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Tue Mar 24, 2020, 01:50 PM

Shakespeare in lockdown: did he write King Lear in plague quarantine?


Pestilence was rife in the Bard’s time, closing theatres and ravaging life. Did he write his bleak, desperate drama while self-isolating? We sift the evidence

Andrew Dickson
Sun 22 Mar 2020 10.00 EDT

While those of us stuck in self-isolation or working from home watch TikTok videos and refresh liveblogs, a meme has been going around that claims Shakespeare made use of being quarantined during the plague to write King Lear. The Bard supposedly took advantage of the Globe’s lengthy closure to get on top of his writing in-tray – coming up with Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra to boot. If you weren’t panicky enough about how little you’ve achieved recently, this is surely a way to feel worse. Why aren’t you finally dusting off that novel or screenplay you’ve been itching to write? It’s what the Bard would do, surely.

Yet, is it actually true, the bit about Shakespeare? Well, maybe. Certainly it’s fair to say that, like all Elizabethans, the playwright’s career was affected by the bubonic plague in ways that are all but impossible to conceive now, even in the midst of Covid-19. As an infant, he was lucky to survive the disease: Stratford-upon-Avon was ravaged by a huge outbreak in the summer of 1564, a few months after he was born, and up to a quarter of the town’s population died. Growing up, Shakespeare would have heard endless stories about this apocalyptic event and kneeled in church in solemn remembrance of townsfolk who were lost. His father, John, was closely involved in relief efforts and attended a meeting to help Stratford’s poorest. It was held outdoors because of the risk.

When Shakespeare became a professional actor, then a playwright and shareholder in a London company, plague presented both a professional and existential threat. Elizabethan doctors had no inkling that the disease was transmitted by rat fleas, and the moment an outbreak flared up – often during the spring or summer months, peak seasons for theatres – the authorities scrabbled to ban mass gatherings. Given that the authorities were naturally suspicious of theatre anyway, as being an incitement to lewdness and cross-dressing and God knows what else, playhouses were invariably the first to close. (Brothels and bear-baiting arenas, too, which some theatre owners relied on for income.) As a preacher of the time flatly put it: “The cause of plagues is sin, and the cause of sin is plays.” Between 1603 and 1613, when Shakespeare’s powers as a writer were at their height, the Globe and other London playhouses were shut for an astonishing total of 78 months – more than 60% of the time.

These were dark periods for theatres in more senses than one. Actors were forced into other work and, of course, many died (people aged between 10 and their mid-30s were especially vulnerable). Companies broke up or were forced to tour in the provinces, hoping that news of the pestilence didn’t travel ahead of them. As at least one Shakespeare biographer has pointed out, there was a curious irony to the closures: Elizabethan theatregoers loved to snack on hazelnuts, which may have helped repel plague-carrying fleas.


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Reply Shakespeare in lockdown: did he write King Lear in plague quarantine? (Original post)
G_j Mar 24 OP
Sugar Smack Mar 24 #1
G_j Mar 24 #3
Sugar Smack Mar 24 #4
Anon-C Mar 24 #2

Response to G_j (Original post)

Tue Mar 24, 2020, 01:53 PM

1. Wow. Just a couple of hours ago, I tweeted to trump:

"Comfort Me With Face-masks, For I Am Sick Of Love."

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Response to Sugar Smack (Reply #1)

Tue Mar 24, 2020, 02:18 PM

3. perfect

Had to laugh!

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Response to G_j (Reply #3)

Tue Mar 24, 2020, 02:37 PM

4. Thanks, G_j!

At least our senses of humor are still intact.

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Response to G_j (Original post)

Tue Mar 24, 2020, 01:56 PM

2. The key to creative productivity being a pox...

...on both our houses.

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