‘When ignorant men are overwhelmed by forces totally beyond their control and their understanding it is inevitable that they will search for some explanation within their grasp. When they are frightened and badly hurt then they will seek someone on whom they can be revenged. […] What was needed, therefore, was a suitable target for the indignation of the people, preferably a minority group, easily identifiable, already unpopular, widely scattered and lacking any powerful protector.’
Philip Ziegler, The Black Death, (The Folio Society, London: 1997) Cover image: Francis Mosley
The plague was too immediate, too visceral, for Shakespeare to include more than a passing reference to it in his plays. In Romeo and Juliet it’s a factor in the tragedy, but at a safe distance.
In an interview for the BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘Shakespeare’s London’, Catherine Duncan Jones calls it ‘one of the most defining facts of life in London for everyone in this period’. We know that significant plague outbreaks closed the theatres in 1593 and a decade later, delaying James I’s triumphal entry and coronation.
I bought this book hoping to get more of a feel for what the plague really was, and how it might have affected the EMP zeitgeist and/or Shakespeare’s writing. Although the plague in this volume is the 14th century flavour, it’s still interesting and illuminating.
Which leads me to the quotation that hit me like a dustbin lid to the face in a ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon this morning. It’s about the treatment of Jews in the face of the plague, although unless you knew where it came from, it could have been a Holocaust textbook. Or something more up-to-date … I’m genuinely preoccupied by the way politics is heading, both here in the UK and in the USA – by the divisive and isolationist views that seem to be gaining currency everywhere.
NHS dying on it’s knees? Let’s blame immigrants and get out of Europe. Let’s ‘send home’ people who have been living here for a quarter of a century.
US rust-belt industry wiped out? I know, we’ll build an enormous wall, banish the Mexicans and anyone who might look broadly Middle-Eastern.
Environment getting ready to decimate the human race, like another Black Death? Let’s make a conscious decision to favour fake news over scientific fact.
Like the revellers in Poe‘s The Masque of the Red Death, the walls we build, the ties we sever, the truths we deny, the blame we assign – they simply won’t save us …