It’s not exactly any great secret that regular social events have been somewhat curtailed over the past two years. This is something that has happened many times in the past, of course. But never in such an age of social media and global connectivity. Yet if there is an all time champion in the art of returning as if from the dead, it has to be Shakespeare. And we at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge are big fans.
William Shakespeare himself was no stranger to the sorts of events that we have all recently gone through. Full on plague was endemic back them, with regular outbreaks occurring every few years. A disease far more severe and serious than our recent toils. And there was no “industry” harder hit by plague than the Theatre.
Back then theatres were crowded, noisy affairs. Standing room only for the majority of the population. And so perfect locations for disease transmission to occur. As a result there was an ordinance in London that whenever plague deaths reached a certain level, theatres had to close. Between 1603 and 1613, at the height of Shakespeare’s career, his Globe theatre was closed half the time!
But it was worse than that. We’ve all had recent first hand experience of the effects rumours of a disease outbreak can cause. And that’s in our modern world, where so much of what actually causes disease is known. Back then, with the dearth of knowledge and fear of the plague, the mere rumour of an outbreak could kill off any performance. Even without official sanction.
So surely the survival of this icon of English culture was deemed one of the great triumphs of the era. Right?
Well actually…not so much.
William Shakespeare enjoys a cult celebrity status in the modern era. He is The Bard. The Wordsmith. The Royal Shakespeare Company is a bone fide national treasure, hosting some of the finest actors to have ever graced the stage. The city of his birth, Stratford upon Avon, is on the map of cultural hotspots because of him. And Cambridge itself is very happy to be currently hosting its annual outdoors Cambridge Shakespeare Festival for the first time in full for three years.
But in the 17th century
he was merely considered to be a great playwright. A top tier literary figure perhaps, but one of many. Instead it was the Victorians of the 19th century who elevated him to Goat status. And they did this in a way that seems almost insane to our 21st century viewpoint – they turned him into a Christian quasi prophet.
As in, it became a mainstream Christian attitude to hold up Shakespeare’s works as those of divine revelation. To actively take his plays as source material for sermons, rather than bible passages. Yes, that’s the same Shakespeare often praised for his understanding of human nature by atheistic or post-religious groups today!
Simply put, the Bard always survives. Always comes back. His work has survived plagues; iconoclastic purges by Puritans; elevation to cult status; countless rewrites; and even conversion into some sort of Christian literary icon. Is it any wonder then, that he has survived a pandemic to return to us here in Cambridge? We at the Varsity Hotel are happy to see him back.