This week included April the 23rd, a date that is known by some as St. George’s Day, and by others as the birthday of William Shakespeare. As a graduate of St. George’s School and a 50-year member of the Shakspere (sic) Society of Philadelphia, both references are meaningful to me, so I suppose it’s not a surprise that I found myself thinking about both of them this week in the current context of the novel coronavirus that has upended life here and around the globe.
William Shakespeare was well-acquainted with the plague in the 16th and 17th centuries, which brought about an early form of social distancing that required temporary closure of all theaters in London. Perhaps because of the unexpected free time associated with the quarantines of the plague, he wrote several of his greatest masterpieces during those times: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and King Lear, among others.
Columbia University professor James Shapiro tells us that in April, 1567, a young couple in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, lost two of their children to the plague, and then barricaded themselves inside to protect their 3-month-old son — William Shakespeare. The legendary playwright’s life was thus saved from and shaped by the plague.
In 1593, A year or so before Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet,” a powerful plague struck London and theatres closed for 14 months … In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare uses the plague briefly. The play features a scene where Friar John is sent to deliver the message to Romeo about Juliet’s fake death. But the Friar is suspected of being in an infected house and therefore quarantined — making him unable to deliver the message to Romeo.
A 1603 plague outbreak killed over a fifth of Shakespeare’s fellow Londoners and returned again in 1610, he says.
Professor Shapiro mused “it may well be that his move toward writing tragedy at this time is a kind of response to the tragedy that his society was experiencing in these years.”
In “King Lear,” the title character mentions the plague when cursing his eldest daughter… King Lear is changed throughout the course of the play, and by the end, the ruler acknowledges the suffering of his people and that he hasn’t done enough to take care of them, he says.
Professor Shapiro then steps right into our 21-century pandemic by saying “It may be too much to hope that our national leaders and international leaders right now may have a similar response, that they feel that they, too, have taken too little care of the social problems.” Hmm.
What strikes Shapiro most about Shakespeare and the plague is that the playwright never fled London. He stayed in the city because he understood his job as an artist was to help people come out of difficult periods when the theaters reopened.
Despite the uncertainty in the theater world right now, Shapiro is sure Shakespeare will still be on stage when the crisis ends — just as he stuck around for the people of London during his lifetime.
As for St. George, the legend is that he killed a dragon that had been terrorizing the local town and demanding daily sacrifices, initially in the form of sheep and later, perhaps because the sheep were all gone, young maidens. St. George kills the dragon on the day when the young maiden to be sacrificed was the princess, the daughter of the King.
Is COVID-19 the dragon of the twenty-first century, lurking just outside of town, and threatening all of us villagers? Or perhaps today’s dragon is not the virus itself, but an insatiable government, that threatens our civil liberties even as we blithely offer up daily sacrifices.
Whether we look to Shakespeare or St. George, the lesson we can all take from this week is that we must remain and fight, never cowering, and one day, maybe armed with a mythic sword like a vaccine, we may find that soft flesh under the dragon’s wing and slay this coronavirus dragon for good, hopefully before we have grown too accustomed to living off the government.