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.