The Plague Ban of 1592-’94

Between June 1592 and March 1594 London counted some 11,000 plague deaths on a population of 250,000. 1  During that period, a health and safety ban on theatre performances all but destroyed the London entertainment industry. Authorities did not go as far as the Milanese ruler Giovanni Visconti back in 1348, who had infected houses, with all inhabitants, sealed off with bricks, but to impose temporary quarantine by locking all exits from the outside goes with the Black Death to the same general effect. One must admit that the 1597 Q1 describes this effect chillingly accurate with friar Lawrence’s parting words, while the 1599 Q2 has with ‘Poore liuing Coarse, closde in a dead mans Tombe’ the makings of a less topical revision.

In fact, the ‘pirate’ Q1-edition could easily pass for the play as first performed. Even the omission of the opening lines of scene 1 ; 2, that draw a parallel with scene 3 ; 4, does not refute such a scenario. because the omission visibly decapitates the scene, and obviously concerns lines that would have been included in any production on which Q1 has been based. If this production was inferior to the one that resulted in Q2, it was because of time pressure : after the re-opening of the theatres in March 1594, Shakespeare had five months at the utmost to go from the first sketches to a well rehearsed performance. This seems abundant, but as a professional actor, Shakespeare made a living by stage performances on a daily base. And the plague is for some reason less contagious in the cold season. This allowed the theatres to re-open occasionally whenever the death rate fell below the safety limit of thirty casualties a week. The last of these relief periods was in January 1593-4, and the return of theatres to business as usual in early spring was for that reason not at the instant perceived as the end of the epidemic. Only when April and May went by without another violent outbreak, people got reason for optimism, and June was still early days for planning a celebration. Half the available time may therefore have passed before work on Romeo and Juliet started in earnest. Bringing an early draft to stage, rather than the final revision, makes lots of sense in such a scenario.

An average of less than twenty a day. On the scale of London not exactly the terror that is usually associated with the Black Death. But on the same scale a nearby outbreak of SARS or the Ebola disease is even less reason for concern.