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Shakespeare and Statistics

Professor Emma Smith of Oxford delightfully reminds us, in this period of social distancing, lockdowns or outright curfews, that truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The great playwright, William Shakespeare, the greatest scrivener of the English language, spent much of his life, writing in plague-induced quarantine.

The plague hit in 1564 just after his birth, theaters were shuttered again in 1592-3 for another epidemic (he wrote beautiful erotica during this period, truly, in the form of "Venus and Adonis" as well as "The Rape of Lucrece" which Professor Smith describes aptly as "queasily voyeuristic").

"Measure for Measure" was likely penned when plague in 1603-4 prevented coronation celebrations for the new king James I (places our bout with "restriction" in some modicum of perspective)...1 in 5 Londoners succumbed to the disease (again offering perspective in terms of lethality and even contagiousness).

Summer of 1606 saw yet another outbreak, and as "King Lear" was presented during the Christmas holidays of that year, St. Stephen's Day specifically, the Bard was doubtless chiseling away at his masterpiece under lock-up.

Shakespeare though does not ever showcase the plague as an explicit topic in any of his plays, and here too we need to take guidance, not to be so besotted with "things Covid" that we can't see straight about anything else. 

Lear unloads some plague-rich language calling one of his daughters and her husband, "a plague-sore or embossed carbuncle/In my corrupted blood." Inflamed lymph glands were a feared symptom of the disease.

However, the real "plague" of the plague is that it converts everything into ill defined statistics... how many infected, how many deaths, rates of new cases -- often hiding the humanity, the specificity, the particularity of the suffering, the personal and economic turmoil. And this is what Shakespeare so vividly painted in his gorgeous plays and poetry.

Shakespeare rendered the tragic suffering he often portrayed as highly specific, showcasing the glory and folly of our human uniqueness. This was, as Professor Smith writes, a "narrative vaccine."

And beyond our infatuation with ourselves and "safety in statistics," perhaps with Shakespeare we too can remember that other lives, other narratives, other griefs, have meaning too...and we can rally to their side. We don't offer love and support to "statistics" but to "people."

Pandemics remind us in a positive sense, if we let them as Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Dekker wrote, "Servant and master, foul and fair/One livery wear, and fellows are." We are all united.

And then to have compassion, we need to grasp the other side of the selfsame coin, as Lear finally does:

"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you/From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en/Too little care of this."

We are one, and yet we matter individually as well. May this period remind us to continue, long after the pandemic, to take care of each other as we also take care of ourselves.

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