William Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions.
He was working in London when the bubonic plague surfaced in 1592 and again in 1603, the latter a particularly lethal outbreak that left more than 30,000 city dwellers dead.
In 1606, as England was roiling from a near-assassination attempt on King James, the plague returned to wreak havoc on Londoners once again.
But Shakespeare knew how to navigate the bumpy terrain by this point, the threats of royal upheaval and a debilitating illness no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King Lear, Macbeth Anthony and Cleopatra.
That summer, Shakespeare and his contemporaries were distracted from recent events concerning the monarchy when the black death made an unwelcome return.
The 1603 outbreak had brought a directive from the privy council that closed playhouses when more than 30 disease-related deaths were recorded in a week, and with London again facing those casualty levels by July 1606, the Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre.
This produced an attempt to recoup lost income via touring performances with his company, the King’s Men, while also leaving time for the wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen.
The evidence indicates that Shakespeare polished off Antony and Cleopatra, the successor to the Roman Empire intrigue of Julius Caesar, during this period, its debut likely arriving when the Globe reopened late in the year.
Even as he ostensibly worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. Shapiro describes how his landlady on London’s Silver Street, Marie Mountjoy, succumbed to the illness in October 1606, prompting the writer to vacate the premises shortly afterward.
Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays
It’s impossible to know how the ever-present dangers affected the well-being of the Bard, who left behind no personal letters, though there are clues to be found in his plays.
Lear provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: “Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood.”
And while Macbeth lamented “The dead man’s knell” associated with the plague, the play also delivered a clear nod to the doublespeak employed by the masterminds of the Gunpowder Plot by referencing “th’equivocation of the fiend, that lies like truth.”
All in all, it was a trying time to attempt to carry on business as usual, but Shakespeare did so in a manner worthy of his celebrated reputation, by funneling the fear and uncertainty swirling around into some of the greatest written works of the English language.
William Shakespeare was a poet, playwright and actor who is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most prolific writers in the history of the English language. The master penned a total of 39 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and perhaps a few other works, though authorship is hard to prove for certain. There are approximately 160 references to plants in all of Shakespeare’s works, namely herbs and flowers. Plants and the gardens that house them play an important role in Shakespeare’s plays, as they did in Elizabethan life in general. Modern gardeners can use Shakespeare’s love of flowers and herbs to inspire their own designs.
Shakespeare used both dooryard gardens and grand gardens as settings in his plays. He wrote of wild gardens in the beauteous fields and lush meadows as well as medicinal plants that grew outside the castle walls.
Some of the herbs that Shakespeare studied, wrote about and used in his plays were:
Mint : Armando: I am that flower. Dumain: That Mint.
Lavender : Perdita: Here’s flowers for you: Hot lavender, mints, savory and marjoram.
Fennel : In Hamlet, Ophelia gives the king fennel as a symbol of flattery, strength and praiseworthiness.
Wild Thyme : Oberon: I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.
Marjoram : Clown: Indeed sir, she was the seet Marjoram of the Salad.
Marigold : Perdita: The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun.
Chamomile : Falstaff: For though the chamomile, the more trodden on the faster it grows, so youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears.
Parsley : Biondello: I knew a wench married in an afternoon as she went to the garden for parley to stuff a rabbit.
Lemon Balm : Cleopatra: As sweet as Balm, as soft as air, as gentle.
Rosemary : Ophelia: There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray love, remember.
In closing lets just remember to pray, love and know that this too will pass.
By the way If you enjoyed this blog you might enjoy reading this article that was just in The NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/28/opinion/coronavirus-shakespeare.html