It’s been a rum old time for Shakespeare-lovers. Cancel culture has, predictably, started to train its sights on the canon, wilfully ignorant of its being neither pro nor anti but pre today’s vague and voguish –isms. And no sooner had Bard-starved theatre-goers begun to enjoy live performances again after lockdown, last Sunday’s matinee performance of The Tempest at the Globe was called off after one of the actors was ‘pinged’.
Initially teased by playwright peers for not attending university, Shakespeare’s views on academic priggery can well be imagined. What, though, would he have made of our response to Covid?
Plague is our obvious starting point. The depredations of the ‘pestilence’ were all too familiar to Shakespeare. It was common practice for theatres to be closed in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. Between 1606 and 1610, during the writing and production of Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest, London’s playhouses stayed open for nine months only. This was financially damaging for a man who was his acting company’s major shareholder.
The body count from the plague was shattering. In Shakespeare’s birth-year of 1564, one in five of the residents of Stratford-upon-Avon perished. In 1603, another outbreak killed the same ratio of Londoners. One shudders to think of the draconian havoc Sage zealots could wreak with these figures. No need for any testing in Shakespeare’s day, clearly. People were dying in the street, which is surely what should happen in a pandemic.
And yet, perhaps because its physical horror was so manifest, the plague is hardly mentioned directly in Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, it lies just under the surface, finding exclamatory expression in such phrases as ‘A plague upon him!’, ‘Plague upon’t!’ and ‘Boils and plagues plaster you o’er’. Perhaps we will begin to accept our pandemic as the real thing if and when it is used in like manner. For now, ‘Covid upon you!’ or modern iterations thereof remain revealingly rare, even in the Twittersphere roughhouse.
In Shakespeare, plague is accepted as an unavoidable fact of life, not something which can be ‘defeated’. In certain situations it can even be a blessing, hastening inevitable death, illustrated by the eponymous Timon of Athens.
Lips, let sour words go by and language end:
What is amiss plague and infection mend!
Graves only be men’s works and death their gain!
Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign.
Hand in hand with this phlegmatic attitude towards plague and mortality goes Shakespeare’s keen understanding of the limitations of medical intervention. His physicians, doubtless with the mutatis mutandis approval of Dr Vernon Coleman, are more laissez-faire than meddling, exemplified in The Taming of the Shrew.
Your honour’s players, hearing your amendment,
Are come to play a pleasant comedy;
For so your doctors hold it very meet,
Seeing too much sadness hath congeal’d your blood,
And melancholy is the nurse of frenzy.
Therefore they thought it good you hear a play
And frame your mind to mirth and merriment,
Which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.
In his copious use of ‘face’ (543 times), Shakespeare reproaches mask-obsession from the grave. Neil Oliver has recently commented on how the face is an intrinsic part of everyday language. This is in no small part thanks to Shakespeare, who gives us such coinages as ‘outface’, ‘upon the face of the earth’, ‘bold-faced’ and ‘defaced’. He consistently conveys the importance of the face, its indispensability as a window into thoughts and intentions. ‘God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another’, says Hamlet, registering disquiet at Ophelia’s paintings; an apt admonishment for our muzzled fellow citizens.
Finally, it is hard to conceive of a more striking articulation of MSM Covid propaganda than that provided by ‘Rumour’, a character in Henry IV, Part 2.
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
The final two lines of the speech seem to say it all.
I speak of peace, while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world.
Co-opting the Bard to modern-day causes is always tricky; his views on politics and religion are notoriously – intriguingly – slippery. However, we can reasonably conclude that Shakespeare, despite believing all the world was a stage, would have recoiled at our theatrical reaction to a seasonal flu, considering it much ado about nothing. And to Parliament, which has passed such liberty-depriving Covid legislation, his response would surely have been emphatic: ‘A plague on both your houses’.