By Joseph Prestwich
Mercutio’s words from Romeo and Juliet, cried out repeatedly on his deathbed after a misjudged swordfight with Tybalt, are a subtle invocation of Shakespeare’s relationship to epidemics and disease. As we bolt up our doors and weather the storm of Covid-19, perhaps now is a good time to remind ourselves how Shakespeare himself was affected by pestilence, and how, despite the devastating effect the coronavirus is having on families across the world, great times of crisis also provide inspiration for great, lasting forms of art.
The Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665 are probably the two main epidemics students of GCSE History will well recognise. But there were, of course, at least 40 more outbreaks that affected London in that time period. Shakespeare himself was born in April 1564, just as a plague that wiped out a quarter of the population of Stratford-Upon-Avon was dwindling away. This early confrontation with disease has invited scholars such as Jonathan Bate to view plague as “the single most powerful force shaping [Shakespeare’s] life and those of his contemporaries”.
In 1606, another plague swept through London, causing many playhouses to close and forcing The King’s Men “to get creative about performances” (Cohen 2020). They toured to as many plague-free rural towns as possible, and Shakespeare used this opportunity to write “three really extraordinary tragedies”: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra (Shapiro 2015).
The word “plague” comes up in my favourite of these three plays, King Lear, at some interesting moments. Consider Edmund asking his goddess Nature why he must “stand in the plague of custom” and allow his “legitimate” brother to have all his family’s wealth. Here, Edmund see following the status quo as a threat, and so employs some dastardly deeds to alter it. Consider how vile an insult this would have seemed: “thou art a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood”. That’s Lear to his daughter Goneril. Consider Gloucester’s chilling lines to the old man guiding him: “’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”
Returning to these lines in full knowledge of their context does little to alter their meaning, but certainly increases their effect. It attunes us to what’s important in this Lear: family, loyalty, compassion, love. Key themes that resonate now as they would have done then. But for me, and most of all, reading of Shakespeare’s ability to work despite the plague gives me hope. Theatres might close, but theatre-making can never stop. Of course, there are those right now who are not in a position to settle down and write plays. Financial and job insecurity, the possible economic burden of care, the threat of ill health: these are real issues faced by a lot of people. But for those who can stay at home in some comfort, now is the time to be creative. Re-engage with those projects set aside last year. Re-convene that writers’ circle online. Re-edit that script one more time. If Shakespeare could manage it, so can we.
Bate, Jonathan. Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. Random House, 2010.
Cohen, Ben. “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign.” Slate, March 10th 2020, https://slate.com/culture/2020/03/shakespeare-plague-influence-hot-hand-ben-cohen.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Museum of London. “London Plagues: 1348 – 1665.” MuseumofLondon.org.uk, 2011, https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/5014/5434/6066/london-plagues-1348-1665.pdf. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Online version created by Jeremy Hylton, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/lear/full.html. Accessed on 20th March 2020.
Shapiro, James. 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear. Faber & Faber, 2015.
By James Alston
ShakeItUp was born out of a love of Shakespeare’s work, and all of our company members are committed Bard-fans! Today, our James Alston takes us through the three Shakespeare plays that mean the most to him.
To narrow down my favourite Shakespeare plays to just one I think would be an impossible task, so for this blog I had decided to cheat a little and narrow it down to just three.
“Blood will have blood…”
Like most people who went to school in Britain, my first experience of Shakespeare was in the classroom, and although I enjoyed these lessons, I wouldn’t say I was hooked instantly. That was until my first experience of seeing Shakespeare performed. I must have been about thirteen at the time and my Mum (I imagine sensing my timid curiosity for Shakespeare) took me to see a production of Macbeth. I remember it was in a tiny black-box studio in the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, and it was produced by a company involved in outreach work in the local area, with a cast made up of professional actors and members of the local community. It completely gripped me from the start. It was fast paced, it was brutal, it was…thrilling! One of the most exciting things about it was that they had worked with local MCs who would – at certain key points of the play – break into rap, reflecting on Macbeth’s spiral into tragedy. It was an unexpectedly effective means of telling the story and it introduced me to the idea that Shakespeare doesn’t have to be a museum piece: it can, and should, be relevant to now and it should evolve and change. That performance has had more of an enduring impact on me than many shows since; it showed me how exciting Shakespeare can be, and it was the beginning of my fascination.
2. The Tempest:
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Quite possibly the last play that Shakespeare wrote by himself, The Tempest is a beguiling enigma. Technically one of his “Comedies”, it’s a play that constantly tries to elude strict classification and indeed seems to occupy a genre all of its own. Several interlinking stories are played out on Prospero’s Island: there’s Ferdinand and Miranda’s love tale, Prospero’s story of revenge and eventual forgiveness, the plotting of Dukes Antonio and Sebastian, and of course the comedy plotline of the bestial Caliban and his worship of the drunken Stephano and Trinculo. It has moments of exquisite beauty (“Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises”) and moments of extreme brutality and violence. It has sparked centuries of debate as to its wider themes such as the echoes of colonialism in Prospero and Caliban’s relationship. Whenever you think you’ve nailed down The Tempest, it twists itself into something completely different.
Also, Prospero’s final speech is magnificently poignant. I think it will forever be one of my favourites.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Ok, so this one may actually be my favourite. A mainstay of summer outdoor Shakespeare performances for a very good reason, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about as enchanting as a play can get. The play follows several groups of characters as they each spend a – to put it mildly – rather confusing night in the woods. Joyfully entertaining scenes abound as the audience are drawn into an intoxicating fairy world where all the typical conventions are assurances are turned on their heads. Shakespeare gives us one of his best loved comic fools in the hapless actor Bottom and the fight between the four lovers is so brilliantly crafted it is almost guaranteed to raise the roof in any production. The play’s darker edges, especially in relation to gender politics and sexual violence, are often unfortunately overlooked, but when they are paid attention to they add further layers of richness to this strange and silly tale. It is a play that fills me with the joys of a summer’s day each time I read or watch it.
And that’s it! A very brief tour through three of my favourite Shakespeare plays. We come back to the Bard’s work as a reference point in our ShakeItUp rehearsals. Our shows are not just about sticking some thee’s and thy’s into our dialogue, we try to incorporate the structures, themes and characters that he used into our own improvised plays. In some ways, they are a parody of his work, but it’s not as simple as that. It all comes back to my experience with Macbeth in that studio in Cheltenham, it’s about reinvention, a new way of engaging with that work. Shakespeare never stays still, it is constantly in motion.
With contributions from members of the ShakeItUp company, this monthly blog will cover behind the scenes peaks into the rehearsal room, news about our latest projects, and insights into what goes into creating our Bard-based Bedlam!