be-all end-all of Shakespeare scholarship.

Are there parallels between the political, social, and cultural situation of 1606 and 2020? Absolutely. But those parallels go beyond the plague. Shakespeare had a solid six and a half months of 1606 to capitalize on the Gunpowder Plot and King James I’s controversial efforts to unify England and Scotland before his main incentive to write plays was shut down.

The fact of the matter is that when you close arts venues, art doesn’t happen. If a global pandemic inspires you to write, then godspeed. But if economic anxieties and uncertainty of what the future will look like feels paralyzing and you can’t find the will to create? That’s completely valid, and no one should shame you for not being William-fucking-Shakespeare.


  1. I also read his sources that I could find for free online because libraries don’t exist anymore, so most of my info actually comes from Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theatre by J. Leeds Barroll, A History of Epidemics in Britain by Charles Creighton, and John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations … Made upon the Bills of Mortality.
  2. As promised, a timeline:

    • May 8th, 1605 – King Leir (primary source for King Lear) is entered in the Stationers’ Register – earliest possible composition date of King Lear
    • October 5th, 1605 – the privy council forbids public playing; the King’s Men leave for a provincial tour of indeterminate length
    • October 31st, 1605 – winter court performances beginKing Lear still not finished
    • November 5th, 1605 – the planned assassination of King James I known as the “Gunpowder Plot” is discovered and foiled
    • December 15th, 1605 – the playhouses reopen
    • January 28th, 1606 – Gunpowder plotter John Garnet gives an impassioned defense of equivocation at his trial – possible inspiration for porter scene in Macbeth
    • February 3rd, 1606 – John Garnet is executed – possible window for first performance of Macbeth
    • March 5th through April 19th, 1606 – playhouses close for Lent – possible first performance of King Lear
    • July 10th, 1606 – plague deaths cross the 30-a-week threshold to shut down playing houses
    • July 18th, 1606 – King Christian IV of Denmark visits London with a fleet of Danish ships – possible inspiration for barge scene in A&C
    • August 3rd through 7th, 1606 – the King’s Men give three performances for King Christian while on tour – possible first performance of Macbeth
    • September 7th, 1606 – the King expresses his displeasure with the Lord Mayor’s spotty enforcement of plague orders
    • October 30th, 1606 – Shakespeare’s landlady, Marie Mountjoy, is buried; her cause of death is not recorded – Shakespeare maybe (but probably not) quarantined for a week or two
    • December 26th, 1606 – the holiday playing season begins at court, two months late – first recorded performance of King Lear
    • January 8th, 1607 – plague deaths drop below 30; ban on playing may or may not have been lifted
    • February 18th through April 5th, 1607 – playhouses close for Lent, if they reopened at all – potential window for first performance of A&C
    • July 9th, 1607 – plague deaths climb above 30 again; playing ceases
    • November 21st, 1607 – plague deaths drop below 30; playing may have resumed
    • December 31st, 1607 – the latest Samuel Daniel’s revision of his Cleopatra, influenced by A&C, could have had its first performance
    • May 20th, 1608 – Antony & Cleopatra is entered into the Stationers’ Register – latest possible composition date for A&C

  3. Records of plague deaths in 1605 are spotty, but they for sure hit 33 on July 10th, 1606 and dropped to the teens for most of January and February 1607. They hit 33 again on July 9th, 1607 (weird coincidence) and dropped to 21 on November 26th. July 28th, 1608 saw a spike to 50 which didn’t abate until January of 1610. July 5th of that year saw another jump to 38, until the plague subsided enough in London to consistently reopen theatres on December 6th. It didn’t return in force until 1625.

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