William Shakespeare wrote “the plays the thing” in his famous play “Hamlet.” Actually, Hamlet says “the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare had Hamlet planning to catch the king red-faced when confronted with his evil deeds presented in the play. In other words, he hoped to expose the king’s guilty conscience.
It’s my first week back from a little R&R, so I thought I’d try to convey a more optimistic tone.
SPOILER ALERT: This week’s blog has nothing to do with radio, television etc. but everything to do with life in troubled times.
Alright, maybe this doesn’t sound like I’ve struck the right cord, but please bear with me.
From late 1592 until early 1594, people living in London were dealing with the bubonic plague, a scourge that had been around for thousands of years . The plague during these two years would kill more than 10,000 Londoners.
London was home to William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. So, when the plague was ravishing London, much like COVID-19 is ravishing the United States, everything closed down.
All of the theaters of London actually closed down for a full year to prevent the spread of the black death. This occurred in the midst of Shakespeare’s career and life.
Good Times Don’t Last, but Neither Do the Bad Times
When the plague subsided, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre re-opened, people starved for entertainment lined up for his productions. Gate receipts were huge and inspired the Bard of Avon to write “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In fact, Shakespeare used his plague experience as source material in “Romeo and Juliet.” You might remember the scene where Friar John is sent to deliver a message to Romeo about Juliet’s fake death, but due to being suspected of living in a plague infected house, Friar John is quarantined and never completes his delivery.
When the plague’s second wave during Shakespeare’s lifetime came in 1603, he continued to write his plays, completing “King Lear” and “Macbeth” as 30,000 more Londoners would perish. They would become some of his best loved productions.
Living with a Pandemic
William Shakespeare lived his whole life in the shadow of the bubonic plague and along with another influential Elizabethan playwright, Thomas Nashe, shared the view that there might never be a medical solution to the plague. Steven Greenblatt, professor of Humanities at Harvard writes that both men would focus their words on what they felt was an even greater plague, that of “being governed by a mendacious, morally bankrupt, incompetent, blood-soaked and ultimately self-destructive leader.” Writing in The New Yorker Greenblatt states:
“But the strange thing about these lines from “Macbeth” is that they are not intended as a description of a country in the grip of a vicious plague. Instead, they describe a country in the grip of a vicious ruler. The character who speaks them, Ross, has been asked how Scotland fares under Macbeth, who is nominally the country’s legitimate king. But everyone suspects what is the case, that he has come by his exalted position through underhand means: “I fear / Thou play’dst most foully for’t.”
The results have borne out the worst suspicions. In office, Macbeth has ruthlessly pursued his enemies and betrayed his friends. Egged on by his “fiend-like” wife, he will do anything to make himself feel perfectly secure—“Whole as the marble, founded as the rock.” But, though he always finds people willing to carry out his criminal orders, he only ever feels more anxious: “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears.” And, under increasing pressure, calculation gives way to raw impulse, the reckless confidence that his instincts are always right: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand.”
So, it would seem, we are living in times not so different than those of Shakespeare and we should strive to produce our own best work in these most troubled of times.