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London Theatre during the plague


Actors, writers and theatre owners always had a difficult time in Elizabethan times.

Until the coronation of England’s following monarch, James I, theatre in England was considered akin to prostitution, thievery and vagrancy. All theatres in London were required to be built outside the city walls along with brothels, prisons and lunatic asylums. Theatres were usually considered to be disreputable places, dens of iniquity, and, some thought, even the breeding ground for the plague.

Consequently, whenever the plague flared up, they were the first places to be closed.

The epidemic which began in London in the summer of 1592 was one of the longest closures. More than 14% of the population of the city died during this period.

Whenever the theatres closed, the actors as well as all those connected with the company would be faced with two options: lose all income or begin touring the small countryside towns where the plague was not as virulent. In order to sustain at least a little income, most decided to tour.

By first day of the following year, 1593, the deaths had lessened enough to allow theatres to reopen. But that did not last long. On January 21, the Privy Council prohibited any more performances as the number of deaths began to rise. This time the plague wiped out an additional ten per cent of London.

During that closure, Sir Thomas Walsingham had invited Christopher Marlowe to live at Scadbury Manor, which was safely twelve miles outside the city. There is some disagreement among historians if the reason for this was companionship or avoidance of the plague. No matter the reason, Marlowe was living at Scadbury when Thomas Kyd, his former roommate, was arrested and later, when Marlowe was summoned to the Privy Council for treason.

Even after these especially severe epidemics, the plague was virtually always present and would mysteriously flare up every few years. Whenever the death toll in London reached forty, all public gatherings except for church services were banned within seven miles of the city.

Most problematic was the knowledge that the actors had no idea when the theatres would again be allowed to open.