What Shakespeare can -- and can't -- teach us about Covid-19

Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)The wisdom of Twitter tells us that now is a time for writing masterpieces. Confined to our barracks of self-isolation, as if newfound responsibilities to home-schooling, elder care, and 24-hour self-sanitizing weren't enough, last week a widely shared tweet lectured us: "when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear."

Kate Maltby
Is it true? Like most viral Tweets, yes and no. As Professor James Shapiro told us in his recent bestseller 1606: William Shakespeare and The Year of Lear, no one can quite be sure when "King Lear" was written, though it may have been penned in the plague-affected summer of 1606, because its first attested performance occurred the following Christmas.
    But Shakespeare's writing had been profoundly impacted by plague over 10 years earlier. The most serious outbreak of plague to occur in 30 years hit London between 1592 and 1594, during the entirety of which outbreak, as today, London's theaters were closed.
      During this period, the young Shakespeare did write significant works: the narrative poems "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," and probably "Romeo and Juliet." All three are riddled with the imagery associated with early modern plague. The very plot of "Romeo and Juliet" turns on an outbreak of this plague: returning from his failed mission to tell Romeo of Juliet's survival, Friar John laments that:
      Going to find a bare-foot brother out