English Language Day History & Culture

Shakespeare in the times of COVID-19

One of the most obvious aspects of reimagining William Shakespeare on his 456 birth anniversary , (April 23) is to draw parallels between the current COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world and the raging bubonic plague of the Elizabethan era, a time when the legendary playwright was penning some of his best works.

The plague surfaced first in London in 1592, with doctors having little or no inkling of its cause and transmission, to return in a lethal form in 1603 when it wiped out almost 30,000 city dwellers. It revisited three years later in 1606 after an assassination attempt against King James 1 had been foiled. The times were both politically volatile and shrouded in gloom as they are globally now.

Striking similarities

Some similarities are striking. The plague, caused by infected flea from small animals, led to mass sickness and was a malady for which a cure was not in sight. Quarantine measures were the best containment option. It was brought into force every time the number of deaths in a week reached 30. Mass gatherings were banned and playhouses shut. Violators were punished as they are today.

Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare engraving 1870

Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare engraving 1870  

In Romeo and Juliet (1595), the messenger, carrying the most vital news of Juliet being alive, is thwarted in his journey by the law keepers in He recounts: ‘the searchers of the town, Suspecting that we both were in a house, Where the infectious pestilence did reign, Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth’ (Act 5 Scene 3 Lines 8-11.

In the years (1603-1613) when the plague raged Shakespeare was writing furiously, but London playhouses remained shut for more than 60% of the time. The theatres were also frowned upon by the Puritans. as a place of loose morals that fuelled sin, whose divine retribution was the cursed plague.

Making a political connect between the two situations, Professor PJ Thomas , Head of the Department of English at St Berchmans College, Changanassery in Kerala says, “Shakespeare lost close relatives and family members — three siblings and a child — to the plague. He wrote many of his tragedies in quarantine but it is Measure For Measure, that is closest to these times. The play is about political corruption. Any tragedy or disaster is fertile ground for politicians to take undue advantage; it happened in the play, it is happening now.”

Theatre historian James Shapiro makes a similar observation, in The New Yorker, (April 8, 2020) of Coriolanus, a tragedy written during the periods of lockdown in 1607, comparing it with the state of affairs in the US: “Coriolanus” has long been read as a play about the dangers posed by unchecked authoritarianism. When the people are finally fed up and banish Coriolanus, the tribune of the people, the feisty Sicinius reminds the patricians of an essential truth they seem to have forgotten:

“What is the city but the people?”

The year Shakespeare was born, 1564, plague raged close to his home at Stratford-upon-Avon. In the burial register of the Holy Trinity parish church were written succinctly foreboding words: ‘hic incepit pestis’ (‘here begins the plague’). Born into the pestilence, as his parents were in quarantine at his birth, he was never out of its deathly shadow.

Never a catalyst

But strangely not a single character from his plays dies of plague, nor does the disease loom in the backdrop or play a catalyst, except in Romeo and Juliet.

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford, says, “The plague is everywhere and nowhere in his work.”

Quite like Shakespeare contemporary visual performing artist Nikhil Chopra says on art reflecting the times and of his future productions, “I would not like to feature the COVID-19 pandemic directly in my work. I would rather be poetic about it,” just the way the bard did centuries ago.

Shakespeare in the times of COVID-19

Shakespeare was a budding playwright in the year 1593 when the plague struck for the first time, and began with poetry. in Venus and Adonis, he makes a reference to the disease when the goddess begs the handsome Adonis for a kiss, “to drive infection from the dangerous year,” and claims, “the plague is banish’d by thy breath.”

Talitha Mathew, former journalist and a lover of Shakespeare writes, that the plague plays a defining role in Romeo and Juliet.

“‘A plague on both your houses!’, cries Mercutio, close friend of Romeo, as he dies in a street brawl between the warring Montagues and Capulets. Interestingly, in the same play, Friar John says that he was delayed in reaching Mantua with Romeo’s letter to Friar Laurence because he was stopped by the plague searchers. And this delay was one of the causes of the tragedy.”

“The searchers,” says Talitha, “were people, mostly women, hired by parishes in London to examine corpses and determine the cause of people's deaths. In this case, in Verona, however, their grim task seems to have been to prevent infected people from leaving the house.”

An insult in ‘King Lear’

In the plague riddled years the allusion to the disease increases. In King Lear (1606) the reference is used as an insult when the King rues over his ingrate daughter Goneril.

‘thou art a boil,

A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,

In my corrupted blood.

(Act 2 Scene 4 Lines 218-20).

In around the same time Shakespeare allots Timon in Timon of Athens the lines where he instructs Alcibiades to be like the deadly disease and wipe out everyone when he storms Athens:

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove

Will o'er some high-viced city hang his poison

In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one

going on to incite his general to be ruthless and indiscriminate like the plague, not spare the elderly or babies or maids or mothers.

Professor Thomas is proud of the fact that a “culture of Shakespeare” has existed at his college in Kerala from 1938, and motivates them to stage plays often. Shakespeare’s works bring kings, courtiers and fools on the same stage; the modern pandemic.

Until it slows and people adjust as they did during the Elizabethan age, Prof. Daniel Pollock Pelzner of Linfield College advises that he and his students are going to be doing what is expected of citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic: “a la Lady Macbeth” style. “We’re continuing to wash our hands as frequently as we can.”

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 8:54:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/shakespeare-in-the-times-of-covid-19/article31407041.ece

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