Thursday, March 19, 2020

What did you do during COVID-19? -- March 19, 2020 column


When plague shuttered London theaters, William Shakespeare wrote poetry.

COVID-19 has shut down just about everything. What are you doing?

It’s tempting – and depressing -- to obsess on the rising numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Bingeing on Netflix will get old. How many puzzles can you do?

Or, you could take a cue from Shakespeare.

“Tradition has it that Shakespeare wrote his two long poems, `Venus and Adonis’ and `The Rape of Lucrece,’ during a period of forced unemployment in 1592-94, when an outbreak of the plague closed London’s theaters,” according to Folgerpedia, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s encyclopedia.

The bubonic plague or black death, spread by fleas on rats and mice, was a recurring and devastating fact in Shakespeare’s time and in his personal life. He was born during a plague period of 1563-1564, and his three sisters died of plague. His son Hamnet also died of plague.

When the plague death toll rose to 30 a week in London, the government shut down the theaters. Shakespeare and others who could headed for the countryside.

In our time, we stay home. Lucky people are working from home; others face “forced unemployment.” For how long, no one knows.

Congress and the White House are working to ease financial hardship, but after years of wishing we had more time at home, many Americans are discovering we have too much time on our well-soaped hands.

In Washington, the Folger, Smithsonian museums, National Zoo, National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, Capitol, Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery are all closed to visitors.

Most tourist favorites around the country have exchanged the “Welcome” sign for one that reads “Do Not Disturb.” Almost all diversions are suspended. Gyms are closed, and bars and restaurants are operating under shorter hours or take-out only.

Large gatherings are out, so you can’t go to the movies, see a play or a concert. Sports are on hiatus too. The Outer Banks has banned tourists as a precaution for residents.

But nobody said you must stay indoors – just six feet away from other humans.

National and Virginia state parks are open, although visitors’ centers are closed. National parks that charge admission fees are waiving them, an incentive to get outside. It’s a good idea to take your own water bottle and not drink from water fountains, experts say.  

Take up bird watching, gardening or another hobby you never had time for. Stuck inside? Bake bread.

Or watch an opera from the Met in New York, streaming free at 7:30 p.m. daily for as long as the Met is closed. You may find a crowd online, but each opera is up for 20 hours, so you can check back.

The Library of Congress has canceled its wonderful concerts and other programs for now, but its YouTube channel puts previous performances at your fingertips.

Or tour a museum through, which offers an amazing array of cultural sites.

It’s worth remembering that most of us are not sick and won’t get sick, especially if we follow good hygiene and social distancing rules. We are being asked to change the way we live – for a while – to help our family, neighbors, community, nation and world.

It could be worse. In 1603, as plague again swept London, King James I issued orders to try to stem the disease. Houses where someone was sick were “to be closed up” for six weeks. Clothes, bedding and other items belonging to those infected were to be burned.

People were urged to avoid the company of others, and if they did leave home, they were to mark their clothes to warn others of their disease. Getting caught not obeying the rules could land someone in the stocks.

Shakespeare took up his pen and wrote. In his time, he was more known for his 154 sonnets than his 37 plays.

What’s that? You say iambic pentameter isn’t your jam? No worries.

Herbert “Tico” Braun, history professor at the University of Virginia, recently urged his students and former students to keep a record of this period in “one or more different forms of your own choosing, a journal, a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks,” Braun told UVAToday. 

“Each individual perspective is valuable, and adds to the whole,” he said.

Who knows, it might lead to something great.

 © Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.  


  1. Marsha, your suggestions for what to do are practical and engaging. And as a retired English teacher, I am pleased by your using Shakespeare as an example. Humankind has been here before and while we go through difficulty times, we're still standing! Take care and be well.