I was midway through teaching an undergraduate seminar on “The Memory Arts in Renaissance Literature” when Grinnell College announced that we would be teaching remotely after spring break. The course focused on early modern English poetry and drama in the context of memory studies, and much of our discussion dwelt upon how a culture’s collective memory is perpetuated through literature. I had planned our final unit to consider the use of early modern literature for commemorative practices in our own era. Specifically, I intended to teach Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (1594) in tandem with Derek Jarman’s film Edward II (1991). The adaptation uses the play to speak about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and I hoped that it would help us consider how literature of the past is often revived in order to make sense of later historical events.
Even in early February, when the novel coronavirus was only coming onto our radar in the United States, I began to see that Marlowe’s play and its film adaptation would prove a particularly evocative case study in the context of unfolding events. I commented to my students that the rapid response to—and the extensive communication about—the emerging virus struck me as quite different from my own memory of the advent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Public discussion of the existence of that earlier virus was slow in coming, and there was widespread confusion about how it was transmitted. But here and now, things moved quickly. Global governments were more willing to speak openly about this new threat and to move more quickly in response to it. And, of course, information spreads more rapidly now with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, online news sites from different countries, digital mapping tools such as the one managed by Johns Hopkins University, and our own increased familiarity with pandemics after the avian flu, Ebola, swine flu, and HIV/AIDS itself.
I have found that undergraduates have quite varied levels of understanding about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. So I had chosen a cluster of texts that, in quick brushstrokes, would give them a sense of the mix of uncertainty and despair that characterized the early years of that pandemic. We read excerpts from a memoir by the visual artist David Wojnarowicz that described his anger at government inaction around the disease, and we read poetry by Ocean Vuong that captured the fear of contracting the disease through personal contact and living with the looming threat of loss.1 Then we read excerpts from Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which posits that “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.”2 Students remarked that the ideas captured in these texts probably held as true for early modern times of plague as they did now in April when students were learning remotely and this newly emerged virus was clearly a global concern.
When we reached Jarman’s Edward II, students commented movingly and in compelling detail about how the film adaption spoke to the present moment.3 On our discussion boards, one remarked that she saw the precarity of life depicted in the sixteenth-century play speaking both to the HIV/AIDS crisis and to the novel coronavirus pandemic as she herself contemplated the possibility of her own death as well as that of her loved ones. In the uncertainty haunting every parting in the film adaptation, another student saw the same tenor resonating in social media posts she had been reading. Yet another student remarked that the way the 1991 film of Edward II functions as a memory of the AIDS crisis was comforting to him because it showed that humanity has repeatedly survived similar pandemics. For this student, studying the adaption of Marlowe’s play demonstrated that encounters with collective memory objects can be ameliorative as they remind us of a past that is no longer part of the present. We also considered Jarman’s published diaries from 1989 to 1991, the period when this adaptation was coming to life. The director had contracted AIDS-related pneumonia and wrote during his homebound recovery, “I’m up, and off the oxygen, though still breathless. I spend the morning working on the script for Edward II.”4 The filmmaker’s reflections on respiratory illness and his struggle with productivity during the time of pandemic proved eerily prescient for much of what students would read or experience themselves as we neared the end of the term. And I was so pleased with the class’s willingness to share these sense-making reflections with each other in our online discussion.
Using the film and the play in tandem worked surprisingly well in the online environment. One student, a budding actor and playwright, suggested a video-chat table-reading of the play. He was one of over 100 students still living (within socially distanced conditions) on Grinnell’s campus in the second half of the semester and had been engaging in such readings with friends in Europe and India to pass the time while quarantined on campus. The virtual play-reading proved an excellent opportunity to reconnect the students in my class who were now spread across the globe. I was having one-on-one conversations with students about their papers and about their reactions to the pandemic. But performing the play together was something else. It allowed us to take a respite from those conversations, to step outside of our place, our time, and ourselves for two hours. And it was simply nice to gather everyone face-to-face, much like how we had met around the table for the first half of the semester. While the examination of Edward II proved unexpectedly timely, it also provided lessons going forward and new opportunities for teaching. The online table-reading allowed for the activity to not take up class time and to be voluntary. Moreover, as modeled by the student’s impetus for suggesting the activity, it constituted a form of sociality that could function at a distance.
At the time of writing this essay, much has already been written about Shakespeare’s productivity during a time of plague and about the role of plague in his work.5 He is our most famous playwright in the early modern English tradition, and his relationship to the plague is more legible to a wider public. However, I was happy to discover this other synergy with a sometimes-overlooked playwright. Jarman himself was deeply interested in the Renaissance. As Lee Benjamin Huttner observes, “Jarman regularly places pressure on the relevance of the historical subject to the present, inventing an anachronistic imaginary through which to envision how figures of the past continue to haunt the present.”6 Through their comments about the play and the film adaptation as well as in the solace they found in reading the play aloud together, my students embraced this same project in which Jarman immersed himself. The current situation allowed them to connect more deeply with the past and, ultimately, with each other.
John S. Garrison is Professor of English at Grinnell College, where he teaches courses on early modern literature and culture. He also serves as Chair of the campus-wide Peace and Conflict Studies Program.
1 Wojnarowicz’s memoir, for example, articulates how the overwhelming threat of HIV disease had him feeling as if “in a clearer than clear way that at this point in history the virus’ activity is forever.” David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 118. And Vuong’s lament, “I watched you / from the window’s warped pane,” captured a sense of distance shared by a fear of infection and a rush of mourning. Ocean Vuong, “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” Thrush Poetry Journal (March 2012).
2 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1978), 3.
3 In her analysis of Jarman’s film adaption, Deborah Willis has remarked that “Marlowe’s Edward II has been particularly attractive to those committed to production of ‘engaged,’ politically progressive cultural forms.” Deborah Willis, “Marlowe Our Contemporary: Edward II on Stage and Screen,” Criticism 40, no. 4 (1998): 615.
4 Derek Jarman, Modern Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 293.
5 See, for example, Anoushka Sinha, “King Lear Under COVID-19 Lockdown,” Journal of the American Medical Association (10 Apr. 2020); Emma Smith, “What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Living with Pandemics,” The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2020. For a humorous take on these pontifications, see Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague,” The New Yorker, 1 Apr. 2020.
6 Lee Benjamin Huttner, “Body Positive: The Vibrant Present of Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991),” Shakespeare Bulletin 32, no. 3 (2014): 398.