The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare: A chapel in Paulina's house, King Leontes at what he believes to be the statue of his dead wife, overwhelmed at the resemblance; Act V, Scene III. Woodcut engraving after an original by Robert Thew (English engraver, 1758 - 1802) from the book "W. Shakespeare's sämmtliche Werke, 1. Band (W. Shakespeare's complete works, Volume 1"). Published by Julius Körner in Baumgärtner's Buchhandlung, Leipzig, 1838.

Magdalena Dreinert (University of Warsaw) worked on this paper with great excitement, looking forward to joining the 2021 PAMLA Conference online. She would not be able to go to Las Vegas, the city of her dreams, due to her health condition, which made her experience the hardships of lockdown decades before the world had heard about COVID-19, but the prospect of meeting this vibrant academic community – albeit in virtual space – filled her with great joy. Despite her illness, Magda graduated from Warsaw University summa cum laude in June this year and was just about to start work on a Ph.D. dissertation on narrative elements in Shakespeare’s drama. Unfortunately, two weeks before her dream was to come true, Magda suffered a severe stroke. She is fighting for her life in hospital in Katowice, and all her friends in Poland and abroad hope she makes it again. This is the contribution she wished to make in Las Vegas.       

“‘All the Contagion On You’ – Pandemic City and Shakespeare’s Cursing Characters”

In the modern time of the COVID-19 pandemic, cultural life suffers as lockdowns and other countermeasures close theatres and other cultural centres. In this difficult time, we reflect upon the previous generations’ experiences with epidemics. The closing of theatres in particular invites us to think back to 16th century England: none else but William Shakespeare and his peers experienced the very same in a repeated and personal fashion. As we scour the literary canon for inspiration to perseverance in the face of the hardships pandemics and epidemics bring, I cannot help but wonder about Shakespeare’s motives for this mysterious, “loud” absence, never featuring in the forefront of his works. He never simply shied away from a difficult topic. There must have been a reason for his decision not to exploit the experience of the bubonic plague for his artistic endeavours, fame and profit.

Reviewing the historical background of how outbreaks were handled in London in Shakespeare’s times, several potential reasons come to mind as to why it was so. Shakespeare faced his first bubonic plague in the  year of his birth, spending the first few months of his life in lockdown. Two hundred dead in Stratford alone amounted to 1/7 of the town’s populace at the time. Although the Shakespeares survived, the experience of their need to sequester themselves for their own protection for months at a time must have been impactful. The victims’ graves left the vivid, dramatic stamp of a time of death impressed in the urban community’s collective memory, the trauma certainly living on in the survivors. Later on, the very same disease periodically affected the adult Shakespeare, both in and out of London, as shown on Slide 2. Whenever the plague hit, theatres across London would be closed as soon as the Privy Council recorded 30 deaths in a week. Every such lockdown threatened the entire chain of supply and demand of the entertainment business – as theatres should be considered. According to Jerzy Limon, the Bard spent a total of 80 months in professional lockdowns: an average of 7-8 months every year[1]. We can talk about months of financial drought when the troupes could not perform and earn a living. Concerns relating to finances exacerbated feelings of insecurity and fear stemming from the surrounding sickness and death. In short, for Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the plague can be described as a time of inaction: the rhythm of everyday life is aggressively interrupted by death and uncertainty. Naturally, it becomes even more noticeable in the context of theatre since lockdowns would see entire troupes in forced inactivity.

At the same time, for Shakespeare, a playwright, so one capable of plying his trade even when performing was banned by writing new plays, the outbreaks of bubonic plague were highly prolific times. The early 17th century gave us Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Anthony and Cleopatra, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, whereas Romeo and Juliet was likely written in the wake of the epidemic of 1593. Notably, the works created during lockdowns, when his troupes could not perform, or soon after, almost invariably carry with them at least an element of tragedy. Only the last 2 acts of The Winter’s Tale can be safely classified as a comedy, including a happy ending; the bulk of this problem play is filled with psychological drama, despair and events highlighting the contagious nature of evil with which Leontes afflicts those who surround him. In The Tempest, many evil deeds are committed, which similarly afflict most of the cast, Caliban cursing Prospero with plagues. The other works mentioned all lack a happy ending for the main characters, potentially indicating the effect the enforced seclusion of lockdowns probably had on the Bard.

Additionally, the interpretation of plagues as divine punishment for sins caused extra problems to people like Shakespeare. Puritans viewed theatre-going as a sinful activity. When bubonic outbreaks hit, people powerless to stop them would seek scapegoats as a means of processing the trauma. Puritans thought closing theatres, those houses of sin, infecting the young with depravity, foul language and worse, offered one of the stepping stones towards repentance in the face of an angry God, a point often made in sermons in the 16th century when outbreaks would be interpreted as a holy scourge.

In this way, reasons for Shakespeare never taking the subject of plagues as the main theme of a play come to the forefront of our discussion. An epidemic was a lurking terror too significant to approach in a fashion which naysayers would accuse of treating it lightly by offering an artistic rendition. It was a threat mankind was nearly defenceless against, a foe so unspeakable, it could not be brought directly onto the stage lest the sins of theatrical levity offend God and doom the country to another outbreak and its bloody harvest. The connection between contagion and the forced closing of theatres, each lockdown risking the troupes starving as money ran out, could further have dissuaded Shakespeare from mentioning the subject.

While none of the plays from the period we are aware of tackle the subject directly, it would be a grave mistake to say there is no epidemic in theatre of that time. Rather, appropriate gravitas would be involved, a certain subtlety in the treatment of the topic. Its background presence looming over the characters was undeniably felt. The Black Death and other kinds of contagion amounted to a taboo danger which could strike seemingly from nowhere, turning life into death and action into inaction. It affected artists like William Shakespeare, featuring in their works without their being obvious about it.

I originally analysed material from Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Anthony and Cleopatra, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Much interesting discussion could be had about each of these plays. However, the short time we have today prompted my decision to focus on only one aspect of how plagues “play” in Shakespearean theatre. Pandemic portrayals in these plays can be divided into 4 distinct types: links between diseases and evil already present in men (1); the contagious nature of evil, which spreads like a contagious disease and afflicts entire urban communities (2); plagues as occurrences of deadly chance rather than sin or some tragic flaw, strokes of unluck their victims did not earn (3); and the use of plague-related curses as the fiercest expression of contempt and ill will possible (4). In this discussion, I focus on the last aspect, with examples from three tragedies: King Lear, Timon of Athens and The Tragedy of Coriolanus. I believe they work best as the introduction to “pandemic Shakespeare”.

The first play I wish to discuss, King Lear, makes for a perfect demonstration of the lurking presence of contagion in Shakespeare’s plays through use of disease-related language in cursing. Lear invokes the threat of plagues upon another; and his curses infest the world with misery. Consider the very first scene of the play where he insists on offering the Earl of Kent five days to prepare for his banishment from the kingdom in the words[2]: “Five days we do allot thee for provision/To shield thee from diseases of the world.” Rather than dangers of the world, there are diseases from which one must shield oneself. In the same scene, Kent compares Lear’s mistreatment of Cordelia while rewarding the duplicitous Regan and Goneril to murdering one’s doctor and paying the illness for their treatment: “Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow/Upon the foul disease” (Scene I of Act I). The same man later uses the curse “A plague upon your epileptic visage!” in Scene II of Act II. The adjective used to describe the accursed, wretched appearance is also related to illnesses, remaining within the same thematic circle. In my opinion, the best example of a detailed plague-themed curse comes from Lear himself in Scene IV of Act II when he is faced with rejection by Goneril and the Duke of Cornwall. Shakespeare begins with familiar metonymy; the children are their parents’ “flesh”, , but he does not stop there. He then infects the healthy body, just as Goneril is infected with evil, her lack of love for her father considered an unnatural state: “a disease that’s in my flesh (…), a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood” (Scene IV, Act II). The imagery is vivid and can be directly traced to symptoms of bubonic plague. There are buboes, blood infected with Yersinia pestis, sores and boils. The image conjured up in the minds of the audience by Lear’s speech here is extremely realistic, a viscerally painful picture of what Shakespeare was familiar with. Therefore, when the protagonist cries “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air/Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!” (Scene IV of Act III), it proves all the more dramatic, especially to an audience with similar familiarity with real Black Death outbreaks.

When Edgar, disguising himself as “poor Tom”, a madman, leads Lear before the Earl of Gloucester, the latter exclaims “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind” in Scene I of Act IV. Again, the plague is the embodiment of the very worst qualities and possible fate for the world at large. Gloucester also calls Edgar “Thou whom the heavens’ plagues/Have humbled to all strokes” (Scene I of Act IV), linking to the theory of plagues as divine punishment. Finally, in Scene III of Act V, when Lear holds his only loving daughter’s dead body in his arms, he once more invokes contagion: “A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!” Barely 7 words, yet ones which encapsulate all his grief and powerlessness.

The next choice for analysis is another play presumed to have been written either during the outbreak of 1606 or shortly after it: Timon of Athens. Commonly considered rather unpopular due to its difficult, misanthropic content, the tragedy is highly interesting for our discussion due to the sheer number of times “contagious” vocabulary features in it across 9 scenes. The very first scene of Act I when the Poet indicates the difference between the healthy – thus desirable – verse which “flies an eagle flight, bold and forth on,/Leaving no tract behind” and that infected with levelled malice[3] sets the expectations for the audience: the city of Athens and its populace are rotten, insidiously afflicted with disease-like sins, to which the “contagious” vocabulary aims to alert us. Soon, all kinds of characters will curse others with the misery related to affliction. In Scene I of Act III, Flaminius, one of Timon’s servants, curses Lucullus for showing his true colours and not helping his long-time benefactor in a time of need while trying to bribe Flaminius himself with “three solidares” to tell his master that he could not be contacted, crying “Thou disease of a friend (…)!” and accusing him of growing fat on the meat of Timon’s countless feasts that he was invited to. This flesh is in equal parts gluttonous for freeloading and undeserving of his generosity:

O, may diseases only work upon’t!

And, when he’s sick to death, let not that part of nature

Which my lord paid for, be of any power

To expel sickness, but prolong his hour!

The tragedy begins with ample evidence of Timon’s generosity and altruism; he readily lends money to all his false friends, wining and dining them. Flaminius wishes the meat Lucullus consumed at the many banquets at Timon’s expense to be turned to poison and diseased, making him “sick to death” and hopes that the food and drink his master sponsored for the man will not “be of any power to expel sickness”. Other servants of the protagonist, while discussing the matter of the loss of his fortune in Scene II of Act IV, speak of the ruination in terms of death brought on by the plagues: “Such a house broke! So noble a master fall’n! All gone!” says Servant One, Servant Two comparing poverty to disease and a poor man to one dead, saying that he is “thrown into his grave” as if an outbreak victim (Scene II of Act IV). Those statements as well as that of Flavius: “All broken implements of a ruin’d house” conjure the image of a household in mourning after someone who has passed away, possibly even from the plague, further backed up by Flavius saying that his master’s great fortunes, now passed, were his “chief afflictions”. The greatest grief is intrinsically connected to diseases and their deadliness. Shakespeare uses this rhetoric consistently throughout the entire play – Timon himself, in Scene I of Act IV, curses Athens and its populace in the following terms:

Plagues, incident to men,

Your potent and infectious fevers heap

On Athens, ripe for stroke!

(…) Itches, blains,

Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop

Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,

At their society, as their friendship, may

Merely poison!

In Scene III of Act IV, just before he discovers gold buried underground while searching for edible roots during his self-imposed exile in the wilderness, Timon muses on how “blessed breeding sun” draws “rotten humidity” from the earth and invites it to “infect the air”, with contagion-themed vocabulary like “sores”, “leprosy” and “ulcerous sores” characterising his soliloquy. This style of speech remains typical of the protagonist. When Alcibiades greets him in the same scene, he retorts with: “The canker gnaw thy heart,/For showing me again the eyes of man!” The prostitute Phrynia responds with the curse: “Thy lips rot off!” only to be met with his immediate: “I will not kiss thee; then the rot returns/To thine own lips again.” Timandra, the other prostitute, is urged to: “Be a whore still: they love thee not that use thee;/Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust./Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves /For tubs and baths; bring down rose-cheeked youth/To the tub-fast and the diet” (Scene III of Act IV). Alcibiades is told to “Promise me friendship, but perform none: if thou/Wilt not promise, the gods plague thee, for thou art a man! If thou dost perform, confound thee, for/Thou art a man!” and to “Be as a planetary plague, when Jove/Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison/In the sick air” besieging the hated Athens. The two harlots are then ordered to “plague all”, “sow consumption”. The oversaturation of disease-themed vocabulary leaves the audience reeling: the address to the two prostitutes in particular is all about them spreading venereal diseases, filled with evocative descriptions of the symptoms of syphilis. This is the vengeance Timon aims to take on Athens, paying them with the discovered gold to bring ruination to men who use their services, because “That nature, being sick of man’s unkindness,/Should yet be hungry!” By the time the spectator hears the exchange of vitriol between Timon and Apemantus, they will possibly themselves have become sick of what they have heard so far. Timon claims that he is sick of this world. Implying that meeting more people is as bad as the plague, he tells Apemantus that “Choler does kill me that thou art alive” and wishes for him to catch consumption, while the philosopher retorts with “The plague of/Company light upon thee (…)!/A plague on thee (…)!/There is no leprosy but what thou speak’st (…)./I would my tongue could rot them off!” The infamous phrase “I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands” also comes from this scene.

Act V also overflows with references to various afflictions, starting with Timon’s “Be crown’d with plagues that thee alone obey!” to Poet and Painter. In Scene I of Act V, the protagonist addresses the crowd: “I was writing of my epitaph (…)/my long sickness/Of health and living now begins to mend” wishing the whole city thus: “Be Alcibiades your plague, you his,/And last so long enough!”. With his final curse, overflowing with disease-themed vocabulary, Timon steps off the stage: “What is amiss plague and infection mend!/Graves only be men’s works and death their gain!”. Death, the finale of the plague, both literal and metaphorical as in this play, will soon claim him. It will be Alcibiades, marching on Athens while First Senator pleads[4] for him to “Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,/But kill not all together!” (Scene IV of Act V), who reads the protagonist’s epitaph, including the warning: “Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked/Caitiffs left!”

The last play which I want to mention, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, resembles Timon of Athens in three ways: firstly, the setting of this tragedy is also one of antiquity, although we observe events unfold in Rome, Corioli and Antium rather than Athens; secondly, Coriolanus sets his eyes on Rome just as Alcibiades did on Athens when their hometowns scorned them; and, thirdly, disease-themed terms feature in it, although to a lesser extent than in Timon of Athens. Could Shakespeare have been recovering from the experience of the bubonic outbreak of 1606 while writing this play? The references are subtler than in Timon of Athens, less revolting, because rather than arouse disgust, they aim to incite rage at injustice, treachery or disgraceful behaviour. In the opening scene, citizens say that leanness, the effect of the food shortages created out of the necessity to supply the Roman troops fighting against the Volsces, afflicts them (Scene I of Act I). When giving up on convincing her daughter-in-law, Virgilia, to leave home before her husband returns from the war and instead walk the city with her and Valeria, a friendly noblewoman, Volumnia, the protagonist’s mother, says that “she will but/Disease our better mirth” (Scene III of Act I). While rallying his soldiers at the siege of Corioli in Scene IV of Act I, Caius Marcius Coriolanus aims to incense the Roman troops by crying:

All the contagion of the south light on you,

You shames of Rome! you herd of – Boils and plagues

Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d

Further than seen and one infect another

Against the wind a mile!

Scene VI of Act I also includes Coriolanus calling “The common file – a plague!” Curses like that are the most common in Shakespeare’s works in general, but The Tragedy of Coriolanus goes beyond the simple use of plague-related vocabulary in swearing. As the play’s action progresses, disease-themed references become further refined, subtler than in Timon of Athens, showing the Bard’s ever-growing sophistication. Note how the main character traditionally speaks in plain terms, soldier-like, such as when he curses “What must I say? ‘I Pray, sir’ – Plague upon’t! I cannot bring/My tongue to such a pace” in Scene III of Act II while urged to assume the political behaviour to stand for consul. Menenius Agrippa, the sophisticated Roman politician and an old family friend, ironically tells the tribunes complaining about the general that “More of your conversation would/Infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly/Plebeians” (Scene I of Act II). During the judging of the protagonist after riling up the mob of plebeians against him, Menenius  orders them to “Pursue him to his house, and pluck him thence:/Lest his infection, being of catching nature,/Spread further”. When the tribune Junius Brutus says that “cold ways,/That seem like prudent helps, are very poisonous/Where the disease is violent” as he likens the war hero to disease, the other tribune, Sicinius Velutus, backs up him by saying “He’s a disease that must be cut away” while Menenius counters: “O, he’s a limb that has but a disease;/Mortal, to cut it off; to cure it, easy” (Scene I of Act III).

When Coriolanus swears his alliance with Tullus Aufidius to march on Rome, he uses the phrase “I will fight/Against my canker’d country with the spleen/Of all the under fiends” (Scene V of Act IV). While urging her son not to march on Rome with the Volsces, fighting not to be removed from their camp where she is sent as the last hope in negotiations before the city is razed to the ground, she warns Marcius that “The gods will plague thee,/That thou restrain’st from me the duty which/To a mother’s part belongs” (Scene III of Act V). Finally, in Scene VI of Act V, after achieving peace between the Romans and the Volsces, much to the chagrin of Aufidius, Coriolanus calls himself “No more infected with my country’s love/Than when I parted hence” as if patriotic love towards an ungrateful homeland were a disease. In this fashion, Shakespeare alerts us to how unhealthy such feelings are. Rather than simply evoke the visceral response of disgust, terms related to outbreaks of contagious disease used throughout The Tragedy of Coriolanus refer to the calamity they constitute, creating a cautionary effect. They both remind the audience of the direct risks they carry and help them reflect upon the dangers of political unrest and demagoguery plied by the tribunes for their personal gain.

To summarise, William Shakespeare never used the subject of plagues directly in his works. The harsh traumas they constituted turned them into a universally-respected taboo, further solidified by the blaming of theatres for their deadly calamities and the stopping of all life whenever lockdowns were instituted in an attempt to stem the tide of death. Yet an attentive reader can certainly see the sheer impact of those experiences. From Romeo and Juliet, where the lack of a tragic flaw reflects the random nature of unluck of the bubonic plague striking, through The Winter’s Tale and Macbeth with their respective portrayals of the contagious nature of evil as well as solidarity of sin, King Lear and Timon of Athens with their despairing curses, to The Tragedy of Coriolanus where the poetic and rhetoric devices used are most refined, epidemics create a potent background presence throughout Shakespeare’s works. Rather than a straightforwardly presented theme, the plagues in Shakespeare’s times become his source material, inspiration not to invoke directly, especially in a theatre which may have been the house of sin God punished with the disease. The increase in the number of tragedies he created during or after outbreaks should not be ignored, but taken as another case of Shakespeare’s discretion and brilliance in drawing inspiration from the world around him.


[1] Jerzy Limon, Siedem grzechów głównych u Szekspira [Seven Deadly Sins in Shakespeare, Gdańsk: słowo/obraz, terytoria; forthcoming]
[2] “Five days we do allot thee for provision/To shield thee from diseases of the world,/And on the sixth to turn thy hated back/Upon our kingdom. If, on the tenth day following,/Thy banish’d trunk be found in our dominions,/The moment is thy death.”
[3] “(…) My free drift/Halts not particularly, but moves itself/In a wide sea of wax: no levell’d malice/Infects one comma in the course I hold,/But flies an eagle flight, both and forth on,/Leaving no tract behind.”
[4] “Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin/Which in the bluster of thy wrath must fall/With those that have offended: like a shepherd,/Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,/But kill not all together!”

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