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Hic Incepit Pestis: Starting Life with Death

When sickness, war, or famine wipe out entire generations, who can know what human potential was lost forever? In 1564, the world was poised to lose the greatest playwright and poet in the history of the English language.

Plague was no stranger to 16c England (the bubonic plague in 1348 being the first recorded of many), but the particularly nasty case in Stratford would have been a hard introduction for the 3-month old William Shakespeare. Stratford's population had reached at least 200 people (London was estimated around 50,000 at this time) and this outbreak would claim an entire one-sixth of Shakespeare's hometown: 10 times the usual mortality rate. It devastated the young in particular, taking nearly two-thirds of all children born that year. The odds were against the future playwright of Hamlet and Macbeth to live; and that's on top of the 11% chance he would have died before he even met the plague. Although, by the time he reached adulthood, I'm sure he desired they were 'better strangers' as the plague would continue to stalk early modern life. In a world where the average life expectancy in London was 35 for the wealthy and 25 for the not-so-much, Shakespeare would avoid all the plagues that shut down theaters between 1603-1613 alone - for a collective 78 months of 120! William Shakespeare was the unlikely winner in a series of long odds against his life and his good luck became our good luck. Thanks for toughing it out, Will.

*hic incepit pestis: 'here begins plague' from the parish register at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford in July 1564

Allegorical representation of the Demon of the Plague from H. Von Gersdorf's Feldtbuch der Wundarzney, printed by Johann Schott, Strasbourg, 1540.

Falk, Dan. The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe. St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

Harkup, Kathryn. Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts. Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020.

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