What Shakespeare can -- and can't -- teach us about Covid-19

Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)The wisdom of Twitter tells us that now is a time for writing masterpieces. Confined to our barracks of self-isolation, as if newfound responsibilities to home-schooling, elder care, and 24-hour self-sanitizing weren't enough, last week a widely shared tweet lectured us: "when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear."

Kate Maltby
Is it true? Like most viral Tweets, yes and no. As Professor James Shapiro told us in his recent bestseller 1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear, no one can quite be sure when "King Lear" was written, though it may have been penned in the plague-affected summer of 1606, because its first attested performance occurred the following Christmas.
    But Shakespeare's writing had been profoundly impacted by plague over 10 years earlier. The most serious outbreak of plague to occur in 30 years hit London between 1592 and 1594, during the entirety of which outbreak, as today, London's theaters were closed.
      During this period, the young Shakespeare did write significant works: the narrative poems "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," and probably "Romeo and Juliet." All three are riddled with the imagery associated with early modern plague. The very plot of "Romeo and Juliet" turns on an outbreak of this plague: returning from his failed mission to tell Romeo of Juliet's survival, Friar John laments that:
        Going to find a bare-foot brother out
        One of our order, to associate me,
          Here in this city visiting the sick
          And finding him, 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,
          So that my speed to Mantua there was stay'd.
          As many readers will know, Friar John can't deliver a letter to exiled Romeo in Mantua; Romeo believes Juliet dead and kills himself, and Juliet follows his example when she finds out.

          The literature of pandemic

          Romeo and Juliet's story hangs on many such twists of chance and accident. Romeo doesn't just kill himself because of a missed letter; he falls for Juliet because he happens to go to the wrong party. ('Take thou some new infection to the eye', says Romeo's friend Benvolio in Act 1, encouraging him to go out on the town and find a girl to replace his previous crush, Rosalind.) He kills Juliet's cousin -- sparking the next fatal cycle of events -- because of a few ill-chosen words between young men who've run into each other on a street.
          This is typical of literature written in times of infectious epidemic: AIDS literature, too, dwells heavily on the role of luck in infection and survival, and on the nature of survivor's guilt. Covid-19 literature will likely be the same. Covid-19 may be obviously fatal to the weak or elderly, but a fit young person's risk of death can still hinge on an unlikely chance encounter, or a randomly severe incidence. Now, in the developed world of 2020, going to the wrong party can again potentially kill people.
          If we take Shakespeare as a model, what might we expect to see of the literature created in the lockdown of 2020? A renewed interest in coincidence and luck.
          But before we think more about Shakespeare's literary lessons about plague, we should ask whether it is meaningful at all to compare coronavirus quarantine to the early modern experience of 'plague'. It's true that we are now experiencing something of what historic quarantines have been like: pre-modern plagues, like coronavirus, emptied our cities and left people bricked into their houses with bickering families, unable even to gather for funerals. Watching satellite images of mass graves being dug in Iran, I was reminded painfully of sixteenth century plague pits.

          Fighting plague on the page -- and what's different about this disease

          What's different about this infectious disease from a literary perspective is that it hits us at a time when Western society, Europe in particular, is heavily secularized. Shakespeare's contemporaries had a range of differing supernatural explanations for the epidemics that hit Europe between 1347-1660 and -- crucially why some fit and healthy people survived while others didn't.
          Astrology was one potential explanation. A 1575 bestseller called "Volumen Paramirum," by the alchemist Paracelsus, asserted that the stars were one of five key elements which determined a man's health. The idea became essential to early modern medicine and in Shakespeare's own Sonnet 14, he compares himself to plague-predicting astrologers:
          Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck:
          and yet me thinks I have astronomy,
          But not to tell of good or evil luck,
          Of plagues, of dearths, or season's quality.
          Even at this point in history, it didn't escape notice that people could pick up the plague by contact with another, and some medical writers had theories of infectious contagion that don't look far wrong by today's standards. (It is an almost universal feature of plague literature that writers are struck by how a city's crowds, once a place of political excitement and liberating anonymity, become sites of extreme danger, banned and shunned.) Followers of the physician Galen wrote about "miasma" and "corrupt air" which supposedly spread droplets of plague, not unlike the aerosols that we are now told spread Covid-19.