The Plague

COVID-19 virus

Hic incipit pestis.
Here begins the plague.

At least two authors have gotten an increase in attention (and perhaps sales and readers) because of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

It probably seems obvious that sales of Albert Camus‘ 1947 novel La Peste (English title The Plague) have moved up in sales since late February. Sales are up 300% in France. These increased sales make a lot more sense to me than the current run on toilet paper.

The Plague is set in Oran, an Algerian town, that is sealed off by quarantine because of bubonic plague. That’s a real city and a real disease but the novel isn’t science, science-fiction or terror. It’s not really about a specific disease. It always seemed to me to be more mythic. This community becomes isolated and falls under this invisible siege. This scenario has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen in the future.

Like other fiction, Camus uses characters to represent groups. The good doctor Rieux is all those who help in a crisis. Cottard becomes depressed and suicidal-but changes as the novel progresses. Tarrou, an outsider, is the humanist. Some in the government are unwilling to call the plague a plague (Sound familiar?) because they don’t want to alarm the public. That approach never succeeds.

Camus wrote The Plague three years after the real city of Oran had an outbreak of the bubonic plague. As with much of great literature, each age finds its own lives in a story that is not of their own time or place.

Camus’ post-WWII audience may have viewed the pestilence as “the brown plague” of German occupation. Since then, it has been interpreted more generally as an ideology that spreads like a virus. It has been seen in the 21st century as the spreading of terrorism and hate.

In these kinds of pandemics, there are always people offering solutions and falsely preventative measures and taking advantage of fears. Silver solutions don’t prevent COVID-19 and the peppermint lozenges in the novel do nothing for the plague.

plague bed
flea-infested plague bed

In William Shakespeare’s time, the plague was the most dreaded disease. It was carried by fleas living on rats, but they didn’t know that and had no way to stop it. Not that they didn’t try.

I don’t recommend any of their treatments: rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake on the boils, or cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body, or drinking vinegar, taking arsenic or mercury. Less dangerous and no more effective was sage, rue, briar leaves, elder leaves, ginger, strain with white wine and a good spoonful of the best treacle and drink it morning and evening.

The plague swept through London in 1563, 1578-9, 1582, 1592-3, and 1603. But 1563 and 1603 were the worst years, each time killing over one-quarter of London’s population.

Shakespeare was born, lived and wrote through all of those years in his life from 1564 to 1616, so it’s not surprising that it came into his plays.

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors
So fearful were they of infection.
Romeo and Juliet

In The Hot Hand, Ben Cohen looks at the history and science of “streaks” which we probably think of related to sports and gambling. One of his tales is how Shakespeare was influenced by the plague, especially during his “hot hand” streak of hit plays.

But Will’s plague story starts in 1564 when the plague had wiped out a sizable portion of Stratford-upon-Avon and surrounded his home on Henley Street.  His parents had already lost two children to previous plague outbreaks and 3-month-old Will didn’t have good odds of survival.  But he survived. Maybe he developed childhood immunity because he survived the subsequent plague outbreaks.

The plague wasn’t really a topic for an entire play.  It wasn’t material for comedy or tragedy.  Londoners tried to escape plague reality by going to plays – as Americans did with movies in the Great Depression and we are doing with TV and streaming movies during the current pandemic.

But he did use the plague in the plays. For a number of years, I taught Romeo and Juliet and I needed to teach the plague when I taught Shakespeare’s time.  Romeo and Juliet are actually ripped apart not by their feuding parents but by a twist of the plague.

I’m sure if you read or saw the play the plague line you would recall is Mercutio’s curse on the feuding Capulets and Montagues:  “A plague on both your houses!”

The plotting Friar Laurence was to send a letter via Friar John to Romeo in Mantua where he has been exiled. The letter will explain Juliet’s sleeping potion and faked death and then they can escape Verona, marry, and we’ll have a comedy – in that all’s well that ends well.

But Friar John never delivers the letter to Romeo because he can’t get to Mantua due to a plague quarantine. Therefore, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself before she wakes up from her drugged “death.” Juliet wakes up, sees dead Romeo and also kills herself. There is a lot of coincidence in Shakespeare’s plots.

A newer theory of how Shakespeare wrote is that many of “hits” came in streaks and those streaks came during plague years. Why would that be true?

For example, in the book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, the author says that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. And the answer to Why is that plague closed London’s playhouses for the same reasons that theaters are being closed in 2020. Shakespeare’s King’s Men left plagued London and headed out into the English countryside doing shows in safe towns. William stayed in London (or perhaps went home to Stratford – we don’t know for sure) and had lots of time to write.

So while the plague was never the subject of a play, it certainly figured in his writing life.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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