City Life – Shakespeare in Pandemic-Era Delhi, Hauz Khas Enclave
Shakespearean scholar on corona.
[By Mayank Austen Soofi]
Shakespeare invented the human — at least this is what is suggested by the title of an acclaimed book on the great playwright. Although he presumably never left his native England, Shakespeare’s collected plays are said to contain, in a most beautiful language, almost every human feeling and experience known to people across times and cultures. Now imagine if he had lived through this year of pandemic in Delhi. What would he have made of it? Author Jonathan Gil Harris, the former president of the Shakespeare Society of India and a professor of literature in Ashoka University, spent his lockdown isolation in a spacious house in Hauz Khas Enclave, and mostly on his great balcony. He gives The Delhi Walla his take on this. In his own words.
Shakespeare was no stranger to pandemic. It shaped his thinking, his language and his career in ways that might seem uncannily familiar to us here in India.
Picture this: an epidemic is ravaging the capital. Healthy people fall ill with fever, aches, and dry coughs; many die within a matter of days. Fear grips the city. A migrant worker, one of many in a city swollen by people desperate for economic opportunity, faces a difficult decision. His livelihood has disappeared overnight: the place where he has worked, located in a poor informal settlement in the city’s northeast, has shut down, and his company has disbanded. He has to find another source of income. And that means walking back to his village, about sixty kilometres from the city – or finding employment elsewhere in the countryside, far away from the outbreak.
A Dilli worker from UP? A Mumbai labourer from Bihar? No. This migrant worker was Shakespeare, who had arrived in London from his native Stratford just two or three years before the devastating plague pandemic of 1592-3, which killed maybe as many as 10% of London’s population. He was at that time an actor – a poorly paid profession – and a journeyman playwright.
Shakespeare survived, obviously. His forced relocation led him to find new employment as a poet for hire. Under the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, he wrote and published his first works: two poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These helped gain him money and some reputation. But all his subsequent work bears the silent imprint of the trauma wrought by the pandemic. Many of his plays – Romeo and Juliet, Coriolanus, Pericles, The Tempest – speak of the horrors of sudden, enforced exile; others – Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens – address the trauma of the sudden loss of income. And all his post-plague plays express a fear that the flesh is heir to a “thousand shocks,” as Hamlet puts it.
Shakespeare prospered. But the pandemic left him with a lasting sense of the fragility of life, livelihood, and home.
Professor at home