Air Pollution and Early Modern Drama

Dr Chloe Preedy, University of Exeter


During the late sixteenth century, men and women living in early modern London were becoming concerned about the threat of air pollution. By 1603, the agricultural writer and inventor Sir Hugh Plat was promoting a new method of refining sea-coal as an alternative to the ‘common seacole fiers’ that ‘dooth make a hellishe smoke and smoder, dispersing the smootie substance & subtile atomies abroad into the aire’ (A new, cheape and delicate fire of cole-balles, B4v), and similar concerns about the smoky atmosphere of England’s cities are expressed by other contemporary authors. Such anxieties overlapped with a long-standing and influential medical tradition that attributed various diseases, most notably the bubonic plague, to ‘corrupted aire, or infection of euil vapours’ (Thomas Lodge, A treatise of the plague, B2v). During a period when the outdoor playhouses were regularly accused by their enemies of spreading the plague, and were also notorious for the smoky and sulphurous performance atmosphere produced by their theatrical effects, this overlapping discourse of air pollution and plague must have resonated with contemporary dramatists. So too, it seems, did the associated imagery of famine and dearth: thus Plat also considers how to control the smoky emissions of sea-coal when discussing remedies against famine (Sundrie new and artificiall remedies against famine, E1r-v), while early modern commentators aligned sixteenth- and seventeenth-century outbreaks of epidemic disease with the famine-inducing Biblical plagues of Exodus. Such comparisons are especially intriguing in relation to Shakespeare’s drama, in which the imagery of air pollution and atmospheric infection often overlaps with the threat of figurative or literal dearth. This paper explores these connections by focusing on three Shakespeare plays that are infused with a deadly, contaminating miasma: Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth.


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