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There is a famous phrase in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Mercutio:

A plague o' both your houses!

This phrase is often alluded to in contemporary writing. But in the 20th century, many of the allusions replace the word plague with pox.

Reaching for quick examples is not hard. This quote from a letter in The Providence Journal was published less than one hour ago as of this writing:

That said, a pox on both our political parties. They have frittered away our future with their inability to control their desire to spend other people’s money.

This article in the Sun Herald appeared less than 12 hours ago:

The whole goal of both parties is power. Link that to campaign contributions. A pox on all their houses!

This article on CNN.com was published on November 28, 2017 and quotes the phrase spoken by a U.S. Senator:

"I think the American people will look at all of us and say 'I can't believe you people didn't pass this bill. How did you make it out of the birth canal? A pox on all your houses,'" Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy said.

My question is pretty straightforward: Is there a reason this phrase is often alluded to with the word "pox" replacing "plague?" For instance, was the phrase with "pox" used by a significant author or spoken by a prominent figure in a way that prompted the phrase to become increasingly used in altered form?


Additional Notes

eNotes writes:

Mercutio's famous line might not be exactly the one Shakespeare wrote: instead of "a' both your houses," various old editions have "on your houses," "a' both the houses," "of both the houses," and "a' both houses." The line as I've given it here is merely editorial reconstruction—in other words, a good guess at what the "original" might have looked like, if there was only one original.

However, there seems to be wide agreement that the original text uses the word "plague."


This nGram graph shows that the change appears to have taken place in the 20th century.

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  • The meaning of "plague" has shifted over the past century or so (as it is used more and more figuratively), while the meaning of "pox" has not shifted so much. – Hot Licks Dec 9 '17 at 22:25
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    Pox used to have the connotation of venereal disease. John Wilkes famously responded to an insult in Parliament to the effect that he would die either "of the pox or on the gallows" by saying "That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." – Robusto Dec 9 '17 at 22:57
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    It appears that “a pox o’ both your houses” was the expression used in some versions of the tragedy as suggested in the following source: books.google.it/… – user067531 Dec 9 '17 at 23:28
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    The use of the term pox appears also in other works: 1598 Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost v. ii. 46 A Poxe of that iest, and I beshrow all Shrowes. 1616 Shakespeare All's Well that ends Well (1623) iv. iii. 277 A pox on him, he's a Cat still. – user067531 Dec 9 '17 at 23:37
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    @user159691 Answers should be posted in answer boxes, not split in three or more comments... – Mari-Lou A Dec 10 '17 at 0:23
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The short answer may be that, in the heat of the moment, a pox is as good as a plague. At any rate, ill-wishers have urged both "a plague on" and "a pox on" the objects of their ire for centuries past. Given the near interchangeability of the curse, even though it may not do to say that one man's pox is another man's plague, the opportunity to misremember Mercutio's line has always been present.

The first writer to commit the wrong curse to paper (according to a Google Books search) was the anonymous author of "Extempore," in The London Magazine, Or, Gentleman's Monthly Intelligencer (April 1772):

EXTEMPORE.

"While peers and commoners fall out,"

(Says one, who neither side spouses)

"Let me, with old Mercutio, cry

——A pox on both your houses."

Both expressions have fairly long careers, as this more generalized Ngram chart of "a plague on" (blue line) versus "a pox on" (red line) for the period 1600–2000 suggests:

Shakespeare used both expressions on multiple occasions, as enumerated in Alexander Schmidt, Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary, third edition (1902):

Plague, subst. ... 3) pestilence: ...Oftenest used in cursing: the red plague rid you! [Tempest] the plague of Greece upon thee! [Troilus and Cressida] a plague break thy neck [same] biles and plagues plaster you o'er! [Coriolanus] the hoarded plague o' the gods requite your love [same] a plague consume you [Timon of Athens] all the plagues ... light on thy daughters [King Lear] O plague and madness [Troilus and Cressida] the common file — a plague! [Coriolanus] more man? plague, plague! [Timon of Athens] plague on't! [Two gentlemen of Verona] a plague upon this howling [Tempest] a plague of all drums [All's Well That Ends Well] a plague of all cowards [Henry IV Part 2] a plague of these pickle-herring [Two Gentlemen of Verona] a plague a both your houses [Romeo and Juliet] .

...

Pox, the venereal disease: ... Mostly used as a light curse (and supposed to mean the smallpox; ... the pox of such fantasticoes! [Romeo and Juliet] the pox upon her green-sickness [Pericles] a pox of that jest [Love's Labour's Lost] a pox on him [All's Well That Ends Well] a pox upon him for me [same] a pox on't [same and Cymbeline] a pox o' your throat [Tempest] pox of your love letters, [Two Gentlemen of Verona] pox, leave thy damnable faces [Hamlet] show your knave's visage, with a pox to you [Measure for Measure] what a pox have I to do with my hostess [Henry IV Part 1].

Schmidt's list seems to omit the instance from The Merchant of Venice (cited in a comment by user159691), so it may not be exhaustive; my summary of Schmidt's collection above omits a number of citations not accompanied by specific quotations.

Other authors of the same era employ both forms of cursing as well. Indeed, Fletcher & Beaumont, Phylaster: Or, Love Lyes a Bleeding (1609) has one character use both expressions in the successive lines of a dialogue:

LEON. Well, tis a braue boy Gentlemen.

CLERIMON. Yet you'ld not beleeue this.

LEON. A plague on my forwardnesse, what a villaine was I, to wrong vm so; a mischiefe on my muddy braines, was I mad?

TRA. A little frantick in your rash attempt, but that was your loue to Phylaster, sir.

LEON. A pox on such loue, haue you any hope my countinance will ere serue me to looke on them?

CLERIMON. O very well Sir.

LEON. Very ill Sir ; vds death, I could beate out my braines, or hang my selfe in reuenge.

The preeminence of "a pox on" during the period 1761–1817 (suggested by the Ngram chart above) remains to be explained. But whatever may have caused that burst of popularity, the long continuance of both "a plague on" and "a pox on" in literary English (if not common speech) leaves both expressions tantalizingly available to anyone vaguely aware of the Montagues and Capulets and the trouble they called down upon themselves and fair Verona.

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    Adding terms for "a plague upon" (green line) and "a pox upon" (orange line) for the period 1700–2000 to the original Ngram yields an Ngram that for the most part reinforces the earlier chart, though it suggests a somewhat larger overall advantage for "a plague on/upon" over "a pox on/upon." – Sven Yargs Dec 10 '17 at 0:53
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In the quarto edition of 1597 the word used is pox . In the later editions Shakespeare changed it to plague. Both can thus be claimed to be correct

  • @JJJ: Richard Lesh is correct—with a proviso—if we may rely on the note by George Steevens included in this annotated (1773) version of the play: "After this [line—namely, "you shall find me a grave man"], the quarto continues Mercutio's speech thus: '—— A pox o' both your houses! I shall be fairly mounted upon four men's shoulders for your house of the Montague's and the Capulets: ... – Sven Yargs Apr 5 at 17:55
  • ...Come Benvolio, lend me thy hand: A pox o' both your houses!'" So the first folio actually has Mercutio say "A pox o' both your houses" twice; but it also has him say earlier in the scene (when he has just been "scratched" by Tybalt's rapier) "I am hurt——A plague on both the houses! I am sped:——Is he gone and hath nothing?" That first instance ("a plague on both the houses") remained unchanged from the first folio in the 1623 edition, while the two subsequent instances of "A pox o' both your houses" became "A plague o' both your houses." Excellent observation, Richard Lesh! +1. – Sven Yargs Apr 5 at 18:02
  • @SvenYargs please edit that into the answer. ;) – JJJ Apr 5 at 18:22
  • @JJJ: I think that it wouldn't be appropriate for me take over Richard Lesh's answer like that—although he is welcome to incorporate anything from my comments that he finds useful. At some point, I may add Steevens's observations to my answer, which now seems rather faulty in its assumption that "a plague on both your houses" was Shakespeare's original wording. For now, however, Richard Lesh deserves the spotlight for pointing out the first folio's use of "a pox." – Sven Yargs Apr 5 at 18:47
  • @SvenYargs of course you can use your own judgement, but I wouldn't see it as taking over. Instead you're doing to community a service by improving the content on the site. In these cases where you're acting in good faith I think it's okay to edit first and if the author disagrees they can always do a rollback. The positives far outweigh the negatives here. :) – JJJ Apr 5 at 19:02
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Because it sounds better! Shakespeare wrote many wonderful phrases and invented or broadened the use of many words. Why can't later people improve on them? When somebody is using this phrase, they are usually not trying to quote Shakespeare. They are trying to convey the same idea.

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