April 2022 is the month when Islam, Christianity and Judaism all celebrate life, even while acknowledging the nearness of death and sorrow as we continue to face the perils of the Covid pandemic. Ramadan begins today on April 2nd, Good Friday falls on April 15th, and that day also marks the beginning of Passover.
Each of these holidays arrives this year as new variants seem to be appearing just when so many of us thought we had seen the last of them. According to the latest available data, globally some 6 million people have died, and we are closing in on 500,000,000 Covid infections, thus far.
But this is hardly the first time humanity has faced widespread devastation.
In 430 BC, Athens also lost over a period of three years, one-quarter of its population. Among the victims: Pericles, Athens’ most eloquent leader who brought it into a Golden Age of art, philosophy, and democracy. Nor did illness, as inhabitants knew only too well, stop at the city’s gates back then: Afterwards, much of the Mediterranean fell victim to illness.
Time after time, century after century, plagues, like invading armies, have advanced, massacred, and then eventually retreated — only to crop up again years later. For instance, the 17th-century epidemic that ravaged London killed around 100,000 inhabitants — in other words almost 25% of the total population.
As it happens, William Shakespeare was born during the beginnings of yet another plague. The year 1564 proved a banner year for death: In 12 months 20 percent of the newborn’s neighbors were carried away by the Bubonic plague; in fact, there were five major plague outbreaks during the playwright’s lifetime, and much to his chagrin, theaters were closed on a regular basis.
And yet, with the famous exception of “Romeo and Juliet” (“a plague on both your houses…”) the rampant disease barely got a mention, and when referenced was only as a symbol.
In fact, Shakespeare wrote dozens of plays only obliquely referencing the devastation he lived through — notably “King Lear” and most certainly “Macbeth” — without actually mentioning the menace by name.
Still, he provided some fair substitutes:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more…,” a fair summation of the dread and misery that visited every part of Stratford-on-Avon and London at the time of his writing.
That the playwright refused to invoke the word “plague” is quite possibly due to his desire to placate the reigning monarchs of his time: Most notably Queen Elizabeth I, who at 29 contracted smallpox and nearly died, and likely would not have relished references to the rampaging disease that scarred her face.
On the other hand, the poet and playwright Thomas Nashe, a Shakespeare contemporary, was far more forthright in his plague references, writing “rich men, trust not in wealth/gold cannot buy you health…the Plague full swift goes by I am sick, I must die…”
But Shakespeare, more than most, understood the value of the oblique, knew how to reference terror with words of his own choosing. And he wrote in “King Lear”:
“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm…your looped and windowed raggedness defend you/ from seasons such as these?”
He would have understood only too well the pitiless storm and looped raggedness of our time.
In the video: The company of King Lear performs Act 3 Scene 4 with Antony Sher as King Lear and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar in Gregory Doran’s 2016 production of King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is where the above famous quote is said.
In the featured image: “Bring Out Your Dead”: Gathering the plague victims in a death cart, shown here in a street during the Great Plague in London in 1665 (detail) Source: Edmund Evans, Iconographic Collections Wellcome Images, operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.