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Shakespeare in Lockdown

For those seeking to experience Shakespeare in performance the current situation is apparently a dismal one. The websites of the better-known practitioners of Shakespearean theatre provide a sombre reading: ‘our doors are closed’ (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre); ‘we are temporarily closed’ (Royal Shakespeare Company); ‘the building is currently closed’ (National Theatre).

Theatre

The simultaneous closure of these major cultural institutions apparently signals the fact that we are in what the Globe website describes as ‘an unprecedented time for theatre’. Yet the closure of key metropolitan playing spaces was an all too familiar experience for Shakespeare, his fellow playwrights and performers. Lock-downs were a recurrent feature of life in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, in response to the periodic epidemics which swept through the capital during Shakespeare’s career, and theatres were amongst the first institutions to be closed down by the authorities in time of plague. Whilst it would be wrong to draw too close a parallel between Shakespeare’s time and our own, the current crisis does enable us to understand, more vividly, the circumstances in which the playwright’s work was produced. Then, as now, the state confronted the threat from contagion with the segregation of the sick and the healthy, isolation, restricted movement and the prohibition of public gatherings. How might this have affected the playwright’s work?

The mechanisms for the spread of infection were not fully understood in Early Modern England but it was widely thought that the infectious miasma, from which plague derived, was spread by contagion and could move from infected bodies to the healthy. Crowds of all kinds were therefore identified as a dangerous means for the spread of disease. The authorities in the City of London were not favourably disposed to theatre at the best of times. They claimed the playhouses provided an opportunity for crime and disorder as the crowd milled at the entrance for the start of performances. Attendance at plays distracted people from their work and the ‘wanton’ spectacles presented on-stage were a provocation to ‘lewdness’ and vice. They repeatedly petitioned the Elizabethan government to shut down the theatres once and for all and, when plague swept through the city, they made disease a metaphor for the ‘contagion of manners’ they ascribed to the ‘profane exercise of players and playing houses’.

For a man like Shakespeare, an actor, writer and (after 1594) an investor (or ‘sharer’) in the company for which he wrote and performed, the closures threatened his livelihood and the basis of his artistic practice.  Sustained periods of closure, like the almost two-year hiatus of 1593-4, led to the effective disbanding of theatre companies. Faced with a city in lock-down, which the wealthy and powerful had normally abandoned for the relative safety of their country estates, the players took to touring provincial towns (if the authorities would let them) or performing in the houses of the gentry. It’s not clear if Shakespeare took to the road with his fellow actors at these times and we don’t know, for certain, what the impact of a lock-down might have been on his creative process. If, as seems likely, he remained in the capital he was witness to a strangely altered landscape (which perhaps echoes the uncanny experience we’re living through now). ‘Now shops are shut in, people rare and very few that walk about… and a deep silence almost in every place… no prancing horses, no rattling coaches, no calling in customers nor offering wares’ wrote a later writer, describing the London of 1665 (quoted in Paul Slack, The Impact of Plague in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Routledge, p. 173)

There are, though, plenty of indications that the closures may have reshaped Shakespeare’s practice, just as writers and artists are currently finding ways to respond to a world structured around social distancing and self-isolation. In the sustained period of segregation during 1593-4, when the theatres were effectively closed for 20 months, Shakespeare seems to have begun to carve out a strategy for non-dramatic writing, utilising the relatively new technologies of print media to refashion his authorial identity as a poet rather than dramatist. Whilst cultivating a relationship with an aristocratic patron, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated the two long narrative poems he produced in this period, Shakespeare was also seeking to establish himself as a public poet by going into print. In contrast to the later printing of his plays, seea process he was apparently indifferent about, Shakespeare was apparently closely engaged in the dissemination of his poetic output, choosing a printer he trusted and probably personally overseeing the process of production. ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594) were interventions in currently fashionable poetic genres. At this juncture he may have temporarily lost touch entirely with the world of the theatre, in which his writing was shaped. It was by no means clear that theatre would ever revive in the wake of what seemed like a catastrophic suspension of a still a relatively new cultural form and the switch in Shakespeare’s artistic practice suggests he may have been keeping the prospect of an alternative career open.

Although Shakespeare returned to writing for the stage when the theatres re-opened and invested in the company he would remain with for the rest of his career, theatre in the capital would be closed repeatedly during that time as the ebb and flow of epidemics was experienced until 1667. As the critic Leeds Barroll has pointed out, it’s probable that the rhythm of Shakespeare’s dramatic output was itself governed by this pattern. Barroll suggests that Shakespeare’s productivity as a playwright was diminished during the hiatus in performance. It was not just that Shakespeare couldn’t get plays staged during an Elizabethan lock-down, he was reliant on a creative context provided by both the playing space and the company: ‘denied the visual and auditory realization of his plays on stage, Shakespeare’s creative drive for drama seems to have faltered’ (Barroll, Politics, Plague and Shakespeare’s Theater. Ithica: Cornell University Press, p. 17). What this suggests is that, contrary to the myth of Shakespeare as a lofty genius forging works of perfection in solitude, his dramatic writing at least was intimately connected to the practice and process of theatrical performance. The stimulus for the works for which he is now best known was the collaborative activity in which his scripts were tested and re-shaped by his fellow players and by the responses of audiences. The re-opening of the theatres and with that the re-engagement of Shakespeare with the cultural milieu in which his plays were shaped, resulted in an astonishing renewal in productivity: between 1594 and 1602, for instance, when performance continued without disruption by closures, Shakespeare (and company) produced probably 27 plays (Barroll, p. 18).

‘The art of our necessities is strange/That can make vile things precious’. In a play probably written at the resumption of playing in 1605, after the theatres had closed for almost a year, King Lear articulates the transformative effect of a necessity that transforms our conception of value. The paradox of Shakespeare’s circumstance was that closure, isolation and sickness were a prelude to creative renewal and the revival of community: when the theatres re-opened the crowds returned and the dialogic relation between audience and players resumed.

The postmodern audience has compensation for theatre closures that were not available to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Shakespeare in performance is, ironically, more accessible to those outside the relatively narrow and largely metropolitan audience at the moment because the major theatrical institutions have made a range of live recordings of performances available for free. Shakespeare is still very much available in lock-down as you can see at the following links:

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