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Tis the times' plague

  • 24 November 2020
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.

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