King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Bubonic plague

The medical practices of Shakespearean England still depended largely on the doctrines of humoral pathology first advanced by Hippocrates and further refined in medieval times by Galen. According to humoral theory, all physical matter, including the human body, was composed of one or more of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – in varying proportions. In the human body the proportions in which these elements existed within an individual dictated that person’s ‘humour’, or overall physical and psychological temperament.

An excess of air generated the sanguine humour, which was hot and moist, an excess of earth the melancholic humour, which was cold and dry, and so on. Diseases and their treatment were still commonly viewed through the prism of humoral theory; thus, the widespread use of blood-letting as a therapeutic procedure, a use that endured long after Shakespeare’s day, had its origins in the belief that the hot and moist conditions associated with a high fever were caused by an excess of blood, the fluid associated with the sanguine, or air-dominated temperament.

Shakespeare’s plays display a notable knowledge of and interest in medical matters; metaphors of sickness and cure occur frequently, as does imagery associated with herbs and other medicinal plants. Shakespeare’s elder daughter, Susanna, was married to Stratford physician John Hall (1574/5?-1635) and it is likely that some of Shakespeare’s medical knowledge was derived from his son-in-law.

Photograph showing sugar cane being transported on a punt train, with a worker also presentPortrait of the physician William BulleinThe physician William Bullein (ca 1515-76), whose portrait is reproduced here, had a chequered career. He wrote this medical textbook while in prison for debt and had earlier been unsuccessfully arraigned for the murder of one of his patients, Sir Thomas Hilton, whom he was accused of poisoning with his supposed medicines (the case was dismissed).

He went on to write a popular Dialogueagainst the fever pestilence and there are several references to bubonic plague in the Bulwarke. Bullein, in common with most of his contemporaries, regarded an outbreak of plague as a visitation from God, sent to punish a sinful age, but he also includes some limited advice for protection against the disease, namely the need to avoid ‘bad ayre’:

Then make a fier in every chimnay wythin thy house, and burne sweete perfumes, to purge this foule ayre.

Bullein describes bubonic plague as ‘a generall fever, that thys land is often plagued wythall’. Outbreaks were not infrequent, as a survey of Shakespeare’s life and career confirms.  Indeed, Shakespeare was fortunate to reach his first birthday; an eighth of the population of Stratford-upon-Avon died of the plague in late 1564.

Plague closed the London theatres from 1592 to 1594, prompting Shakespeare to turn instead to narrative poetry in the form of Venus and Adonis, and they were closed again for the same reason in 1603-4 and 1607-9.

During this latter period of closure Shakespeare again turned his attention to poetry; in 1609 his sonnets were published, probably with his authorisation.

In this exhibition

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