Shakespeare, plagues, and a post-apocalyptic novel

Emily St John Mandel on why Shakespeare's plays take centre stage in her bestselling novel, Station Eleven.

On the eve of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, people around the world are preparing to celebrate the Bard and his plays. But what is it about his work that means we still celebrate not only his plays, but also his birthday? Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven features a travelling theatre company that only performs plays by Shakespeare, and perhaps the reason she chose those plays goes some way to answering that question. Here, she explains why she chose to feature his work in her bestselling novel. 

A hundred and fifty pages into my first draft of Station Eleven, two years ago exactly, a mesmerizing play by Jonathan Bate arrived from London for a brief run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Being Shakespeare was a one-man play on the life and work of Shakespeare, starring the remarkable Simon Callow. In the play, Bate describes a life heavily marked by the epidemics of bubonic plague that swept again and again over Elizabethan England.

My original idea was to write about the life of an actor. I'd written three very plot-driven novels that were most frequently referred to as literary noir, and I wasn't unhappy with them but I wanted to write something entirely different: something not at all noirish, a calm and measured portrait of a life devoted to art. I imagined writing a novel about an actor in a travelling theatre company; some idealistic, under-funded little troupe making its way between small towns across present-day Canada.

I think that could have been an interesting book, but I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic fiction, and I quickly decided that the landscape through which the company travelled would be post-apocalyptic. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to write about a time some years after a flu pandemic, when the chaos and inevitable violence of societal collapse had for the most part subsided and the world had become a fairly quiet place.

What would we long for and try to recreate,
if the trappings of modern civilization were stripped away?

I'd known little of Shakespeare's biography before I saw Bate's play, and hadn't realized the extent to which the plague marked his life. Three of his siblings were probable plague victims. His only son, Hamnet, died of plague at eleven and left behind a twin. Shakespeare's life, in other words, was marked in exactly the same manner as the fictional lives I'd been writing about. I'd spent the better part of a year imagining lives haunted by a pandemic, and here was exactly such a life before me on the stage.

The spectre of pandemic surfaces here and there in Shakespeare's texts, sometimes overtly—Lear compares one of his daughters to a plague-sore—and sometimes less so. The ghost of Hamlet's father stands on a parapet and describes his untimely death, the poison running swift as quicksilver through his body, and it's far too easy to imagine a quicksilver contagion doing the same. Hamlet stands on one side of death, his father on the other, a toxicant between them. As Shakespeare writes those lines, his son Hamnet has been dead for no more than three or four years.

In the first draft of Station Eleven, I'd had the company that travelled through the new world performing plays from several eras, but the idea of such a company performing plays written for the modern stage began to seem false. They were no longer in the modern world. They were in a world lit by candlelight. The plays of the modern world seemed somehow insufficient. I decided that they should only perform Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's time, of course, small communities played host to travelling companies of actors. There was a pleasing symmetry in the idea of such a company setting out in a post-apocalyptic landscape, a world in which such companies again travelled the roads on foot and on horseback, setting up their stages and performing his work by candlelight in small towns, the age of electricity having come and gone.

For me, any thoughtful novel set in a post-apocalyptic world is a meditation on memory and loss. What would we mourn, what would we long for and try to recreate, if the trappings of modern civilization were stripped away? Beyond the glancing similarities between Elizabethan England and the post-apocalyptic sections of Station Eleven—the work-worn lives brightened by travelling companies, the terrible memories of pandemics in the recent past—there is the power and the beauty of Shakespeare's body of work. I remember describing the premise of my new book to my husband, perhaps three years ago now. “People would want what was best about the world,” he said.

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a bold vision of a dystopian future, frighteningly real.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?