Romeo’s friend Mercutio, stabbed and dying, curses the Capulets and mutters against the Montagues: “A plague o’ both your houses!”
While modern audiences might hear anger and anguish in those words, theatre-goers in Shakespeare’s day surely would have felt a chill at the mere mention of ‘plague’. To them, it would have conjured an image of oozing boils, aches and fearsome death.
The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing fresh, even if somewhat gruesome, meaning to well-known plays for students enrolled in the annual Shakespeare in Performance spring course, said English and Writing Studies professor Jo Devereux.
She is teaching the course to 34 students in a consortium with the Stratford Festival and Western, Brock, Guelph, Waterloo and Windsor universities.
Ordinarily, the half-course would include meeting at the Stratford Festival to take in whatever plays are on that season. Students would also meet with the actors, have a backstage tour and an introduction to the theatre archives in a deep analysis of those specific theatrical works.
But this year required a course correction.
The three-week course has been compressed into two. Instead of examining plays performed on stage, students are examining Shakepearean works through the lens of the insidious and invisible disease that shaped the playwright’s life.
“At first, when the pandemic happened, we thought, ‘That’s it. It’s cancelled,’” Devereux said. “Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to focus on plague, contagious and pestilence in Shakespeare?’”
She noted Shakespeare was born in 1564, into a home already hard-hit by bubonic plague – records suggest his two older sisters died from the disease – and its shadows lingered throughout his life. Outbreaks in 1593, 1603 and 1610 killed tens of thousands of residents of London, England. Theatres were ordered closed for months on end.
It was hardly surprising that plague should be notable in Shakespeare’s plays.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio utters his plague-curse (three times) and dies. Because he is in quarantine after having been in a suspected infected house, Friar John is prevented from delivering a message to Romeo that Juliet hasn’t really died. In Hamlet, Old Hamlet’s smooth skin turns to sores – his symptoms seeming more plague-like than poison. In King Lear, the dementia-tormented king calls his daughter Goneril “a boil, a plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle.”
While plague may have been an important influence in Shakespeare’s writing, it wasn’t overtly central to any play, Devereux said. That’s understandable, since Shakespeare no doubt knew it would be bad for the entertainment business to highlight his audience’s greatest fear.
“It was a culture when people were aware that they might be fine one day and might be dead the next day.”
Studying this aspect of Shakespeare’s works is “kind of interesting and relevant” because of how COVID-19 is also shaping our arts and culture, she said. It helps cast a different light for students on Shakespearean plays they thought they knew.
“I’m hoping they’ll learn how interesting it is to consider the historical context that produced these literary works and then examine instances when they would find that (context) reflected in the texts.”
With the Stratford Festival season on indefinite hold, students watch recorded performances of the plays. Some Festival actors, including Canadian actor Colm Feore, have ‘Zoomed’ into classes to help interpret the works and answer questions.
Far from being depressed by the content, students of the rejigged course, which ends Saturday, have been more than receptive, Devereux said. “They’re really bright students and they’re very keen.”