It all starts with the word itself. “Plague” comes from the Middle English plage, which comes from the Latin plaga, “blow” — as in, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a blow, smiting, slaughter.” “Plague,” in the sense that it’s been used repeatedly in the discourse over the last few months, is a metaphor — not a pestilence, at least not according to its original definition, but a violent attack.
“Blow, smiting, slaughter” all imply an aggressor. A plague is a gruesome attack of nature, or, one could say, an act of God. It is an inescapable incident.
In the Sophocles play, Oedipus, a traveler who is named king of Thebes after defeating a sphinx that terrorized the city, attempts to circumvent his fate only to meet it. Satisfying a dread prophecy, he unknowingly kills his father, and marries and beds his mother. The truth drives his mother to suicide and Oedipus to blind and exile himself in shame.
Though Thebes is consumed by a plague, it is nearly incidental to the main action of the play. It’s a signpost of trouble, the ruckus in the background quickly overshadowed by the gradual reveal of the incestuous secret behind the Thebes royal family. Likewise in Shakespeare’s plays, the plague is a character only by implication, never a main player but just added context, if that.
The plague barely emerges as more than a backdrop because it is a vehicle of fate, not society. Oedipus’s Freudian faux pas may have brought on the disease, but it’s the prophecy that made it inevitable from the start. In Doerries’s adaptation, an amiably dressed-down modern rendering that still preserves the stately feel of the original, a shepherd, finally confirming Oedipus’ origins, says, “Know that you were born to suffer more than any other man before or after.” The plague is not so much a specific punishment as it is evidence of a world governed by destiny.
The same goes for “Romeo and Juliet.” Here, a vital piece of information isn’t delivered because the messenger is quarantined, ultimately causing the death of the young lovers. Again, the plague seems to indicate a sick twist of fate, so often alluded to by the playwright, who names the teenage Capulet and Montague “star-crossed lovers.”
The plague the world faces today, however, is not a background player, nor an inevitability. We have a more precise vocabulary for what’s happening: “pandemic,” “coronavirus,” “Covid-19.” And as my colleague Jesse Green recently pointed out: “Covid-19 is not a very theatrical antagonist. It is mechanical and motiveless.”