Mark Andrews: Was Shakespeare an early advocate of social distancing?

In the Royal Society of Medicine's latest journal, there is a paper by palliative care expert Dr David Jeffery who suggests medics should be trained to put patients at ease by reciting Shakespeare at them.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Dr Jeffrey suggests that if doctors were more familiar with the Bard's words, they might come across as more empathetic when dealing with people at their most vulnerable.

“Shakespeare speaks through times of crisis, underlining the centrality of empathic human relationships," says the doctor.

"Medical humanities are often on the fringes of medical education but should be central to medicine culture change. A special study module would be one way of introducing Shakespeare studies to the undergraduate curriculum.”

Then I noticed that the paper had been published on April 1. Was this an April Fool? Do our learned experts really get their laughs by writing spoof reports about end-of-life care in medical journals, or was the date just a coincidence?

The answer is I'm still not entirely sure. The report is still on the journal's website with no explanation of how we've all been had, and its contents are still being reported on in tones of the utmost gravity all over the world. But it comes to something when you can't actually tell whether medical research is a joke or not.

That's the trouble in the times we live in. There is so much madness about, it is often hard to tell the difference between reality and satire. After all, only a week before, the tabloids were filled with lurid stories about how Boris Johnson was reciting Shakespeare to get American tech entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri in the mood for a little As You Like It on the sofa while Er Indoors was out.

But back to the hospital thing. Just suppose you are seriously ill in hospital. You are weak, you are in pain, you are worried, you feel helpless. And then some man in a white coat walks in and starts spouting off about King Lear. Is that going to make you feel better? Or will the said man in the white coat be needing help from some of his colleagues to remove his stethoscope from a rather intimate location?

Yet the odd thing is, Shakespeare does seem to have rather a lot of advice on how to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Robert Shallow does appears to be advocating the two-metre rule while you wait for the result of your Covid test:

“Tut, sir, I could have told you more. In these times you stand on distance."

And when it comes to urging people to comply with the quarantine rules, one can't help but think that “Pursue him to his house, and pluck him thence: Lest his infection, being of catching nature, spread further,” has a far more forceful ring to it than "Stay alert, protect the NHS."

It seems even Henry VI was on message. Presumably when he cried out “He shall not breathe infection in this air”, he was advising Lord Salisbury to wear a face mask.

Indeed Bill the Bard even predicted the economic impact of the lockdown, where in Henry IV he forecast “The sickness doth infect the very life blood of our enterprise”.

And of course "He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his" was obviously a reference to the scenes at his local Harvester at the height of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

The other irony, of course, is that the first man to receive the coronavirus vaccine was William Shakespeare from Warwickshire, prompting one headline writer to describe his inoculation as The Taming of the Flu.

And it does seem that in Henry IV Part II the Duke of Northumberland is a big supporter of vaccinations, even if there might sometimes be side effects:

"In poison there is physic; and these news,

Having been well, that would have made me sick,

Being sick, have in some measure made me well."

Which I'm sure you will find most reassuring.

All's Well That Ends Well.

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