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Tis the times' plague



Venetian born Baldassare Longhena had every reason to be feeling relaxed and optimistic in 1629. He was young, just 31 years old. Healthy, in an age where rumours and news of plague were increasing, especially in a much visited, bustling port city like Venice. And he was talented, already recognised for his architectural brilliance which had won him several important commissions.

Illustration of Shakespeare holding a skull and a mask reading '2 B or not to B'

There were, however, some clouds on the Venetian horizon, among them slowly emerging reports of plague in England where another brilliant young man — William Shakespeare — somehow had eluded the pestilence which raged through London in July 1606. Modern scholars, tracking Shakespeare’s probable movements at that time, have theorised he must have spent much time indoors writing — a kind of seventeenth century social distancing and self-isolation. But Shakespeare, so goes a counter argument, can’t have been thoroughly isolated and distanced because it was an unavoidably busy time for a man of the theatre: Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy and Shakespeare’s own King Lear and Macbeth were all playing until the plague forced The King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, to cease performing and the Globe theatre was closed.

The precaution was understandable. Only two years earlier a bubonic outbreak had killed 30,000 in London alone. In measures now sadly familiar in 2020, theatres were closed once the number of weekly deaths exceeded 30, later 40, but because actors and the theatre world itself were so economically vulnerable, actors, understandably intent on earning a living, soon legally or otherwise cut themselves some slack by taking liberties with the rules governing performances and quarantine — again, a phenomenon that is now, against all previous odds, familiar to people of 2020.

Statistics are scarce, but a remark in a 1608 play called Ram Alley by a knockabout writer named Lording Barry (when he wasn’t writing drama he was a pirate on the high seas) seems to suggest that things were tough for actors when theatres were closed if the death rate exceeded 40 per week: one of Lording’s characters in Ram Alley says, ‘I dwindle as a new player does at a plague bill certified 40’. The phenomenon of actors, drama and the arts generally ‘dwindling’ in face of the virus is now, like so much else in the world of COVID-19, part of our everyday life.

The plague that Shakespeare one way or another avoided and through which, it seems, he continued to write, made its way catastrophically to Venice. In 1630, 46,000 Venetians in a population of 140,000 died as bubonic plague swept through northern Italy. Similar thousands died in Milan, Verona, Bologna and Florence.

In Venice, a kind of quarantine attempt was made on a small island called Lazzaretto Vecchio in the Venetian Lagoon not all that far from Piazza San Marco. Modern building excavations on the island were suspended when workers uncovered ancient mass graves of bubonic plague victims revealing more than 1,500 corpses with an estimated thousands of skeletons remaining ‘buried beneath every meadow in Lazzaretto Vecchio.’


'Our "plague" defies quick or facile remedy. Each day reports from one afflicted centre or another are more devastating and unstoppably sweep up more lives and innocents. Which makes it the more mysterious to wonder why did so many apparently intelligent and powerful people all over the world take so much convincing?'


Effectively a quarantine, Lazzaretto Vecchio was possibly the world’s first lazaret — a colony devoted to quarantine and the prevention of disease transmission. And to some extent it worked: the dead were collected and thrown ‘in the graves all day without a break. Often the dying ones and the ones too sick to move or talk were taken for dead and thrown on the piled corpses.’ In this way, Venetians were able to curb the damage just a little as the plague struck Europe again and again.

Like Shakespeare, Baldasarre Longhena worked diligently through the dangers of the pestilence and survived. When the ferocity of the plague seemed to be abating — a favour attributed to the benign intervention of the Blessed Virgin Mary — Venetians offered thanks for their miraculous salvation from the bubonic terrors that had devastated so many families. They commissioned a splendid cathedral — Santa Maria della Saluté, Our Lady of Health — overlooking the entrance to the Grand Canal and dominating one of Venice’s most pleasant peaceful precincts, Dorsoduro. The Saluté was Longhena’s design and personal achievement.

The plague of course raged on elsewhere in Italy. Even in 2020, despite infinitely more sophisticated and effective medical resources, our ‘plague’ defies quick or facile remedy. Each day reports from one afflicted centre or another are more devastating and unstoppably sweep up more lives and innocents. Which makes it the more mysterious to wonder why did so many apparently intelligent and powerful people all over the world take so much convincing?

In Australia you would think they would know better, people like the Prime Minister, who nominated with some determination and, at the time, apparent certainty, the end of COVID-19 by Christmas. The Treasurer with his confected passion attacking Premier Dan Andrews at the most critical point of Victoria’s now successful resistance to the second wave, and all those ‘throw open the borders’ warriors in the height of the lockdowns. Apparently they don’t understand that COVID is a killer, and that, like all of history’s thorough-going plagues, it can make you agonisingly sick before it kills you?

‘It looked like hell,’ wrote the 16th-century Venetian chronicler Rocco Benedetti, describing the sick, the dying, the bereaved. It still does and mere bravado won’t stop it.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Baldassare Longhena, Shakespeare, Lazaretto Vecchio, lazaret, COVID-19, plague



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Existing comments

Thank you Brian, for this timely reminder of how adversity can have its uses, not least literary ones. I recall from what you write here the fateful relevance of the plague in "Romeo and Juliet", and , from the same play, Mercutio' s unforgettable, "a pox (plague?) on both your houses"; as well as Macbeth's scathing curse as the invaders, led by Malcolm, close in on fortified Dunsinane: "There let them lie till famine and the ague eat them up!"

John RD | 25 November 2020  

Bravo Brian Matthews. A gentle, beautifully written reminder that to ignore history is to be condemned to repeat it.

Sharan Kraemer | 25 November 2020  

Well said Brian but a different sort of disease, not a man made virus created in a lab by a country seeking world dominance - a country which would perhaps resort to germ warfare to further its territorial ambitions. '11 July 1603: The care we have to prevent all occasions of dispersing the Infection among our people . . .' King James "Plague had been endemic in Britain since the 14th century. Spread by fleas from the black rat, it was one of the hazards of hot summers. When it arrived, it was fast and fatal, it closed down the life and the traffic of the city so completely that even the busiest of London streets sprung weeds and grass." BBC Restless Shakespeare. Now I thought since Stratford on Avon is 83 miles from London that the country would be safer. But no, 25 percent of its population also died so Shakespeare was fortunate. Luckily now there are 3 vaccines available in Australia so perhaps the politicians should make a jab compulsory. Just like we got jabbed without anyone asking our opinion when we were kids for polio, tetanus, tuberculosis. "In reality though, infection still caused at least a quarter of all deaths,8 10% due to tuberculosis alone. Many of the victims were children or young adults. Eradication of bovine tuberculosis produced a welcome fall in infant cases, but about 4000 cases continued to be notified annually between 1917 and 1950. The fine sanatorium buildings in “healthy” locations such as the Blue Mountains are reminders of the desperate attempts to combine sanitary and microbiological principles by isolating patients to prevent spread of the disease while they were treated with rest and diet.9,10 During World War II (WWII), intensive screening of Australian troops by miniature x-ray was followed up with bacteriological testing to identify patients with active infection, for whom treatment was compulsory. The success of this program prompted a postwar attempt to eradicate the disease from the civilian population, and the advent of streptomycin and sickness benefit payments made compulsory treatment acceptable to the community". Yvonne Cossart, Med J. Aust 2014.

Francis Armstrong | 25 November 2020  

Bravo! For your interesting article, and for your common sense, which seemingly is not as common as we may once have assumed.

Jena Woodhouse | 25 November 2020  

A virus 'created in a lab' ? Where's the credible evidence, Francis ?

Ginger Meggs | 02 December 2020  

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