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Editorial: Lessons from Shakespeare

Editorial: Lessons from Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare is our go-to commentator. There is scarcely a situation before us today that cannot be explained, at least metaphorically, without something that Shakespeare first blotted on the page more than four centuries ago.

On the Comet NEOWISE that recently graced our night skies — along with President Trump’s current standing in the polls:

“When beggars die there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”

On the Comet NEOWISE and Joe Biden’s basement campaign:

“By being seldom seen, I could not stir but like a comet I was wonder’d at.”

And, of course, the pandemic.

Shakespeare had quite a bit to say about plagues and pestilence because disease was a commonplace occurrence in his day. In fact, it was so commonplace that Shakespeare’s references to plagues were almost casual. We all know the famous line “a plague on both your houses” from “Romeo and Juliet” whether we know the play or not. We all know the general story, too — forbidden love. But even those who have seen the play may easily forget how the whole plot line turns on a plague (spoilers ahead!). Why did Romeo not get Friar Lawrence’s message about a complicated and dangerous plan for Juliet to take a potion that would put her into a death-like coma so that she could avoid her marriage to the dreaded Paris? It wasn’t because cell service was down. It was because Friar Lawrence’s messenger got caught up in a quarantine. “The searchers of the town, suspecting that we both were in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, Seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth,” the messenger explained. People back then took lockdowns far more seriously than they do now. Those lockdowns were also so frequent that throwing one into “Romeo and Juliet” as a plot device did not seem artificial at all to Shakespeare’s audience.

Theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III writes that in the five years between 1606 and 1610 — when Shakespeare was at the height of his fame — the theaters in London were only open about nine months. The entertainment industry today is struggling to survive the current lockdown that is now not quite half a year old. Now imagine five years with just nine months of action.

In other countries, the arts are regarded as an industry just like any other — jobs are jobs — and arts organizations have been included in pandemic relief packages. This is as true for countries governed by conservatives (Great Britain introduced a $2 billion relief package for the arts) as it is countries governed by liberals ($372 million in Canada). It’s even true in some of the poorest countries in the world (The Guardian reports that even Madagascar now has a relief program for what are literally starving artists). Some countries regard arts jobs as the drivers behind an even more vital industry — tourism. (That’s why even British conservatives are big on arts funding.) Others see arts jobs in national security terms as a way to defend the nation’s unique cultural heritage (that would be France and many African countries). The United States stands largely alone in regarding arts jobs as not being “real” jobs. Here’s where we drop in the obligatory line about the study last year that concluded the arts account for $64.2 million worth of economic activity in Roanoke, supporting 1,774 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $6.5 million in tax revenue. That’s more than twice as many people as Norfolk Southern now employs in Roanoke. How’s that for context?

Here’s also where we point out that one professional theater will defy the pandemic and be back in action, starting tonight. The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton will resume performing — outdoors, on a hotel lawn, where patrons can buy an 8-foot-by-8-foot square of grass, with no more than four people allowed in that space. Later there will be indoor performances as well, but to accommodate social distancing guidelines, the ASC has taken out some of its seats in its playhouse —and will only sell one-third as many tickets as usual. It’s also asking patrons to wear masks. The actors have agreed to essentially live within a “bubble” — similar to the ones that the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League are instituting for their players as their teams gather in Orlando, Toronto and Edmonton to restart their seasons.

The ASC’s return hasn’t been without difficulty. The Washington Post reports that some of the troupe’s actors — who were members of Actors Equity — had to quit the union because it’s not sanctioning the performances at this time. Will this work out? Shakespeare had something to say about that, of course: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then unto me.”

The first show back will be the comedy “Twelfth Night,” in which Olivia is amazed at how quickly she fell in love — “even so quickly may one catch the plague,” another of those off-hand plague lines that Shakespeare’s audience would have identified with then, and still will today.

The next show will be “Othello,” an even more timely play from about 1603-04 that still resonates today, not for its plague lines but because it deals with a Black man brought down by a white man. Or, in this case, a Black woman — the ASC likes nontraditional casting. No matter what gender plays him, “Othello” was unusual for its day because the script featured a nonwhite character in the title role. Even today, it’s still relatively unusual to find a well-known play where the main character is Black. Through the years, white actors have traditionally played the role of Othello — in blackface. Among the more famous blackface performances was that of Anthony Hopkins in 1981 — or just three years before Ralph Northam’s infamous yearbook photo. The American-born Black actor Paul Robeson played Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Britain the 1950s — but not until 1999 would another Black actor play him for the RSC. It has taken nearly 400 years for society to get to the point where a theater company is now expected to cast a Black actor (or actress) for a role that is specifically Black. If you’re confused by what the term “systemic racism” means, then the history of “Othello” provides a clear example.

We were wrong about one thing, though. Shakespeare has Othello tell his trusted (but untrustworthy) confidante Iago: “Thou weigh’st thy words before thou givest them breath.” Shakespeare was clearly unfamiliar with Twitter.

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