“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote ‘King Lear.’ ” —Rosanne Cash, on Twitter, March 13, 2020
Originally published on April 1, 2020 by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The New Yorker
Day 1: Quills lined up. Nibs sharp. Parchment ready. No death knells yet this morning. You are going to write “King Lear”!
Day 2: No pressure. Fine to spend the first day brainstorming. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Nibs still sharp. You can do this!
Day 3: You know what was a great play? “Julius Caesar.” Re-reading it. “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” Damn.
Day 4: First draft doesn’t have to be perfect. The scribe will always go over it later. Shoot for a sloppy copy.
Day 5: Actus Primus, Scæna Prima. Or is it Actus Primus, Scænus Primus?
Day 6: Ben Jonson must have written, like, six plays by now.
Day 7: No competition. You do you. Who wrote “Titus Andronicus,” bitch?
Day 8: Are those plague sores? They’re kind of reddish.
Day 9: They’re definitely plague sores.
Day 10: Does rubbing your body with a chicken actually work?
Day 11: They’re not plague sores. Phew! Back to the old quill and parchment.
Day 12: Sharpen nibs.
Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.
Day 14: The muse strikes! If Cordelia and the Fool never appear in the same scene, that new apprentice can play both of them. Save one actor’s wages, times six performances (optimistic, but why not?), for a total of thirty pence. Can you say “new doublet and hose”?
Day 15: I miss Burbage.
Day 16: New approach: fasting between meals. Clears the mind.
Day 17: Feeling peckish.
Day 18: Hard to focus with all the death knells tolling.
Day 19: Trying to work in some witches. King James likes witches. Maybe Lear’s eldest daughter turns out to be a witch? Or Edgar and Edmund are twins, and one of them’s a witch? And cross-dresses as Cordelia? Who’s actually the Fool? If you sort out the entrances, that apprentice could play all four parts.
Day 20: Actus Primus, Scæna Prima. Just keep the quill moving. Actus Primus, Scæna Prima. Actus Primus, Scæna Prima. Actus Primus, Scæna Prima. Actus Primus, Scæna Prima.
Day 21: It’s hard to write a good æ.
Day 22: Need new nibs.
Day 23: Stop the infernal tolling! We get it already!
Day 24: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / they kill us for their sport.” Damn.
Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.
Day 26: Jonson’s probably writing a comedy.
Day 27: So what if you didn’t go to university?
Day 28: You’re the King’s Men! Say it: King’s Men! King’s Men rule!
Day 29: King James is going to serve your head on a platter if you don’t write this godforsaken play today.
Day 30: You know what’s selfish? Writing a play while people are literally dying.
Day 31: You could have been an apothecary and actually helped people.
Day 32: You are a worthless piece of plague-infected excrement.
Day 33: You know what makes you even more worthless? Having the resources to spend your day writing a play while other people are dying and then NOT WRITING IT!!!
Day 34: Just take it one day at a time.
Day 36: New idea: rightful duke of Milan usurped by younger brother, cast out to sea with infant daughter to drown, shipwrecked on magical island, harnesses spirits of earth and air, summons tempest to wreak vengeance on brother. Show off Globe’s new metal thunder sheets!
Day 37: Stupid idea.
Day 38: Quarantine almost over. Quaranta, forty; trenta, thirty; venti, twenty. This would be a great time to learn Italian!
Day 39: “The weight of this sad time we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Day 40: Damn.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner teaches English at Linfield College, in Oregon.