quotes, notes, timelines & more

Home » Notes » Unhappy Fortune! The Plague in the Plays

Unhappy Fortune! The Plague in the Plays

Shakespeare killed scores of his characters — by sword, by dagger, by poison, by flame, by drowning, by hanging, by murder, by suicide, by accident — men, women, children, all ages, killed by many means, even by a bear. But the deaths of only two of his central characters can be attributed to the plague, and even then, only by proximate cause, not directly. This is curious since in his time the plague caused deaths that most of his audience would have known, intimately, and on a large scale.

Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth

In 1592, very early in Shakespeare’s writing and acting career, the plague’s return to London caused authorities to ban public gatherings in the city, which included closing all the theatres. They did not reopen until 1594. This was not the first time in Shakespeare’s life the plague swept across England, but it was the worst epidemic to that date. Historians estimate that between 1592 and 1594, the scourge killed a quarter of the population. Anyone who contracted it had a fifty percent chance of mortality. Within a couple of years of the theatres reopening, Shakespeare wrote his second tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, and the plague played a fatal role.

Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily ever after if Friar John had been able to deliver the letter from Friar Lawrence in Verona to Romeo in Mantua informing him of Juliet’s feigned, not actual, death. But en route, Friar John was quarantined by civic authorities due to fears of the plague.

Friar John
Going to find a barefoot brother out,
One of our order, to associate me,
Here in this city visiting the sick,
And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth,
So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.
Friar Lawrence
Who bare my letter, then, to Romeo?
Friar John
I could not send it—here it is again—
 Returning the letter
Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,
So fearful were they of infection.
Friar Lawrence
Unhappy fortune!

“Unhappy fortune” indeed. The word fortune has a number of meanings and connotations. In this context, it suggests an event that happens by chance, outside a person’s control. But the connotative sense of the word, then and now, often suggests beneficence rather than malignance, e.g., “There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,” (Julius Caesar, 4.3.249), or “As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it,” (Julius Caesar, 3.2.26). Taken in that sense, “Unhappy fortune” can be read as an oxymoron. Since Shakespeare did not choose his words by chance, nor was he simply fortunate in his selections, nor did he eschew ambiguity, it is safe to assume he chose fortune instead of destiny, chance, or accident, etc., for reasons other than the mere metrical necessity of the line. In fact, Shakespeare used the oxymoron and its rhetorical cousins, paradox and irony, frequently in Romeo and Juliet.

In the middle of the play, when Juliet learns that Romeo, the man she passionately loves, has killed Tybalt, her cousin, she breaks into an angry speech of oxymoronic and paradoxical metaphors:

Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-feather'd raven! Wolvish ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damned saint, an honorable villain!…
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!

But that speech is not the first use of an oxymoron in Romeo and Juliet. The play opens with an oxymoron, spoken by a chorus who recites a sonnet. By the fifth line, the chorus says, speaking of the Montagues and the Capulets:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life.

In two words, Shakespeare interweaves two powerful figures of speech. The loins are an area of the anatomy associated with generative powers both in females and males. So, loins are used here as a metonymy, a type of metaphor in which a part of something is used to represent a larger concept — in this case, loins represent reproduction and birth. But by calling them fatal loins, Shakespeare creates an oxymoron. And the thematic use of that oxymoron becomes one of the themes of the play.

Friar Lawrence addresses this theme of fatality and regeneration a little later when he ruminates about the plants he nurtures in his garden. While his speech may seem superfluous, and is sometimes cut from productions, it clearly establishes this theme with a beautiful paradox:

The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb.

And, of course, the play’s last scene occurs in a literal tomb where Romeo and Juliet’s deaths give birth, if not to love, at least to a peace between the Montagues and the Capulets, which leads the Prince to express the play’s last irony:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

That scourge is, in fact, the fulfillment of the curse Mercutio had exclaimed in Act 3 when, as he was dying, he cried three times, “A plague o’ both your houses!” While Mercutio was speaking metaphorically, the fear of actual plague became, ironically, the proximate cause of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, which gave birth to the play’s final peace.

As the dark of the tomb grew lighter in the dawn of the new day, which Friar Lawrence had earlier foreshadowed at the beginning of his garden speech, “The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,” Prince Escalus spoke the play’s last oxymoron:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings.
The sun for sorrow will not show his head.
Go hence to have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

This Note references:
Source(s):
Character(s):
, , , ,
Themes:
, ,
Figures of Speech:
, , , ,

O serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face!

Read the Quote
Source:

Source Type:

Spoken by:

Themes:

Figures of Speech:
, ,

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Read the Quote
Source:

Source Type:

Spoken by:

Themes:
,

Figures of Speech:

Romans, countrymen, and lovers

Read the Quote

Two households, both alike in dignity

Read the Quote

The gray-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night

Read the Quote

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!

Read the Quote
Source:

Source Type:

Spoken by:

Themes:
,

Figures of Speech:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings

Read the Quote

Holy Franciscan friar, brother, ho!

Read the Quote
Source:

Source Type:

Spoken by:
,