A pandemic can rearrange priorities.
When the world was thrust into the COVID-19 pandemic, things suddenly looked and felt different. Our jobs, our schools, our hobbies and our relationships faced new obstacles. As we experienced revolutions in our usual routines, from Zoom meetings instead of in-person gatherings to wearing masks when going to the grocery store, questions emerged: what else should we do differently, better and safer?
Amid this pandemic came another priority-shifting, tragic event. A video surfaced of Derek Chauvin, a white (now former) Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of unarmed Black man George Floyd for nearly nine minutes until he died. Though Floyd’s death is one of many linked to police actions against Black Americans, it struck a chord both nationally and internationally, sparking protests and riots against police brutality and racism.
At the time I write this, Chauvin has been charged with murder and other officers involved have been charged with aiding and abetting. The Minneapolis City Council has also announced its intent to dismantle the city’s police department and rethink their approach to public safety altogether.
We often hear our current time referred to as “unprecedented”. However, today’s issues share surprising similarities with an era from 400 years ago: Elizabethan England. In particular, one of William Shakespeare’s tragic plays from that period, Romeo and Juliet, explores how pandemics can inspire protest and revolutionize a community.
Moon by PIRO4D (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliet around 1595, according to the Norton Anthology of Shakespeare (Norton, 897). Just two years prior, 15,000 London area residents lost their lives in an outbreak of the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death. A decade later, the plague would claim 36,000 lives in the city, more than a sixth of London’s residents (Norton, 3).
“Physicians were helpless in the face of the epidemic, though they prescribed amulets, preservatives, and sweet-smelling substances (on the theory that the plague was carried by noxious vapors)” (Norton, 3). In our own time, we have experimented with different treatments for COVID-19 while searching for a vaccine, as well as social distancing and quarantines.
Elizabethan England also turned to social distancing in the form of lockdowns and closures to keep people apart and to keep disease from spreading.
“The London plague regulations of 1583, reissued with modifications in later epidemics, ordered that the infected and the vagrants be expelled; and that funerals and plays be restricted or banned entirely” (Norton, 3). These restrictions on plays due to the plague collided directly with Shakespeare’s career. There have been similar government-issued guidelines intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, from the Restore Illinois plan to the Safer Sex and COVID-19 guidelines published by the New York City Health Department.
Londoners during the Elizabethan era were also familiar with protests, though for a far different range of reasons than the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Whereas the modern protests are motivated by class and race inequities, protests in Shakespeare’s time were more often related to class and religion. These Elizabethan demonstrations would often begin in theaters and sometimes had a “carnival atmosphere”. From 1581 to 1602 there were 35 protests in the city, including 12 in June 1595 (Norton, 8). In fact, a friend of Shakespeare was part of a land use protest against a Stratford landlord in 1601, six years after Romeo and Juliet was written. Later that year, the same friend was elected bailiff, the highest elected office in Stratford (Norton, 9, 43).
Bradley Greenburg’s analysis of Shakespeare’s narrative poem “Venus & Adonis” for the Reading Pandemics”series reminds readers that not all works written during pandemics are about pandemics. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet isn’t directly about pandemics or protests. Still, the play’s historical context is ever present in its language and plot.
While the bubonic plague was raging through the streets of London, Shakespeare wrote about a societal disease ravaging the streets of fictional Verona in Romeo &and Juliet. This “disease” is the Capulet-Montague families feud.
The play begins: “Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.1-4). Spoken by a chorus, this opening passage presents the feud as a central concern of the work, mentioned even before the titular “star crossed lovers”, Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague. From this opening, the audience learns that the grudge between the Capulets and Montagues is “ancient” but can re-emerge. Here, we can already see similarities with the Black Death, which impacted England since at least the 1300s, according to research from the University of Sheffield, and re-emerged in Shakespeare’s time.
No explanation is offered for why the Capulet and Montague households have an “ancient grudge” against each other. Regardless, the vague quarrel hangs over every moment of the work. In both its mysterious nature and its inescapable influence on character actions, this feud mimics the impact of the Black Death and COVID-19 pandemics in their respective eras. In the third line of the play, Shakespeare explains how the “civil blood” of the play’s main families and their “civil hands” are made “unclean” by their feud. This links the feud with a physical impact on the body, another mirror of the plague.
As the story of Romeo and Juliet progresses, the feud continues to function like a pandemic in the way it separates people — including Romeo and Juliet — from one another and renders public spaces in Verona dangerous.
“Three civil brawls bred of an airy word / By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, / Have thrice disturbed the quiet of our streets,” the Prince of Verona says in admonishment to the elder heads of both houses after their younger family members engage in a fight during the play’s first act (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.82-84).
Of all the characters in Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt, one of the men involved in this fight, is most motivated by the feud. A nephew of Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, Tybalt is eager to brawl with men from the Montague household. Despite his uncle’s wishes, he also attempts to fight Romeo at Capulet’s house party. Later on, he brushes off Romeo’s attempts to put an end to the quarrels, a fatal mistake.
Tybalt admits the physical effect the feud has over him when Capulet tells him not to engage in a fight with Romeo: “Patience perforce with willful choler meeting / Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting. / I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall, / Now seeming sweet, convert to bitt’rest gall” (Romeo and Juliet 1.5.86-89). He references both “choler” and “gall”, words associated with yellow bile, one of the four “humors” thought to make up the body, according to the medical practices of Shakespeare’s time. Apart from their physical functions, the humors were also believed to impact one’s emotional state. Choler represented a bitter or angry temperament, blood a friendly temperament, phlegm a lethargic temperament and black bile a melancholic temperament.
Anger rises in Tybalt when he is forced to refrain from fighting Romeo, but he vows to infect or “convert” Romeo with this choleric temperament. Romeo, however, experiences a more melancholic type of suffering from the feud in the form of painful, sorrowful love for Rosaline and Juliet, both members of the Capulet family. When he talks about his love for both women, Romeo references grief, pain and death. “Bid a sick man in sadness make his will, / A word ill urged to no one that is so ill. In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman,” Romeo tells his cousin Benvolio, in reference to his infatuation with Rosaline near the start of the play (Romeo & Juliet 1.1.195-197).
Romeo explains that Rosaline has vowed to remain chaste and won’t return his affections. While Romeo and Juliet fall in love later on that night during the famous balcony scene, Juliet tells Romeo to leave for fear of him being killed by her family members. “I have night’s cloak to hide me from their eyes, / And but, thou love me, let them find me here. / My life were better ended by their hate / Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love,” Romeo tells her (Romeo and Juliet 2.1.117-120). (
Sir John Gilbert – Melhoramentos Edition Romeo and Juliet,Act II- Scene-VI before 1873) (Public Domain / Wikimedia)
Tybalt’s “choleric” tendencies and obsession with the feud spur him to instigate a sword fight that begins a domino effect of tragedy. In the course of this fight, the overarching feud becomes increasingly contagious, causing death outside of the Capulet and Montague households. “A plague o’ both your houses,” says Mercutio, the first casualty of the play, in his dying moments (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.87). These stinging words are directed at Romeo, Mercutio’s best friend.
Tybalt targeted Mercutio specifically because of this connection to Romeo, proving that in Verona, association can be as fatal as an airborne pathogen. During the fight scene Shakespeare’s language choice also conjures an image of the painful underarm glands those suffering with the bubonic plague would experience.
Though Romeo attempts to break up this fight, the growing pandemic of hate and violence moves too fast for him to stop it. “A braggart, a rogue / a villain that fights by the book of arithmetic! Why the devil / came you between us? I was hurt under your arm,” Mercutio adds a few beats after he is wounded (Romeo and Juliet 3.1.96-98). With a clarity that few others in the play possess, Mercutio sees that his demise isn’t an arbitrary event. It is a symptom of a larger, diseased system that his friend is party to.
Before he utters one of the most memorable mentions of “plague” in the text, Mercutio first brings up the word when he tells lovesick Romeo a cautionary tale about a fairy queen.
“She gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; / O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream of curtsies straight; / O’er ladies lips who straight on kisses dream, / Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues / Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are” (Romeo and Juliet 1.4.71-76). He knew then that Romeo’s romantic desire for Capulets was inextricably linked with danger.
Romeo am Totenbett der Julia, by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1809) (Public Domain / Wikimedia)
The Montague-Capulet feud existed long before Romeo and Juliet met, but their willingness to protest the status quo by loving rather than hating one another brought it to a head.
By the last scene of the play, six people have perished after coming in contact with the feud. Apart from Mercutio, there are Romeo and Juliet, both who take their own lives. Romeo also slays Tybalt and Paris, a man who was in negotiations with Juliet’s father to marry her. Upon arriving at the Capulet burial vault to find the bodies of Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt and Paris, Montague reveals that Romeo’s mother committed suicide when she heard the news about her son.
As the play closes, Capulet and Montague are finally forced to face the fallout of a quarrel they allowed to spread through Verona like a plague. “See what scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love,” says the Prince, admonishing the two houses yet again. “All are punished,” he adds (Romeo and Juliet 5.3.291-294).
Despite the carnage and sorrow, Shakespeare ends this tragic tale with a shred of hope that Romeo and Juliet’s act of protest will lead their families to abandon fighting in favor of healing.
“O brother Montague, give me thy hand. / This is my daughter’s jointure, for no more/ Can I demand,” says Capulet, moved by his child’s daring dedication to love” (Romeo and Juliet 5.3.296-297). Montague responds, “But I can give thee more, / For I will raise her statue in pure gold, / That whiles Verona by that name is known / There shall no figure at such rate be set / As that of true and faithful Juliet” (Romeo and Juliet 5.3.298-301).
In Ryan Poll’s article for the Reading Pandemics series, he explains how Giovanni Boccaccio’s depiction of utopia during a plague could help us survive today’s pandemic. Romeo and Juliet shows how, through the chaos of a pandemic, protest can help forge a new vision of society. In a world of uncertainty, being defiant enough to choose love over tradition can be dangerous. Even so, Shakespeare imagined protest as a path to healing while facing some of the same struggles we grapple with today.