Historian Ronald Hutton on how playwrights and actors in Shakespeare’s day coped with the closures and cancellations caused by frequent outbreaks of viruses and plagues
In one sense what is happening to us at present is unprecedented: a pandemic that is simultaneously shutting down nations all over the world. At the local level, however, this was business as usual for Tudor and Stuart England. There, an epidemic would arrive in every city, town and village, about once each generation, and kill a fifth to a quarter of the population. There was no safe season: the two greatest scourges were bubonic plague, a bacillus carried by fleas which normally lived on rats, striking in summer and autumn, and influenza viruses, which flourished in winter and spring. Each usually took three to six months to work through a community, though sometimes a strain would bed in and produce a twin-peak flare-up in successive years. In those times, there was no understanding of the causes of these diseases, and no public health service, but other factors were very similar to the present day.
Then as now, the economy was one of the first and worst casualties of an outbreak, businesses of all kinds shutting down and only essential shops staying open. Households in which members were sick were locked up and guarded by armed men paid by the parish (so today’s policing is feather-light by comparison). Sociability was another loss, as pubs, clubs, cafes and eating houses closed down and sports events and community festivities were cancelled and travel banned.
One of the major branches of the entertainment industry thus affected was the theatres, especially those of the capital which nurtured the drama that burgeoned so precociously in Elizabethan England and produced some of the all-time classics of world literature. The very worst blow that a theatre company could suffer was the proclamation of a new epidemic, and another lock-down in response. The extraordinary size and crowding of London – not merely by far the biggest city in the nation but one of the three largest in Europe – made it exceptionally vulnerable, then as now. There, the disease-related closures hit on average once a decade, and could last up to two years.
To survive this sort of disaster, companies of actors had three remedies. One was simply to stockpile cash as an insurance fund. Another was to go on tour in parts of the provinces which were so far spared by the disease, if any existed. The third was to use the periods of enforced leisure to write new plays, so that the reopening of the theatres would see the company hit the boards with a fresh and exciting repertoire to pack the punters back in. One of those actor-manager-playwrights who understood this best was one William Shakespeare, who repeatedly faced the problem of surviving a London lockdown. As somebody with shares in the company for which he wrote, he had even more incentive than most to bring back the audiences, and responded with astonishing productivity as well as talent. Without the lethal effects of bacilli and viruses, we would probably not have so many of his plays. It’s an ill wind…
Ronald Hutton is Professor of History at Bristol University. He is an authority on early Modern England, paganism and witchcraft. He is the author of 14 books including Stations of the Sun and The Witch: A History of Fear. Prof Hutton has written about the maypole in the May/June 2020 issue of the Idler. To subscribe, go here.