My wife and I are collaborating on a journal article about how higher education is dealing with the crisis of COVID-19. Though you can look back to earlier times, such as the 1918 flu pandemic, the way colleges, the government, and the medical community operate now is very different. There are contemporary examples of localized events (Hurricane Katrina; Superstorm Sandy) that impacted education, but not in the same way or for as long a period as the current pandemic.
In 1665, because of a plague outbreak, Cambridge University closed. Like many people in 2020, Issac Newton worked from home. During that time, he discovered calculus and the laws of motion.
In July of 1664, John Shakespeare and his wife Mary had already lost their first and second children (Joan and Margaret) to the bubonic plague. It is likely that they sheltered at home that summer hoping to protect their 3-month-old son, William.
When I was teaching Shakespeare’s play and about his life, I would always talk about the bubonic plague that played a role in his entire life. The plague came and went in waves and killed at least a third of the European population across centuries.
A powerful plague outbreak struck London in 1593 and the theaters closed for 14 months and 10,000 Londoners died. That was about a year before Shakespeare would present Romeo and Juliet.
When I taught that play, I gave some plague background because there is a scene where Friar John is sent to deliver an important message to Romeo about Juliet’s faked death. But the Friar is suspected of having been exposed to the plague (though he is “asymptomatic” in our current vocabulary) and quarantined. He can’t deliver the message to Romeo, and that sets the tragic ending into motion.
Going to find a barefoot 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,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth,
So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed.
In 1596, Shakespeare’s son Hamnet contracted the plague and died at the age of eleven. But Shakespeare and other playwrights of the time did not make the plague the plot of their writing. It was probably just not considered to be in good taste. But any of his allusions to it would resonate with his audiences. When Mercutio curses the families of Romeo and Juliet with “A plague on both your houses,” it would have hit the audience hard.
When theaters were closed, some acting companies took to the road and did performances out in the country where the plague had not taken hold. In 2020, some people in my NY/NJ metro area of the country tried to escape COVID-19 by going to the off-season Jersey shore or to the woods north from Vermont to Maine. Unlike Newton and some of my contemporaries, it seems that William Shakespeare did not escape London. He appears to have stayed in the city and wrote and prepared for when the theaters would reopen.
We guess about a lot of Shakespeare’s life because the records are scant. In 1601, there is some evidence to suggest that he and his actors did go on the road – though he may have gone home to Stratford. His father was 70 years old, and may have been ill or weak. John Shakespeare would die that even if he was not ill, it is plausible that there were indications that his father was not well.
It seems most likely that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the fall of 1601. He had written earlier versions of the Hamlet story before and there are records of it being performed in the years prior. But the death of his son Hamnet and then of his father seem to have solidified the story for him. I think their ghosts inhabit the play with the ghost father of Prince Hamlet actually appearing to his son and others in the play. A story passed down over the years is that Shakespeare played the ghost in performances.
More plague outbreaks hit London and shut down Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. A 1603 outbreak killed over a fifth of Londoners and the plague returned again in 1610. During and after these outbreaks, he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.
I have seen some poems written in response to the 2020 pandemic but I think it won’t be until 2021 till we see novels or plays that address it in some way. Perhaps, like Shakespeare, COVID will be just something referenced rather than the main plot. I do know that Garrison Keillor has a new comic novel, The Lake Wobegone Virus, about his fictional hometown. It’s not COVID-19 but a virus transmitted via a local unpasteurized cheese. It’s not killing people but causing “episodic loss of social inhibition, political rants, inappropriate confessions, and rhapsodic proclamations,” Too soon to be making light of the virus – or just what is needed?