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ANOTHER VIEW: Lessons from Shakespeare

ANOTHER VIEW: Lessons from Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare is our go-to commentator. There is scarcely a situation before us today that cannot be explained, at least metaphorically, without something that Shakespeare first blotted on the page more than four centuries ago.

On the Comet NEOWISE that recently graced our night skies — along with President Trump’s current standing in the polls:

“When beggars die there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

On the Comet NEOWISE and Joe Biden’s basement campaign:

“By being seldom seen, I could not stir but like a comet I was wonder’d at.”

And, of course, the pandemic. Shakespeare had quite a bit to say about plagues and pestilence because disease was a commonplace occurrence in his day. In fact, it was so commonplace that Shakespeare’s references to plagues were almost casual. We all know the famous line “a plague on both your houses” from “Romeo and Juliet” whether we know the play or not. We all know the general story, too — forbidden love. But even those who have seen the play may easily forget how the whole plot line turns on a plague (spoilers ahead!). Why did Romeo not get Friar Lawrence’s message about a complicated and dangerous plan for Juliet to take a potion that would put her into a death-like coma so that she could avoid her marriage to the dreaded Paris? It wasn’t because cell service was down. It was because Friar Lawrence’s messenger got caught up in a quarantine.

“The searchers of the town, suspecting that we both were in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, Seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth,” the messenger explained.

People back then took lockdowns far more seriously than they do now. Those lockdowns were also so frequent that throwing one into “Romeo and Juliet” as a plot device did not seem artificial at all to the audience.

Theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III writes that in the five years between 1606 and 1610 — when Shakespeare was at the height of his fame — the theaters in London were only open about nine months. The entertainment industry today is struggling to survive the current lockdown that is now not quite half a year old. Now imagine five years with just nine months of action.

Here’s also where we point out that one professional theater will defy the pandemic and be back in action. The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton has resumed performing — outdoors, on a hotel lawn, where patrons can buy an 8-foot-by-8-foot square of grass, with no more than four people allowed in that space. Later there will be indoor performances as well, but to accommodate social distancing guidelines, the ASC has taken out some of its seats in its playhouse — and will only sell one-third as many tickets as usual. It’s also asking patrons to wear masks. The actors have agreed to essentially live within a “bubble” — similar to the ones that the NBA and NHL are instituting for their players as their teams gather in Orlando, Toronto and Edmonton to restart their seasons.

The ASC’s return hasn’t been without difficulty. The Washington Post reports that some of the troupe’s actors — who were members of Actors Equity — had to quit the union because it’s not sanctioning the performances at this time. Will this work out? Shakespeare had something to say about that, of course: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.”

The first show back was the comedy “Twelfth Night,” in which Olivia is amazed at how quickly she fell in love — “even so quickly may one catch the plague,” another of those off-hand plague lines that Shakespeare’s audience would have identified with then, and still will today.



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