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Yale 62

Shakespeare: understanding “the heavens’ plagues”

By Michael Bristol

It was my shrink who told me “you have the greatest job in the world.” You might want to ponder the irony of a man who has the greatest job in the world looking for help from a shrink, but for once he was right. The job was teaching Shakespeare, reading, and writing and talking about his plays with twenty-something men and women. Vita contemplativa. I was richly compensated for doing this – immaturity keeps you young. The money wasn’t bad either. I enjoyed it for 43 years. And then one day my wife said, “You have to decide if you want to die with your boots on.” Doesn’t this mean you keep going until the job kills you? Too many people die this way, many before their time. But I was lucky. I have the resources for a comfortable retirement. Not everybody has that option.

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Mike Bristol

Mike Bristol

It started in English 34, Maynard Mack’s year-long Shakespeare course. Mack’s genius was achieving a high standard of performance art without looking like he was doing performance art. But you could never doubt he believed in the value of what he was doing. His first lecture on Hamlet introduced the bard as concerned with “Man in his aspect of bafflement . . . where uncertainties are of the essence.” I thought of something I had read by Albert Camus: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.” It almost seemed to me, listening to Mack talk about this, that Shakespeare had been reading Camus when he was writing Hamlet, except Shakespeare said it in fewer words: “To be or not to be.” I’m guessing everybody in that class was all for taking up arms against a sea of troubles, one way or another. Was there an alternative?

When we gathered for the next lecture, Mack did not appear. Instead, his graduate assistant came to the podium to announce that our professor had left to attend his father’s funeral. I found the idea of a man my father’s age attending his own father’s funeral unsettling. A few days later he returned for the final lecture on Hamlet. In the final moments he describes how “four captains” carry Hamlet’s body up to the dark uncertainty on the battlements “where we hope a father waits, but we can never know.” As he turned to leave I was briefly able to see his face, close to tears and disfigured by grief. Outrageous fortune was real, and opposing it was not always possible.

You can read the essay about those lectures in Yale Review, 1952. When you’re finished, turn the page. The next item will be “Vietnam: A Nation Off Balance,” by Paul Mus. His argument was that “men of good will” should commit to restoring equilibrium, armed with little more than what appeared to be good intentions. That sea of troubles was more turbulent than Paul Mus anticipated – we know that now.

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The time of plague officially began with a lockdown here on Friday, March 13, 2020. I celebrated my eightieth birthday on that day with a small group of friends, mostly former students, now pursuing careers in music, in law, in teaching. We enjoyed a birthday cake and spent a long afternoon talking about The Winter’s Tale. A man condemns his wife to death in a frenzy of jealous rage, and orders the murder of his infant daughter. The ensuing death of his son shocks him into awareness. His hysterical suspicions were groundless, his wife was chaste, and he is condemned to live in penance until “what has been lost is found again.” Sixteen years pass. In the final scene we discover that the lives of the wife and the daughter have been spared, leaving open the possibility of reconciliation. For most of us sitting around the table, it was hard to accept the idea that the man should be forgiven for all the damage done. But one tough-minded woman, trained as a prosecutor, used the poetry of the scene to argue that our judgments should bend towards mercy and the possibility of a second chance.

Late in the afternoon the guests got ready to leave. We had to forego the traditional kiss of departure. The sun was setting. Nobody said a word. I felt old. The young singer broke the silence. “Don’t be sad. We’ll all see each other again.” She looked at me and smiled. “You know! It’s in the play… It is required that you do awake your faith.”

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The day after our gathering a tweet appeared in the account of Roseanne Cash: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” Within hours this went viral, ending up on March 22 in The Guardian, where we learn that yes, Shakespeare did write some great plays during a severe outbreak of Bubonic plague, but the closing of the theatres during this period was bad for business. I wondered what question this is supposed to be an answer to. Outbreaks of Yersinia pestis occurred in England throughout Shakespeare’s life, and yet there is no mention of the diseases caused by this pathogen in his plays. Shakespeare’s understanding of plague is Biblical, not epidemiological. Throughout his works plague is a malediction, an unpaid debt for careless disregard of the beauty of other lives and failure to respect the suffering it causes.

King Lear “Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea/ Or swell the curlèd water ‘bove the main, / That things might change or cease.” This is a play where a man’s eyes are gouged out. A father carries the body of his murdered daughter on stage. It shows us death without consolation and the utter destitution of social life. There are no arms to be taken about against the indifferent brutality of the universe. The real plague lies in the heedless cruelty we inflict on each other out of a sense of injured pride, avarice, or ruthless ambition. Maybe Roseanne Cash was right to remind us about King Lear. Shakespeare’s plays do not lie to us. We are lucky to have this gift.

We invite your comments below.

2 comments to Shakespeare: understanding ‘the heavens’ plagues’

  • Brilliant!

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    I am still teaching my class at Yale, but remotely on ZOOM. Yesterday I gave a 2-hour Powerpoint presentation with class discussion. I’d much prefer NO pandemic and being with my students in the flesh.


    • Mike Bristol

      Thanks for your kind words, Alex. And bravo if you’re still teaching! Every teacher I know would rather be in a live classroom than doing Power Point on Zoom. I think the best combination of performance art and Power Point I ever experienced was a year-long lecture course I took with Vincent Scully on modern architecture, except there was no Power Point in those days. Scully used a bank of Carousel slide projectors, aided by the technical genius of a classmate whose name was Simon.