On Good Friday morning, I was driving in my car and I saw the purple cloth draped over a cross at a local Catholic church. It reminded me that it was Easter. I keep a notebook in my car, to jot down thoughts and phrases that come into my head. “It is a time of resurrection, of life returning,” I wrote. “Relearning the habits of being alive.”
Pandemics do not end. They fade into the background. There is no declaration, no celebration in Time’s Square. It’s a process of reorienting yourself, relearning the habits of being alive. Two years ago, my family and I, in our separate houses, watched a livestream of Andrea Bocelli singing in Milan’s empty cathedral, as drone footage showed all of the deserted city centers. I feel a strange nostalgia for those early days, when we were all in lockdown, dazed and confused and recognizing that everyone– everyone on earth– was experiencing the same thing. Today the suffering is diffuse. The big collective efforts happened back then. Picking up the pieces, we’re much more on our own.
A short time after I wrote these thoughts, I tested positive for COVID. (Before you ask, I am vaccinated.) What came as a surprise to me was how emotionally light I felt. After two years of disruption, of constant mitigation and anxiety, the undercurrent of danger, suddenly here was something concrete. For the first time in two years I was not in limbo. There was a floor under me. I had forgotten how certainty felt. I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing the right things or how anyone was judging my actions. I just need to be sick and get over it. That I know how to do.
In March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I read an article in the New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt called “What Shakespeare Actually Wrote about the Plague.” Greenblatt wrote, “It is… striking… that in his plays and poems Shakespeare almost never directly represents the plague…In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone…”
I remember making a note to myself that I should give some thought to why this might be. Pandemics, I decided, made for poor drama. We like stories of human heroes and villains, where people’s actions produce results. Contagion is too indiscriminate. Perhaps audiences, confronted with so much death, wanted escapism not more of what was already around them.
But as time wore on, the idea of the plague being a “steady low-level undertone” became entirely understandable. Unless you are a doctor or nurse, illness is not the main experience of living through a pandemic. The vast majority of people, even before vaccines, survived their infections. So for most people the overarching pandemic experience is disruption.
Illness recedes, but does not disappear. Life fades in, and then back out. Plans are made, and plans break down. Everything is uncertain and difficult and just a bit of a mess. Viruses are impersonal. They make for unsatisfying villains. Because we can’t go to war with them, we battle each other instead.
Greenblatt noted that only one of Shakespeare’s plays directly references the plague. It is Romeo and Juliet. The plague is the context that keeps a messenger from conveying the important information to exiled Romeo that Juliet is not dead she just appears to be. The messenger is forced to quarantine, can’t get word to Romeo, he arrives and finds Juliet dead and the scene is set for the final tragedy.
We usually talk about Romeo and Juliet as a great love story. But it is not a story of love conquering anything. Romeo, as the play opens, is infatuated with another woman, also a Capulet. What Romeo and Juliet have is not great love, but youthful love. It is passionate, innocent and foolish. Romeo and Juliet are not wordly-wise enough to accept the social constraints of the feuding families. In Romeo and Juliet, the insignificant plot device of the plague reminds us that this is a world where nothing is certain, any plans can be disrupted, and the one thing people feel they have control over is their hatred for “the other.” That is, until the innocent young people remind them of the high price of their foolishness. It is a world a lot like our own.