As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.
Dr Matthew Arnold wrote about the Bard of Avon (William Shakespeare) that the relevance of Shakespeare would never diminish. Rather, it’d increase with the passage of time and become increasingly meaningful in changing times, circumstances and events, not yet envisaged by humans. So very true. The Victorian poet and critic was spot-on about the ever-relevance of the greatest poet of not just the Elizabethan era but of all times.
Did mankind ever envisage that something like Covid-19 would bring the juggernaut of human civilisation to a screeching, nay grinding, halt in the technologically advanced 21st century? Mind you, here, I’m not projecting Shakespeare as a soothsayer. That would be an insult to his poetic genius. What I mean is his prophetic vision of that time when the bubonic plague (the Black Widow) wreaked havoc with the lives of people, just like corona is causing mayhem at the moment across the globe.
17th century lockdown
The plague surfaced first in London in 1592, with doctors having little or no inkling of its cause and transmission, to return in a lethal form in 1603 when it wiped out almost 30,000 city dwellers. It must be noted that in the years (1603-1613) when the plague raged, Shakespeare wrote furiously but the majority of London playhouses remained closed, just as theatres and multiplexes are temporarily closed today due to the pandemic.
Derogatorily or delightfully, Shakespeare is called, ‘the son of Plague’! Because 1564, the year he was born, Plague had done a death’s dance macabre near Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire, England. The burial register of the Holy Trinity Parish church had the ghoulish words: hic incepit pestis (‘here begins the Plague’). Shakespeare’s parents were quarantined when he was born. So, it could be said that he was never out of the tentacles of the pestilence (pandemic in today’s context). In other words, it cast a diluted penumbra on his oeuvre comprising 37 plays, 154 magnificent sonnets and five long narrative poems. Whether ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘Coriolanus, ‘Venus and Adonis’ or ‘King Lear’, one feels as if the prophetic poet is speaking to us sighing like a furnace (his apt phrasal analogy) that history repeats itself! It sure does.
It wasn’t just the Plague he wrote about in his plays; it was also about the political stirrings as ineluctable consequences that he descanted upon during that era. Nothing has changed even after 400 years. The ongoing pandemic has ravaged lives and exposed the Janus-faced opportunistic politicians who’re no less than Shylocks when it comes to demanding their ‘pound of flesh’ (The Merchant of Venice).
Poet and prophet
Poetry is prophecy and every great poet is a prophet. That’s why, there’s an aphorism in Persian: Sukhanvari payambari ast (poetry is prophethood). A great poet not just traverses across the existing spectrum of his imaginary flight mounted on the Pegasus of sublime creativity, he goes beyond that and provides visions of the times to come. The Bard of Avon did that through his timeless plays. He didn’t write periodic plays. He transcended them.
William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the modern psychological critic I A Richards believed that Shakespeare was the greatest of the greats because he was writing for all ages; past, present and future, with insights unparalleled in the gamut of human emotions, moods and experiences. When he chuckles, ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’, you cannot but laugh and nod your head in agreement, especially when our champion politicians (particularly in these hard times) take a solemn vow to validate his (Shakespeare’s) perspicuous observation to a T.
At the same time, it must be mentioned that he remained undaunted in the face of constant death in the form of Plague and penned his finest creations living cheek-by-jowl with the perfidious death. This can be a lesson and a morale booster to all of us feeling defeated, despondent and dejected by corona. Shakespeare’s creative defiance of a niggling pestilence a few centuries ago is proof that though adversities are great, man is greater than adversities. The indomitable Shakespearean spirit is worth emulating in these testing and trying times of corona.
Apropos, one more world-renowned Englishman thrived in quarantine. He was Sir Isaac Newton. Intellectual poet John Dryden was also writing frantically during frequent lockdowns. In fact, psychologists dealing with the impending threats to life and their effects on humans have found that when death hovers over the heads of ordinary people, it benumbs them with fear but creative greats thrive in the company of lurking death! In a way, death acts as a cerebral catalyst in their case.
I’d like to round it off with a telling para from Kristin M S Bezio’s ‘Shakespeare and Pandemic’: “In the days ahead, we will find ourselves having to figure out—as Shakespeare and his contemporaries must have—how to live with COVID-19, not just how to avoid it”. While we are fortunate that our ‘plague’ does not have the virulence or mortality of the Black Death and our medical system has a much better understanding of how to treat illness, we do need to remember the lessons that Shakespeare encoded in his plays about working together, holding one another accountable, and not giving in to partisanship, ambition, or foolishness.
We find these lessons alongside references to plague in King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, and many more… several of which contain speeches that take the requisite 20 seconds to recite for those who need hand-washing timers, including Juliet’s “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” as well as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent,” and my personal favourite, Lady Macbeth’s “Out, out damned spot.”
The writer is a regular contributor to world’s premier publications and portals in several languages.