Monday, 28 September 2020

How COVID gives us insight into one of Shakespeare's greatest plays

The great plot twist in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is all but buried to a modern audience. Only now, says author Ben Cohen, only now in our own time of pandemic can we understand that Shakespeare was writing -- and his audience were watching -- in a time bathed in plague. And as Ben Cohen explains to Russ Roberts on his EconLog podcast, that made all the difference:
Russ Roberts: Well, let's turn to Shakespeare.... So, Shakespeare has a really good year in, I think, 1605, right? He publishes--he writes King Lear, MacBeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. ...

Ben Cohen: ... [W]hat changed in 1605 and 1606 that allowed Shakespeare to get hot, it was not just Shakespeare: it was the world around him. 
What changed is that it was a plague year. The plague was sort of Shakespeare's secret weapon, in many ways. The plague was this constant force in Shakespeare's life, which I didn't realise until writing this book. I mean, he probably should have died from plague when he was an infant. His parents had already lost children to the plague when the plagues swept through Stratford-upon-Avon when he was very, very young, and it killed sort of indiscriminately.

So, the fact that he lived was a matter of chance. He baked the plague into Romeo and Juliet. I mean, the plague is really what turns the most famous love story ever into a tragedy, which, I'm sort of embarrassed to admit that I did not realize when I read the play in eighth grade and I did not realize when I majored in English in college--one of those faults is probably much worse than the other.

And, then, the plague is what allows him to get hot in 1605 and 1606--for many reasons. It puts theater-goers into a state of mind where they want to see his plays again. It closes certain playhouses. In a very macabre way, it sort of kills off his competition a little bit.

But, he is able to take advantage of these very unlikely circumstances....

Russ Roberts: So, let's digress for a minute, just because it's too much fun to talk about
Romeo and Juliet ... And, we forget that when it was performed the first time, nobody knew how it ended. So, when Juliet takes a potion that's going to put her to sleep, and make her look like she's dead, Romeo finds her, thinks she is dead, kills himself. She wakes up, sees that he's dead and kills herself instead of them being reunited. And that's the spoiler alert.

And when the crowd sees this on stage first time, the gasp of shock and horror and realisation of how this is going to turn after they're all wanting it to go a different directions, it's so--it's so powerful.

Ben Cohen: It's so interesting, though, because when she does take the potion, you could easily see it becoming a comedy, right? Where
 they have this crazy twist that leads to them running away--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, run off to Rio, start a new life. Yeah, it's going to be great.

But, what I didn't realise, which I learned from your book ... is that that plot twist that he doesn't know that she's faking the potion and that it's a coma, not death, and she's going to wake up, he was supposed to get a message about that. And the reason he doesn't get the message is? 

Ben Cohen: Because the messenger who is sent gets stuck in quarantine... 

And so, the reason why Romeo doesn't know that Juliet has taken this potion and that she is simply sleeping and not actually dead is because this whole harebrained scheme had not been explained to him because he never gets the letter.

So, if you think about it, it's really a bonkers plot line. The flyer says, 'I will--Juliet, take this sleeping potion, it will knock you out. Your family will think you're dead. When they think you're dead, Romeo is going to come back and he's going to sweep you away and take you and live happily ever after.'

Now, this is the stuff that like you wouldn't even see on a reality show or some terrible soap opera now. And yet, it's our most famous love story.

And so, why does it fall apart? She takes the sleeping potion, right? She gets knocked out. Her family thinks she's dead. Romeo comes back and sees her in the open crypt. All of the crazy stuff actually turns out--where the whole scheme falls apart--is simply on getting a letter to Romeo. And it falls apart because the plague is sweeping through and the messenger gets stuck in quarantine.

So, all of this is the plague.

Russ Roberts: And, as you point out, which I thought was a brilliant insight--it's four lines where the guy says to the other guy, 'Oh, did you get that message to Romeo?' 'Oh, no I couldn't get it to him. Sorry.'

Ben Cohen: But, the subtext was so clear back then. You don't hit the audience over the head.

Now, 400 years later, you kind of do, right? I think I write in the book that it's the same as if someone now were to tweet something and end it with "Sad!" We all know what that's a reference to.

But, if someone is reading that tweet 400 years from now, God forbid, they might not understand that we are making an allusion to the way that the President of the United States tweets--

And so nobody in the theater would have wanted to hear about the plague. It's like being on a cruise ship and watching
Titanic. I mean, you understand the risk and you don't want to think about that. But they all understood what was happening. We just don't understand what was happening, now....

Russ Roberts: But, I think that point, which is so fabulous that you don't need a two-page, 10-minute dialogue about the letter not getting there, because everybody in the crowd has experienced horrible things because of the quarantine--they all are very aware of it. And so, this is just a standard real life plausible thing.

Looking back on it before this COVID tragedy, we would have said, 'Oh, that's weird. Why didn't he make it clearer?' Because: they didn't need to then.

Ben Cohen: Or, why didn't the messengers just leave the quarantine house? Right? Could it really have been that bad?

And yet, that scene now feels oddly resonant in the same way that people in 1606 would have understood: of course he's not leaving the quarantined house. I mean, we all understand that now. Like, yeah: you're not going out to deliver a letter to somebody ... t
hat was a plague, and it was a lot worse.

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