The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

'These constant prods to do something … are becoming a real irritant': Bill Richardson

In 1606, when the Bubonic Plague led to a lockdown, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear. As we face a similar crisis 414 years later, many are finding things to do to cope with the isolation. But not Bill Richardson — he plans to deepen his connection with nothing.
William Shakespeare at work in his study circa 1610 by artist Albert Henry Payne. (Edward Gooch/Getty Images)

Bill Richardson, special to CBC Radio

At this point in the proceedings — and I say this as someone who is, like, broke — I would cut a highly interesting cheque to someone who could invent an app that would take up residence in my various devices and would act, essentially, as an antibody. It would identify as a pathogen and seek out and fry to a frazzle any reference made for any reason to how William Shakespeare, locked down owing to Bubonic Plague, in 1606, made good use of his time and wrote King Lear.

Bill Richardson is the author of The First Little Bastard to Call Me Gramps: Poems of the Late Middle Ages. (Submitted by Bill Richardson)

These reminders, unbidden, popped up in the very early days of the COVID-19 crisis and are still coming thick and fast, on Facebook, on Twitter. And I find them about as interesting and as helpful as hearing from people who, learning that I can invest 45 minutes of sweaty intensity to fret over the placement of a semi-colon, reply by saying that Mel Torme wrote The Christmas Song in 15 minutes. I smile, of course, and nod admiringly, but really I'm imagining them as chestnuts roasting very slowly on an open fire.

The only fairy who was present at my christening was the one in charge of nothing. At nothing I have always been, for as long as I can remember, terrific. In fact, I have a kind genius where doing nothing is concerned. If nothing were an Olympic sport, I'd be preparing to go for yet another gold in Tokyo in, as things now stand, 2021. Believe me, I do not celebrate the horrible circumstances that have latterly found us, but nor can I change them, and I am using this unasked-for time away from time to deepen my connection with nothing. My relationship with nothing is an active one, and these constant prods to do something — Write King Lear, why don't cha? — are becoming a real irritant.

I think about Shakespeare. I wonder if he said, "Oh, golly, Bubonic plague, that's nasty, best stay inside for a stretch," all the while rubbing together his hands — slathered with sanitizer — and thinking, "Oh, goodie, I'll write me up that King Lear business I've been musing on." Shakespeare had no social media with which to contend, but perhaps he had to put up with an Elizabethan equivalent to the goads to activity, to which we're all now prey. Was Anne Hathaway forever coming down to his Bard Cave, entering without knocking just when the iambic pentameter was primed to boil, and saying, "My God, do you know what I've just heard they're up to over at the Walter Raleighs'? They're making kimchi and kombucha. Remember how I told you that fermenting was going to catch on and that we should pick up some Mason jars, crocks, air locks and such like. But no, no, it wasn't as you liked it, and look at us now." 

Did Shakespeare go out for his one sanctioned walk a day and pass by Francis Bacon, standing on his porch with fresh baked bread? "Hey, Will, look at this, sourdough, right out of the oven, the starter's been in the family since 1066. What are you up to during your time off?" Did Christopher Marlowe lean from the window and hold up a six-foot muff?  "Look! I've been learning to knit! Say, have you heard about Spenser? He's doing a daily poetry reading! And Philip Sidney has started a chain letter! I'm sure it'll be coming your way any day now!"

Did Shakespeare just nod and wave and preserve a social distance? Did he ever think, as he hurried home, that future bright lights, members of the Modern Language Association, would impute authorship to all his neighbours, the ones who made good use of their time during the shutdown? I think of Shakespeare now, as eager to get back to Lear as I am to my own primary business, the cultivating of nothing. I think of him giving up, going home, head down, muttering, working out a sonnet that would be among the many used for sandwich wrap. Did it go like this?

Shall I continue with this bummer play?
Or learn to throw a pot, or else to tat?
Shall I relax and loosen up my stays,
And set aside this royal family spat?
Who cares if old men rage upon a heath?
I'll buy a brewing kit, and make some beer!
Far better that than that I should bequeath
Posterity the story of King Lear. 
But wait! This plague shall pass, the world resume.
Perhaps I'd best ferment my yeasty rhymes;
In future troubled times, then, they'll exhume
The tale of how Will Shakespeare spent his time. 
I end this, in Vancouver, with contrition: 
Bill Richardson for the Sunday Edition.

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