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Shakespeare in Lockdown

Written by Arts, Culture, Exhibitions

If your twitter thread looks anything like mine, you might have been inundated with tweets along the line of “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in lockdown – get writing!”. But, deputy vice chancellor and professor of early modern literature and drama, Julie Sanders, explains why we might want to put down the laptops and pick up the books more often during lockdown.  

It’s the 23rd of April, so there’s no more fitting day to be talking about the man himself – on his 456st Birthday, and what has now become known as ‘Shakespeare day’. “I never thought I’d be teaching this material in the context of a real, global pandemic” says Professor Sanders, and I honestly didn’t expect to be learning it 350 miles from Newcastle! During part one of the lecture, Sanders discusses Emma Smith’s This is Shakespeare, where she became interested not only when and why Shakespeare becomes relevant in our lives, but how. In times like these, him and his work becomes a sort of entity that knows no bounds – given that his personal life and career is still pretty mysterious, we can find ourselves putting ourselves in, and filling these gaps. Just because “the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were influenced by plague”, doesn’t mean we all have to become the next great Christopher Marlowe during lockdown, but it does mean that the creative content produced in the next few years is likely to be influenced by some of this chaos.

Shakespeare is all around us, even if it’s just in our homes

Sanders referencing Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist – a play about a Master who leaves his London home to escape from a plague seems more than fitting – seems especially fitting as well. My hometown has unfortunately had to deal with a lot of this kind of thing, but the fact that Johnson was writing about it in 1610 blows my mind. Personally, I know I’m finding myself turning back to more Shakespeare, digging out my a-level copy of Hamlet – and watching The Globe performances on YouTube. When I watch those; I’m not stuck at home. I’m in London. I’ve got off at Waterloo, walked along Southbank, bought another tote-bag from the gift shop (one of my weird obsessions is literary tote-bags and I’ve never been able to explain it) and I’ve got my elbows resting on the stage. For me, it’s an act of escape. Sanders references memes, people reciting that Romeo and Juliet speech out of their windows, Patrick Stewart reading a sonnet a day… Shakespeare is all around us, even if it’s just in our homes.

In part two, we turn to Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel Hamnet, inspired by Shakespeare’s son who died age 11 in 1596, and whose legacy is said to be present in much of his fathers’ work – most obviously, Hamlet. “It is a story of the bond between twins, and of a marriage pushed to the brink by grief. It is also the story of a kestrel and its mistress; a flea that boards a ship in Alexandria; and a glovemaker’s son who flouts convention in pursuit of the woman he loves.” (Waterstones). The twin of Judith, Sanders points out how this ‘twin’ dynamic runs through plays like Twelfth Night, but are never alluded to in the novel explicitly. Subtle references are used instead, like cross dressing or the beginnings of famous soliloquys, but by this we become closer to Hamnet himself: “we’re so profoundly with him,” says Sanders, “that we also feel the loss of him in the novel”. She’s filling in the gaps, just as us readers of Shakespeare are doing more often than before in lockdown.

Though it may take a little while for the lights in the creative industry to come back on… the members of the creative industries are still very much with us

“Though it may take a little while for the lights in the creative industry to come back on… the members of the creative industries are still very much with us”, ends Sanders. Optimistic, hopeful, and a reminder that there’s still so much that hasn’t stopped – it’s a brilliant, insightful way to kill some of that lockdown time. I’m off to order my body weight in books…

Last modified: 24th April 2020

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