Of course it’s happened before.
It’s not the first time theatres have been closed, you know, Voices – some sounding suitably sanctimonious – have reminded us. What about in Shakespeare’s time? There was the plague then, after all.
Even as one of Shakespeare’s greatest devotees, I don’t find the parallel at all comforting. I mean as passionate as I am about his work, there is no way I’d like to emulate features of life in Shakespeare’s day – public hangings, heads on Traitors’ Gate and the unsanitary state of London thoroughfares coming swiftly to mind.
But it’s true that Shakespeare did experience theatres closing twice in his career in the Plague afflicted capital.
And the first of these occasions was in 1593-4 just as he was making his name as a playwright so it must have been particularly frustrating when an order went out from the Privy Council that:
we think it fit that all manner of concourse and public meetings of the people at plays, bear-baitings, bowlings and other like assemblies for sports be forbidden.
So a similar experience to ours in 2020 – although bear-baiting failed to get a mention.
And Shakespeare, just like a lot of enterprising 21st century individuals, made good use of his enforced leisure.
No sudden enthusiasm for DIY or gardening or sour dough bread-making for William, though. No. He turned to poetry.
And produced Venus and Adonis followed by The Rape of Lucrece during the forced closure and dedicated both to the Earl of Southampton, thus gaining aristocratic patronage that was to serve him well for the rest of his career.
Plague returned to London in 1603 with another unwanted instruction from the Privy Council to close the theatres – as well as those scintillating bear-baitings …
So yes, it’s all happened before. We know that.
But the past 12 or 13 months or more have robbed us of something more.
Of the reassuring, seasonal events that structure our year and remind us, regardless of the unreliable weather, exactly where we are.
Think of the absences:
Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race – entirely absent last year and this – well, sorry, but some strip of river in East Anglia without spectators doesn’t count for me – it has to be the Thames. Putney Bridge to Mortlake with crowds along the tow path and impossible traffic jams in Barnes.
Chelsea Flower Show – and Sloane Square tube station suitably cluttered with members of horticultural societies up from the shires for the day.
Wimbledon – a summer with no Wimbledon Tennis Championships? That’s not summer.
Epsom Derby and those silly hats and fashions featured on newspaper front pages.
Even if we never go to any of these events, they are the discernible background to our lives.
Closer to home on the more domestic front, absences continue.
The smell of barbecues in back gardens, local fairs and fetes and school proms and non-Covid conversations over the pre-holiday pedicure.
And when the year starts to shift and turn –
Bonfires and firework displays. Christmas fairs and markets
Ice rinks, crowded shops, office parties, thronging pubs and restuarants.
All absent in 2020 – those seasonal markers that normally keep us buoyant and alert to the passing year.
No wonder these past 13 months have been bewildering. It’s been like trying to navigate a route without knowing the destination. A sleeping beauty sensation of having fallen asleep without the perfect prince to remove the curse.
Back to Shakespeare for a bit of optimism.
In the years immediately following that second plague of 1603/04, he wrote two of his greatest plays – King Lear and Macbeth – and cemented his reputation and standing as arguably the greatest dramatist ever.
So living through times when plays, bear-baitings, bowlings and other like assemblies were banned clearly did nothing to affect the brilliance of his creativity.
We can only hope that we will emerge from our lockdowns similarly untroubled – and with more than sour dough bread making and accent wall painting skills to show for our seclusion.