Officially, at any rate: actually, we have no record of the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth, merely of his baptism on April 26, 1564. However, since he died on April 23, 1616, the temptation to designate April 23 as his birthday as well proved irresistible, especially since in England that also happens to be the feast of St. George, the patron saint of England.
We are all pandemic-weary, and it may be that pandemics, or plagues, to use the traditional word, are the last thing you want to hear about right now, but it so happens that Shakespeare’s life and career were affected by plague more extensively perhaps than those of any other famous writer. Plague swept through Stratford-upon-Avon and London at least four times during Shakespeare’s life, beginning in 1563-64, when it killed two of his brothers.
His career was interrupted at least three times by the plague. In 1592-93, the theatres were closed. Some actors formed traveling companies that toured outside the city, a fact reflected in the players that visit Elsinore in Hamlet. It is often surmised that Shakespeare spent the time composing much of his non-dramatic poetry, including two narrative poems and the sonnets, courting rich aristocratic patrons instead of the general public. But the hiatus also apparently served as a period of growth for the playwright, for the re-opening of the theatres in 1594 marks the end of his apprentice period and the advent of his early maturity as a dramatist, marked by Romeo and Juliet, probably written somewhere between 1594 and 1596, in which plague plays a minor role in the plot and also becomes a metaphor in Mercutio’s famous line “A plague o’er both your houses.”
In 1603, plague returned so severely that it delayed the coronation of James I, killing nearly a quarter of the population of London, and gave intermittent return performances during the period 1606-1610, closing the theatres repeatedly. Once again, however, quarantine gave Shakespeare time to write. Some of his greatest plays, including King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra, may have been written in periods of enforced isolation.
The thing that most strikes me about the pandemic how it caught us by surprise. In my long lifetime, it was simply not on the list of Things You Should Be Paranoically Anxious About until suddenly it shut down the entire world for over a year. But other ages lived in its shadow, which falls across a number of famous works of literature, as far back as Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353), a series of tales told by people to while away the time while self-isolating from Black Death of 1348, which killed a third of the population of Europe. Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) was inspired, if that is the word, by the Great Plague of London in 1665.
For those who would really like to feed their paranoia, there is a whole macabre sub-tradition of works in which a fictional plague wipes out all, or nearly all, of the whole human race, from The Last Man, by Mary Shelley (yes, that Mary Shelley), whose plot is contained in its title, to the neglected Earth Abides (1949), by George R. Stewart in science fiction, to, but of course, Stephen King’s The Stand in 1978. Slightly less apocalyptic fictional plagues are featured in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947). I anticipate whole college courses in Plague Literature coming soon. In fact, academia being what it is, I expect whole majors in Plague Studies.
What is most striking is how we have forgotten, or perhaps repressed, the outbreak closest to us, the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, at the close of World War I, even though its mortality rate rivaled that of the war itself. There is one famous story dealing with that epidemic, Katherine Anne Porter’s ”Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” based on her own near-fatal experience, but otherwise it seems a nearly forgotten episode of modern history. Yet it devastated not only troops housed together during post-war demobilization but an American civilian population untouched by the war, with an effect that reminds me of the song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (famous version by the great blues-gospel guitarist Rev. Gary Davis): “He come into your house and he don’t stay long / You’ll look in the bed and somebody will be gone” [“he” being Death, of course]. There is a link on my website to the website www.bonneybonney.com, where my former wife Bonney Harnish has posted a transcription of a diary, along with photographs, kept by her great-aunt Elinor during the epidemic, describing at one point her attempt to care for an entire household of people when she was the only one not ill.
It may be objected that all this is one hell of a downbeat way to celebrate somebody’s birthday. But the pandemic forces us to confront our repressed anxieties about our physical vulnerability and our mortality. It may be worth pondering that Shakespeare’s plays were written in the shadow of a constantly recurring epidemic in a period without the benefit of medical science. Like the poems of Keats, dead at 26 of tuberculosis, they represent the power of the imagination to endure even in the face of death and despair.