Views & Reviews Between the Lines

The plague’s the thing

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 06 March 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:563
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Of all the epidemic diseases, plague is by far the most literary—or perhaps I should say has inspired the most literature, from Boccaccio to Camus. The inspiration of literature was not the only beneficial effect of the disease, however: the Plague Orders of Elizabethan England forbade Sunday indulgence in tippling, gaming, and tobacco taking but, most important of all, prohibited “the outrageous play at the football.” Who, observing any modern English football crowd, could deny that this would be a most excellent thing?

Some scholars maintain that the plague reduced Shakespeare’s output and shortened his career. Elizabethan playwrights were like journalists: they wrote only when there was an …

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