This COVID-19 virus pandemic takes us out of our contemporary times and puts us smack back in pre-modern/pre-industrial ages.
Playwright William Shakespeare was born in 1564 during a bubonic plague epidemic in Stratford-on-Avon. Records of the time show about 20 percent of the town died. Shakespeare’s parents sheltered in place to protect him. They had lost his sisters Joan, Margaret, and Anne to plague. Shakespeare later lost his brother, Edmund, to plague at age 27.
Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway, had twins, Hamnet and Judith, born in 1585. His son Hamnet died at age eleven, possibly from the plague.
Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson, another well-known London playwright and poet, was born in 1572. His son died in 1603 from that plague epidemic. Jonson wrote a sonnet epitaph in his son’s memory with these opening lines: “Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;/ My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.” If those words don’t break your heart and bring you to your knees, none will. And Jonson was a mean guy arrested numerous times for violent behavior.
The 1603 plague that greeted King James I upon his ascension to the British throne went on and on. The King shut down London for almost a year, as happened again in 1606. Shakespeare’s landlady was among the 30,000 who died from that year’s scourge.
Like today, treatments then didn’t offer much hope. Bleeding the sick was one cure. Using leeches was another. Licorice and comfrey were applied for lung infection. Who knows at this point whether hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial remedy also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, will help with COVID-19. President Donald Trump’s common sense says it will.
Hurling a plague curse had resonance in Elizabethan England. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s best pal Mercutio is stabbed by Romeo’s enemy, Tybalt. Mercutio knows his wound is mortal. Mercutio cries, “I am hurt! A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.” Romeo says, “The hurt cannot be much.” Mercutio, with his dark humor in his darkest hour, replies, “No, (the wound) ‘tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door, but ‘tis enough, t’will serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
Shakespeare used his time wisely while sheltering from the 1603 plague. He wrote three huge dramas, "King Lear," "Macbeth," and "Anthony and Cleopatra," during that period. His light-hearted plays were completed by 1601. His final, less-than-joyful comedy, "Measure for Measure," was written in 1604. Ben Jonson wrote "Volpone" and "The Alchemist," his two great satires, between 1605 and 1610, under the shadow of plague London.
Shakespeare set an example of how to put shelter-in-place to good use. Of course, in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, no one had a clue how the plague spread. Attending London physicians wore head contraptions that served like today’s N95 mask. Exotic head masks worn by Italian doctors were designed to protect them. London’s doctors also wore thick clothing and heavy boots, fortunate barriers to fleas that conducted plague.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that French scientist Alexandre Yersin figured out the plague bacteria in Hong Kong during an outbreak there. Paul-Louis Simond found that fleas were the infection vector several years later. Cures didn’t come on the scene until the 1930s and ‘40s.
Compare the millennia-long fright of the plague with today. The COVID-19 virus’s RNA was charted in weeks and diagnostic tests developed within months, not that they’re widely available in the U.S. A vaccine is expected in a year or so. Still, King James’ shelter-in-place is our current best option.
As in the early 1600s, today’s medical staff and essential care workers struggle to stay protected from our contemporary pandemic. A $2/hour raise, mask and plastic sneeze guard aren’t much for food workers, for example.
These front-line people daily face the most important lesson from the natural world that Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists well understood. Humankind is not apart from nature; we’re a part of nature.
Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.