“Now is the winter of our discontent…” Shakespeare’s insights for our time

I can no longer find helpful contemporary context for my daily journey through this crazy time we are living in. So, I have gone to the classics. Shakespeare, specifically.

First, I must acknowledge that we are enjoying glorious autumn days here in Minnesota, for which I am truly grateful. We are extending our October days given the warm afternoons and evenings as the leaves overhead turn yellow, orange and red: the explosion of ‘heat’ before we-know-what-comes-next. Leaves fall, skies turn gray, and soon enough, cold descends. We cannot act surprised – anymore than my friends in Louisiana or Texas can be surprised by hurricanes. But we can be excused for sadness as the cycle comes around. Winter is coming.

I confess that I’m dreading it more this time than I can recall in many years. The pandemic has been like a grueling test, drawn out and making scarce the opportunities to really celebrate life’s milestones.  How many birthdays, anniversaries, concerts and weddings must we postpone? Being able to gather outside the past few months – albeit with masks – has been wonderful and, again, I am grateful. But I have begun to wonder: can we think of this coming winter as the nadir of this collective experience? Are better, brighter days ahead in the spring of 2022?

That was Shakespeare’s construct in the opening of Richard III, which begins with the famous quote: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York.” He was saying this is the trough, the worst of it: things are going to get better when my brother becomes King. Interestingly, the context was not a pandemic, it was a power struggle, which of course we are in the midst of, as well. In addition to fighting our path to the conquering of a viral disease, we are engaged in an exhausting battle to determine the future of our Republic, and perhaps even the future of other democracies around the globe. Is government a force for common good or a menace to be resisted and minimized?  Do we believe in the potential of people to determine their fate or do we believe there are those who know best and that they should have power to determine the future for the rest of us? I frankly have trouble interpreting the fights now being waged across the United States about access to voting any other way. And I am an unapologetic believer in the importance of people having a voice in their future.

Richard III was a study in the Machiavellian notion that the most successful path to power was to harness the use of fear. I am no expert on Shakespeare but even I understood as a student that Richard (and everyone around him) saw the pursuit of power as a justifiable reason to cheat, to lie, to kill. At the risk of sounding shrill, I must say I see some parallels in the contemporary pursuit of power. The efforts to limit people’s access to votes is one concerning trend; another is the disparaging of government’s potential to serve the public good. How can investing in infrastructure be a bad idea if you believe in our collective fate? Another contemporary tactic is to demonize the citizenship of those who came here more recently than one’s forefathers: somehow, ‘new immigrants’ are less virtuous than those of us who are here because of immigrants who arrived earlier. Frankly, I can’t make the leap.

I am preparing for the inevitable winter; but I will use all the energy I can summon to be optimistic about the spring. God Bless America; God Bless us, everyone.

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