Why do we say "A Plague on Both Your Houses"?

Well-Known Expressions

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Meaning:

Both sides are at fault. I will not take sides and will have nothing to do with it.

Background:

This expression comes from Act III, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1592). It is spoken by Mercutio who, despite being Romeo's best friend, has avoided taking a side in the ancient feud between the two families, and has remained good-natured and optimistic. Even when wounded by Juliet's cousin Tybalt while defending Romeo's honor, he initially laughs it off as a "scratch," but when he realizes the severity of his injury, he dies cursing both houses: "A plague o' both your houses! I am sped."

Some people know this phrase as "a pox on both your houses" (and we accepted this variation as correct), and interestingly, it seems that at least one early version of Romeo and Juliet from 1597 does refer to pox. According to The Phrase Finder (phrases.org.uk), Shakespeare references the word plague hundreds of times in his plays; and there's a good smattering of references to pox as well (such as, "A pox on him, he's a cat still," from All's Well That Ends Well -- "cat" being a term of contempt).

It's hardly surprising that plague would be front of mind for Shakespeare given that it was a consistent presence in his life. According to nosweatshakespeare.com, Shakespeare's two older sisters died of the plague before he was born, so when plague once again swept across the country a few months after his birth, his parents sealed up their house and did everything they could to protect their newborn.

Plague struck again in 1593 and all places of entertainment in London were closed, putting Shakespeare's successful run as both an actor and playwright on temporary hold. He returned to Warwickshire where he spent the year writing two major poems ("The Rape of Lucrece" and "Venus and Adonis").

Further outbreaks in 1601 and 1603 caused the theatres to be closed again; this time Shakespeare stayed locked in his lodgings in London rewriting plays. When plague struck yet again in 1606, Shakespeare and his company toured the English countryside, during which time he wrote Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra and a revised version of King Lear, which is now the definitive version.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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