Tuesday, October 1, 2013
A plague on so many houses
"All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you herd of - Boils and plagues
Plaster you o'er; that you may be abhorr'd
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile!"
Coriolanus (I, iv)
Shakespeare's hotheaded Caius Marcius is a warrior, and has nothing but scorn for men who aren't. He doles out contempt for anyone who flinches in battle, on either side of the line. Curses are never far from his lips. He wishes cowards the worst: he wishes them plague.
A more nightmarish curse would be hard to imagine. As Barbara Tuchman's masterful A Distant Mirror (1978) makes abundantly clear, the waves of bubonic plague that swept over Europe in the fourteenth century, returning periodically for centuries thereafter, were devastating almost beyond imagining.
In 1347, there arrived in the port of Messina in Sicily several Genoese trading vessels with large numbers of dead and dying men slumped at the oars. This was among the earliest indications that a descent of the peoples of Europe into an earthly hell had begun: the rat and flea-borne Black Death would claim roughly a third of the European population, with some areas being even more tragically affected.
Whole towns and villages were wiped out; priests were afraid to administer last rites to the dying for fear of catching the pestilence; healthy family members fearfully abandoned infected brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. Some villages were left with not enough people living to bury the dead. Tuchman mentions cases in which physicians (whose healing practices were primitive and often ill-conceived) would contract the disease from their patients and die more quickly than did those same patients.
And perhaps surprisingly, the young seemed to be even more susceptible to plague than the old. The recurrence of plague, coupled with high infant mortality rates that were the norm in Shakespeare's age, must have made for precarious childhoods. It all must have made children seem all the more precious, all the more fragile.
Pictured above and presently displayed in the South Bedchamber at Agecroft Hall is a child's highchair, made of oak in England c1640 and displaying carved motifs in a style clearly influenced by the Italian Renaissance. The English in Shakespeare's time seemed to find all things Italian to be touchstones of taste. If such decorative touches could be made to grace the back of a child's chair, so much the better. Evidently some kind of belt or sash was used to make sure the child didn't fall from the chair. Surely, the child already faced enough in the way of danger.
According to archival records, children's chairs of the seventeenth century were frequently much like miniature versions of the panel-back chair used by adults, and often made to match a set used for dining. The chair is well-made and durable, reflecting the English preference for three types of wood in the building of furniture: oak, oak, and oak.
As has been well documented, Shakespeare and other members of London's theatrical profession had their lives periodically disrupted by recurring outbreaks of plague, which prompted lengthy and repeated closings of public theaters for fear that they were among the epicenters of contagion. The pestilence even affected Shakespeare's literary output: scholars generally believe that he wrote much if not most of his non-theatrical poetry, including Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and perhaps his sonnets as well, at times when the theaters were closed and he felt compelled to exercise his talents elsewhere.