Ιn late July 1606, in the midst of a theatrical season that included what may well be the finest group of new plays ever staged – Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, Ben Jonson’s Volpone, and Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy – Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, lowered their flag at the Globe theatre and locked their playhouse doors. Plague had returned. Two years earlier, after an outbreak in which more than 30,000 Londoners had died, the privy council decreed that public playing should cease once the number of those who died every week of plague rose “above the number of 30”. In practice, though, there seems to have been some leeway, with players intent on earning a living occasionally bending the rules, resuming performances when plague deaths dipped under 40 or so. Privy council records for this era were lost in a fire in 1618, so we will never know exactly what number triggered any specific closure. But flexibility is hinted at in Lording Barry’s play Ram Alley (1608), where a character says: “I dwindle as a new player does at a plague bill certified 40.” In any case, by late July 1606, with the number of plague deaths well over that figure and rising week by week, public playing was finished, for the summer at least.
Plague’s symptoms were horrible: fever, a racing pulse and breathlessness, followed by pain in the back and legs, thirst and stumbling. Some also suffered “great dolor of head with heaviness, solicitude, and sadness in mind”. Buboes – hard swellings of a lymph gland, called botches or plague sores – would form in the groin, armpit or neck, then rupture, causing pain so agonising that some victims would leap from windows. Finally, speech would become difficult, and victims would rave or suffer delirium before succumbing to heart failure. It was a terrible way to die – and awful to witness. Those aged 10 to 35 proved especially vulnerable.
The approach of autumn seemed at first to bring relief, as the number of plague victims receded from a peak of 116 a week at the end of August to a still disturbingly high 87 by the end of September. King James VI, worried that parliament would be unable to meet and approve his plans for the union of Scotland and England before Christmas, pressured the privy councillors to do more to combat the outbreak. They in turn demanded greater vigilance on the part of local authorities, and complained to the lord mayor that too many Londoners were washing off the red crosses painted over the doors of their infected and quarantined households. He wrote back promising that steps would be taken to use oil-based rather than water-based paint to prevent that.
In early October weekly plague numbers unexpectedly soared to 141, and nearly 600 Londoners would die that month as the outbreak took on new life. The lord mayor promised to respond with harsher measures, expelling beggars from the city, posting watchmen outside every infected house, “and suffering no persons to go more out of the said house”. But everyone knew that these were not promises he could easily keep: with well over a thousand Londoners now infected, the authorities lacked both the resources and manpower to ensure the quarantine of so many infected homes.
When plague spread through much of London in July, Shakespeare’s parish, St Olave’s of Silver Street, located in the north-west just inside London’s city walls, had been spared. St Olave’s was a tiny parish, and in the decade before 1606 its church bells had only tolled for the dead an average of twice a month (with the exception of the plague year of 1603, when 125 parishioners died). Even as dozens were dying every week of plague elsewhere in London in the summer of 1606, not a single burial had been recorded in the backwater of St Olave’s since April, and only two others died in the parish before the end of August.
John Flint, a Cambridge-educated vicar, kept the parish register. When he recorded deaths he listed only the date and the deceased’s name and occupation (and, if a servant, wife or child, his or her relation to a householder). While Flint sometimes included a stray detail, his entries are brief; he doesn’t, as other ministers sometimes did, record the cause of death. Any effort to trace instances of plague in Shakespeare’s parish must be reconstructed by other means. The parish’s good fortune continued into September. At Sunday prayers in the old church, so decayed that it had to be torn down and rebuilt in 1609, parishioners must have felt the protective hand of Providence at work.
In early October, the parish’s luck ran out. If we take multiple deaths under one roof in a short span of time as an indication of plague, by the end of December 1606 the outbreak had claimed at least a dozen lives. There’s a pretty strong likelihood, then, that plague, which struck the young disproportionately, was responsible for some and perhaps most of their deaths. That leaves two other deaths unaccounted for. One was of the almsman or beggar William Howson, age unknown, who might have died from any number of causes at the end of December. The other was Shakespeare’s landlady, Marie Mountjoy; she had probably not yet turned 40 when she was buried in St Olave’s churchyard, at the height of the outbreak, on 30 October.
One of the odd facts about the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life is that we know more about what words passed between the playwright and Mountjoy than we do about any conversations he had with his own wife. In 1604 he was asked to help resolve a domestic crisis in the Mountjoy household. The Mountjoys, who had lost a child a decade earlier, had only one surviving heir, a daughter named Mary. They also had a skilled worker living under their roof, Stephen Belott, an eligible young man who the Mountjoys hoped would marry Mary and to whom they “willingly offered” her. We know this, along with details of Shakespeare’s subsequent involvement and testimony, from a dispute over the promised dowry that ended up in the courts eight years later, records of which were discovered in 1910. Shakespeare told the court in his deposition, in his words, that Mountjoy “did solicit and entreat” him to “move and persuade” Belott “to effect the said marriage”, and that he “accordingly” complied with her wishes.
Shakespeare had moved to Silver Street around 1602; he seems to have left St Olave’s shortly after the death of Mountjoy. The vicar didn’t record what Mountjoy died of and the court proceedings of 1612 make no mention of it. With the prevalence of plague in St Olave’s at this time, there is a good chance that she had been one of its victims. If so, plague must have struck closer to home for Shakespeare than we realise, especially if local authorities ordered the quarantining of infected houses in what was one of the last pockets of plague during this outbreak.
What Shakespeare thought of the woman who had entreated and solicited him, and why he abandoned Silver Street so soon after her death, must remain, like so much else about his personal life, a mystery. The episode reminds us how few are the surviving shards of his existence, especially those that reveal anything about his relationships. The remarkable discovery a century ago of the legal dispute over the dowry, in conjunction with the survival of parish records for St Olave’s, allow us the briefest of glimpses into what may have been one of the happier times of Shakespeare’s life and, soon after, one of the more troubling and frightening. He may not have been alone in thinking that he was twice spared: first, the previous November, from the gunpowder plot’s explosion and flames; then, almost exactly a year later, from an outbreak of plague that had reached his doorstep.
Biographers like to attribute the turns in Shakespeare’s career to his psychological state (so he must have been in and out of love when writing comedies and sonnets, depressed when he wrote tragedies, and in mourning when he wrote Hamlet). While his personal life must have powerfully informed what he wrote, we have no idea what he was feeling at any point during the quarter-century that he was writing – other than, in circular fashion, extrapolating this from his works (which largely steered clear of plague, no matter how profoundly he may have experienced its impact). We know a great deal more about how a rodent-borne visitation in 1606 altered the contours of Shakespeare’s professional life, for it marked the beginning of the end of London’s boy companies – Paul’s Boys and the Children of the Revels – enabling Shakespeare’s company to replace the boy players at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. The move indoors during the winter months would change the composition of the audiences for whom he would write and the kinds of intimate scenes he could write. It’s worth reflecting on how an outbreak of plague that may have come close to killing Shakespeare also led to the kind of powerful drama that fully exploited the atmosphere of the candlelit Blackfriars – most memorably perhaps the extraordinary scene in The Winter’s Tale, in which the statue of the seemingly dead Hermione comes to life.
• 1606 by James Shapiro (Faber & Faber, £20). To order a copy for £16, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Published in Guardian
Find the greek translation here