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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Sunday September 30 2007

I have been reading Bill Bryson’s recently published short biography of Shakespeare, and I now flirt with the laws of copyright by reproducing a gob of it here.  As always with these longish book quotes that I reproduce here, any objections from author or publisher will result in instant removal.  But, I make no money with this blog, and I cannot believe that an excerpt like this one that follows could possibly do this book, its publishers, its author, or its sales, any harm.

Not much is known about the circumstances of Shakespeare’s birth, but plenty is known about the times that Shakespeare was born into and grew up in.  Even to grow up at all, in those days, you needed a big dose of luck, as Bryson explains (pp. 22-24):

William Shakespeare was born into a world that was short of people and struggled to keep those it had.  In 1564 England had a population of between three and five million - much less than three hundred years earlier, when plague began to take a continuous, heavy toll.  Now the number of living Britons was actually in retreat.  The previous decade had seen a fall in population nationally of about 6 per cent.  In London as many as a quarter of the citizenry may have perished.

But plague was only the beginning of England’s deathly woes.  The embattled populace also faced constant danger from tuberculosis, measles, rickets, scurvy, two types of smallpox (confluent and haemorrhagic), scrofula, dysentery, and a vast, amorphous array of fluxes and fevers - tertian fever, quartian fever, puerperal fever, ship’s fever, quotidian fever, spotted fever - as well as ‘frenzies’, ‘foul evils’ and other peculiar maladies of vague and numerous type.  These were, of course, no respecters of rank.  Queen Elizabeth herself was nearly carried off by smallpox in 1562, two years before William Shakespeare was born.

Even comparatively minor conditions - a kidney stone, an infected wound, a difficult childbirth - could quickly turn lethal.  Almost as dangerous as the ailments were the treatments meted out.  Victims were purged with gusto and bled till they fainted - hardly the sort of handling that would help a weakened constitution.  In such an age it was a rare child that knew all four of its grandparents.  Many of the exotic-sounding diseases of Shakespeare’s time are known to us by other names (their ship’s fever is our typhus, for instance), but some were mysteriously specific to the age.  One such was the ‘English sweat’, which had only recently abated after several murderous outbreaks. It was called ‘the scourge without dread’ because it was so startlingly swift: victims often sickened and died on the same day.  Fortunately many survived, and gradually the population acquired a collective immunity that drove the disease to extinction by the 1550s.  Leprosy, one of the great dreads of the Middle Ages, had likewise mercifully abated in recent years, never to return with vigour.  But no sooner had these perils vanished than another virulent fever, called ‘the new sickness’, swept through the country, killing tens of thousands in a series of outbreaks between 1556 and 1559.  Worse, these coincided with calamitous, starving harvests in 1555 and 1556. It was a literally dreadful age.

Plague, however, remained the darkest scourge.  Just under three months after William’s birth, the burials section of the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford bears the ominous words Hic incepit pestis, ‘Here begins plague’, beside the name of a boy named Oliver Gunne.  The outbreak of 1564 was a vicious one.  At least two hundred people died in Stratford, about ten times the normal rate.  Even in non-plague years, 16 per cent of infants perished in England; in this year, nearly two-thirds did.  One neighbour of the Shakespeare’s lost four children.  In a sense William Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving his first year.