Shakespeare’s epidemics

In this time of a worldwide threat to human health, we may wonder whether such threats may have occurred in Oxford’s time. The truth is, yes, they occurred all the time. In the ages before modern sanitation, the microscope and medical science, humans were beleaguered by any number of diseases: some that came in waves, striking with a vicious ferocity that left hundreds dead in their wake; some that sapped the strength for years before death came as a relief; one that, if it didn’t kill, left the beautiful and good permanently disfigured. Finally there was one so terrible that ever since a cure was finally found in the 20th century, humanity has done its best to forget it. As Lawrence Stone puts it in Chapter two of this essential background to the Elizabethan period: The Family Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800: 

The most striking feature which distinguished the Early Modern family from that of today does not concern either marriage or birth, it was the constant presence of death. Death was at the enter of life, as the cemetery was at the center of the village (66).

A sociologist, Stone provides stunning statistics. Long story short, Oxford was lucky that he survived so many of the “ills that flesh is heir to.” But he didn’t survive them all, and even those he managed to escape affected him and his audiences and supporters in ways that it behooves the historian to explore.

Oxford and the Black Death

The big threat, the one history will never forget, was the bubonic plague. Although some who contracted it managed to recover, whenever and wherever it struck it would claim hundreds of lives, sometimes thousands, mostly of “the lesser sort,” the poor who lived on or near the river where ships from overseas with their cargos of flea-carrying rats, touched land, killing the occupants of the bars and whorehouses that clustered around the docks in east London. The most devastating pandemic in history, it had peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century, killing between 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population. It first hit England in 1348, killing  half of London. 

By the time Oxford arrived in 1562, Londoners knew the drill. They knew that as summer began, if the daily death count rose above a certain level, the City would not be safe until the arrival of cold weather, until heat and the the following June, when the death toll would begin to increase again. Following a second death-dealing summer it would disappear for good with the advent of cold weather. That is, until, years later, it would strike again. Thus the English were accustomed to quarantines; in a plague year, those Londoners who had places to go in the country stayed away from the city until the body count returned to normal. Not that it ever went totally away. To keep it low it became someone’s job to kill all the stray dogs who were seen as carriers, and dump their carcasses in a wooded area near the river known as the Isle of Dogs.

Oxford experienced the plague most directly his second year in London. He and a handful of other boys and a tutor (probably Lawrence Nowell) spent the entire year across the river from Windsor Castle where the Court was locked in semi-permanent quarantine. (It was during the winter holidays at Windsor that year that he first met Richard Farrant, Master of the Chapel Choir at Windsor Castle, later Master of the Queen’s Chapel choirboys in the little school he created in the Liberty of Blackfriars shortly after he returned from Italy.)

During the 1570s and ’80s when he was supplying the London-based acting companies with comedies, there would be summers when the theaters were closed by the Privy Council due to the uptick in the death count. During his visit to Italy in 1575, it seems he avoided Milan where the plague was then raging out of control, as is referred to in Two Gents where the mention of “St. Gregory’s Well” puzzled scholars until Oxfordian Richard Roe identified it as the yawning pit wherein the Milanese were dumping the bodies of their plague victims, where the caddish Proteus attempts to send Thurio, his rival for Sylvia’s affections, in Act IV Scene 2.

History would have it that it was the plague that caused Oxford’s death on June 24, 1604, which even on the face of it seems most unlikely. It had struck again the summer of 1603 shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s death in March, forcing James VI of Scotland, on his way way south to take the English throne, to bypass London, and wait out the dangerous summer with his staff and members of the English Court at the country home of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, in Wiltshire. There, or soon after, it seems the King agreed to give the by then 53-year-old Earl of Oxford the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham, an ancient family prerogative, the return of which he had been petitioning the Queen since the early ’90s. On the face of it it does seem odd that Oxford, who was apparently sufficiently healthy to be given this important perquisite, (doubtless at the urging of Pembroke––Shakespeare’s final and most dedicated patron) would suddenly expire the following June. According to an entry in the register of the church at Hackney, Oxford was buried there on July 6. While no other evidence of this burial exists, in 1619 his nephew, Percival Golding, claimed that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, right about the time that Poet’s Corner got its name. 

As I’ve argued elsewhere, that he was supposed to have died on the second-most important turning point of the year, the summer solstice, the feast day of both the Greek god Adonis and St. John the Baptist––patron saint of the Templars, Rosicrucians and Freemasons––suggests that, with the assistances of his many powerful supporters, Oxford, who had used every ploy he could come up with over his entire lifetime to get and do what he wanted, used this means to “die to the world,” giving himself the time, the primary need of all creative writers, and the freedom from creditors and Court functions that such a move would provide, to relax secure from his enemies.

As Shakespeare has Jaques request of Duke Senior in Act II Scene 7 of As You Like It, to “invest me in my motley; give me leave to speak my mind, and I will through and through cleanse the foul body of the infected world . . . ,” the conversation that follows between Jaques and Duke Senior is totally convincing that something like this had taken place at Wilton the summer of 1603. Just as convincing is the plot of Measure for Measure, which perfectly describes a similar scenario in which a powerful lord “dies to the world,” leaving it to his incompetent and venal inferior (Oxford’s cousin, Robert Cecil? then in the process of taking over the government under King James.) Come on folks! Let’s get on the same page with this! It’s so obvious!

The Ague

The Ague was the English term for malaria. While the plague has almost completely disappeared, malaria has been endemic from the beginning of time and promises to continue in those parts of the world where the weather and geography fosters it. During Oxford’s time malaria was rampant in the summer in England in areas of salt marsh where rivers emptied into the sea, but there were also areas of sweet or brackish wetland that grew fetid in such weather, rife with mosquitoes, and with the flocks of birds that fed on them. Ankerwycke, where Oxford lived as a child with Sir Thomas Smith, and which Smith later described as “low and waterish,” is located in just such an area, a bend in the Thames across from a huge marshland where every summer, Smith and members of his household were exposed to the anopheles mosquito.

One of Shakespeare’s favorite metaphors equates falling in love to an attack of malaria, causing its victims to “freeze” and then to “fry”; equating the alternating hopes and fears that accompany this emotional upheaval with the burning fevers and bone-shaking chills of malaria. It seems clear from this repeated metaphor that the playwright himself was a victim of a disease that, bad as it could be in England, was actually much worse in the warmer nations around the Mediterranean Sea. The four months in 1575 from the end of June through the end of September during which our playwright was cruising the waters of the Mediterranean, largely to see for himself the lands of the Greek myths and the Bible as described in the books in Smith’s library, but also to escape the disease that every summer would devastate southern Italy.

There were other diseases that during that time would strike the English suddenly and without warning and kill dozens before disappearing from the record. With names like “Stoop Knave and know thy master,” these, most likely varieties of influenza, could kill an entire village while leaving untouched another a few miles away. But none of these came close to leaving the trail of destruction, then and over the years to come, as the one they called the “Great Pox.”

The Elizabethans and syphilis

Apart from the occasional mention of it as “the Great Pox” (as opposed to the somewhat less terrible smallpox), the destruction caused by syphilis has almost entirely escaped the history of the Tudor period. First noted in the record as having appeared in Naples in 1495, it quickly reached pandemic proportions throughout Europe, and probably the world, it seemed to concentrate at the notoriously licentious Courts of southern Europe.  By the time Henry VIII began showing the effects of his unrestrained teenage libido, it was already devastating some of the great houses of Europe, notably the those ruled by the Borgias, as detailed by the novelist Sarah Dunant in an article in The Guardian (May 17, 2013), and, as she observes, many others as well. Unremarked by history, largely due to the victims’ desire for secrecy, the shame attached to its cause and the terrible effects that, by Elizabeth’s time, were familiar to all who had cause to fear it, for there was no cure known at the time, nor would there be until the twentieth century when the hunt for its cure finally led to the discovery of penicillin. If you have any curiosity about the effects of the Great Pox on the world that Oxford was born into, please read the article in The Guardian.

Those of us who have focused on locating the truth about Shakespeare by examining the history of the Elizabethan era might have continued in the dark about the Queen and her family as left us by the Tudor historians were it not for Prof. Stanislav Andreski’s Puritanism and Witch Hunts, published in 1989. Professor of Sociology at the the University of Reading (an extension of Oxford U), Andreski connects the arrival of syphilis in Italy in 1495 with a number of seemingly unrelated social phenomena, among them the sex-negative nature of the Protestant Reformation as it manifested in Geneva, Germany, and England, where sex was invariably described as filth and even those who did nothing more than allow themselves to feel sexual desire were warned that they were headed for an eternity of burning in Hell. 

The disease itself is insidious, with symptoms like those of other diseases, among them consumption (tuberculosis). Consisting of three (or four) distinct stages, it can first appear with what can seem to be an ordinary rash round the genitals and/or mouth, which may simply vanish after a few weeks. This is followed, sometimes by months, sometimes by years, by the increasingly painful second and dangerous third stages, and finally by the tertiary stage, the complete breakdown of the nervous system, physical decay and dementia. Those who have read any of the many biographies of Henry VIII can easily see these stages manifesting, first in his cruelty towards his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, whose series of miscarriages and stillbirths drove him to find another queen, which brought about the break with Rome, which laid the foundation for the creation of the Church of England, which opened the way for the reformers to institute the Protestant Reformation, with all the emotional and psychological ills that have accompanied that questionable revolution. 

Henry’s greed in appropriating the income and estates belonging to the Church for his own profit, his expensive and fruitless wars in France and Scotland, the paranoia that drove him to execute his most intelligent and loyal servants, men like Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey, and Thomas Cromwell, have been blandly reported by his historians as simply the normal behaviors of a somewhat extraordinary king. Even the historian Geoffrey Elton, who in the 1940s was the first to reveal the kind of monster he truly was, never touched on the true cause of Henry’s terrible actions. Perhaps he simply didn’t know, so well kept had been the secret that only the King’s courtiers would have known, and who would also have known why they had to keep silent about it.

We can be certain, however, that Henry’s doctors knew, for by that time everyone in Europe, except possibly illiterate peasants who lived so far from civilization that such things never came their way, was aware of the disease and its deadly effects. One of the worst of these was (is) the fact that the victim can pass it along to his sex partners, including his wife, who can then pass it on to their children. These may die in utero, or shortly after birth, or be sickly and die in their teens, as we see was the case with all of Henry’s wives and mistresses, and many (though not all) of their children. His daughter Mary remained alive but in poor health, finding it impossible to conceive, while his younger daughter, Elizabeth, continued to manifest symptoms of what can only be explained as inherited syphilis, among them the fistula on her leg that editors allowed to remain in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well, perhaps because it was simply too important to the plot.

Knowing the history of her mother’s efforts to conceive a living male child, there can be no doubt that the primary reason why Elizabeth never married was that marriage would necessarily have entailed sexual intercourse with what it might threaten to her life, her health, and the viability of the heir to the throne, should she be successful in conceiving him. This was not the only reason why she never married, but it was certainly the one that most determined her fate, for it would have meant sexual intercourse, which she would have realized, fairly young, and surely by the advice of her caregivers, would be dicing with death. For those with ears to hear, she reveals it in almost everything she’s reported to have said on the subject. Her healthy lifestyle, eating and drinking sparingly, vigorously walking and riding horses, is testimony to her determination to conquer this, the worst of all her enemies.

Elizabeth bore with fortitude her physical ills as she did all the other ills that beset her over her forty-year reign, for which she needed the laughter that no one could provide like her difficult and rebellious Minister of Pastime. Of course he loved her and pitied her, did his best to please her, and was furious with her when she used her power to hurt him, and of course she loved him, for his intelligence, his good looks, and his wonderful sense of humor. But this love, which under normal circumstances might have been consummated physically, was sublimated into the creation of several hundred works of great literary art and, not least, the creation of the London Stage, the first manifestation of what today we call the Media, the fourth estate of government.

Burghley too, despite his claims to her foreign suitors that the Queen was capable of producing an heir, must have been aware of the truth, for his father-in-law, Sir Anthony Cooke, had been a Groom of the Privy Chamber, one of the handful of servants whose job it had been to attend to the terminally ill Henry’s physical needs when at close to 400 pounds, violent and raving, he had to be carried from the bed to the privy and back. But Burghley and Elizabeth together made great use of her virginal status as an effective means of keeping the Catholic Courts of Europe, in particular the Spanish under Philip II and his Hapsburg father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, from attacking Protestant England so long as they believed that they might more easily have it by getting its Queen married to a Catholic prince, a ploy that gave the Elizabeth-Cecil combo a good quarter of a century with which to prepare for the attack which finally in 1588, as Elizabeth was obviously no longer capable of providing an heir, brought on the attack of the Spanish Armada. 

People had sex at Elizabeth’s Court, of course they did. But they did so very carefully, and nowhere near as often or as recklessly as did courtiers at other royal Courts at other times, and not only because that’s how they stayed in good with the Queen, but also because it’s how they stayed free from contracting syphilis. Her determination to avoid the situation that was destroying the Borgias was the major reason why she would go berserk when one of her “favorites” crossed the line, and impregnated one of the women of her Court. If she went along with the poets who portrayed her as a goddess come back to save the English, a Diana for whom her lovers would gladly give up their desires of the flesh, perhaps we can forgive her, for it’s obvious from the paintings from that time how greatly she enjoyed the company of tall handsome men with long beautiful legs. 

To put it bluntly, syphilis is the reason why the English Reformation adopted the grim strictures of Calvin, for whom sex was filth and desire the first step to an eternity of burning in hell. Syphilis is what turned the merry English into the reserved and undemonstrative British of today and English-speaking Protestants everywhere hesitant to hug each other, hold hands in public, even to nurture their own children, due to a habit formed out of their ancestors’ terror of this disease.

For Oxfordians it’s our best reason for rejecting the Howard-Arundel libels that form the entire basis of Alan Nelson’s biography. It explains why, for instance, he was so wrong about Oxford’s reason for bringing the teenaged Italian singer Orazio Cuoco back to England with him as a gift for the Queen. Oxford  knew that this would please her far more than another pair of perfumed gloves. It had nothing to do with sex, his, the boy’s, or the Queen’s. That’s Nelson’s problem, not ours.

The fact that it’s taken until how to understand this may show us just how far fear of infection can drive a people when faced with a pandemic of unknown etiology and terrifyingly threatening dimensions. Now that we have been advised not to hug each other, not to touch each other, not to get closer to each other than six feet, perhaps we can begin to understand why the Elizabethans of Oxford’s time turned to writing sonnets and reading stories derived from Greek romances where, through incident after incident, the lovers never manage to get together.


8 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s epidemics

  1. Brava, brava.
    Dunant’s article in the Guardian (2013 May) contains the sentence ‘prostitution bears the brunt of the blame, though the real culprit was testosterone’ — to which i would fain have objected (line-toe, eye-roll, etc), but after reading your précis of Henry’s degeneration and its familial fallout I am forced to agree.
    Interesting that the irreconcilability of the best Oxfordian sites should come down to this matter. The truth, d’après vous, lies in a cultural forest spread so far by fear that we who dwell in it now see only trees. I take it you regard the main discrepant theory, which fingers plain old omertà, as a sort of Howard-Arundel 2.0 ?

  2. Great article, Stephanie, especially on the Great Pox and its terrible implications for the age. Small wonder Elizabeth could become so incensed at liaisons between a courtier and a Maid of Honor. Even apart from the normal expectation that a lady of the royal entourage ought to behave herself, one can see Elizabeth mapping her own sense of a disease-ridden paternity and her fears over the normal business of marriage and sex onto the private lives of others (in her view, of course, a royal maid essentially had no real private life). As for Shakespeare-Oxford and such talents as Orazio Cuoco, the boy singer
    brought over from Italy, what would be more natural than that a music-loving earl, connected also to such talents as Emilia Bassano, and with strong roots in the theater world, would find his relations with the boy misunderstood? Such misconceptions have always dogged actors and dramatists, moving in a realm where physical movement and contact, often affectionate, is all-important but also food for puritanical gossips and malcontents. I also remember other Oxfordians have noticed that “Orazio” is yet another form of Horace, or Horatio.

  3. Regarding the “Let’s get on the same page” portion, I was moved to this little ditty:

    Absolute for Death, But When?
    (for Stephanie Hopkins Hughes, “onlie begetter” of the theory herein mentioned)

    The Earl of Oxford dies in 1604,
    His Hamlet (revised) his last breath, last word-world…
    Or does he die? Odd leave-taking date, if bound for
    The never-ever realm, far too absurd:
    June twenty-fourth, the solstice day of revels,
    Playwright’s symbolic play-date of escape
    From rules, roles that condemn free spirits to levels
    No self-respecting self would choose…his jape,
    An escapade contrived to purchase leisure,
    Foreshadowed in a Duke’s urge to skulk “dark corners”;
    He absents himself a while…to take full measure
    Of how deputed rats gnaw virtue’s garners?
    Take time to repair to a forest, quiet the soul,
    Encrypt repentance and poems on one last scroll?

  4. Yes, I imagine you’re quite right. Seclusion from the world does not mean abdicating from one’s sense of humor, laughing at remembrances of gilded butterflies past, and so on. His melancholy and his humor, both, have lasted the ages; in fact we can say, like Stanton about Lincoln, he belongs to the ages. I think it was Lincoln’s young secretary John Hay whose unprompted thought on the President’s passing was that Lincoln would no longer be reminded of a story. Playwright and politician, unrepentant humorists.

  5. Dear Tom, what a delight it is to write for you. Always such rich responses and appealing insights. Hope this crazy isolation isn’t going too hard with you. Those of us who love to read always have something to do. And if there’s nothing new, there’s always some beloved old book that we’ve been planning to read again, when we have time. Now we have it.

    1. There’s a wonderful bit of comment which for me goes far to explain the difference between the, say, Jonathan Bate or Stephen Greenblatt point of view and ours. In poet Thom Gunn’s essay “Enmeshed with Time: The Sixteenth Century, a review of Emrys Jones’s then new anthology of Henrician and Elizabethan poets, Gunn comments on the deficiencies of a predecessor collection by E.K. Chambers: “But Sir Edmund’s taste had its limitations. ‘Elizabethan poetry is characteristically a light-hearted poetry,’ he stated in his introduction, and though he was forced in all honesty to qualify his view a little, he was obviously happiest when emphasizing the Merrie England, or Hey nonny nonny, aspect of the century: the more shepherds, nightingales singing Jug Jug, and pastoral ornamentation the better.” Gunn, a San Francisco writer born and educated in England, goes on to remark on Jones’s inclusion of poems by recusants awaiting execution, even a fairly “Marlovian” poem of defiant “atheism,” to make sure we’re impressed with the truer, darker picture. (Not an authorship piece, though.) Strange, Chambers’ and others’ wistful allegiance to a somewhat more “theme-park” view, though from the otherwise so “left-brained” crowd. Or could it be that the Disneyesque impression is so redundantly, firmly encoded that it takes up space on the left?

      All this, of course, in appreciation of all you do. And Oxfordians: we were all rocked by the news of Tom Regnier’s passing; an utterly good guy. But no, this is an isolating time, which also means somewhat more distraction-free time, at home with my wife Nora (poet and artist), our dog and cats. I wish you all the best of health and good writing time.

    2. Oh, and I should mention Thom Gunn’s book. It is Shelf Life: Essays Memoirs, and an Interview (1993). Gunn was a gay poet who chronicled the ravages of AIDS in his landmark collection The Man with Night Sweats. One of his shining attributes is that he valued Modernism yet announced allegiance to his great predecessors (Ben Jonson, Fulke Greville, and many others were influences) without taking his eye off the life of the street. He has great gusto, clarity, and humor, and his great teacher, Yvor Winters of Stanford, was a living model of poetic formalism with a moral sense (not didactic), which Gunn adapted to his own more freewheeling life.

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