(Kelly Burke’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8; William Shakespeare endured at least five periods of lockdown due to a pandemic. Photo: Composite: Quality Stock/Alamy.)

After 60 years with the Bard, John Bell reflects on how the playwright turned home quarantine into a source of productivity

As live performance venues reopen in Australia and move towards full capacity, spare a thought for those living through Elizabethan England. The bubonic plague closed down entertainment and sporting venues for months at a time on at least five separate occasions during William Shakespeare’s adult lifetime. Churches remained open – it was inconceivable anyone could be struck down with contagion while engaged in the practice of piety – but lockdowns, masks (of sorts), and what we now call social distancing were ominous and omnipresent facts of life for Shakespeare, who is understood to have written some of his greatest plays while in home quarantine.

Theatre in the time of pandemic is at the forefront of John Bell’s mind as he prepares for his solo work, One Man in His Time, a 70-minute deep dive into the wit, incisiveness and enduring beauty of Shakespeare’s writing and the 80-year-old actor’s six-decade relationship with the bard.

Bell’s show, playing at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse theatre and the Canberra Theatre Centre in March and April, was supposed to have premiered in 2020, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the company he founded, Bell Shakespeare.

Then Covid-19 hit. And the Australian actor, who has spent a lifetime scrutinising and interpreting the western world’s greatest playwright, found an oddly grim simpatico; Bell concluded he had a lot to be grateful for.

“The plague was a constant visitor to England in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the early years of the 1600s [when Shakespeare would have been in his early 40s], there was a particularly bad dose of the plague and everything closed down for some months,” Bell tells Guardian Australia.

“Most actors had to leave town or find other work but that was when Shakespeare started work on King Lear.

“It also coincided with Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up parliament so there’s a good deal of bad omens, if you like, in the zeitgeist of King Lear. It really is very much a product of that period of terror and uncertainty, and part of a Doomsday mentality.”

Plague, pox and pandemic are frequently referenced in Shakespeare’s work. But as the Harvard literary historian and author Stephen Greenblatt noted, no character in any of Shakespeare’s plays ever actually dies of the bubonic plague.

Only in Romeo and Juliet are the dual protagonists’ deaths indirectly caused by it. Friar John’s letter to Mantua, advising Romeo that Juliet is not dead as reported but lying in a drug-induced coma in the Capulet crypt, is never delivered because the monk is placed under involuntary quarantine as a suspected carrier of the plague while in transit. Tragedy ensues.

References to the plague are largely in turns of phrase or metaphors, indicating how much it really was just a grim part of 17th century life and lexicon.

“A plague on both your houses,” Mercutio utters with his dying breath in Romeo and Juliet.

“Thou art a boil,” King Lear tells his eldest daughter Goneril. “A plague-sore or embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.”

The scourge is even leveraged by Shakespeare in jest. Marvelling at how easy it is to become infected with love, Olivia in Twelfth Night asks: “How now? Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”

Bell says although Covid-19 has infused an unexpected element into One Man in His Time over the past six months, the work has been a lifetime in the making.

“It’s full of pieces I’ve always loved and learned from and used in various contexts,” he says.

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