Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s new virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. Emma Poltrack shares the items she presented on August 6, 2020 as an introduction to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
The first subject to explore is perhaps the most obvious—that of pandemic illness. In Station Eleven, the Georgia Flu wipes out a significant portion of the Earth’s population. Today, we are facing our own global pandemic with COVID-19. The idea of illness was one Shakespeare would have been familiar with due to the prevalence of plague during his lifetime. The very year he was born, 1564, it killed ¼ of the population of his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. There were repeated outbreaks in London throughout Shakespeare’s career—two of the worst occurring in 1592-3 and 1603—and plague continued to be a problem well into the 17th-century.
Part of what makes the Georgia Flu so terrifying is the speed with which it strikes, rendering preventative measures useless. Across the US, we’re navigating our own efforts to curb the virus through face mask usage and shelter-in-place orders, which bear similarities to this 1625 proclamation issued by King Charles I cancelling Bartholomew and Stourbridge Fairs. Though issued after Shakespeare’s time (he died in April 1616), this document echoes the 1603 efforts of King James I to curb the spread of plague through crowd control. As well as cancelling these two particular fairs—both massively popular and fixtures on the English social calendar—the proclamation further discourages subjects from attending any other fairs so as to prevent the spread of illness to parts of the country that have so far remained untouched. State by state quarantine, anyone?
It’s worth noting that the proclamation was issued from Oxford, indicating the king himself had already fled London to seek safer environs. He wasn’t the only one. London theaters were also closed as a crowd control measure during times of plague, which made it an ideal time for theatrical companies to tour the countryside. The Traveling Symphony of Mandel’s novel shares a DNA with these early strolling troupes. We know Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, went on the road during the closures of 1603, and in 1610 a clergyman in Oxford wrote of his experience watching them perform Shakespeare’s Othello and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. A 1616 record from the court of Henley-in-Arden gives a glimpse into the touring life with a note at the bottom declaring “no players shall hav [sic] any licence of Mr. Bayley [the bailiff] to play in the towne hall unlesse the[y] be the Kings Players.” This exclusivity granted to the players wasn’t the only benefit of royal patronage. Once the plague of 1603 abated, the company was paid to perform at court as well as given additional payment to help offset the losses incurred by the plague closures in the city. During the plague year of 1625, the King’s Men were the only theatrical company not to go bankrupt.
Our final item continues with the idea of performance. This actor portrait of Edmund Kean as King Lear captures one of the early 19th-century’s greatest actors—and biggest characters. Allegedly called a “horrid little man” by the illustrious Sarah Siddons, Kean was a departure from the noble, declamatory leading man embodied by John Philip Kemble. He excelled in roles such as Richard III, those that required bravado, energy, and movement. He maintained that energy offstage. He owned a pet lion, sprinkled conversations with Latin and Greek he only half-understood, and formed a debauched drinking club of theater professionals. Despite enjoying great success—Jane Austen wrote in a letter how difficult it was to get tickets to his Drury Lane debut as Shylock—he lost the goodwill of the public through a scandalous affair and habitual drunkenness onstage.
But what does any of this have to do with Station Eleven? Well, for one thing, Kean was responsible for (at least temporarily) restoring the tragic ending to King Lear. For years, Nahum Tate’s Restoration version and its happy, Lear-retiring-Cordelia-and-Edgar-marrying ending had dominated the stage. Kean believed audiences wouldn’t really see him realize his full potential unless he was given a chance to mourn Cordelia. His experiment was short-lived, however, and he returned to Tate when it became clear that audiences were still inclined to a more gentle resolution of the play.
But the most striking connection is how Arthur Leander’s end on that fateful, fictional night in Toronto strongly echoes a similar moment at the end of Kean’s life. On March 25, 1833, performing as Othello at Covent Garden opposite his son Charles as Iago, Kean collapsed onstage and died two months later at his home in Richmond.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look into some of the treasures of the Folger collection. There are a variety of resources available online for continued exploration, including our digital asset platform and our bi-weekly Shakespeare Plus newsletter. And of course, we hope to see you at one of our upcoming book club sessions!
Registration for the September 3 session on Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is now open. We hope you make a plan to join us!