Lockdowns, stalking dread - we’re living Shakespeare’s times of plague
Our world shaped by Covid-19 sounds a lot like 1590s England – the Bard’s world of mass sickness
It must rank as one of the most famous, stirring and patriotic speeches in Shakespeare. Early in Richard II, the dying John of Gaunt delivers a breathless paean to (and elegy for) England, bemoaning the feckless king’s rule of “this sceptred isle ... This fortress built by Nature for herself/ Against infection and the hand of war”. For more than 400 years, Gaunt’s words have acted as a talisman for British national pride, offering an image of noble, sanctified isolation – the sea serving as a moat against invading armies and, crucially, a cordon sanitaire.
Yet Shakespeare would have known only too well that this supposed inviolability wasn’t watertight. “This blessed plot”, England, was much afflicted by “infection” during his lifetime. It was understood that pestilence often spread from the Continent (resulting in orders to curtail trade), although the means of transmission – fleas carrying the bacterium yersinia pestis, jumping from rat to human – wasn’t identified until the 19th century.
Shakespeare’s creative life was affected: plague caused interruptions to the staging of plays, and some scholars argue thereby the writing of them, diminishing the number he might have produced. But it seems to have acted also as a spur to his imagination, especially in the final full decade of his career. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we stand, at a stroke, much closer to his world of life-changing, death-threatening mass sickness. With the closure of theatres, and cities moving into lockdown, we’re suddenly near-neighbours with the Bard, his contemporaries in impotent dread...