Shakespeare at a distance: When the playhouses close but performance continues

Watercolor sketch of the Globe stage
Watercolor sketch of the Globe stage by Cyril Walter Hodges. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the closure of theaters around the world, and it might seem at first glance that the theater community has come to a grinding halt. Yet amazingly, thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of its members, the opposite is true. Even as theaters sit empty, performance endures.

This was also the case in Shakespeare’s day. Late in the summer of 1610, the King’s Men were forced to leave London due to an outbreak of plague. As the death toll rose, the playhouses were shuttered, just as they had been on a number of occasions in recent memory. Provincial destinations were now much safer (and much more lucrative) than the city, so Shakespeare’s theater company found another way to keep the show going: they packed up and took a few shows on the road. Even with their usual performance spaces closed, the company’s theatrical activity continued.

One of the stops on this particular tour was a town that Shakespeare, by this time near the end of his career, likely knew well: Oxford. The troupe was hired by the municipal government and probably performed in the town hall. They brought with them two shows: Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, which begins with a wealthy Englishman being forced to leave London due to plague, and Shakespeare’s Othello.

University of Oxford
David Loggan. Illustration of the University of Oxford from Oxonia illustrata, 1675. Folger Shakespeare Library.

We know how these plays were received from the survival of a rare kind of document: a copy of a letter written by the clergyman Henry Jackson, who was apparently in attendance. According to Jackson, the audience was delighted by a moment in Jonson’s play that poked fun at an unpopular religious sect, leading the spectators to collectively burst into applause. But it was a character from Shakespeare’s play who stole the show. Desdemona, Jackson recorded in Latin, elicited tears from the audience not only in life but also in death: “while stretched out on her bed she begged the spectators’ pity with her very facial expression.”

Technically speaking, academics from the University of Oxford were not allowed to attend, since the Chancellor had banned them from going to theatrical performances in town. But they evidently did: Jackson himself was a scholar of Corpus Christi College, and his letter suggests that there were plenty of other academics in what he describes as a crowded theater. Shakespeare was a favorite among the undergraduates of early modern Oxford; despite official prohibitions, they frequently sought his works both in person and in print. But while many students in the audience in 1610 may have been familiar with Shakespeare already, others would have been new to his works—and almost everyone would have been new to Othello, which was not printed until 1622.

In the midst of what must have been a terrifying moment for the students of early modern Oxford—many had family in London, and more still would remember the recent outbreaks that had taken the lives of a substantial portion of the population—Shakespeare’s play may have offered some welcome relief, and been one of their most formative undergraduate experiences. Whether they came because they loved Shakespeare’s plays, or because they sought to escape for a brief time the terror of the national situation, we can’t be sure. But it seems that the Oxford spectators, in laughing at Jonson’s ridicule and weeping at Shakespeare’s tragedy, transcended for a moment the existential threat wreaking havoc just fifty miles away.

London bill of mortality recording number of plague deaths
London, Bill of Mortality, 1609. Folger Shakespeare Library.

There has been a great deal of focus in the past couple of weeks on the fact that Shakespeare found ways to continue creating art during plague-time. The plague of 1593, scholars have long surmised, may have caused him to take up writing poetry while the London playhouses were closed; this was the year Venus and Adonis was published. The plague of 1606 may have led to King Lear. But, perhaps even more significantly, plagues did not stop people from having new encounters with his art, or from having the kinds of collective experiences that theatrical performance allows. Not even college students, who weren’t supposed to be seeing his plays anyway.

So is there a lesson to be learned from the King’s Men’s 1610 visit to Oxford? Perhaps that art can offer some refuge during these frightening, unsettling times—and that we should seek out the communal experience it offers, even when our communities need to exist at a distance.

With our own modern playhouses now shuttered, theater troupes can’t simply take their shows on the road—at least not in the literal sense. In a global pandemic, touring productions don’t provide economic lifelines in the way they did during outbreaks of plague in the early modern period. The consequences for creative artists have been dire, leaving many in the performance community wondering how they will pay for basic necessities in the weeks and months ahead. The sobering truth is that not every theater company will survive: as in Shakespeare’s London, our modern theatrical landscape will be hurt by this outbreak.

Yet even in the face of these grim financial realities, theaters around the world have gone to great lengths to ensure that audience members can continue to engage with the arts while they’re in isolation. Technology allows artistic performance to continue in a way that Shakespeare couldn’t have imagined. This continuation of art during a plague won’t just provide Shakespearean performances for those already familiar with his works. It will also introduce Shakespeare to new audiences who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to see or hear his works performed.

There are multiple ways you can continue to support the arts community; for instance, you can pay to watch performances online. Some organizations, such as the American Shakespeare Center based in Staunton, Virginia, are streaming past productions for a fee and using the proceeds to support the company. You might also consider converting tickets for canceled shows into tax-deductible donations to the theater, rather than asking for a refund, so that they can continue to pay the cast, creative team, and staff. Or you might consider a contribution to the emergency Curtain Up Fund set up by the Actors’ Equity Association. Supporting performers now will ensure that we can come together in a crowded auditorium to watch them in the future.

Production photo from Much Ado About Nothing
Jessika Williams and Meg Rodgers in Much Ado About Nothing, 2020. American Shakespeare Center. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The audience members of these digital performances, of course, will not be in the same room with each other. But they will nonetheless be sharing a communal experience, watching and being moved by the same artistic production, even if they can’t hear or see each other’s immediate reactions. These initiatives serve as a powerful reminder that performance is as valuable to audiences in our cultural moment as it was to those in Shakespeare’s. At the same time, they remind us of the resilience of the performers who make them possible.