Shakespeare Story

Thought of the week: Loss and lament

Following the moment of silence for NHS and care workers who have sadly lost their lives, Michelle Terry finds a deeper meaning in a quote from Richard II

6 minute read

Actor looks disheveled and looks up at a wooden horse. The quote reads 'these external manners of laments are merely shadows to unseen grief' Richard II Act IV scene 1.

On Tuesday 29 April at 11.00am, many of us fell silent for one minute in honour of the NHS workers and carers that have sadly lost their lives to COVID-19. We also fell silent for the 22,000 individuals who have lost their lives so far, and for the 22,000 families who have lost their loved ones.

‘These external manners of lamentsare important.

It was a minute that we all needed to share.

Because grief isn’t just about death.

When Richard II talks about grief, he is talking about loss.

And we’re all in a state of loss right now.

Loss of loved ones. Loss of human contact. Loss of control. Loss of finance. Loss of appetite. Loss of sleep. Loss of the known.

And loss is hard work. Mentally and physically. The effects of grief: loneliness, isolation, guilt, anxiety, fear, irritability, frustration, anger, lethargy… these are things we are all managing, to a greater or lesser extent.

Over the last ten days both my 93 year old grandmother and my three year old daughter got sick. It’s important to say that they are both recovering now, but when the book ends of my life fell down, after having spent weeks immersed in contracts and furloughing  and worst case scenario planning, balancing life and work and frantically looking for ways to get back to “normal” as quickly as possible, I was suddenly hit with the biggest reminder of why we are all in this lockdown.

Because we are all vulnerable. We are all fragile. We are all mortal.

And even though I know that ‘all that lives must die’, it doesn’t make it any easier to bear.

Because I don’t want to die. At least not yet.

Of course there are days when I’m with Mark Twain and ‘often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat‘, or like Hamlet, I wonder ‘What is this quintessence of dust?’

But I still want to live to find out. I still want my loved ones to live and live well.

It’s no surprise that we’re doing everything we can to ease and abate suffering as much as possible because ultimately, we are hard-wired to survive.

Life and death are huge subjects that most of the time we can’t and don’t want to talk about… and thank goodness because otherwise we would never get anything else done!

And under normal circumstances we can distract ourselves from having to think about them too deeply. We can work, we can run, we can walk, we can talk, we can drink, we can hug. We create rituals with which to ignore or express that the ‘grief lies all within’. We can commiserate and celebrate together at funerals. We can scream at the top of our voice at sporting events, or sing our hearts out at concerts, or laugh and cry together in a theatre or cinema as actors imitate the thoughts and feelings that we often find difficult to express.

Being alive is to exist in a constant state of not knowing…. Funerals give a sense of completion, sport means someone wins in the end, the satisfaction we get from the end of a good book or a good play or a good film is so important. It helps distract us from not knowing when our own end will come.

Rituals and stories give us the ending in ceremony or fiction that we are denied the knowledge of in our own lives. We need stories and art and poetry to talk about the ‘silence in the tortured soul’, that the ‘grief fills the room‘, the thought of ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns’

But here we all are, in the holding pen of lockdown, having to face the loss and the grief, having to contemplate life and death, and with no idea of when or how this will end, no idea of the ‘undiscovered country’ beyond lockdown.

It ‘puzzles the will’.

But it doesn’t stop the will.

We are still looking for the new stories.

We are still looking for the new rituals.

We clap on Thursday evenings.

We put rainbows in our windows.

We fall silent for a minute.

These are not small things. And they didn’t need months of planning meetings or budget forecasting or market analysis. They happen because we need them to. There is a collective will and therefore a collective way to find balance.

They are full to the brim of our ‘unseen grief’ and they are full to the brim of our hope.

We know that ‘all that lives must die’. We know solitude will eventually need company. Shadow needs light. Silence will need sound.

We know that in the little minute that we fell silent on Tuesday to mourn the loss of life, 255 babies were born.

Over 500 babies will have been born in the two minutes it took you to read this.

A minute is miraculous. Life is miraculous. It doesn’t surprise me that we are doing all that we can to protect it and cherish it, as well as mourn its loss.

As the silence swells inside all of us we know that we must ‘Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break’.

No matter what situation we find ourselves in, whether we talk about it or not, we will always find new rituals, new ways, new ‘external manners of laments’, to express some of the ‘unseen grief’, as well as hope, in which the ‘tortured soul also finds a minute of peace.

PSwDB Macbeth 2020 icon tear

My grief lies all within; 
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;

— Richard II

FINIS.

THOUGHT OF THE WEEK 

Each week during the UK lockdown, our Artistic Director Michelle Terry shares her Thought of the Week.

Using Shakespeare’s language, Michelle reflects on the individual and universal meaning of the words. By giving personal and emotional insight, she uses the quote to relate to, and express, the mood of this uncertain time.

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