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Bubonic plague in English Renaissance utopian literature

Rebecca Carol Noel Totaro, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The fear of plague was inherent in Renaissance English society. On average, at least two periods of extensive mortality occurred within each reign of a monarch from 1500–1700. All kings and queens knew that plague might in any year visit and force them to abandon their thrones in flight. A court page or cook breaking out in a fever was enough to shake the national foundation, as John Davies of Hereford records in his poem, “The Picture of the Plague According to the Life as it was in Anno Domini 1603”: The King himself (O wretched Times the while!) From place to place, to save himselfe did flie, Which from himselfe himselfe did seeke t'exile, Who (as amaz'd) know not where safe to lie. Its hard with Subjects when the Soveraigne Hath no place free from plagues, his head to hide; And hardly can we say the King doth raigne, That no where, for just feare, can well abide. For, no where comes He but Death followes him Hard at the Heeles, and reacheth at his head. (1.45) This was no way to keep a monarchy intact or a society stable. In their new worlds, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Margaret Cavendish each constructed a “no-place” for the king “his head to hide”; however, containing the plague was not simply a matter of dreaming up a panacea. Rather than easily eliminate plague from their worlds, they grappled with the very presence of plague, both releasing and controlling it within their borders. This dissertation examines the specific religious, scientific, and literary regimens each writer utilized and depicted. The last chapter analyzes the less optimistic response to plague and utopia, assessing the failed utopian world presented by Shakespeare in Timon of Athens and by Jonson in The Alchemist.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Theater

Recommended Citation

Totaro, Rebecca Carol Noel, "Bubonic plague in English Renaissance utopian literature" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9960795.