Invisible Tokens: Staging Cultural Anxieties about the Plague in the Plays of Shakespeare and Jonson
Type of Degreedissertation
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My study examines the influence of plague on six plays: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare, and Epicoene, Volpone, and The Alchemist by Ben Jonson. Between 1570 and 1670, the plague killed 658,000 in England and 225,000 people in London alone, and while the impact of plague is acknowledged in early modern prose, it is hardly mentioned at all in early modern drama. Only a handful of plays are set in plague time, and none depict individuals suffering from it. Given the ubiquity of plague in the lives of early modern Londoners, one might expect it to receive more attention, and the mystery of its absence demands an explanation. My study identifies and explains the various strategies that Shakespeare and Jonson employ to hide plague references in their plays. I continue work that was begun in the 1920s by F. P. Wilson and carried on in recent years by Paul Slack, Leeds Barroll, Ernest Gilman, Rebecca Totaro, and I attempt to show how the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson can be considered plague literature in the sense that plague serves as a meaningful subtext, whether they do so by reproducing the plague themes and systems of signification from prose plague tracts or by challenging plague-time practices recommended by or the plague orders of Elizabeth I and James I. I also apply theoretical concepts and methodologies such as those proposed by René Girard, Susan Sontag, Kai Erikson, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others that treat the relationships between plague, disease, trauma and literature. I enhance these general theories by relating them to specific early modern English practices and beliefs. Ultimately, my research adds to the understanding of the historical and literary contexts of Shakespeare’s and Jonson’s plays, puts the two playwrights in dialogue with one another, and models a methodology for determining the influence of plague on a variety of early modern texts.