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Feeling Pandemic Angst? Shakespeare May Have, Too

And his woe may have influenced his later works, including 'King Lear,' one expert says
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 14, 2020 10:00 AM CST

(Newser) – By now, we all understand all too well the feelings of fear, sadness, anger, and despair that the coronavirus has brought, with tens of millions of cases and 1.6 million deaths worldwide so far. Those emotions have triggered a revelation of sorts in Shakespeare expert Greg Doran, who now says he believes the plague that dominated the famous playwright's life may have had a significant impact on some of his writings, and even caused him to change the ending of King Lear. "There is a big change in tone in his later work," Doran, the director of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, tells the Guardian. "Experiencing the pandemic this year has made it clearer to me what lies behind it. Shakespeare just could no longer write straightforward comedies, or give a happy ending to Lear."

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That happy ending Doran speaks of references King Leir, an anonymous historical play that is believed to be the source for Shakespeare's own. The Guardian points out that while the historical version ends on "an upbeat note," Shakespeare's rendition culminates in "the most heartbreaking scene of paternal grief in the theatrical canon." In addition to the general devastation of the plague that surrounded Shakespeare, there may have been a more personal factor driving his mood: It's long been speculated that his own 11-year-old son, Hamnet, died from the disease. "One is allowed to imagine in such highly speculative accounts that the pestilence would have enveloped Shakespeare profoundly in anguish, of a sort that might have found expression in his plays," Peter Marks writes in the Washington Post. Interested in other famous works created during isolating times? Stacker has 50 of them. (Taylor Swift put together two albums in five months during the pandemic.)

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