In the first decade of King James I’s reign, the plague meant that London theaters were likely closed more often than they were open, and Shakespeare’s troupe, The King’s Men, had to rely on royal gifts and provincial tours to replace their lost box office. (No such luck for Broadway shows on tour; my family’s tickets to Frozen were canceled—regrettably? mercifully?—this weekend in Oregon, where the governor has banned gatherings of more than 250 people.) In The Year of Lear, the scholar James Shapiro notes that nascent epidemiologists weren’t the only ones who blamed the spread of disease on tourists breathing the same foul air in enclosed entertainment venues; religious zealots also came after the theater’s purported immorality: blasphemy, lewdness, cross-dressing. One Elizabethan preacher proclaimed that because “the cause of plagues is sin” and “the cause of sin are plays,” then “the cause of plagues are plays.”
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Conversely, plagues may have caused plays. It’s long been thought that Shakespeare turned to poetry when plague closed the theaters in 1593. That’s when he published his popular narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in which the goddess begs a kiss from a beautiful boy, “to drive infection from the dangerous year,” for, she claims, “the plague is banish’d by thy breath.” Love poetry, it seems, could be spurred by the plague, and—the seductive fantasy runs—even cure it. But Shapiro suggests that another closure of theaters, in 1606, allowed Shakespeare, an actor and shareholder in The King’s Men, to get a lot of dramatic writing done, meeting the demand for new plays in a busy holiday season at court. According to Shapiro, he churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year.
Given that the bubonic plague particularly decimated young populations, it may also have wiped out Shakespeare’s theatrical rivals—companies of boy actors who dominated the early-17th-century stage, and could often get away with more satiric, politically dicey productions than their older competitors. Shakespeare’s company took over the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1608 after the leading boy company collapsed, and started doing darker, edgier productions, capitalizing on a market share that was newly available. In addition to business opportunities, the plague provided a powerful stock of dramatic metaphors. As Shapiro points out, references to the plague and its bubbling sores, called “God’s tokens,” surface in Shakespeare’s scripts from the period. In Antony and Cleopatra, a Roman soldier fears that his side will fare “like the token’d pestilence / Where death is sure.”
The ghost of a 17th-century plague victim haunts Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, probably the best known work in recent decades to respond to a plague—the AIDS epidemic that ripped through Broadway in the 1980s. Kushner’s HIV-positive hero, Prior Walter, is visited by his ancestors, prior Priors, who tell him of the “spotty monster” they faced in earlier eras, and prepare him for a revelation to come. The angel that crashes through Prior’s ceiling at the end of the play heralds an era of painful renewal—both for AIDS survivors, and for the theatrical community that rallied around Kushner’s work. The red-ribboned organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS now follows many a Broadway performance with a fundraising appeal. If a plague could cause a play, perhaps a play could help to stop a plague.