Book Scene: Ripeness is All

Writing in Plague Time

By Stuart Mitchner

The bubonic plague hit Stratford on Avon in the summer of 1564, a few months after Shakespeare was born, killing up to a quarter of the town’s residents. Four and a half centuries later, another Warwickshire resident named William Shakespeare made headlines as the first male Briton to be injected with the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.

Predictably, the coincidence set off an epidemic of Shakespearean puns and wordplay (viz. The Taming of the Flu, Two Gentlemen of Corona). Not so predictable was the timely arrival of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague (Knopf $26.95), which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2020 by the editors of New York Times Book Review. As Geraldine Brooks suggests in her lead NYTBR article, the novel explores why Shakespeare titled his most famous play after the 11-year-old son who had died several years earlier (Hamlet and Hamnet being considered essentially the same name in parish records of the time).

Camus and Human Nature

Another book-oriented side effect of the pandemic was the sudden resurgence of critical and commercial interest in The Plague (Vintage $15) by Nobel laureate Albert Camus. In a New York Times op-ed (“Camus on the Coronavirus”), Alain de Botton says that Camus “speaks to us in our own times not because he was a magical seer who could intimate what the best epidemiologists could not, but because he correctly sized up human nature.” Writing in The New Yorker (“The Coronavirus Crisis Reveals New York at Its Best and Worst”), Adam Gopnik observes that the plague, as Camus insisted, “exposes existing fractures in societies, in class structure and individual character; under stress, we see who we really are.”

A Quality of Destiny

According to another Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, “Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people.” Referring to his novel Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) in a 1988 New York Times interview, he adds, “They seem to have a quality of destiny.” After noting how “great plagues have always produced great excesses” by making “people want to live more,” Márquez says his interest in literature on the subject began with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, The Plague of Camus, and The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. His intention was “not to copy from them but to have the use of them,” for behind every idea there are “a thousand years of literature.”

A Matter of Humanity

Conspicuous by its absence in Márquez’s thousand-year vision is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, in which seven women and three men retreat to the countryside outside Florence in 1348 during the Black Death, amusing one another telling tales ranging from romance and tragedy to bawdy farce. Princeton University Professor of Comparative Literature Leonard Barkin has called The Decameron “the greatest short story collection of all time.” An acclaimed new translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn was published by W.W. Norton (2014) on the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio’s birth. After the introduction, an unsparing account of the horrors of the plague of 1348, in which some 80,000 residents of Florence perished, Boccaccio writes, “It is a matter of humanity to show compassion for those who suffer.” Explaining his rationale for dwelling on his graphic documentation of suffering before getting to the tales, he compares the “horrific beginning” to the “steep and rugged mountains” the reader/travelers must traverse in order to reach the “most beautiful and delightful plain” on the other side.

A COVID Decameron

A contemporary answer to Boccaccio is The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic (Scribner $25), a collection compiled by the editors of The New York Times Magazine as the 2020 pandemic first swept the globe. Among the authors are Margaret Atwood, Tommy Orange, Edwidge Danticat, Charles Yu, Rachel Kushner, Colm Tóibín, and David Mitchell. Varying widely in texture and tone, the stories are intended as “a historical tribute to a time and place.”

Hemingway’s Other War

Ernest Hemingway’s 20th-century classic A Farewell to Arms (1929) begins its vision of time and place with a view of the plain on other side of death and war: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.”

As the first chapter moves succinctly from late summer to winter, the movement of artillery and soldiers, motor-trucks, and ammunition-laden mules is absorbed into the landscape of crops and orchards and the “brown and bare mountains” beyond the plain; the long barrels of the big tractor-drawn guns are covered with “green leafy branches and vines.” In the fall with “all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn” the underlying menace of contagious disease is signified before being brought into full view in a last short paragraph charged with typical Hemingway understatement: “At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the cholera. But it was checked and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the army.”

As Hemingway recovered from wounds in a Milan hospital, he was getting war news from the home front in Oak Park, Illinois, where the enemy was Spanish flu. In an interview on jfklibrary.org, Hemingway scholar Susan Beegel mentions the letters he received from his four sisters: the eldest, a front-line volunteer at the hospital, who had lost close friends to the disease; the next oldest describing how it felt when the boy she was dating died after the influenza turned to double pneumonia; another sister who was coming down with it had to be home-schooled; and the youngest, a 7-year-old, told Uncle Ernie, “We are in quarantine. We can’t come out of our yards.”

Dividing a Life

The connection between World War I and the Spanish flu is at the heart of Katherine Anne Porter’s short novel, Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), in which a woman stricken by the virus falls in love with the soldier taking care of her. Asked in a 1963 Paris Review interview what made her want to be “a good writer,” Porter refers to the “plague of influenza” that almost killed her: “It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready.” Having “almost experienced” death and “come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are.”

A Productive Quarantine

Whether or not Shakespeare actually composed King Lear and Macbeth during quarantine after the bubonic plague shut down the Globe Theatre for the better part of a year in 1606, there are traces of plague imagery in both plays. Perhaps the most suggestive and best-known instance is the poisonous mantra, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, / Hover through the fog and filthy air” chanted by the witches in the opening scene of Macbeth and echoed throughout the play.

An article in the March 22 Guardian (“Shakespeare in lockdown”) pictures London at the time Shakespeare was writing King Lear: “the mood in the city must have been ghastly – deserted streets and closed shops, dogs running free, … church bells tolling endlessly for funerals.” The oppressive atmosphere can be read into Lear’s curse, “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!”

Rather than end with a curse, I’ll close with one of the most lyrical visions of lockdown ever conceived by man: Lear’s fantasy of confinement after he and his steadfast and true daughter Cordelia are reunited: “So we’ll live, / And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh /At gilded butterflies … And take upon’s the mystery of things, / As if we were God’s spies.”

Finally, the most Shakespearean last word comes from the same play: “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all.”