Speaking what we feel: Shakespeare’s plague plays

André De Shields as King Lear. King Lear, directed by Alfred Preisser, Folger Theatre in a co-production with The Classical Theatre of Harlem, 2007. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Shakespeare never wrote a play about the bubonic plague, despite the fact that he lived, as Stephen Greenblatt says, “his entire life in the shadow of [it].” Nonetheless, the word plague appears 107 times in his works (Shakespeare’s, not Greenblatt’s), occasionally as a verb synonymous with bother or annoy, but more usually as metaphor: as a threat of something dire or a curse upon someone hateful.

And yet, as we enter our own 18th month of worrying about COVID-19, we can now recognize throughout Shakespeare’s plays feelings of frustration, rage, listlessness, and despair that — as survivors of our own ongoing pandemic — feel surprisingly familiar.

An actor as well as a playwright, Shakespeare struggled with years of lost income due to closed playhouses. (Then as now, of course, other industries suffered as well.)  Greenblatt’s article points to research that concludes that in the four years between 1606 and 1610, London theaters were only open for a total of about nine months [emphasis, as a playwright and actor myself, emphatically mine]. The lost income was painful, but for a playwright whose work does not fully live until it’s performed onstage in front of live audiences, the frustration and anger must have led to feelings of lost power and professional impotence — exactly the kind of feelings that plague (!) King Lear.

Much is made of the word “nothing” in Lear and how it represents a lack of meaning in the king’s achievements and the disintegration of not only his family but his kingdom. It’s not hard to imagine a frustrated Shakespeare using Lear — written, we think, sometime around 1605, right between two major plague outbreaks — as a vehicle for fears about how all that is achieved can easily be lost, and how a fractured societal structure can lead to madness. The meaninglessness in Lear is particularly bleak, with multiple preventable deaths and, at the end of the play, survivors left standing wondering how everything went so wrong.

As we now know all too well, plague and pandemic cause chaos and disruption, pervasive themes throughout Shakespeare’s plays, which are filled with reversals of fortune where loved ones die, allies are betrayed, kingdoms are lost, and characters are banished or flee. They are — as we might say today — forced to “pivot.” Like the Londoners who fled to the countryside during the worst of the plague outbreaks, escape from the city into green spaces is depicted as restorative, transformative, and life-changing, mostly in positive ways but not always. One can still run into misfortune outside the city, as Macbeth learns when he runs into three witches who give him incomplete and questionable advice, and when the green space — in this case, Birnam Wood — comes to him.

Sir Geo. Beaumont, F. Mansell. Detail from Jacques [early to mid-19th century]. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Even the pastoral Forest of Arden in As You Like It – written around 1599, six years or so after an outbreak — doesn’t provide complete solace. Jacques’s melancholy reflection on the “Seven Ages of Man” is a wise and thoughtful interlude that carries an undercurrent of real bitterness, arguing that, because “all the men and women” are “merely players,” we play the parts assigned to us without any real agency, unable to break free of our roles, and we die with nothing (“sans everything”). Macbeth, a play in a wildly different key, sounds identical notes in the title character’s most famous speech — “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” — which is fraught with despair about the pain of the present and the threat of the future. Returning to the theatrical metaphor of actors, Shakespeare writes:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

And he concludes with the same idea expressed so strongly in King Lear — which is often presumed to have been written around the same time as Macbeth — that existence is meaningless, even using the same word to express it. Life, Shakespeare writes (and Macbeth says), “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” Macbeth is a tyrant, a usurper, and a murderer, but after months of pandemic, unnecessary loss of life, and now the rise of COVID variants (and the refusal of many people to get vaccinated or take common-sense precautions), it’s hard not to sympathize with his nihilistic worldview.

Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth in “Macbeth.” Adapted by Sir William Davenant. A joint production of Folger Theatre, Folger Consort, and Performing Restoration Shakespeare, 2018. Directed by Robert Richmond. Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Shakespeare was born during a plague year that killed a fifth of Stratford’s population but left him alive, and there were (quoting Greenblatt again) “particularly severe outbreaks of plague in 1582, 1592-93, 1603-04, 1606, and 1608-09” — in other words, all of Shakespeare’s professional life.  From his earliest plays to his later ones, Shakespeare’s plays are filled with references to disease, infection, corruption, and contagion, so it’s probably fair to consider all of Shakespeare’s scripts “plague plays.” He didn’t write one plague play, he wrote dozens of them, all written in the midst of one outbreak, in the wake of another, or in fearful anticipation of the next.

As one of the few dazed survivors of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy about societal collapse, Edgar says in Lear’s final speech, “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” a line that speaks with incredible clarity to our current moment. While our pandemic has so far lasted “only” a year and a half, the risk of contagion, fear of crowds, forced isolation, shuttered venues, disbanded communities, and loss of income must have been very real concerns for Shakespeare for most of his life, affecting his work in innumerable ways we’re only now in a position to fully appreciate.

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Gratitude goes to Dee Ryan, president of the North Shore Shakespeare Association, for her inspiration and consultation on this piece.

2 Comments


  • This article is severely lacking in one way: it ignores the one play which truly is about the plague in the Shakespeare Canon, Romeo and Juliet. When I teach Romeo and Juliet I emphasize two things. First, I point out that it is structured like a comedy, and then somehow ends up as a tragedy at the end. The second thing I emphasize is that the way it becomes a tragedy is the plague gets involved. Friar John wanders into a plague house and is quarantined, and as a result Paris, Romeo, and Juliet all die. Add it to Tybalt and Mercutio this makes the flower of Verona nobility suddenly snuffed out in an instant, just as though the plague hit. And in fact we know that it was just outside the city walls all the time. Romeo and Juliet is more of plague play than anything else Shakespeare wrote.


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