Why Join A Global Conversation About COVID-19 Using Shakespeare?

What is Pandemic Shakespeare?

Pandemic Shakespeare invites readers to process their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the various “social” pandemics of our era through collaborative digital annotations of Shakespeare. We are less interested in finding the “best” formal annotations than we are with creating a safe, inclusive space for the individual experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe these are not adequately captured by any editorial, health report, government dispatch, or news article. This website aims to foster global interconnectivity not only around larger themes of illness, isolation, social crisis, and inequality, but also shared pleasure, joy, and humor during frightful and unstable times.

Questions we aim to explore with this project

1. Does Shakespeare provide a common ground for people around the world to process and make sense of their experiences of pandemics?

2. How are conversations in and about Shakespeare mediated by experiences of race, religion, class, and gender?

3. How does annotation render Shakespeare’s texts dynamic, flexible, and personal?

4. Why is it important to collect and share individual voices grappling with pandemics through Shakespearean art?

We reaffirm our interconnectedness as a strength

At a time in which the health benefits of social distancing outweigh the disadvantages of personal isolation, we endeavor to reaffirm our interconnectedness as a strength rather than a weakness. By testing ways of bringing two distinct global phenomena--COVID-19 and Shakespeare--into conversation with one another, we acknowledge that the urgency of a crisis which transcends social, cultural, and geographic bounds also allows for innovative means of understanding our communal experiences through shared involvement with literature.

Diverse by design: giving weight to the elusive individual experience

There may never be a satisfactory way to apprehend another’s subjective experience of crisis, or of literature, but by documenting interactive and personal annotations to Shakespeare’s generative texts, we affirm the importance of each elusive experience, as fluid and dynamic as the readers themselves. And we have integrated tools to prompt our readers into considering how their racial, gendered, religious, and class identities color their annotations.

Why Shakespeare?

Shakespeare, like COVID-19, is a global phenomenon. Much has recently been made of the contentious claim that he authored King Lear during a period of isolation for the bubonic plague, but the connections between Shakespeare and our current crisis are far more than circumstantial. Although Shakespeare never wrote a play explicitly concerned with the plague, he lived through no less than three plague outbreaks. The traumatic echoes of mass illness and its attendant anxiety bleed into his imagery, themes, plots, and characters.

Pandemic imagery takes on new poignancy

Pandemic imagery which might have lost its specificity over time now takes on a new poignancy. When Lear curses his daughter and her husband with “vengeance, plague, death, confusion,” and berates her as a “plague-sore or embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood,” we feel the sting more acutely now than ever. When Camillo, in The Winter’s Tale, identifies a “sickness...caught of you that yet are well,” we can imagine the “invisible” carriers of COVID-19. These relevant connections extend far beyond the explicit mention of infection. For instance, the forced separation of the characters in both King Lear and The Winter’s Tale, and the fantasy of reunion, fulfilled or unfulfilled, therein remind us of our own isolation, the uncertainty of its duration, and the dubious safety of its conclusion.

Shakespeare’s virality

People around the world have used Shakespeare's words to respond to and understand their greatest social and personal crises for over four hundred years. Shakespeare himself, a global phenomenon carried by colonialism, should also be put under the spotlight as a “viral” figure, even as we find resonances of our own experiences in his work. As a cultural monolith often co-opted to lend authority to verbal, written, and political agendas, for good or for ill, Shakespeare should be questioned, interrogated, and challenged, and we invite readers to do so here.

What makes Pandemic Shakespeare different?

While there have been multiple attempts to link COVID-19 to our experiences of past pandemics, both fictional and historical, the linear narrative of continuity posited by articles like Emma Smith’s “What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Living with Pandemics” (The New York Times, March 28, 2020) collapses our experiences under the weight of history. We certainly find value in exposing the historical continuities of human responses to catastrophe. But we also aim to expose what is unique to our contemporary experiences, as well as reveal COVID-19’s impact on groups and phenomena at the margins of the historical and scholarly records. We want our historical rationalism to identify the historical antecedents of systems of oppression and forge novel ways of addressing them.

Sinophobia, Black Lives Matter, Domestic Violence, Global Autocracies

As physical masks go on, other masks obscuring structural inequalities from public view fall away. Sinophobia at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement a few months later highlighted deep racial injustices. The carceral nature of quarantining became evident when domestic violence against women, children, and the LGBTQ+ community rose astronomically. The world's ultra rich saw their wealth grow by a quarter half a year into the crisis, while in America over eight million more people plunged newly into poverty. US election instability, the brute enforcement of CAA-NRC in India and the SNS crackdown in Serbia chart how liberal democracies are sinking into populist authoritarianism, white supremacist and extremist hate groups grow. The global discourse on human rights becomes farcical if we look at the impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees and the arrests of journalists in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, Egypt, Turkey, and Venezuela. We are called to an active reckoning with the present.

Intersectional pandemics

We do not limit ourselves to the literal interpretations of “pandemic”: racism, misogyny, misinformation, police brutality, healthcare discrimination, systemic inequality, and the oppression, silencing, and exclusion of non-normative identities are all “viruses” in their own right. As with the transmission route of COVID-19, so are we surrounded by unseen carriers of these biases, even within ourselves. We transmit them unknowingly in our thoughts, words, and actions if we do not take proactive steps to eradicate and unlearn them. Such roots are difficult to eradicate in the psyche, even if we successfully implement much-needed policy changes on the outside. We believe that collaborative, critical engagement with literature can unearth these roots for examination, and inspire active, healthy personal and social transformation.

Making Shakespeare ours through annotation

Annotation, as a rewriting of the narrative, strips away the prohibitive barriers of history, scholarly precedent, and literary prestige by returning agency to the reader. As a deviant conversation in the margins and fringe spaces of primary texts, annotation creates a communal reading experience and encourages transgression, destabilization, and decolonization of accepted norms. By presenting well-established works as dynamic, flexible, and personally interactive media rather than rigid forms, we invite users to rethink their understanding of cultural cornerstones and preconceived notions which do not immediately present themselves as being open to challenge, interpretation, or questioning.

We hope the radical act of annotation will inform participants’ creative and critical thinking for making headway in national and global issues of healthcare injustice, socioeconomic inequality, racial and gender discrimination, and beyond.

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