The Bubonic Plague: The Elizabethan Era

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The Bubonic Plague: The Elizabethan Era

The Bubonic PlagueIn the Elizabethan Era


Symptoms and signs of the Black Death included: - Swelling of the lymph nodes, typically occuring in the armpits, legs, neck, and/or groin. These swellings were quite painful, and were called buboes. - Vomiting- High fever- Muscle pains- Delirium- Internal bleedingCommonly, the majority of people that were infected died within 2-4 days after contracting the fatal disease.

Neither the victims nor the physicians had any idea as to what had caused the disease. There was no known cure, so physicians made use of herbs to experiment with possible remedies. - Headaches: Rose, lavender, sage, and bay were administered to patients with headaches- Sickness/Nausea: Wormwood, mint, and balm were used to relieve these two symptoms- Respiratory issues: Treated with liquorice and comfrey- Buboes (swollen lymph-nodes): Butter, onion, and garlic would be applied to the buboes. Arsenic, lily root, and dried toad were also experimented with. - Cures: Physicians and doctors used leeches in an attempt to cure the victim. For a time, vinegar was also regularly used for cleaning purposes because it was believed to kill the disease.


RING AROUND THE ROSEYRing around the rosy is a children's rhyme that is commonly associated with the Black Death. The first line "Ring around the rosey" describes the buboes that appear. The second line "pocket full of posey" refers to the idea that having flowers in your pocket would ward off the plague, a myth that many people of the time believed. "Ashes, Ashes", the third line, is referencing how the infected dead would be burnt in an attempt to stop the spread of the plague. The fourth line, "They all fall down!", is alluding to the death of those that were infected.

The bubonic plague, alternatively known as “The Black Plague” and “The Black Death”, is an infectious disease that is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and is transmitted to humans via infected rats. The bubonic plague has been in existence for centuries, and the epidemics that took place in Elizabethan England occured during what was called the "Second Pandenmic Plague." It is thought to have originated in the Gobi Desert, and spread to Europe via trading ships and travelling merchants. This particular pandemic encompassed several centuries, with epidemics continuously occuring worldwide, though Europe suffered the most losses.

In the Elizabethan era, over two hundred years after the pandemic in the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague came to London. There were several outbreaks, the most severe occurring in 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1665. During the outbreaks, Elizabethan London was a dreary, filthy, and fearful place to live. The pandemic in 1665, called “The Great Plague of London” is estimated to have killed 100,000 people. It began in May 1665, and ravaged the city until September of that same year, when The Great Fire of London occurred. The fire destroyed most of the rats and fleas that carried the bacteria.

Elizabethan England



After the first pandemic in the fourteenth century, the bubonic plague returned to Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Shakespeare was alive and living in England. Shakespeare eventually moved from his small town to London, to pursue his dream of being an actor. Plague outbreaks ravaged London in 1593 and 1603, both of which were times that Shakespeare was living in London.

When outbreaks occurred, no matter how small, the theatres, where Shakespeare worked, were forced to close. Shakespeare made much of his income from gate admissions, and the constant closing of the theaters no doubt affected him financially. The plague also affected him personally. Although there are no records of Shakespeare himself ever being infected, it is largely speculated that his siblings Joan and Margaret (infants), and Anne (aged 7) all died due to the plague. His eleven year old son, Hamnet, also died because of the bubonic plague.

The world that Shakespeare lived in because of the plague, one that was full of anxiety, fear, tragedy, and death, allows people to better understand his works. When people understand Shakespeare’s everyday life and where he drew his inspirations, they can better analyze and interpret his plays. Many of his plays and peoms involve topics such as sickness, death and tragedy. Shakespeare even referenced the bubonic plague in several of his works, including “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Tempest”, “Othello”, “King Lear”, and “Twelfth Night.”Romeo and Juliet:“Going to find a barefoot brother out,One of our order, to associate me,Here in this city visiting the sick,And finding him, the searchers of the town,Suspecting that we both were in a houseWhere the infectious pestilence did reign,Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.” – Friar Lawrence, (5.2.5-12)These lines allude to the plague, by “the sick”, and “the infectious pestilence”, and “sealed up the doors” also suggests the quarantine that occurred during the pandemics. “I could not send it—here it is again—Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,So fearful were they of infection.” – Friar Lawrence, (5.2.17-9)These lines mention the plague once again, and also show the audience that the plague indirectly killed Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence says that he could not get the important message through to Romeo because all of the messengers were fearful of spreading the plague further. If not for the pandemic, Romeo would have gotten the letter from Friar Lawrence, and his and Juliet’s deaths would have been prevented. King Lear: “But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;Or rather a disease that's in my flesh,Which I must needs call mine: thou art a boil,A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,In my corrupted blood.” – Lear (2.4.242) A description of his young daughter that is infected with the plague.Twelfth Night:“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?Methinks I feel this youth’s perfectionsWith an invisible and subtle stealthTo creep in at mine eyes.” – Olivia, Shakespeare uses a metaphor here, but taking the contagious, rapidly infectious nature of the plague and compares it to Olivia falling in love as quickly as one might catch the plague.

Shakespeare's Works


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