Produced and Published by the Students and Faculty of Stephen F. Austin State University.

An Indiscriminate, Chronic Killer

Shakespeare in Love


Nathaniel Ferguson

     The film , Shakespeare in Love , is a romantic, fictional tale that portrays Romeo and Juliet as a play based on one of Shakespeare's love escapades.   The film was very well done from a historical viewpoint and the cast included several phenomenal actors, factors which earned the film the Academy Award for Best Film in 1998.   Although the focus of the film was on Shakespeare's love for a woman he could not have and how it inspired him to write one of the most famous works in the history of theater, behind the rosy story of love one notices small hints of a less attractive part of Shakespeare's world, the plague and the unsanitary conditions that helped it thrive.   This paper will discuss the plague and its causes and where it may have originated.   This essay will also point out the few parts of the movie that make references to the threat of the plague and the unsanitary conditions that helped the plague thrive.   Shakespeare in Love was a fascinating story with a nice Hollywood spin, but behind the story of love and uncontrollable passion was a filthy and crowded city, living under the constant threat of attack by a very gruesome, indiscriminate killer that was very real in Shakespeare's world.  

     The plague was one of the most horrific events in history and affected every populated part of the known world, often on more than one occasion.   The fact that people at the time had no understanding of how the plague spread or what caused it, made it possible for the disease to resurface on several occasions.   According to historian A. Daniel Frankforter, the plague or "the pestilence" is believed to be caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis , which lived harmlessly in the guts of fleas, but when the relationship was upset the organism would multiply until it blocked the digestive system and the flea would inject the bacteria into the animals they fed on (Frankforter, p. 304-305).   The plague was similar to the common cold which is a mutating disease; people may have been able to fight off one form of the disease and build a resistance to it but could easily become infected by another form which they were not immune to (Frankforter, p. 304).

     The plague could infect its victim by inhalation through the lungs or through a flea bite, and it could contaminate the bloodstream as a septicemic illness, or the digestive system as an enteric affliction (Frankforter, p. 304).   Smith points out that the bubonic form caused by flea bites was 60 - 85% fatal and killed in about 5 days while the pneumonic form was 95% fatal and usually killed in about 24 hours (Smith, p. 108).   In 1348, the plague struck England in the bubonic and the pneumonic form and killed 30 - 50% of the population, but after 1369, the plague became endemic and prevented the population from recovering for many decades (Smith, p. 28).   But England was not the first to witness the destructive force of the plague.

     Frankforter explains how the plague migrated to Europe along trade routes on land and on sea.   In the sixth century, he states that the plague migrated out of Africa via Egypt and killed about a quarter of the population scattered around the Mediterranean Sea where it lingered until about the late eighth century (Frankforter, p. 305).   Some scholars believe that the plague was brought to Europe by the Mongols who brought it with them after they invaded China (Frankforter, p. 305).   From the plains of central Asia, the disease migrated through humans and rats and was carried to the Black Sea and then to Europe and was first reported at a port in Sicily in 1347 from Genoese ships that had sailed from the Black Sea (Frankforter, p. 306).   Within months, most of Europe was beginning to experience the horrors of the plague and within three years, between twenty-five and forty-five percent of Europeans fell victim to the plague (Frankforter, p. 306).   Europe and the rest of the known world experienced the plague's full force and the death rate in Muslim lands equaled those in Europe (Frankforter, p. 306).   The plague was an indiscriminate killer that spared very few of its victims.   The consequences of the plague earned it fame in the history books as one of the most horrific epidemics to ever strike the planet.

     The plague caused much confusion and fear because its devastation was not evenly or uniformly distributed; different places experienced the plague in varying degrees and with different results.   In parts of England, entire villages were abandoned or wiped out entirely by the plague.   Between the years 1350-1500, more than 1,300 villages were abandoned in England because of the plague, yet parts of central Europe were relatively unaffected by the plague (Frankforter, p. 306).   Areas that were overpopulated probably suffered the plague worst.   Cities such as London were the breeding grounds for such a disease.   An epidemic like the plague could spread quickly and kill in large numbers as it did in London in 1665-1666 when 68,495 Londoners died of the plague (Smith, p. 330).   The plague killed people faster than they could be buried in the ground and mass graves were probably common in the time period.   The plague was devastating in England, and especially in overpopulated and unsanitary cities such as London.

     At one point in the film, a theater is shut down because of the plague but another venue quickly became available.   People's lack of understanding of how the plague spread probably allowed the disease to reach a level of unbelievable destruction leaving thousands dead in its wake.   If people in the medieval period only had a slight clue about the disease, they would have shut down every theater and public gathering place in the city.   People today often worry about the next epidemic and what a catastrophe it could become, but really and truly, the knowledge that is available today makes it much easier to treat and prevent the outbreak of highly contagious, infectious diseases. If one were to strike, it would probably kill a great number of people at first but would be quickly contained and scientists would develop a vaccine just as quickly if one did not already exist.   In Shakespeare's time, neither medicine nor illness was understood so people didn't know what to do when the disease broke out and didn't even know they could do anything to avoid the plague.   The documentary, Turning Points in History claims that only a select few grasped onto how the plague spread in medieval history.   The Mongols were forced to end their siege at Kaffa because of the plague, but before they left they catapulted infected corpses over the city walls in one of the first cases of biological warfare.   Deshiliac was infected with the plague; he treated himself and recovered from the disease. He even correctly diagnosed two types of the plague and helped persuade the pope to bless the dissection of the dead for medical studies, a practice which was previously a sin.   But for most people, all one could do was pray for God's protection from the disease.   The lack of knowledge was a problem not only in England but in the entire known world and it would take centuries before people began to gain a basic understanding of how diseases were spread, what caused them, and how to treat them.

     Shakespeare in Love was, for the most part, historically accurate in its depictions.   However, the film could have done more to emphasize the filthy, disgusting conditions that most Londoners lived in during the time period.   The smells of London in this film would probably have been enough to turn the stomachs of most Americans today.   The lack of sanitation was a little more evident in the film.   Shakespeare's fingers were always dirty and stained with ink among other things.   He probably used the same hands to eat, wipe his nose, write, and who knows what else. One could only guess in this film.   Water troughs were seen scattered throughout the city for people to use as they pleased, and one can be sure that the water in these troughs was not fit for consumption although people probably drank from them often.   In one scene of the movie, a chamber pot is thrown from a window onto the streets below without warning.  It's hard to imagine what it would be like to be walking down the street early in the morning when unexpectedly someone threw his chamber pot out of the window.   Any chance of having a normal day after being showered in filth would be ruined and it would probably be a good idea to go home and go back to bed after taking a good bath.   On average, many people were probably hit with the contents of a chamber pot, but the likelihood that everyone bathed after such an incident was not great. Not one person is seen bathing in the entire movie probably because most people only bathed on special occasions with long intervals in between.   The disgusting smells and sights of London in Shakespeare's time would be hard to imagine, but I felt the film could have emphasized the filthiness of London a little more, but that would have made the love story a little bit harder to stomach.

     The plague was a turning point in history and its effects were far reaching as well as horrifying.   People saw the plague as a punishment sent from God or as the end of the world.   Others blamed the plague on Jews; some criticized the church.   No one knew who was to blame for the epidemic and it remained a mystery until it eventually disappeared after the 17th century.   Until then, the plague returned every few decades keeping the possibility of an early death very likely for anyone at this time.   No one was certain that they would not be infected and people knew that infection led inevitably to death. In the world we live in today, such an epidemic is very hard for us to imagine.   However, the Spanish Influenza that broke out after WWI proves that an epidemic is not entirely impossible in modern times.   Our only hope is that modern medical science is advanced enough to handle a full scale global epidemic.  

Works Cited

A. Daniel Frankforter, The Medieval Millennium: An Introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. 2nd edition 2002.

Lacy Baldwin Smith, This Realm of England: 1399-1688.  Boston, New York:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. 8th edition 2000.

Back to Chronicles