Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

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