The Plague and the Hope

By now we are all familiar with the experience of walking into a crowded place and worrying whether it is safe to be there, whether the number of people breathing in that space correlates to the higher possibility of infection and disease. Finally, we decide that the pleasures of social interaction or entertainment are not worth the risk, and we despondently leave the premises.

How might early modern Londoners have felt when walking into a newly reopened playhouse which had been shut down for months because of the escalating numbers of plague victims? How might the audience of a 1594 performance of Hamlet, for instance, have engaged with it when the pestilence had raged through London for much of 1592–1593, and theatres were repeatedly ordered to close?

This line of speculation might be addressed by considering some of the more physically concrete features of early modern playhouses. These spaces took very different shapes. Some of them were circular, open-air arenas (such as the Globe or the Rose), while others boasted an indoor stage (Blackfriars). Some were converted from inns into stages (Boar’s Head, Red Bull), while others were purpose-built to serves as playhouses (like the Swan).

In 1613 a contract between the co-owners of an animal baiting arena known as the Bear Garden, and a carpenter named Gilbert Katherens, set out the plans for building a new playhouse—later known as the Hope—on the same site. This enterprise was intended to provide a space ‘bothe for players to playe In, And for the game of Beares and Bulls to be bayted in the same.’ According to the Annales of Edmund Howes, this arena was used as a ‘Play House for Stage Playes on Mundayes, Wedensdayes, Fridayes, and Saterdayes, and for the baiting of the Beares on Tuesdayes and Thursdayes, the stage being made to take vp and downe when they please.’ Although this ambitious, dual-function feat of architecture may initially have appeared to be an efficient and profitable use of space, ultimately it proved unsustainable and unpopular. Players and animals co-existed in an uneasy union that caused no small degree of complaint.

Around 1614, for instance, Lady Elizabeth’s Men, contested the amount they should have been paid for the days the Hope was used for bearbaiting instead of plays. A few months later, Prince Charles’ Man abandoned the Hope after they were forced to give up one of the days allocated to playing to bearbaiting.

A more explicit testimony to the unsatisfactory state of the Hope comes from a character in the induction to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which premiered at the Hope in 1614, who furtively describes the playhouse as ‘as durty as Smithfield, and as stinking every whit.’

The stench of the Hope clearly affected the experience of the audience as well as the players. This odour, however, may not have been a deterrent for performers and playgoers merely because of its olfactory offence. It could also have been the bearer of more sinister things, such as the pestilence.

As early as the first appearance of the plague in Europe in 1348, one of the major medical explanations for the pestilence was founded on Hippocrates’ theory of miasma, which saw noxious and polluted air as the cause of disease. A parallel—and often indistinguishable—understanding of the pestilence involved its observed transmission from one person to the next, ie contagion. This latter theory was the basis for the Elizabethan quarantining orders of 1578.[1]

By the late sixteenth century, these two theories had morphed into one overarching view that connected the spread of disease to large gatherings of people as the breeding ground for foul, infectious air. Playhouses clearly fell within these parameters. As a 1593 Privy Council order for the suppression of all plays and ‘such like unnecessary assemblies’ attests, the ‘heat’ produced by large gatherings of people in playhouses was considered a major risk factor in infecting ‘sound’ people.

Given these contemporary theories on the pestilence, the Hope playhouse was in an unfavourable position compared to other London theatres. The infamous stench from animal cages and the remains of their baiting games was a perfect example of the putrid and corrupt airs that could ‘infect the blood and the spiritual members of man.’[2] Added to this was the perceived correlation between animal remains and pestilence. As early as the first plague outbreak and much before the establishment of public playhouses, ordinances sought to regulate butchery and prevent offal, blood, and entrails from piling in the streets, as their abominable stench poisoned the air and caused sickness.[3]

We may now be able to understand more clearly why ‘the Hope failed to establish the sort of consolidated tradition that could have challenged the Globe, the Fortune and the Red Bull.’[4] We can now imagine—and perhaps empathize with—an early modern Londoner who, despite having been starved of entertainment for months, might not have been too keen on going to the Hope, not just because it was foul but also because it was plagued.

Sara Ameri is a PhD Candidate at the Department of English, University of Toronto. Her primary research focus is the Black Death and its function in late medieval English devotional writing. More broadly, she is interested in the place of the plague in the Global Middle Ages and the literary culture of the early modern period. Her research has appeared on digital platforms through such pieces as ‘A Plague Saint in Print’ and ‘Intolerable Mystics: The Cases of al-Hallāj and Marguerite Porete.

[1] See Rebecca Totaro, The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558–1603 (University Park, 2010), 179–196.

[2] Totaro, Plague in Print, p 10

[3] Ernest L. Sabine, Butchering in Mediaeval London, Speculum 8.3 (July 1933), 344.

[4] Alexander Legatt, Jacobean Public Theatre (Abingdon, 1992), 23.