80,000 people died in England between June and October in 1563 from the plague.
20,000 people died in London. It is estimated that this was between a quarter to a third of the entire population of London.
Imagine that. Imagine if you lived in London in 1563. One out of every third or fourth person you know catches the plague and dies.
Queen Elizabeth moved her court to Windsor Castle, and anyone who travelled from London could be sentenced to death by hanging, she was so frightened of the disease.
Shakespeare's parents, John and Mary, must have been terrified, especially since his mother was pregnant with Shakespeare at the time.
They had two daughters, Joan and Margaret. But Joan died soon after her birth. Margaret died within months of her birth -- she was buried 30 April, 1563.
So, John and Mary's hopes and prayers must have been focused on this new child, William.
We can almost imagine the hope of the new child versus the very real fear that she might not even carry the baby to term.
Did they even have a name picked out already, or did they want to wait until the child was in fact born?
If the plague in 1563 was not bad enough, there was yet another outbreak in 1564 -- while Mary Shakespeare was still pregnant with William.
This plague seems to have hit Stratford rather hard, and hundreds of people died. It is estimated that one out of every seven people in Stratford died.
But John and Mary's prayers were answered at last when William was born in April.
His birth must have been something of a miracle to his parents, and every day that he survived and thrived and grew up must have been a blessing.
But his birth must have also been bittersweet -- he was born almost exactly one year to the day that his sister Margaret had died the year prior.
This was the world in which Shakespeare was born.
|A depiction of Shakespeare at age 12|
It would not be the first time that the plague would threaten his life. There would be other outbreaks.
The Elizabethans thought that the plague was transmitted in the air, and as such the authorities would close the theatres when there was an outbreak, fearful that crowds would be a perfect breeding ground for this Black Death.
It is very hard for us to in our day and age to appreciate the fear and danger that the plague meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
For Shakespeare himself, it was a fear that would lurk in his mind each and every waking day. Since the Elizabethans thought that the disease was transmitted in the air, it was a fear that would haunt Shakespeare with every breath he took.
I think it is helpful to keep this in mind when thinking about Shakespeare. I think it goes a long way towards explaining why he was so successful as a playwright -- he didn't know whether he would survive from one day to the next.
Every day that he could write, words with such urgency and vitality, was one more day in which he conquered his fears and defeated death.
David B. Schajer
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