One of the worst outbreaks of the plague in Shakespeare's life began 4 December 1592.
It would last for a year, and upwards of 17,000 people died in London.
I know I have mentioned the plague quite a bit on this blog before, but I think it is such an important fact in Shakespeare's life that we just don't properly appreciate.
As I wrote before, it was a miracle that he was born at all considering that he was born during a terrible outbreak, and in his lifetime he must have known many people who fell victim to this terrible disease. Some think that his sisters died of the plague.
Shakespeare must have lived his life in a perpetual state of fear, the likes of which we just don't have in our lives today.
He lived and worked in London, where he had the greatest chance of getting sick.
He worked in the theatres, where many people from all walks of life would congregate, and this only increased his likelihood of getting the plague.
If the disease was carried by ticks, who lived on rats and other animals, and Shakespeare's audience was filled with butchers, and others who worked with animals -- there was a slaughterhouse right next door to The Theatre in Shoreditch for example -- then the chances for Shakespeare to get the disease was very high.
The theatres were the first to close during plagues outbreaks, as the authorities were terrified that 3000 people in the same space for 3 hours or so would be the perfect incubator for an outbreak.
So it was in this December 1592 outbreak -- the theatres were closed.
Shakespeare who had only been in London for a few short years, perhaps as early as 1587, was enjoying great early success with his Henry VI trilogy.
|Shakespeare may have been performing Henry VI at The Rose at the time of the outbreak|
As I have written in my version of Richard III, I think Shakespeare wrote Richard III in about 1592, probably not long before the plague struck. I don't think the play was very successful at first.
As I have written in my version of Hamlet, I think he wrote and performed an early version of Hamlet in the same period before this plague. I think it was not successful, and would only become a true success later, after he had re-written it in later years.
So Shakespeare is beginning his career and making a name for himself. He is probably enjoying the first real financial success in his life and he is looking forward to a long and prosperous career.
Then the plague strikes.
And as the days turn into weeks, Shakespeare must have been desperate.
Did he hurry back home to Stratford to get out of the city, and decrease the chance of getting sick?
Did he stay in London, hoping that it would end soon, and he could get back to work?
Either way, I think he sat down to write but the doubt about the future of the theatres was so powerful that he may have thought that he may never get another chance to write and perform a play again. For all he knew, the theatres might stay closed for good.
But then he did something remarkable.
He wrote Venus and Adonis -- which I have written about before.
|Venus and Adonis by Titian|
Exactly when and how he wrote this epic poem we may never know.
I like to think that he had thought of it before the plague, but as the plague continued to sweep through London, he had no choice but to stay indoors as much as possible and write something, anything that could make him some money, and fast!
Maybe his childhood friend Richard Field from Warwickshire offered to print whatever he wrote and get it distributed.
It is a good thing that Shakespeare did write it, and a good thing that it was published -- because it was a huge success!
From what I have read, it didn't make him rich, but I think it gave him the financial security to make it through the year-long plague.
Had it not been successful, for all we know he might have just returned to Stratford for good.
Shakespeare had a remarkable ability to turn misfortune into fortune.
As I did research for my versions of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I found it true time and again that when he came face to face with tragedy and adversity, he fought back and triumphed.
When his great friend and rival Christopher Marlowe was killed in 1593, I think Shakespeare re-wrote Richard III to remember and celebrate him.
When his 11-year-old son Hamnet died in 1596, perhaps from the plague, I think he wrote The Merchant of Venice to deal with the grief.
When Shakespeare's world seemed to come all crashing down, and his life and career could have ended, due to the Essex Rebellion, he wrote the version of Hamlet that we have come to know today.
|Dance of Death by Hans Holbein|
It amazes me that he was able to live a life at all during these times. He understood that life was a Dance of Death, a Danse Macabre, where each and every one of us will eventually die.
It amazes me even more to think that he wrote, and wrote so well, in the face of such obstacles and dangers. His genius was not just that he wrote these plays and poems, but that he did so by turning adversity into opportunity.
David B. Schajer
The Miracle of Shakespeare's Birth
Fifty Shades of Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Dance of Death
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