Bubonic Plague and Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

The Biography of William Shakespeare

  • How did the Bubonic Plague affect his life?
  • Symptoms, Cures & medical treatment?
  • When were the London outbreaks?
  • How many died? Family deaths? Theatre closures?
  • Interesting information about the family, life and times of William Shakespeare

Bubonic Plague and Shakespeare


  • William Shakespeare was terrified of the Bubonic Plague - and who can blame him?
  • England had been ravaged by outbreaks of the plague since the 1300's
  • He lost his sisters Joan, Margaret ( just babies) and Anne (aged 7) to the deadly plague
  • He also lost his brother Edmund (aged 27)
  • But the greatest loss to William Shakespeare was his only son, Hamnet, who died when he was just eleven years old

Picture of a Plague Physician in the
William Shakespeare era!

William Shakespeare Index


  • So many people from just one family (the number increased after Shakespeare's death when his grandsons, Shakespeare Quiney died in infancy, aged 6 months old, in May 1617 and his brothers Richard and Thomas Quiney died of the plague aged 19 and 20 years of age)
  • No-one knows how many friends, fellow actors and acquaintances of Shakespeare died of the Black Death, but given the number of his close relatives who died, it must have been a significant number
  • There were constant outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague and every time this occurred the Theatres were shut down. The closures occurred in 1593 , 1603 and 1608
  • In 1563, in London alone, over 20,000 people died of the disease - In 1665 the Great Plague of London again decimated the population of the town which killed 16% of the inhabitants (17,500 out of the population of 93,000)
  • The plague was not just confined to the towns. Nowhere was safe the same plague outbreak of 1563 claimed 80,000 people in England
  • From December 1592 until December 1593 Stow (the Elizabethan archivist) reported 10,675 plague deaths in London, a city of approximately 200,000 people


  • The City of London was filthy during Shakespeare's era
  • There was no sewage system. The waste was just dumped into the River Thames
  • The disease was transmitted by the fleas that lived on rodents and animals, especially rats
  • The Bubonic plague (Black Death) was always caught or spread from an infected animal or person


  • The symptoms are:
    • Painful swellings in the armpits, legs, neck, or groin
    • Very high fever
    • Delirium and mental disorientation
    • Vomiting
    • Muscular pains
    • Bleeding in the lungs
    • An intense desire to sleep, which, if yielded to, quickly proved fatal
  • The victims would often die within two to four days.
  • The children's song Ring around the Rosy Nursery Rhyme is believed to hold its origins in the Bubonic Plague


  • Some churches administered to the Bubonic Plague victims
  • 'Wise women' were called for help
  • Barbers doubled as surgeons
  • The Apothecary would dispense drugs
  • Only the wealthy would receive the ministrations of an Elizabethan Physician (as pictured above)
  • The Physicians outlandish attire did in fact afford him some protection
    • The bizarre mask shielded their heads and faces from bites from the plague carrying fleas
    • Their robes, boots and gloves shielded their bodies
    • This cover-all clothing would have protected the Physician from the fleas and therefore the Bubonic Plague
    • The Plague Physician would not have understood why the mask and clothing offered protection but experience would have indicated that these were sensible precautions to take!


  • The Elizabethans did not know what caused the Plague so they were unable to act against it or take any preventative measures
  • Each symptom was given a separate treatment:
    • Head pains were treated with with sweet-smelling herbs such as rose, lavender, sage, and bay
    • Stomach pains and sickness were treated with wormwood, mint, and balm
    • Lung problems - liquorice and comfrey
    • Vinegar was used as a cleansing agent
    • Bleeding a patient as a general cure for everything
    • Applying leeches to suck the blood of the victim


  • Very few victims of the plague survived
  • Shakespeare really was living with death
  • He must have been in constant fear
  • The number of outbreaks must have been terrifying
  • The whole of the life of William Shakespeare lived under this terrible Cloud of Death

Bubonic Plague and Shakespeare


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