By VS Ravinew indianexpress.com 3 min
The Great Plague of London reached Stratford-upon-Avon on July 11, 1564, when William Shakespeare was about three months old. Nearly 200 people died in the town, which had a population of 1,000. Shakespeare’s house was unaffected. His life was spared—an example of divinity that shapes the affairs of human existence. Shakespeare must have been told about his life having been spared by the plague when he had reached the age of a certain level of comprehension. Realisation of that luck did not affect him going by all that we know about him.
He referred to the plague, as has been noted by Shakespeare scholars, as an exclamation or metaphorical expression of rage and disgust in a few plays—Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night. The plague influences the course of events only in Romeo and Juliet.
For someone who narrowly escaped death from plague when he was an infant, and later on incurred financial losses in London due to its outbreaks, in his most productive years (1606 till 1610), Shakespeare was utterly indifferent to the pandemic. He was born at a time when England was the commercial centre of the world. Queen Elizabeth died and James I ascended the throne. Explorers were voyaging to distant strange shores. The Gunpowder Plot was hatched. However, in King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, which he wrote between 1603 and 1610, the Bard made no reference to these events. Nowhere did the plague preoccupy him. Shakespeare is unique in focusing on the past and remaining indifferent to contemporary events.
That Shakespeare was not killed in his infancy by the plague is a stroke of incredible luck for all of humanity. If some scientist does not discover a particular law or invent a particular gadget, sooner or later some other scientist would have done that. The history of science is full of stories of different scientists who made the same discovery independently of one another or a few years apart. For example, Newton and Leibniz independently discovered calculus.
The British physicist-chemist Joseph Swan independently developed an incandescent bulb at the same time as American inventor Thomas Edison. There are several more such examples. Scientists discover Laws that are already present in nature, waiting to be discovered by one or more of them. Conventionally, the first known scientist who makes a discovery is given the credit for it. In contrast to the scientist, a poet creates a great poem, “out of airy nothing”, which no one else could have done. No two poems are the same! If Shelley had not written his fantastic and terrifying sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, nobody else would have. If Shakespeare had not written Hamlet, nobody else would have, depriving humanity of man’s greatest triumph, of intellect and imagination.
We would never be able to know Shakespeare’s views on the plague from the utterances of his characters, who are not mere puppets tied to a string or “types” and have views of their own, once created. No other dramatist in the history of literature has achieved such a unique feat.
When Keats wrote the following lines:
‘The weariness, the fever and the fret…
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies,’ he must
have been thinking of the ravages of the plague, for Keats
considered Shakespeare as the deity presiding over him while writing ‘Endymion’.
Former IPS officer