The role of the bubonic plague in Shakespeare's plays

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Romeo, Patrick Armand, and Juliet, Pollyana Ribeiro, come together in the new Boston Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet. (Thomas James Hurst/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Romeo, Patrick Armand, and Juliet, Pollyana Ribeiro, come together in the new Boston Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet. (Thomas James Hurst/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A popular class at Worcester Polytechnic Institute called "Infected Shakespeare" studies how the famed playwright understood and wrote about pandemics and infectious diseases.

WPI associate professor Michelle Ephraim joins WBUR's Radio Boston to argue William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" might be remembered as a love story, but its tragic ending isn't the result of a family feud. Instead, it was really the plague.

Below are highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited.

Interview Highlights

On the plague’s role in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet:

“The plan for these star-crossed lovers is for Juliet to take a potion, given to her by Friar Lawrence, that will make her seem dead. So, her banished lover Romeo is meant to find her in the Capulet family tomb and say, ‘Yay, you’re alive! And we’re going to run off and be happy together.’ However, he does not get the message, literally, and he thinks she’s dead. He kills himself; she wakes up; she kills herself.”

“Friar Lawrence gives his fellow friar, Friar John, a letter to take to Romeo to explain this to him. Friar John doesn't get there because he’s stopped by people who are employed to police the streets, to make sure that people who are infected [with the plague] or who have come into contact with someone infected do not travel around.”

On pandemics in Shakespeare’s time: 

“He was writing 'Romeo and Juliet' right after they had gotten on the other end of a major plague outbreak, so this was very familiar to his audience, unfortunately."

“Plague outbreaks punctuated his entire life. From the moment he was born through his death, there were plague outbreaks constantly. There were overall at least 17 outbreaks in England between 1500 and 1665.”

On teaching 'Infected Shakespeare' during COVID-19: 

“I actually was teaching this class before the pandemic. I taught it last time in the fall of 2020, over Zoom. And I usually begin the segment on pandemics, plagues, by saying, with the idea of creating a suspension of disbelief, 'Imagine what it would be like!' Now we can, unfortunately."

“There were so many themes, so many uncanny moments in the class. It was chilling and wonderful to experience that with these students. For me to look at these documents from the 16th and 17th centuries through the eyes of someone who now understood pandemics from first-hand experience, to experience that alongside the students, was really amazing."

“For example, reading about class divides. Reading about how the poor were demonized. Reading about wealthy people fleeing to their expensive vacation homes. Class divisions. Students were very, very passionate about talking about these issues, normally, and even more so because it hit so close to home.”

On learning from Shakespeare’s experience:

“I felt like in Shakespeare there was something optimistic. There was something about resilience that was helpful for me, and I like to think it was helpful for my students as well."

"To think about what his life must have been like with all these plague outbreaks, with losing his son. We don’t know that his son died from the plague, we don’t know how he died, but in a period of time where there was so much loss. Here, he kept writing.”

This segment aired on July 29, 2022.


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