The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
–– King Lear
When Queen Elizabeth I died in March, 1603, a plague was beginning to ravage London. By July a thousand were dying every week. A month later, the number was three thousand. By the end of the year, 15% of the city’s 200,000 inhabitants were dead. The epidemic would continue to ebb and flow in the city for the next few years.
The authorities did their best to enforce social distancing. Plays could only be performed when the death toll dropped below forty per week. Bear-baiting and other sports were banned. The infected were quarantined at home with guards sometimes posted at their doors. Caregivers who treated the sick had to carry red sticks in the streets so people could give them wide berth. Penalties for breaking quarantine were harsh: a whipping if you weren’t symptomatic, possible execution if you were. When people tried to wash away the red crosses marking the lintels of their infected houses, the Lord Mayor ordered the crosses to be painted with more indelible oil-based paints.
Dramatist and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker described the ordeal of being locked up in a house full of the dead and dying: “What an unmatchable torment were it for a man to be barred up every night in a vast silent charnel-house. . . Were not this an infernal prison?”[i] But such an eyewitness is rare. We have little firsthand reporting of what it was like to live with so much death.
Many plays were being written at this time, even with all the theater closings, but the plague was never their subject. Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro asks, “Was this because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into the theaters of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatized culture simply couldn’t deal with it?”[ii]
However, it seems no accident that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, his bleakest play, during the height of the epidemic, when the parish bells tolling across the street from his study were daily––sometimes hourly–– reminders of perpetual loss. The “weight of these sad times” was crushingly apparent in the play’s premiere before the royal court on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1606.
In the original story adapted by Shakespeare, Lear is restored to his throne and Cordelia lives. But when Shakespeare made it a tragedy, he went beyond the conventions of the genre, which tried to leave the audience with some sense of hope, as survivors made their exit into an implied future. But the very first version of King Lear concludes in utter negation. There is no exeunt into whatever comes next. “The play ends instead with the frozen tableau of the dead king holding his murdered daughter.”[iii]
The King James Version of the Bible, written around the same time as King Lear, begins with the making of the world ex nihilo, out of “nothing.” Shakespeare’s play supplies a grim counter thesis: the unmaking of the world. It begins with “Nothing can come out of nothing,” and ends with “Never. Never. Never. Never.” The word “no” is spoken over 120 times; “not” occurs twice that number. And around 60 of its words begin with “un-” (unfriended, unfortunate, unnatural, unmerciful, etc.). “Call it what you will––resistance, refusal, denial, rejection, repudiation––this insistent and almost apocalyptic negativity becomes a recurring drumbeat, the bass line of the play.”[iv]
The courtly audience, still reeling not only from the plague but also from the recent failed attempt to dynamite the royal family––and political stability––into oblivion, must have been deeply shaken by the play’s despair. A day earlier, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes had preached to the same court a Christmas homily on Christ’s light shining in the darkness (“Ever in dark times, who therefore most needed the light of comfort”[v]). But there were no such comfortable words in the royal theater on St. Stephen’s Day.
It did not take long for posterity to shape a happier text. Lear was granted the merciful delusion that Cordelia was still breathing when he himself died. The survivors were given their exeunt into some happy future, having learned useful lessons from Lear’s mistakes. And from 1631 until 1838, audiences were treated to a happy ending, with Lear surviving and a married Cordelia inheriting his throne.
The play’s darker themes were rediscovered by modernity. As critic Maynard Mack wrote in 1965, “After two world wars and Auschwitz, our sensibility is significantly more in touch than our grandparents’ was with the play’s jagged violence, its sadism, madness, and processional of deaths, its wild blends of levity and horror, selfishness and selflessness.”[vi]
In our own time of deadly contagion, how do we engage with the miasma of fear while the media death watch invades our awareness as incessantly as the tolling bells of Shakespeare’s London? Do we keep our eyes, like Lancelot Andrewes, fixed on the divine light flickering in the darkness, or do we plunge, like the author of King Lear, toward a cathartic immersion in the unmaking of the old “normal,” hoping to emerge on the other side purged and renewed?
Boccaccio, in response to history’s deadliest plague, the Black Death of the fourteenth century, proposed a third way: avoidance. His Decameron is a fictional tale of ten young people who flee plague-ridden Florence for the Tuscan countryside, where they wait out the epidemic with “a certain amount of exercise before the two daily meals, usually in the form of walks; music, songs, and dancing after meals; and of course a great deal of congenial conversation throughout,”[vii] Only good news was allowed to be shared, and competitive games that might provoke anxiety were forbidden (perhaps like giving up March Madness).
According to medieval scholar Glending Olson, Boccaccio’s fictional regimen echoed medical tracts from the plague period urging people to “keep your humors well-disposed by embracing ‘cheerfulness,’ by not occupying ‘your mind with death, passion, or anything likely to sadden or grieve you, but give your mind over to delightful and pleasing things’ and spend ‘your leisure in gardens with fragrant plants, vines, and willows, when they are flowering.’”[viii] Such pleasure, then, was not so much escapist as therapeutic, reducing stress and––hopefully––thereby boosting immunity.
Given the inescapable presence posed by this current pandemic in our mobile and wired world, the dream of a tranquil refuge seems remote and perhaps unjust. Though some may claim exemption by virtue of wealth or privilege, we’re all in this together. The heroic dedication of health care workers, the kindness and generosity of neighbors and loved ones, the creative responses by churches and communities to unprecedented challenges inspire us daily with countless examples of love, courage, resilience and sacrifice.
However, unlike most natural disasters or economic downturns, COVID-19 does not feel like a temporary setback in our accustomed pursuit of happiness. It seems more like the unmaking of a world which may never return. And in a global society of obscene inequality, spiritual poverty, and suicidal pollution, that may not be a bad thing. They say the birds are singing again in Wuhan.
As Christian philosopher Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán y Fuentes wonders, “Is this global virus another wake-up call for humans to work together and collaborate in shared common projects for the survival of our specie as a whole? . . . This is the kairos moment for spiritual rebirth and for choosing a new transformed way of life. Otherwise we make harmful choices, we fall back and continue to do more of the same absurd things that we have been doing. . .”[ix]
The pursuit of a more just and nourishing world would be a blessed and laudable outcome of this strange and apocalyptic journey we are engaged in. But is there an even deeper theological dimension to this crisis as well, returning us to face the “ground zero” where all endings and beginnings converge: the place of unmaking and making anew, the place where Lear and Cordelia die, and hope is impossibly born? The place where “Never. Never. Never. Never” is answered by the divine “Ever”?
We are creatures who die, sometimes in great numbers. The terms and limits of mortal life, where death is always near, are usually suppressed or forgotten in the dailiness of life. Earthly existence always seems so convincing, right up until the moment it vanishes. But now, as the death toll rises and systems careen toward collapse, nearly everything begins to feel fragile and evanescent.
How do we ground our radically unsettling new situation in a deep and fearless spirituality of faith, hope and love? My friend Bill Coats––priest, prophet and theologian––recently wrote, “our implied consent in Baptism was our willingness to live in the midst of the random freedom of Creation. Which is to say that death is everywhere and yet in its midst we live.”
We’ll follow this thread next time. Meanwhile, stay safe, and maybe stick with Boccaccio for now. Walk in a garden. Sing. Dance. Practice congenial conversation.
[i] Quoted in James Shapiro, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 23-24.
[ii] Ibid., 277.
[iii] Ibid., 303.
[iv] Ibid., 52. The statistics are from Shapiro as well.
[v] Lancelot Andrewes, “A Sermon Preached before the King’s Majesty, at Whitehall, on Wednesday, the Twenty-fifth of December, A.D. MDCVI. Being Christmas Day,” in Seventeen Sermons on the Nativity (reprint of original, Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: Triest Publishing, 2017), 20.
[vi] Maynard Mack, King Lear in Our Times (1965), quoted in Marjorie Garber, Shakespeare and Modern Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 268.
[vii] From Pampinea’s instructions to her friends in the Decameron, quoted in Glending Olson, Literature as Recreation in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), 180.
[viii] Olson, 175.
[ix] Passed along by peacemaking writer Jim Forest and cited in a March 13, 2020 blog post by Ryan Hall: https://paceebene.org/blog/2020/3/13/time-for-a-wake-up-call-in-response-to-the-coronavirus