UU English Department Blog

A Curse o’ Both our Ages: Lockdowns, Quarantines, and Delayed Post in Two Pandemics


By Suzanne Ericson

My mum is one of those increasingly rare people who still send birthday cards. Until recently, these cards have arrived like clockwork – exactly one week before the big day. But Covid-19 changed this family tradition, just as it has, of late, changed so much that we previously took for granted. Still, when the latest birthday card was delayed by not just days but weeks, I turned to the website of Sweden’s leading postal service for an explanation. There it was: a short paragraph titled “How corona virus is affecting our deliveries.” The recent increase in parcels and packages as more and more of us shop online, coupled with new regulations and higher-than-normal staff absences, means that postal delays are now to be expected. Thankfully, this is a minor inconvenience. Unlike some of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, late post is rarely a matter of life or death.

Not so, however, for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Folk well acquainted with this play will not only know that the fate of these famously star-crossed lovers hinges on a letter, but will also know that the letter is delayed because of an epidemic. In this instance, delayed post has tragic consequences. The culprit this time around is of course not Covid-19 but the bubonic plague – an often-fatal disease first recorded in the 1300s, which swept through large swathes of the world in a series of epidemics until the late 1600s. (The plague is still with us today, but being caused by a bacterium – Yersinia pestis – it is easy to contain so long as antibiotics are available.) As we steel ourselves this winter for more lockdowns and quarantines, we should, then, perhaps spare a thought for those in Shakespeare’s day who were boarded up in their homes during plague outbreaks, either dying of this painful disease or facing a likely death from being incarcerated with infected family members.

Such scenes would have been familiar to Shakespeare, and Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, Hamnet, reminds us of just how familiar. Hamnet, the only son of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, died at the age of eleven. While we don’t know for sure the cause of Hamnet’s death, O’Farrell fictionalises the most popular theory – that the boy died of the bubonic plague. This disease is also cited as the most likely cause of the premature deaths of four of Shakespeare’s siblings: Joan, Margaret, Anne, and Edmund.

The playwright’s family life was not the only thing affected by the plague. A series of theatre closures as the disease rampaged through London time and again almost certainly shaped his work. Strange, then, that the plague doesn’t feature prominently in any of Shakespeare’s works. One possible explanation for this is that he was sensitive to the needs of theatregoers drawn to performances in search of temporary respite from the anxieties of their times. Understandably, few of these would have been keen to watch a play that paraded the disease that lurked invisibly in their streets and had possibly already claimed the lives of loved ones.  

Yet, there is no denying that if looked for, traces of the plague can be found in many of Shakespeare’s plays. This is unsurprising when we consider how literature can function as a means of expressing ideas and experiences that are too difficult or sensitive to write about directly. In a recent article, “What Shakespeare Can – and Can’t – Teach us about Covid-19,” Kate Malby goes as far as to claim that Romeo and Juliet is trauma literature, given that it was likely written shortly after or even during a plague outbreak. The plague, in other words, is in fact strong in this one.

We all know that Romeo and Juliet isn’t short of a death or two (six, to be precise). And while none of these is directly caused by the plague, we can trace the part played by the disease in the two most prominent deaths – those of the young protagonists. When Romeo’s friend Mercutio utters his famous dying curse in Act Three: “A plague o’ both your houses!”, the meaning is clearly metaphorical: plagues and poxes often featured in early modern curses. Sadly, however, Mercutio’s speech act turns out to be performative as the real plague devastates the Capulet and Montague houses by playing a key part in the deaths of their beloved children. Specifically, a local outbreak of the plague thwarts Friar Laurence’s mission to send a letter to Romeo informing him that Juliet is, contrary to appearances, alive and waiting to marry him. This comes about because searchers – employed to patrol the streets in search of those infected with the plague – quarantine the letter bearer following a suspicion that he visited an infected house. We are all familiar with the unhappy outcome of this delay.

Forward to today and we have postal delays due in part to staff self-isolating at the first sign of suspicious symptoms, or quarantined following contact with those already infected with Covid-19. And the similarities don’t end here. In Romeo and Juliet, the obvious solution to the letter bearer’s predicament would have been to hand over the all-important letter to somebody else, to ensure its timely delivery. But this, too, fails in the play as no one else dares handle the letter for fear of becoming infected. Few of us today are avoiding handling our post. Yet recent studies do indicate that the novel coronavirus can survive on a variety of surfaces for many days. I confess to having washed my hands more carefully than usual after reading the report on those studies in my freshly delivered morning newspaper. In an attempt to allay my fears, I revisited my postal service’s website, only to read there that the company advises thorough handwashing after handling post … just in case. A heightened fear of invisible contagions is, it seems, with us once again.

Worth considering is whether being forced to confront the effects of a pandemic on a daily basis brings those of us who have lived mercifully free of these to date a little closer to Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences than we were before. All the way back in 1928, V. Walpole, in his article “The Plague in Romeo and Juliet,” deemed Shakespeare’s use of the plague as the cause of the undelivered letter a flaw in the play’s tragic structure. This, he claimed, was because Yersinia pestis was not an integral part of the work but appeared only as an external factor. A tragedy, according to Walpole, should be self-contained, with events being “contrived to arise more naturally from causes within the play” than the plague does in this instance. Of course, Walpole bases his argument here on neoclassical ideas of what constitutes a tragedy. Yet his claim that the plague does not arise naturally from within the play is worth pondering further.

Early modern people cited several causes of disease. The bubonic plague certainly raised suspicions about human to human and animal to human contamination, hence the unpleasant practices of nailing shut quarantined houses and slaughtering cats and dogs. But disease was also put down to fetid air (miasma), an imbalance of bodily humours, divine intervention, and meddling by supernatural agents. As Mary Floyd-Wilson notes in her 2017 book chapter “Angry Mab with Blisters Plague: The Pre-Modern Science of Contagion in Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech draws attention to early modern ideas of disease as emerging from both inside and outside the human body. She also refers to historian Paul Slack’s 1985 book The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England, in which Slack writes of how Shakespeare’s contemporaries would not have viewed the plague and humans as wholly separate entities. In light of this, it is difficult to see how the plague in Romeo and Juliet can be deemed – and subsequently rejected as – an external agent.

Internal or external, I struggle to imagine how much more natural the plague could have been to Shakespeare and his contemporary audiences. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that it was so natural to these people as to not warrant overt explanations. After all, the plague was, by nature, an invisible threat lingering menacingly in the backgrounds of everybody’s lives at this time and liable to pop up seemingly out of the blue – precisely as it does in Shakespeare’s play. But perhaps I feel this way because Covid-19 has been with us for so long now that it is beginning to feel like it is woven into the backdrop of our lives (hopefully coming no closer than that). Walpole’s perspective makes the most sense to me if I imagine him living free from such invisible threats. Even though he was writing just a decade after the influenza pandemic of 1918 and only months before a less devastating flu epidemic in the latter part of 1928, Walpole was perhaps nevertheless lucky enough to feel that sudden appearances by diseases such as the plague were unnatural.

Today, many of us would struggle to relegate contagious diseases to the margins of our lives. What is more, the increased scholarly attention in recent decades to the plague and its effects on Shakespeare’s life and work, seen in such tomes as Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Ungentle Shakespeare and Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, has brought the disease firmly to the fore. Although written before Covid-19 took centre stage in our lives, these works and the many more like them are now rich pickings for anyone, in our current age of contagion and quarantine, seeking lessons or insight from the past. In these changed times, some old familiar plays like Romeo and Juliet perhaps chime a little louder with our lives than they did before the unexpected yet entirely natural plot twist of spring 2020.  

Last modified: 2021-02-22