You’ll no doubt have seen the fabulous meme doing the rounds at the moment suggesting that when Shakespeare was quarantined he wrote King Lear. It’s a wonderfully positive message to us all that being in lockdown can be a constructive time, even if it’s not one hundred percent concurred as fact by scholars. Still, bearing in mind it’s the 456th anniversary of his birth this month, we thought we’d find out a little more about this inspiring and prolific writer.

Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon

Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon

Setting the scene

The bouts of bubonic plague that Shakespeare lived through were significant influences on his life and writing. These were truly frightening times. People didn’t understand what caused the plague or how it spread. But though the concept of fleas on rats was way beyond them, a clear sense that groups of people passed it on faster had definitely sunk in. Houses were quarantined, theatres were shut, and people made a point of keeping to themselves as best they could. Anyone born during the first great Elizabethan outbreak (1563-4) would have had it ingrained in their psyche, and Shakespeare was no different; his parents had already lost both their older children to previous outbreaks.

The curtain lifts

The outbreak that was raging when Shakespeare was born actually went on to kill a quarter of the population of Stratford. So when it returned just thirty years later in 1593, the hardcoded thinking of his childhood will have undoubtedly kicked in.

By that point, Shakespeare was already a prolific playwright and producer. So when disaster struck again, he’ll have felt it hard both mentally and financially. All theatres were shut, and in truth many actors died during this time also. Scholars have noted how much influence the pestilence had on his writing. He wrote two major pieces (poems) whilst bunkered down through this bout, and there are many references to love being a more powerful force than even death. Beautiful words written in an ugly time; a testament to his determination to feel emotion but stay positive.

Act One plays out

But, as with all these things, the troubled times passed, and by 1599 Shakespeare and his company were tearing down the walls of their theatre and building a new, bigger, better one, now famously known as The Globe.

At this point, though, a particularly vicious outbreak hit London hard. Up to thirty thousand lives were lost and new ‘laws’ were put in place to try to reduce the spread. Many of the theatres were closed, Shakespeare’s included, the decision being made when thirty deaths per week were recorded in an area. An even worse outbreak then occurred two years later, and Shakespeare was left with little choice but to park his dreams of large audiences, who could be captivated by dramas played out on a huge stage.

Act Two begins

For some reason, though London had begun to adopt more draconian measures to manage this flare up, Shakespeare, living in Silver Street, wasn’t locked down. Elsewhere, other people were quarantined in their houses, with large red crosses painted on their doors. Neighbours were scared of neighbours, and a fear of this relentless disease outweighed boredom and poverty and kept them inside. So it’s easy to understand how Shakespeare decided enough was enough when he took his troop, The King’s Men, out on tour to the villages and towns of England.

This wasn’t as easy a transition as he’d thought it would be, though. Equipped with plays that tended to work better with larger audiences and grander arenas, he realised he had to come up with more intimate performances. Whilst his players played, he wrote. King Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, all these plays came out of this period, and the subject of the plague is referenced many times in his work.

Act Three

When things died down again, it seems the entire profession had changed. Many of the youngster ‘Boy Companies’ that had taken London by storm in earlier years had lost their actors to the Grim Reaper. Older actors were still available though, as were smaller theatres. The smaller groups perhaps gave people a sense of protection from the fear of large group transmission. But whatever the reason, Shakespeare found that he needed to adjust his work further to cater for smaller audiences, closer to the stage, and often lit by candles. Actors’ expressions could become more subtle, whilst lines could be delivered more softly, personally. It was a significant shift in emphasis to which Shakespeare responded, and in this regard he exemplifies just how well a creative can adjust to the needs of their audience. They were scared; so he brought them a belief in the ability of love to conquer all. They were sceptical; so he brought them hope that conditions would improve. They were bored; so he brought them entertainment they could enjoy under new conditions.

An epilogue of thought

To be productive whilst tackling one’s most innate fears – abandonment, rejection, and death – highlights Shakespeare’s extraordinary strength of character. And even if one doesn’t feel the touch of his words now, one can still feel inspired by the legacy he left from which we all still benefit today.