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Stratford Festival's Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino photographed in Toronto on Sept. 26, 2016.

Chris Young/Canadian Press

Much has been made recently, in forums as diverse as Facebook and the Journal of the American Medical Association, of the suggestion that when Shakespeare wrote King Lear in 1606 he was in quarantine because of the plague. One Twitter wag had, to my mind, the last word: “Thank God Netflix didn’t exist then.”

A frequent visitor throughout much of human history, plague was a particular threat in England at the start of the 17th century. Its regular flare-ups demanded constant precautions, a precursor of the “new normal” we ourselves may have to endure for the next 18 months while a vaccine against COVID-19 is developed. In Shakespeare’s London, the playhouses were closed whenever deaths exceeded 30 a week. Today, theatres around the world likewise sit dark and empty.

I reflect on this as I sit in isolation, missing the rich experience of rehearsing Richard III at the Stratford Festival with a cast of Canada’s finest players. On the Monday morning in mid-March that we decided to stop work on that production, along with the others in our 2020 season, I called Martha Henry (playing the Duchess of York) at home to let her know. I ultimately had to beg her to not come into the theatre, as her dedication to her art and her love for the festival were telling her to keep working. “Well,” she eventually and reluctantly agreed, “I would never do anything that would make you unhappy.” Artistic directors must welcome small victories, however they come about.

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Now a month since that sad day, we are mounting our own small act of resistance against the pandemic that has silenced our stages. On April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday, we’ll launch a series of free online showings of the 12 Stratford Festival productions that we’ve filmed over the past few years. The first of these is King Lear.

When I directed that production in 2014, with Colm Feore in the title role, I urged the cast and creative team to consider how the issues it raises relate to our own experience. Today, this play – which documents not only the breakdown of an old king and the destruction of two families but also the disruption of an entire country – seems almost prophetic.

It was written in tough times. In 1606, despite the rise of a mercantile middle class and expanding international trade, an extreme gulf had arisen between rich and poor. Great divisions had opened up between king and parliament that within 40 years would lead a generation to civil war and the beheading of a monarch. The same English nationalism that centuries later would fuel Brexit was impeding King James’s efforts to unite England and Scotland to create Britain. Nationalism was on the rise across Europe; so, too, were absolutism and autocracy. Factionalism and extremism made understanding between political parties nearly impossible. The class and age divide was exacerbated by the plague, which preyed on the poor and was especially deadly to those under 35. (It decimated the ranks of the boy players who were a major competition to Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men.)

Similar societal and political tensions underlie many of the questions that preoccupy us in the current pandemic. To contain the virus, do we co-operate and share medical supplies, or shut down all borders and keep what is ours? Democracy or autocracy: Which will better manage this crisis? Will this bring us – Republican or Democrat, young or old, rich or poor – together, or drive us apart as never before? Like the bubonic plague of Shakespeare’s time, COVID-19 discriminates by class and age, disproportionately striking the poor and – in this case – the elderly. What price are we willing to pay to protect them? What dollar figure can we set on human life?

Numbers are everywhere now, as we count new cases and new deaths, the enormous cost of economic relief packages and the changing value of the stock market. In King Lear too, arithmetic is everywhere. The play begins with the division of a kingdom, goes on to pit the “additions” (or honours) due to a king against the depredations of his subtractors, and explores throughout the terrifying idea of becoming “nothing.”

Nothing. That mathematical concept – the idea that you could have a zero without a figure in front of it – was still relatively new to European thought in 1606. How could something exist yet be invisible? But Lear, like the homeless and the poor, becomes such a thing. Today, the friends and neighbours who turn up as digits on the CNN chyron become such a thing. What does it take to see the human realities beyond those abstract ciphers?

Perhaps Shakespeare has provided us with the glimmer of an answer. King Lear shocks us with extreme acts of cruelty, such as the blinding of the king’s loyal prime minister, the Earl of Gloucester, by Lear’s daughter Regan and son-in-law the Duke of Cornwall. It also shows us characters who discover true empathy for others and thereby become members of a larger human family.

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After his blinding, bleeding and lost on the heath, Gloucester gives money to someone he thinks is a mad and homeless beggar. In his pain, loss and blindness, this man of power and politics realizes that his own past selfishness and excess led him to his present condition. Acknowledging his sins as a “lust-dieted man … that will not see / Because he does not feel,” he admits, “I stumbled when I saw.”

The person he takes for a derelict is, in fact, his estranged son, whom he previously drove from his house and tried to hunt down. To protect himself, that son, Edgar, has assumed the guise of a madman. Discovering that his father is lost and longing for death, he becomes his guide, his eyes, and tries to cure his heart of despair. These words of Gloucester’s may capture how we all may feel at times today: “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.”

Later, Gloucester meets another madman. This time it’s Lear, the once arrogant and absolutist monarch now reduced to near nakedness. The former king, reflecting on the inequity and injustice of his society, asks of his former prime minister, “Yet you see how this world goes?” Gloucester gives an answer that is perhaps the first step to a better world: “I see it feelingly.”

To see feelingly is not only to see the facts, the statistics and the numbers, but also to understand and empathize with the circumstances that give them context. It opens the door of the heart to take actions that redress wrongs and bring justice.

Of course, as we are learning today, it is much easier to diagnose the errors of the past than to find our path to a better future, and Shakespeare offers us no false hope. It’s always interesting to note where his stories depart from their source material, for those departures reveal something of his craft and, perhaps, of his point of view. In the case of King Lear, his vision seems especially bleak – even bleaker, perhaps, than the reality on which it drew.

Scholar Alan Nelson made a remarkable discovery about the household of one William Tailer, who lived near Shakespeare’s rented apartment in London’s St Olave’s parish. Archival records show that, in late 1605, the plague killed Tailer, his two sons and two servants – but his newborn daughter survived. She was christened with a name unusual for the time: Cordelia. This happened as Shakespeare began work on King Lear.

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Did Shakespeare know this family? Did he transmute their tragedies into one even darker? For while Tailer’s Cordelia survived, her namesake in King Lear does not. Even though Lear, in his journey through madness, finds social justice, faith in humanity and love – and thereby discovers his soul – Cordelia’s death, along with his own, suggests that there is no victory for hope in this world. And yet ...

At a time of disease and deep division, perhaps Shakespeare was inviting us – especially those who are young – to write a different story within our own lives, the lives of our families and, ultimately, the life of our whole world. “And worse I may be yet,” Edgar says in the play. “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” But Edgar does not give up. Nor can we. We too must “see feelingly” and act accordingly. Perhaps this time of plague will afford us an opportunity for a new start: a new world of empathy in which numbers alone do not dictate human worth.

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