During the years I was conducting a lot of research for Island No. 6, I became a bit of a quasi-expert on virology. I’m quite proud of the fact that nearly six months into its release, I’ve yet to be called out on the accuracy of my portrayal of how a virus operates. I’m doubly-proud of the manner in which some of my predictions regarding how society would respond to a pandemic have rung remarkably true.
For example, in Chapter 5 of Book 2, I wrote: “Compared to allowing this virus to spread, the cost is negligible. Not even considering the human toll, imagine the economic impact of a widespread epidemic on not just this island but the country and even the world should it be forced to battle this flu. There could be no mass transit, no manufacturing, no commerce, no schools in session, no public sporting events, no tourism or travel, basically, nothing that would require large numbers of people to occupy shared space.” Pretty close, huh?
Another byproduct of my extensive research is that I became quite knowledgeable on the history of epidemics. I was reminded of one such outbreak this past week while lecturing about the life and career of William Shakespeare. In 1593, London experienced an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that ultimately resulted in approximately 20,000 deaths in and around the city.
The twenty-nine-year old Shakespeare had only recently accomplished the staging of his first play, Henry VI. By what would become his standards, the play was only moderately successful, and it remains one of his lesser works. I only mention this factoid because not long after the play began its run, the theaters of London were shut down due to the aforementioned outbreak of the plague, so here is where this essay becomes relevant for anyone reading it during this time of Covid-19.
Just today, I also read an article about how, with Broadway recently extending its shutdown until at least May, a large number of playwrights are using the closure to pursue projects which had been placed on a back burner or had been receiving short shrift prior to the dimming of the lights. The ultimate result of which will hopefully be an explosion of fresh material ready for the stage come springtime. They’re taking what is otherwise a tragic situation and turning it into an opportunity.
During his forced hiatus from the stage, Shakespeare took the opportunity to write poetry rather than drama. As a result, he penned his two classic narrative poems, The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. During this downtime, he also began penning his sonnets, which along with the narrative poems, would have been enough to earn him a very high ranking in the pantheon of English authors.
Ultimately, the plague passed, the theaters, reopened and Shakespeare returned to writing for the stage. On a larger scale, England entered what was perhaps its greatest period of literary production and ushered in its own Renaissance. If not for the tragedy of the plague, much of what we recognize as artistic genius may never have come to fruition.
On a personal level, I’m trying to apply this lesson to my own attitude and activities during the Covid-19 Era. I can either choose to allow the drastic diminishment of social activity to drive me to sadness and stagnancy or I can view the unasked for hours of downtime as an opportunity for learning, self-improvement on a number of fronts, working on the next novel, and/or all of the above. This morning, I dusted off a draft of a novel project I have not worked on in years. I saw the embers of potential still burning between its pages, and once again, my imagination is alive with possibility.
I challenge anyone who has read this far to challenge yourself to find that something that will help you to find yourself in a better place, when this national nightmare eventually ends, than you were in when it started.
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4 thoughts on “Shakespeare, the Plague, and Me: Turning Tragedy into Opportunity”
Enjoy your blog! It is a time to find interesting outlets. I have personally picked up my paintbrushes again. Reading “Island No. 6” right now for our book club.
I do love that you’ve “picked up your paintbrushes”!
Wow! Definitely some parallels between Island No. 6 and today’s challenges with COVID-19. So much truth to taking the time to dust off projects put to the side or to start anew. Thank you.