Detail showing delousing from Jan Siberechts’s painting Cour de ferme, 1662.
PEDICULARE, the lousie disease, that is when the bodie is pestred and full of lice and nits.
—Iohn Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English
Think of the above as an indirect nod to Shakespeare’s birthday: living as he did in a particularly pestilential period of London’s history, the bard had reason to reference “the lousie disease” with some regularity. The plague of 1593 famously shuttered all of London’s theaters; ten thousand people died in this outbreak alone. Even in nonplague years, typhus was a major killer. And at the best of times, lice were a quotidian nuisance and a marker of hygiene.
Indeed, lice of various kinds come up in Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and that’s just for starters. The reason I am not quoting them is because most of these references are very lascivious and vile indeed. The only context in which Shakespeare uses lice is as an insult: always insulting someone’s cleanliness to sexual hygiene. (Which seems harsh in a time when vermin of all kinds must have been fairly rampant.) Surely not only slatterns and villains were prone to the pestilence! What about Thomas of Beckett, with his hair shirt running with lice? Shakespeare was most definitely a part of the problem.
And the shame and stigma in the modern classroom are alive and well, even in places well-fortified with antibiotics and running water. To wit: On a downtown subway platform, I heard one little girl in a Catholic school uniform—maybe six—turn to her friend and say, “Pinkie swear you’ve never had lice. Pinkie swear.” Duly sworn in, the two then walked down the platform and approached a third little girl, standing alone.
“Have you ever had lice?” they demanded sternly. The loner looked around in a panicked sort of way. “N-no… ” she said uncertainly.
“Will you pinkie swear?” demanded the ringleader.
I have! I wanted to tell her. It doesn’t make you dirty or weird, even if you happen to be sort of weird and lonely! And maybe dirty! Anyone can get it! And those nit combs and that horribly painful shampoo are punishment enough! And then one day you’ll just be a grown-up on the platform and no one will even check if you wash your hair! It will be okay!
And blessedly, then the train pulled in.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.