British Museum blog

Avoiding the plague

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Plague and the Playhouse looks at impact of the plague on Shakespeare’s London.

Plague proclamations from King James I. © The British Library Board


Dr Richard Barnett, Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow and Honorary Research Fellow, UCL

The most common kind of plague and the kind most associated with historical plague is bubonic plague. The bacterium gets into the body and into the lymph nodes, generally found in the neck, shoulder, armpit, and groin. The bacterium reproduce in these lymph nodes and swell up and go black. In some cases they burst open and you get really nasty abscesses.

With bubonic plague you fall into a deep fever, you get multiple organ failure, your body starts to shut down and it has about 30 – 60% mortality rate. A period of about a week is the period in which you would either die or recover from the disease.

Certainly in modern terms it is treatable and there are various interventions with drugs and organ support that can be done. In terms of the medicine available in Shakespeare’s time, it was widely acknowledged by physicians and priests and the state that by far the best thing to do was just not to get this disease.

Most of the interventions that people make are about prevention and then about isolating people when they do get the disease. The classic image of prevention is the pictures of doctors wearing these very striking, rather beak-like masks which are filled up with herbs and the idea is that if you breathe through these masks you will purify the putrescent air that is causing the plague so you won’t suffer it yourself. One reads of aristocrats carrying around pomanders and nose-gays and walking through poor areas with these things held to their faces to try and purify the air.

There is also a very strong emphasis on keeping yourself healthy and this isn’t just about physical health, this is as much about what we would now call a spiritual and emotional and religious health. It is about confessing your sins, making sure you have a good relationship with God, so that God doesn’t decide to strike you down with this disease.

Going to the theatre was a very bad idea for your health, not only physically because you were crammed into a space with all these other terrible, dirty groundlings, but because the theatre was an immoral pastime.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Plague and the Playhouse

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Reblogged this on Ross All Over The Map and commented:
    Found out yesterday that I will likely be teaching an eleventh grade English section next year. This is exciting news for reasons that include the opportunity to teach Hamlet again. This post from the British Museum made me think of “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”

    Like

  2. Emma says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. Had no idea how dangerous going to the theatre could be in Shakespeare time!

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,851 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Born #onthisday in 1820: Sir John Tenniel, who illustrated the first edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Here's Alice and the Cheshire Cat
#books #history #illustration Every ‪#‎PayDay we're sharing a ‪#‎MoneyFact!
The first coin issued with the dollar denomination was not in the USA, but in West Africa by the British Sierra Leone company in 1791.
You can explore the history of money around the world in the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68): britishmuseum.org/money
#history #money #coins #coin #fact ‪#‎DefiningBeauty opens in one month! Look out for our highlight #FridayFigure each week. 
The exhibition brings these three sculptures together for the first time, creating new narratives.
These sculptures show the work of three of the greatest artists in ancient Greece: Phidias, Myron and Polyclitus. Myron’s discobolus (disc-thrower) is the perfect balance of opposites and Polyclitus' doryphoros (spear-bearer) is constructed on a precise set of ratios. In contrast, Ilissos is carved from life rather than arithmetically calculated. Discover more on tumblr: britishmuseum.tumblr.com
#exhibition #behindthescenes #installation #art #sculpture You can now explore #AfricanRockArt from #Chad with new images available online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart 
Chad has thousands of rock art engravings and paintings, some up to 7,000 years old! 
Throughout the caves, canyons and shelters of the Ennedi Plateau in Chad, thousands of images have been painted and engraved, comprising one of the biggest collections of rock art in the Sahara. A series of engravings at Niola Doa of groups of life-sized human figures have become especially renowned for their singularity and quality.
#art #rockart #Africa #Chad #engraving #painting This week we’re highlighting the #AfricanRockArt project, cataloguing 30,000 years of rock art.
Did you know that some rock art in #Niger is thought to be several thousand years old? Find out more about the rock art in Niger with new images online at www.britishmuseum.org/africanrockart
These spectacular life-size engravings of giraffe can be found at Dabous in Niger. Thought to date from between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago, the engravings cannot be seen from ground level and are only visible by climbing onto the boulder.
#RockArt #Africa #giraffe #art #history Here’s an exquisite chalk drawing by Renoir, born #onthisday in 1841.

Renoir began his career as a painter of porcelain in Limoges, aged thirteen, before studying with Sisley and Monet at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His early work flitted between sober academic painting and freer, more colourful en plein air ('open-air') work. He was, with Monet, at the forefront of the movement that became known as Impressionism. The two artists painted side-by-side on occasion, most famously for their paintings of the popular bathing-spot La Grenouillère (1869), then just outside Paris on the banks of the Seine.

His later works concentrate on the female nude and he tended to emphasize simple forms and solidity, as well as relishing pink and orange flesh, as this study illustrates. Several versions of this pose survive, all probably intended as finished pieces rather than sketches for grander work.

Crippled by rheumatism in his last years, Renoir continued to paint with brushes jammed between his fingers. 'If painting were not a pleasure to me I should certainly not do it'.
#art #artist #Renoir #impressionism #history #drawing
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,851 other followers

%d bloggers like this: