�HA�E�PEARE IN L�C���WN� The�ardHad H�� Pa�de���� T��
WRITTEN BY J�M �E��ERMAN
�hakespeare did everything in style . Even sheltering in place .
When London was in one of its periodic plague lockdowns , in 1�0� , he didn ’ t spend his time binge-watching Schitt ’ s Creek . �ewrote King Lear , Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth .
“ What ’ sinteresting , for ahigh school classroom , isfor kids to think , �Well , wait asecond . I ’ m living inaplague . �ow did Shakespeare deal with this ?’” says Joe Di Prisco , founding chair of The Simpson Literary Project , affiliated with the �niversity of California , Berkeley .
�e , like many professors of Shakespeare over the past 1� months , has discovered that our COVID nightmare may beateachable moment .
Not only did Shakespeare live in a time of periodic disease flare-ups that closed all theaters and public amusements and kept people confined to their homes �sound familiar ? �but the plague figured very much inhis writing . It was part of his world view , and that of his audience .
Shakespeare & The Plague , a�5-minute mashup ofShakespeare ’ s plague references from Romeo and Juliet , Julius Caesar , King Lear , Macbeth , Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night , or What You Will , may be useful to teachers planning their curriculum , and students stuck for aterm paper . But Di Prisco , who co-conceived the project , also thinks it may be fun for the average viewer . At any rate , it ’ s one more thing to stream .
“ We want to break it out there , for sure ,” Di Prisco says . “ This isfor anybody interested inShakespeare , and to understand him in an historic context . The plague metaphor , for him , wasn ’ t just ametaphor . Itwas uppermost in people ’ s minds when these plays were first performed .”
“ The plague ” �asacurse , an image , afigure of speech �comes upasoften and as casually inhis plays as the F-bomb in Deadwood .
“ A plague on both your houses� ” says Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet .
“ The red plague rid you ,” says Caliban in The Tempest .
“ Thou art aboil ,” �ing Lear says tohis rotten daughter Goneril . “ A plague-sore , or embossed carbuncle .”
Those weren ’ t just colorful turns of speech .
Shakespeare ’ s audience would have been chillingly familiar with what a plaguesore or embossed carbuncle looked like . Probably , they ’ d seen their own relatives with them , hours before their deaths . To hear �ing Lear curse his own daughter in this way would have sent a shiver down their spines .
“ Shakespeare is speaking to that fear and vulnerability , continually ,” Di Prisco says .
More curiously , in Twelfth Night , Olivia compares love to adisease . “ �ow now ? Even so quickly may one catch the plague ?” she says . There it is . Even in acomedy . “ �e lived his entire life in the shadow of the plague ,” Di Prisco says . “ When he was a baby , someone down the road from him died ofthe plague . �ewas lucky helived .”
Only once in Shakespeare does the plague figure directly in the action , but it ’ s in one ofhis most famous plays : Romeo and Juliet . And though people may not remember this detail �it was omitted from the well-known 1��8 Romeo and Juliet film � the plague is actually a pivotal plot point . It ’ s the hinge on which the whole tragedy turns .
�omeo , you ’ ll remember , has been banished . Juliet is about to be forced into marriage to someone she doesn ’ t love . What to do ? Juliet conspires with the clever Friar Laurence : she will drink a sleeping potion , and pretend to be dead . �omeo , meanwhile , will get a letter explaining the scheme , and will rescue her from the tomb . Simple .
It doesn ’ t go that way . And the reason it doesn ’ t go that way is because of the plague .
The messenger sent to�omeo inMantua �another friar �isdelayed . Locals , ina town through which he passes , suspect him and a fellow monk of having contracted the plague . And in those days , they didn ’ t fool around .
The messenger , shut up in the house , never delivers the explanatory note . Meanwhile , �omeo hears from another source that his beloved Juliet is dead . �omeo kills himself . Juliet , waking up and discovering �omeo dead , kills herself . The end .
“ The plague delays the messenger from delivering the letter ,” Di Prisco says . “ Because the letter doesn ’ t get delivered , everybody dies .”
As someone once pointed out , half the plots inliterature would beruined ifthere had been iPhones .
This , at any rate , is just some of the stuff Shakespeare & The Plague unpacks , with the aid of actors Emon Elboudwarej , Megan Trout and Philippa �elly ( also adramaturge , and co-conceiver of the project ), performing their monologues at the open-air California Shakespeare Theater in the Bay Area . These “ Pandemic Popup Players ” are joined � virtually �byfamed Shakespeare scholar Stephen Jay Greenblatt , author of the bestseller Will in the World .
“ We thought it would be fascinating for teachers and students to think through ,” Di Prisco says .“ �ow did Shakespeare interpret the plague , and how does it relate to the human condition in his plays ? We thought it would be a fascinating exercise to make Shakespeare more real in this moment , when kids are isolated .” ❖