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In Times of Pestilence

by on 21 March 2020

In Times of Pestilence

Just about this time of the year, 417 years before COVID-19, in what playwright Thomas Dekker ironically called this “wonderfull yeare”, all the theatres were shut.

One of the “wonders” was the death of Queen Elizabeth I at Richmond Palace on 24th March 1603. The plague once more revisited London in late February, and the exponential growth in the numbers of its victims triggered the provision under the law that all meeting places for more than fifty people were to be shut.

1603 was to become the most devastating year for plague deaths until the Great Plague of 1666. Over one quarter of London’s population was wiped out.

So the new sovereign, King James I, started his reign having to try to get control of a disease that seemed incurable. Laws were swiftly enacted to try and control the plague in London its environs. Houses were “to be closed up” for six weeks if one of the inhabitants fell ill. The law on shutting public meeting places was tightened to those of more than thirty people, effectively all pubs, eating places and places of entertainment. Those showing symptoms were encouraged to be “restrained from resorting into company of others”. Moreover, money was set aside to support those who were confined in their homes. Doesn’t this all seem familiar more than four centuries later?


The best known Elizabethan playwright is undoubtedly William Shakespeare, who was incredibly busy during the years around the turn of the century, writing many of his best plays and performing them in Queen Elizabeth’s court as well as in the public theatres.

So what did Shakespeare do when the theatres had to shut? Well he had had a “dry run” ten years earlier when the theatres were also shut for almost a year, again due to the plague, that one not proving as fatal to the populace; 1593 saw about a fifth as many fatalities as in 1603. In this enforcedly freed-up time had made a small living by writing sonnets (possibly on commission). In 1603-4, he again turned his skill to poetry and again to sonnets, refining and adding to the earlier ones, along with long poetic pieces such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

This seems to us to set a good example and, following the 2020 closure of all the theatres, Mark Aspen Reviews is now concentrating more on non-performance arts. Shakespeare has set the pattern, so watch this space for more poetry and poetry critiques.

We hope to add in book reviews and more very soon.

Four centuries behind, Mark Aspen Reviews is swimming behind The Swan of Avon !!

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