Are we not awe-struck since the 11th of March 2020 when the World Health Organisation declared the novel Coronavirus outbreak a pandemic? A fast-moving world instantly came to a halt. The offices have been closed, public spaces are no more safe: most educational institutions have sent their students back home and nobody knows until when. All of a sudden, humankind has more time, yet extremely limited ways of spending it.
Psychologists around the world have come forward to suggest many ways of utilizing this isolation or quarantine period to boost mental and physical health. In these testing times, when the human race is ensnared in homes and is busy watching and/or making viral Tiktok videos and creating memes out of this one-of-its-kind human tragedy, it will be pertinent to look back into history to see how humans in the past had been responding to times like these.
Human life is so miraculously unique that you will find history repeating itself quite frequently. Hence, I have decided to take us to a moment in a literary giant’s life – William Shakespeare. The goal is to see how he made use of his quarantined life and how that time is still an integral part of our literature and lives.
Hold on tight, because it is going to be a tough ride: it might even make you reflect on how little you have achieved during this home-bound period.
Many would have seen a meme circulating on Twitter, stating that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he had quarantined himself during a plague. This is not all, though! In fact, the great dramatist penned down many of his greatest works both in theatre and poetry during self-isolation – of which King Lear is only one. So for once, this viral meme is not fake. In fact, it understates how much Shakespeare accomplished during self-isolation!
Imagine being a professional actor, a playwright and a shareholder in a London company “The King’s Men Theater Troupe” and being trapped in your own four walls for almost 14 months – with no uninterrupted supply of internet, no online communication, no live streaming, no screen. Nothing but an imaginative mind and a turbulent soul.
It might help us to understand his relationship with mass sickness better to know that in his lifetime, he survived three plagues. Each time, he was quarantined in his own house. The last two of these periods of isolation brought to the world of literature the finest of his works.
Shakespeare was lucky as an infant to survive a huge outbreak in the summer of 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon! It was only three months after he was born. While growing up in those times, Shakespeare must have heard the stories from his parents and society in general about how humanity witnessed death at the very gut of its existence and knelt down in solemn prayer, while mourning those thousands of people who had been victims to plague.
Plague returned to Shakespeare’s life for a second time in 1592 when all theatres were closed down for nearly 6 months, including the one where Shakespeare worked as an actor. It was the time when the writer turned to poetry and penned down two of his most famous and long narrative poems The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. Had Shakespeare not been writing poetry and had he not sharpened his creative skills during that period, the young and emerging author would have starved to death. And if the theatres had been closed longer, forcing Shakespeare to turn to poetry for survival, we might have known only Shakespeare the Poet and not the Shakespeare the Playwright.
We have now come to the pinnacle of our journey into Shakespeare’s quarantined life, as we are about to witness what changed Shakespeare’s professional life and the whole of drama forever! The Black Death, killing thousands of people, made its way to the playwright’s home in London, in July 1606. The plague led to the closure of theatres at a time when the performances were on their successful peak, drawing flocks of audiences from all walks of life. The Black Death hit the theatres suddenly, leaving them wondering as to their fate.
King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth were churned out by the playwright while London was barricaded by the outbreak of the Black Death. Romeo and Juliet, that finest of romances and tragedies of all times was written in the backdrop of the same plague. The plague around the playwright enters into his dramas too. There is an outbreak in the city and the messenger carrying a letter to Romeo of Juliet’s fake death is struck by the plague and is enforced into quarantine. So, the news of Juliet faking her death doesn’t reach Romeo, and hence brings about the tragic death of both protagonists. Also, earlier in the same play, Mercutio utters a dialogue in the third Act, “A plague on both your houses!”. This cannot help but amuse the modern reader somewhat: after all, the playwright is right in the middle of one himself!
Fom 1603 onwards, one can find rapid and most frequent references to plagues and disease metaphors infecting Shakespeare’s plays and plots. Timon of Athens portrays a man throwing himself into self-exile, uttering the word plague time and again: “Plagues … Your potent and infectious fevers heap / On Athens!” … “be crowned with plagues” … “send them back the plague / Could I but catch it for them”. Brothels, bars and entertainment houses of London are forcefully shut down in Measure for Measure by the government – which was actually the London of Shakespearean times.
Then comes Macbeth, written during the 1606 spell of a pandemic. The play has a pithy and thorny speech that draws a chill down one’s spine: “The dead man’s knell / Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps / Dying or ere they sicken.” There may not be any better portrayal of the horrors, terrors and malaise that the plague carried with it. The terror of the plague is even very discernible from earlier plays: Kent, Lear’s right hand man howls at Oswald, the servant: “A plague upon your epileptic visage!” Also, Lear refers to the “plagues that hang in this pendulous air”, referring to the widespread theory that the sickness of plague was airborne. Lear also calls Goneril “a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my / Corrupted blood”
After surviving the plague, the bard gifted his audience a beautifully strange yet restorative tragicomedy Cymbeline. Theatre companies from Australia to Kazakhstan and the founder of International Anthropocene Project, Randall Martin at the University of Brunswick, envisage the play as a doorway into a restored, livable and healed world from a ghastly experience. The play is plague-free, yet is infectious and evil-eyed. There is magic, there is poison, there is threat of death even by looking into each other’s eyes. Yet at the end of the play the characters are joined together in love by entangling their roots deeply into the world of NATURE. The characters come to terms with the reality that eventually with the natural course of time everyone will die. With this realization and a world devoid of poison, slander and the evil eye, the characters are free to embrace back their world that had been shut down on them.
Every individual reader will draw their own lessons from this journey into Shakespeare’s world of plague and pandemics. But what remains the heart of this collective human experience is that we are in the process of purging our fears and planning how to start the journey back toward a healthy world – which, after all, will be a world new to all of us for sure.
And who knows? Somewhere in this quarantined and isolated world of COVID-19, a Shakespeare might be in the making. Perhaps an even greater dramatic reflection on the human race is being imagined and penned down even as you read this. Who knows what art awaits us when we emerge from this shared human trauma?