A Plague in Both Our Houses

A plague o’ both your houses!

                                            — Mercutio, dying, in Romeo and Juliet, III, i

I write this on Shakespeare’s birthday.  The festivities began with morning news reports of arguments in Congress over relief funding for states struggling to cope with coronavirus. I am aware that Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, and that he lived through at least five outbreaks of plague in his writing life.  The people he wrote for generally regarded these epidemic events as curses, punishments, sufferings inflicted upon hapless humans in divine wrath.  

Mercutio’s dying curse in Romeo and Juliet–“A plague o’ both your houses!”–echoes in play after play.  In his growing madness, King Lear flings a similar, rather more eloquent curse at the Fool: “Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air / Hang fated o’er men’s faults light on thy daughters!”  And Queen Margaret in Richard III delivers an even sharper imprecation:  

If heaven have any grievous plague in store

Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,

O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe

And then hurl down their indignation

On thee . . .  (I, iii)

Her words are so vicious, it’s not hard to think of them as efficacious.  Someone is going to suffer.  As in most classical tragedy, what befalls the noble people devolves upon everyone, so those curses cut a wide swath.  In them whole populations are consigned to one of the greatest ills that flesh is heir to.  A plague is anger unleashed.

We don’t—ostensibly—think of plagues and epidemics that way now.  And we have a lot of science to prove our rationality:  most of us have, if only recently, become conversant with terms like vector and virulenceand antibodies and herd immunity.  We read and post medical opinions about when to wear masks and gloves and how to recognize symptoms.  And yet, as in every epidemic, trustworthy, testworthy information is surrounded by a foggy field of speculation in which lies a swamp.  There, as they wrote at the edges of antique maps, be dragons.   

The unknowns haunt us.  Though “the flowers that bloom in the spring” are blooming now, we live under a gathering cloud of dire possibilities that haunt us, unless we’re very good at switching mental channels, and may leave us wondering what rough beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching in our direction.  And who set it loose.  We turn to faith and family and friends to help us keep fear at bay.  But it’s hard not to feel it now and then, in the watches of the night.  If we’re not afraid for our own health, we may be for that of our parents or spouses with preexisting conditions, or for children, so disinclined to distance, or afraid of the “second wave” of infection said to be coming, said to be more deadly.  Some of us are more afraid of the economic meltdown we’re witnessing than of the virus itself, and that fear is real:  I read just today that the coronavirus could double the number of people in the world suffering from acute food shortage and hunger.  Many will starve.  Some of us are afraid of the specter of fascism, less and less disguised by the comforting rhetoric that got us through school believing in the sturdiness of American democracy.  Not, I imagine, by chance, I unearthed an old postcard I picked up at an independent bookstore that lists among the “Early warning signs of fascism” these familiar features:

— powerful and continuing nationalism

— disdain for human rights

— identification of enemies as a unifying cause

— supremacy of the military

— rampant sexism

— controlled mass media

— obsession with national security

— protection of corporate power

— disdain for intellectuals and the arts

— obsession with crime and punishment

— rampant cronyism and corruption

— fraudulent elections

Written by Lawrence Britt in 2004, this list looks disturbingly current.  The “pathologies of power” that have been set loose among us certainly precede this virus, but epidemic diseases of the body always exacerbate or bring about disease in the body politic.  

            Every epidemic is a political event.  People with wealth seek to insulate themselves at others’ expense (by, say, insider stock dumping or privileged access to testing).  Local responders compete for limited resources (say PPE or hospital beds or even swabs).  Finding money for emergency provisions always involves bickering, power struggles, and blame: it’s the fault of the other party, of foreigners or of the undeserving poor.  It’s the fault of the previous administration or underfunded institutions or failing policies that should have been retired long ago.  It’s the fault of ecological irresponsibility or someone else’s poor hygiene.  There is, no doubt, blame to be laid, some kinds easier to trace than others.  And tracing blame is hard to disentangle from the more useful process of determining the immediate and long-range causes of viral emergence and spread.  But blame sucks vital energy out of a conversation we need to be having about how to live differently—how to understand interdependence more deeply, how to participate in a collective awakening.

            There is, right now, a plague in both our houses.  Both parties have passed bills, despite vigorous individual objections by a few, that give disproportionate relief to large corporations and shamefully insufficient relief to families facing bankruptcy, eviction, or worse.  Members of both houses are gathering in the Capitol despite strenuous calls for social distancing.  Both parties seem unable, except for a few stalwart outliers, to address the real and present problems that, for the millions of newly unemployed, have become life-threatening.  They seem to be unable to see through the fog of their own fears: they have vested interests in corporate power.  They have elections to win.

            I had reason recently to revisit Romeo and Juliet, a still-stirring story about how two noble houses in blind intractable enmity sacrificed the lives of their children to their tribal competition.  It is a story that involves everyone—the servant, the priest, the restless youth whose future is being disregarded, and ultimately the fate of the whole community—in a tragic soul-sickness whose healing can come only when three things happen:  those in power lift their gaze to look into a longer future and widen it to take in the scope of suffering; forgiveness is sought and exchanged;  and rich and poor are gathered in a moment of costly resolution to seek some new vision of common good.  That may mean a new distribution of governing authority.  It may mean increased attention to the consequences of class division.  It may mean women are no longer silenced or subjected to the will of powerful men.  

            The plague in our houses is already tragic.  We need our moment of reconciliation and renewal of political vision to come soon.  It’s overdue.  The pandemic makes our sicknesses visible.  They are virulent.  There is no vaccine–only the acquired immunity that comes with the consent of the governed to something higher and more reliable and life-giving than leaders who have lost their way. 

image courtesy of pixabay.com

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