You know what? I think this hybrid form of challenge week might be here to stay. Despite the fact that it’s taken me almost a week to write this round-up post, it’s actually felt pretty manageable – and I don’t know whether I’ll have the energy to go out to the theatre every single night for a week ever again! Not to mention fitting the actual writing in around that. But going to in-person performances twice (Shit-faced Shakespeare’s Macbeth at Leicester Square Theatre and the Romeo & Juliet press night at the Globe) and watching a variety of digital or past productions for the rest of the week has worked really nicely. Check my Insta stories and diary post to catch up with daily events.
It’s been fun combining a bit of biomedical science with Shakespeare, as I’ve learnt a few new things as well as jogged my memory on others; I hope that this series has been eye-opening for you, too. If you’ve missed any of this week’s posts, you can find them all here:
- Leech (Henry V)
- Boils (Coriolanus)
- Madness (Hamlet)
- Leprosy (Henry VI, part two)
- Blood (Macbeth)
- Pox (All’s Well That Ends Well)
- Broken Heart (Romeo & Juliet)
Mind The Bard 3: Hospital Shift was the pestilence edition, and it could easily have been wholly plague-focused – the word ‘pestilence’ crops up 14 times in Shakespeare’s works, featuring in one poem (Venus & Adonis) and 11 plays (such as Antony & Cleopatra, Othello, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Henry VIII).
Though pestilence could technically refer to any infectious, fatal disease that is widespread, it’s most often synonymous with the plague (Yersinia pestis); it ravaged Shakespeare’s world pretty much all his life – there was an outbreak in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 which the newborn William managed to escape – and was a constant throughout Early Modern History. In England, there were severe outbreaks in 1582, 1592-3, 1603-4, 1606 & 1608-9 – between 1606 & 1610 London’s theatres were probably only open for a total of about nine months. As such, it’s unsurprising that the word ‘pestilence’ appears so frequently; most of the time it’s used for metaphorical purposes (to express anger or disgust) rather than depicting incidents of the illness, however.
Symptoms of the plague include: fever & chills, a feeling of extreme weakness or exhaustion, diarrhoea, vomiting, and buboes (swollen lymph nodes) in the groin or armpit. It would then inevitably lead to an agonising death.
Much like the UK government wants us to learn to “live with” COVID-19, Elizabethans had to live under the shadow of plague. However, despite their relative lack of medical knowledge and there obviously being no vaccines available, it seems as though they would actually commit to strict quarantines & other preventative measures – unlike many in the modern world. Something else we could also relate to is a feeling of boredom with the constant news, despite how bad the situation becomes (as the “bodies pile high”); familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also breeds banality.
The way things are going in the UK (England, more specifically), it seems as though unnecessary suffering is here to stay as we attempt to drop all safety measures despite the fact that most experts are cautioning against it – so I wouldn’t rule out another pestilence edition of #MindTheBard… Remember: wishing the pandemic to be over won’t make it go away. So get your jabs, wear your masks, and keep supporting the arts in whatever way you can.