When Richard II Aligns with Covid-19
“What sport shall we devise here in this garden,
To drive away the heavy thought of care?” (3.4.1-2)
In a world where quarantine is the new norm and a state of limbo for those deemed nonessential workers reigns, the Queen’s question to her two ladies in Richard II strikes a note of pure resonance that echoes through time to the present day. Desperate for distraction of some sort yet craving news on matters of state, the Queen asks what each person now experiencing life in quarantine asks: “What sport shall we devise here […] To drive away the heavy thought of care?” (3.4.1-2). Her desire to take her mind off the present is understandable. She wants something else to think about and focus on other than the grim matters surrounding her. When one of her servants suggests a literal game, though, the Queen dismisses the suggestion, claiming that the very nature of the game is one that makes her question if her fortune “runs against the bias” of the world (3.4.4-5). Even the simplest and seemingly most innocent game cannot lift her mind from its anxiety, but rather calls into question her role in the world. The next suggestion of dance the Queen rejects because her grief weighs too heavy (3.4.7-8). Nor is telling tales adequate because joyful stories augment her sorrow for happiness lost while sad ones exacerbate her current grief (3.4.14-19). The Queen rejects the suggestion of song, too, saying weeping would please her more in matching her spirits, yet dismissing attempts to comfort her with weeping with the straightforward truth that her sorrow is too great for weeping to relieve it
(3.4.21, 23-24). Like any bored person the Queen wants something to do but does not know what. Though there is a wide range of possible activities to choose from she cannot choose one without dissecting the choice so much that it leads her back to the very thing from which she needs distracting. Nothing feels appropriate in her state of sorrow. It is for this reason the Queen is unable to accept either a happy activity or a sad activity. Activities associated with positivity breed guilt for any momentary pleasure, while more sorrowful activities swell the grief the Queen already bears. Reality intrudes on her action before she can choose what action to take.
This story is not unlike what life in quarantine is like for people today—and the mood changes day to day as the need to remain in quarantine extends. There is no doubt that quarantine is a necessary part of life at present, nor that it is difficult to navigate. Like the Queen, people are stuck at home not knowing what is happening or how long it will last. There is a feeling of uselessness in isolation that leads to agitation, as well as a desire to do something more to help, even if it is unclear what that something may be. Finding effective distraction becomes key, yet the same problem faces folks today as faced the Queen: what to do. Despite every wish to make the most of the situation and to find joy in the little things, guilt about finding those moments when they come remains just as inescapable as the reality of a covid-19 world. Understanding personal self-care needs and balancing those with everything else is the tenuous line to tread. Niggling guilt at pursuing self-care in the face of unprecedented circumstances threatens to dismantle considered efforts at positivity and optimism. Shakespeare does not give audiences a glimpse of how the scene between the Queen and her two ladies would have played out; however, most audiences probably would not have cared, anyway, and it would have detracted from the main plot of the play. The entrance of the gardener and his assistant gives the Queen an opportunity to sate her need for news by giving her the chance to eavesdrop on him and his assistant (3.4.25-29). Folks today sift through media outlets of various credibility and exchange stories with acquaintances. This brings with it the risk of becoming overwhelmed by negative and/or dubious stories. The same principles remain at play even though the Queen’s situation in Richard II and a
covid-19 society are worlds apart.