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I know we are all fed up with hearing about Covid19. After all, we are living with it, so we know how it is affecting our lives and the lives of our loved ones, so thinking about something different would be a good thing...except. Because we are going to have to live with it for a long time to come, maybe now is the time to get a few things into perspective, literary wise.
Did you know, for example, how much of William Shakespeare's writing is peppered with references to the bubonic plague, which was the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries equivalent of what we are living with today. A disease which started with animals (rats and fleas in this case) and which had no known cure. Nor, in those far distant times, any hope of finding one.
Think of Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio, mortally wounded in the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, called out 'a plague on both your houses.' Or when King Lear tells his daughter Goneril, 'Thou art a boil. A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle.' Then, less malevolently, Olivia, in Twelfth Night, marvelling at the speed with which she has fallen in love, says, 'How now? Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
There are many more such instances but the one that stands out the most is, again, in Romeo and Juliet, when the friar who was asked to deliver a crucial message to Romeo about the drug that will make it look as if Juliet has died when, in fact, she will only be sleeping, fails to carry out his task. In those far off days, friars had to travel in pairs. Unfortunately the friar's travelling companion was visiting the sick when he went to look for him. This meant that the public-health officers (the searchers of the town), suspecting them both of having been exposed to the plague, put them in quarantine by nailing the doors of the house shut! By the time the quarantine ended it was too late...'I could not send it - here it is again - Nor get a messenger to bring it to thee, so fearful were they of infection.'
It wasn't the plague that did for Romeo and Juliet but the dreadful social disruption it brought, which led to Romeo thinking she was dead, and so committing suicide, only to be copied by Juliet when she heard of his death.
In the year Shakespeare was born the plague killed a fifth of the townspeople of Stratford on Avon while sparing the Shakespeare family, and the fear of plague was something he had to live with throughout his life as it waxed and waned, disappearing for a while and then reappearing without any warning. History tells of the innumerable preventive measures that were used, most of which were useless (Fake News at its best!)
- Although bubonic plague was caused by the fleas on rats, dogs and cats were killed. Possibly the fleas transferred to them although this is not clear.
- Dried rosemary, frankincense, or bay leaves were burned in a dish as it was believed that the smoke would clear infection from the air.
- If there were no herbs available the doctors' favoured replacement was to burn old shoes!
- In the streets people pressed oranges stuffed with cloves against their noses, which was the closest they got to a medieval mask.
Even in the sixteenth century it was recognised that the rate of infection was far higher in densely populated cities, so the wealthy people with country retreats would escape to their second homes, much as many people are doing today. In addition, civic officials took measures to introduce social distancing when they realised that crowds heightened contagion. They also collected data from parish registers so they could track weekly plague-related deaths. When those deaths surpassed 30 they banned assemblies, feasts, sports and any other form of mass gatherings.
As it was considered impossible to become infected during the act of worship, churches were kept open, although anyone suspected of being ill was banned from entering. What was closed, time and time again, however, were theatres, which was economically devastating to Shakespeare, who was not only an actor and a playwright but also a shareholder. It is thought that during the severe outbreaks of bubonic plague that infected the country between 1606 and 1610, Shakespeare, frequently in lockdown, wrote and produced some of his greatest plays. During this time the London playhouses were unlikely to have been open for more than a total of nine months, but somehow he made what must have been a fearful and difficult time work for him.
The only time Shakespeare wrote directly about the plague was in Macbeth. Mostly he merely referenced it in his writing as an accepted part of everyday life, something to be lived with, feared, but hopefully kept at bay by social distancing, quarantine, and the equivalent of using a mask.
The challenge to us twenty-first century writers is to copy him by putting our own quarantined, socially distanced selves to work, even though we can't hope to emulate his success. And while we are doing that, stay safe.