Quarantine a chance for introspection
Last updated 4/8/2020 at 4:36pm | View PDF
There's a funny meme making its way through social media these days, which reads: "Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined with the plague, he wrote King Lear."
This is actually true of several Shakespearean works that were composed while the London theaters were closed. As if I weren't feeling unproductive enough that I'm not teaching myself to knit, brushing up on oil painting or abiding by a strict workout regime during these parlous times. There will come a time to feel guilty over squandered opportunities, but that will come at a later, saner date.
A few lifetimes ago (or was really it only six weeks?) I wrote a column about comedy and its basis in ideals of community and social harmony. In stark contrast, tragedy is insular; it is isolation. It seems a timely moment to pause and think about what that means during our socially distanced existence. What distinguishes comedy from tragedy is not humor versus sadness, but unity versus solitude. The irony has not been lost on me as I, like all of us, tiptoe through the uncertainty of the Now, looking out the window at empty playgrounds.
But how can isolation relate to great art? Why are Shakespeare's tragedies considered masterpieces? Well, partly because through the solitary hero's plight, humanity's interior space is thereby revealed. Solitude lends itself readily to self-examination, exposing our hidden truths and painful revelations.
"Macbeth" explores our terrible dark desires and their consequences, "Hamlet" our brilliant contradictions "King Lear" our irrational and righteous anger. With the psychological space Shakespeare opened up, we can better understand our complicated selves.
Tragedy's relentless introspection forces us to confront ourselves head-on. We are Hamlet and Macbeth, tormented and brilliant, flawed and glorious. We are all as blind as Othello and as vain as Lear. We see ourselves in all our frailty.
We may be alone now, like poor Hamlet, tormented by his indecision, but we are also, like him, magnificently complicated, funny, noble and insecure. When the curtain falls, we are not sad, but rather hollowed-out by the enormity of our experience. Remember Riley in Disney's "Inside/Out," whose most joyful memory was also her worst day ever? That's what tragedy does, and that's why it resonates with us.
The Irish poet W.B. Yeats had a term for this - he called it "tragic joy." The elation of the experience, despite its frightening nature. His poem, "Easter 1916," is the perfect example of this concept. And as we are moving onto a very different Easter weekend, his words seem particularly apt. Yeats writes: "All is changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born."
Today's tragedy may be our current, strange isolation, but remember, tragedies end. They change us and they recreate us. Sometimes they hollow us out, but they always end. I look forward to some comic days ahead.
- Susan O'Byrne of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email her at [email protected]