How did Shakespeare Survive the Plague?

[Bubonic and Naysayers]

‘Run!’ ‘What are we running from?!’

These are hard times, and being true to oneself may seem even harder. Yet, if you think you are alone in this unique and trying time, read on, my dear. Read on:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Sonnet 29, written around 1592, William Shakespeare

In his late 20s at the time of writing this, Shakespeare - yes, the great Shakespeare - seems to have been having some hard times. There was a plague going on in London which killed 15,000 people (about 10% of the population at the time), but more than that, Shakespeare seems to have feared failure more than anything.

Kind of ironic that the most successful writer in the history of the English language feared failure. He was only 28 at this time - adjusted for inflation, he would be late 40s today - but well into his writing career with a few plays being performed, but nothing of grand success. In fact, we really don’t see Shakespeare pop up on any map (beyond marriage and children) until 1592. And sadly, his appearance on the map came in a pretty bad light.

Hard to imagine Ole Bill Shakes as a struggling writer. As an outcast trying to stay true to himself.

So what happened? What is this chapter of William’s life that made him so melancholic? What brought about this constant state of anxiety for him? What made him write about this ‘disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’?

Well, for one, as we mentioned just above, he wasn’t really established as a writer yet. Yes, he had written a play (1590) that was being performed, but his ‘greatest’ works were still in the years to come. At best, during these times, they were only rough sketches in his mind.

Beyond that, he was already being looked down on by society and his more successful peers. The most known (and recorded) one was from a fellow playwright named Robert Greene…

Apparently being called an ‘an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’ was a pretty nasty insult.

there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.’

So I guess we can say Greene wasn’t a fan of ‘Skake-scene’, calling him a ‘Jack of all trades’ in a bad way, ‘Johannes factotum’, and not in the ‘universal genius’ sort of way. Basically, Greene and some of the other ‘University Wits’ didn’t like this non-university-educated writer that may have shown some skill in their world.

As talented as Shakespeare was though, the criticism stung. Self-doubt always being the writer’s closest companion, getting no love from the outside really makes a man feel crushed. It was no doubt hard for Shakespeare to see at the time, it is even hard for us today, but we all have ‘Robert Greene’s in our lives that make life more difficult and scarier than it already is.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how scary it can be to be ‘fairly’ young in a new big city trying to find your feet with people judging you for your decisions, all the while being genuinely scared that your honest intentions will just make you a broke idiot in the end. Then again, maybe I can just relate to that too much.

To add to all of this drama - maybe now we can see why he was such a great dramatist - there was the return of the bubonic plague. There were riots, the queen ran to hide, and the government shut down all the bars and theatres for 6 months. Our Bill Shake wasn’t just trying to shake the name-calling (pun intended), but he was also trying to avoid financial ruin.

So Bill was in his late 20s - over halfway through his life - and worried about failure. We can’t blame him that he worried about his future. Every human that chases a dream and stays true to himself does.

The man is in pain as he is left using his genius to ponder his idiocy and bad luck rather than to focus on his art. He is heartbroken that he may not be able to do the job he loves most. And what’s worse, he only has to look around to see that others are actually succeeding at what he is trying to do himself, all while keeping a high level of esteem and confidence.

We see or hear this for the first time, and we can’t help but think what an absurdity it must be. The most famous writer in English literature (and possibly the world) could be so defeated and distraught over failure. That he, of all people, was scared of being a disgraced nobody.

Having said that, true greatness for writers does not come from being lucky or having an easy life. Bear in mind, true greatness is not about book sales here, you can sell pet rocks with the right marketing. I’m talking about something that lasts beyond the writer, something that goes beyond generational trends. Great writers, in their most basic form, are those who know to write with a rare truthfulness about the things we all feel but don’t speak about ourselves. They know how to capture, in a special way, the panic and sadness of ordinary life.

Still, though, Shakespeare did overcome these fears and went on to become a better man for it. But how?

It’s been a long introduction to get to this part of the article. And though I find it important to learn about Shakespeare and to see him as a human, the point of this article is that we can also use him as a guide for our own lives. One of his greatest lessons was to show us how we can turn fear away.

To conquer fear is to sit calmly (and perhaps write a few sonnets) with what scares us most.

We should dive into those terrifying scenarios with full imagination to drain the worry and anxiety of all of its absurdity, of all of its power. We have to stop looking at what frightens us most through the corners of our eyes with shame, but confront them head-on with a locked and unwavering glare.

Shakespeare openly (through his writing we know) contemplated on all that ‘might’ happen. He imagined the worst-case scenarios coming to light and what might really happen to him if they did. He is vulnerable to this self-torture and honest about his suffering.

We can only imagine those closest to him must have suffered a little as well. Yet, he faces these demons in order to break free from them. To break free from this horrendous sense of aloneness and inability to accept the ‘unacceptable’.

By doing this, he was not only able to become a better person, but he was able to universalize these fears and feelings we all suffer and then give them out like a hand of friendship to his readers (and fellow writers).

Cheers, Will.

Yet, if we go back to our Sonnet 29 - which I am now thinking has more to do with him at age 29 than his 29th sonnet - we see we aren’t quite to the crux of his message.

Shakespeare had some sort of revelation that he shares through this sonnet. He realized that his desire to be successful was actually a desire to be respected and liked. Of course, money and fame were a nice attraction, but underneath that superficial desire was a craving to be well thought of for his work, for his mind, and for what he believed in.

Broken down even further, it is a quest of love that hides within our ambitions to ‘be somebody’.

Once we make peace with this concept, we can give ourselves a chance at redemption. We can start by putting a few things into perspective by breaking down what we really want and need. We can realize that:

  • We don’t really need our society as a whole to approve of us.

  • We don’t have to have everybody believe we are right.

  • Let the Robert Greenes of the world - as well as all of his heirs: be it co-workers, family members, mainstream media, or social media - have their jokes and judgments at our expense, let them be nasty and ugly, but then be done with them.

All we really need is the love of a few close friends or perhaps, just one really special person. With that, we can take on the world.

‘Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.’

We have each other.

It sounds very romantic this whole concept, but it is William Shakespeare we are talking about, remember? Yet, there is truth to it. With just the love and true connection of one single delicate and authentic being, we can somehow overcome the loss of love from the world. We are, as Shakespeare puts it, better off than ‘kings’.

And let’s be honest with ourselves, fame in any form is a very unreliable, if not unrealistic, goal that requires us to be fortunate more than anything. Fortune (despite what our capitalistic culture implies) can’t be given to all. More than that, with success and popularity, comes envy and jealousy. And no doubt, we’ve all done something, we have all made mistakes, that could be used against it should the wrong person wish to do so.

Knowing this, we can see that we don’t need the love of the masses, we need affectionate and understanding friends or a partner with whom we share a very profound and endearing connection.

Let others live with their condemning looks and judgmental thoughts. We will be secure in a world of harsh gossip and country-debilitating viruses. We will know we have someone(s) that doesn’t need us to do anything to have a place in their hearts.

I got you.

Shakespeare captured this sentiment perfectly in his sonnet 29. It’s why we still know of it today. It stands the test of time because of its profound sincerity about what it is to be human, about the anxiety and fear that plagues us all, and more importantly, it provides the solution to this universal problem. A solution we know to be correct even when it seems beyond our reach at the time.

At the end of the day, or at the end of our lives, things may turn out okay.

  • The virus pandemic may finally come to an end

  • Our fiscal fortune may turn around

  • The outrageous rumors about us may finally die down

Whatever happens, even if it all goes wrong and we are the monster in the story of so many and we start to have those moments of crippling anxiety, especially those that always seem to happen late at night, we have a safe place to retreat to. We have a place we can find strength and comfort in those few, but honest, generous, and mature souls that we share our lives with who understand forgiveness and compassion and understanding.

They know about our horrible nicknames and our troublesome past, yet they don’t reduce us to that. They love us like a parent loves a child or how a god gives love to his earthly creations.

We may fail, but we don’t have to fear hell. Love is redemption for us all.
- Me, I’m a poet too.

We can face the challenges we give ourselves and that life throws at us with a bit more grounding and even with a smile because we have someone that believes in us and loves us despite our flaws. Shakespeare was a clever man, far beyond being a wordsmith. He lived. And when we have moments of panic in our own lives, we should trust in all the wisdom he gave us (however confusing his clever words may seem at times).


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