2020: Double, Double Toil and Trouble

"Like a hell-broth boil and bubble." —Macbeth

Posted Oct 03, 2020

William Shakespeare was born in 1564. That same year the bubonic plague came to England, killing about 1 in 4 people in the bard’s hometown. To the great benefit of Western civilization, the Angel of Death passed him by.

Even if you care nothing for Shakespeare’s works, you have been influenced by him. Who, for example, does not know the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet? The drama and conflict of that story are timeless, as are its themes, moral dilemmas, and tragic lessons. 

Most of us whose native tongue is English have Shakespearean phrases at the tips of our tongues. For example, if you look forward to bidding “good riddance” to 2020 in a few months, or if you believe that “love is blind,” or that some politicians “play fast and loose” with the facts, then you know some Shakespeare. Here are 45 familiar phrases that we owe to Shakespeare (and it’s not a complete list). 

None of Shakespeare’s plays are set in a time of plague. However, he sometimes uses it as a curse or metaphor, as in Romeo and Juliet (“a plague on both your houses”) or King Lear (“thou art a boil, a plague sore”). And in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare uses the plague as a brief but critical plot device: A messenger tasked with delivering a note to Romeo fails in that assignment because he is quarantined on suspicion of being exposed to plague. The note would have informed Romeo that Juliet is not dead but temporarily drugged to appear dead. 

Plague psychology then and now

For most of Shakespeare’s career, the plague came and went, with virulent outbreaks followed by extended dormant periods.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays were written during plague years when theaters were closed due to quarantine.

In the 16th century people made sense of the plague by ascribing it to superstitious causes, fate, or divine retribution. Even so, they understood that healthy people could catch the disease from sick people. So quarantines were widely enforced, and effective. Lacking exposure to 21st century social media, people in Shakespeare’s day simple-mindedly concluded that survival and disease control were essential, whereas asserting individual freedom to disregard quarantines was a public health threat.

Interestingly, the quarantines in Shakespeare’s day did not apply to church services. It was believed that God would prevent infection during divine worship. That mindset persists among some in 2020. This is an example of what social scientists call “motivated reasoning.” 

I have often asked my students, “What’s the difference between reasoning and rationalization?” Usually I get blank stares, but a few brave souls will venture an opinion. The answer is not profound, but it does require that one first recognize that there is a difference. Reasoning follows unbiased facts and evidence to whatever conclusion they lead to, regardless of any personal preference. Rationalization begins with a preconceived conclusion, then selectively chooses only arguments and evidence that support that preferred outcome. Rationalization is motivated reasoning. So is denial—such as the denial that church services can become super-spreader events.

“But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts,” says the villainous Iago (whose reason did not cool his) in Othello. But, alas, in the 21st century we have social media and propaganda to inflame ours.