Consent in the Time of COVID: What King Lear's Cordelia teaches us about consent


Space capsule on a parachute drifts over the ocean at sunset.

In Quebec we refer to the start of the school year as la rentrée, often translated as “return” or “re-entry.” This year a “return” to anything resembling normal feels increasingly out of reach as the Delta variant rages and the fourth wave crashes down on Canadians (https://ici.radio-canada.ca/rci/en/news/1815842/no-doubt-canada-now-in-4th-wave-of-covid-19-as-cases-spike-across-much-of-the-country). A “re-entry” into a world still very much grappling with COVID offers a fresh set of complexities that were not on our radars one year ago. (https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/03/opinions/covid-risk-on-college-campuses-vaccines-masks-ben-ghiat/index.html)


How (and in what form) we meet with people, when and where we return to offices and classrooms, and who has the authority to make these decisions are all being decided in real time – by politicians, HR offices, and administrators.


Consent in the time of COVID

Understanding consent – and building it into every time we gather – is key to avoiding ambiguous and socially awkward encounters and, more importantly, reducing the potential for harm to ourselves, others, and our communities.


Consent is defined as a “notion that we should respect one another’s boundaries, in order to be safe, preserve dignity, and build healthy relationships” https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/12/consent-every-age). While consent has long been associated with sexual relationships and/or legal thresholds, consent entered the cultural zeitgeist in the wake of the #metoo revelations (2018 – present) and has since popped up in diverse spheres, informing parenting strategies, pedagogical philosophies, digital regulations, and social media sharing (cf. https://www.scarymommy.com/bodily-autonomy-teach-kids-enthusiastic-consent/).


Chalk letters on a board that say ONLY YES IS YES

Critical Empathy as a precondition of Consent

COVID has created all sorts of ambiguous situations because of the complexities around consent: almost every interaction is now up for debate and negotiation. Exercising critical empathy feels more urgent in this context. In a forthcoming book with Drs. Lisa Dickson and Shannon Murray (University of Toronto Press), we explore critical empathy with the help of a broad range of theorists, including John D. Caputo:


Empathy is a way of doing relationships, making “community with the unknowable

other” (55), that recognizes our “common strangeness” in which “we concede that we do

not know each other, and that, because of this, we can only speak to each other,

not about each other” (Caputo, More Radical Hermeneutics 60).


Consent only operates when critical empathy exists. Critical empathy requires the acknowledgement that humans are experiencing a Fall 2021 re-entry differently. While some people are running back into the office with outstretched arms to embrace in-person experiences, many others feel deeply unsafe – for themselves and as caregivers of high-risk family members and friends.



Subway platform sign reading: MIND THE GAP

Toxic Positivity undoes the work of critical empathy

In a recent Twitter thread, Digital Humanities scholar Dr. Aimée Morrison maps out the uneven responses to a proposed “return to normal,” which range from pain and disorientation to gaslighting and toxic positivity. https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1433059713005010944.html (September 1, 2021). Morrison writes,


We are all so invested in the End of Pandemic Restrictions being the magic key that

unlocks the door that lets us out of this collective nightmare that we truly want to believe that going to a concert will restore our mental health. It can't. (ibid.)


Morrison provides us with a lens of critical empathy to understand the people who are ready for us all to be back in person, just as she makes space for those who are not ready to risk health and safety of themselves and others:


Maybe you're back to something resembling your old routines, or close to it. Just be okay

with not being 100% as On Your Game as you were in February 2020. This is a big

change. You need to adjust. Make space. You can't go around this; you need to go

through. (ibid.)


As we grapple with uneven access to grief and relief, how do we design for a rentrée when some of us are more ready than others?


17 months into a global pandemic, COVID has exposed fundamental inequities around how and where we seek consent when we gather in social groups, workplaces, and communities. Professional and personal relationships are tested when consent is not clear, solicited, or respected. What’s worse: we don’t have a map for negotiating this strange new world where “normal” is still being arbitrated.


Or do we?


[Enter Shakespeare]


Cordelia withholds Consent as an act of Resistance

As I write elsewhere, Shakespeare’s plays and characters move across and between historical, cultural, and geographical boundaries in ways that can help us see old things from fresh perspectives, understand new concepts through older lenses, and move us from what we already know into the realm of things we do not yet know (https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/adventures-in-academe/can-shakespeare-teach-us-to-be-better-citizens/). His works also help us question things we thought we knew and relearn lessons we assumed we had already mastered. (https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/adventures-in-academe/heed-the-uncomfortable-truth-tellers-in-academia/)


Cue King Lear.


Cordelia helps us negotiate the complex landscape of consent in the time of COVID.



Lear gestures and Cordelia looks distressed. Copyright Nobby Clark
Barrie Rutter as King Lear Catherine Kinsella as Cordelia Feb 2015 Dir. Jonathan Miller

Lear’s “love test” gathers his court together so that his daughters (unprepared and unscripted) can tell the court how much they love him; once they sing for their proverbial suppers, he proclaims they will be rewarded with their (predetermined) third of the kingdom. Props are prepped, the stage is set, the audience is assembled, but his carefully stage-managed performance is set up to fail: roles and expectations are not clearly outlined in advance, and consent (informed, express, unanimous, prior, or even implied) has not been secured. Simply put, his daughters did not sign up for this.


So what does Cordelia do?


First, she agonizes about whether she should say something about the awkward position within which she finds herself: in an aside, she worries, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Many of us have found ourselves in positions where someone is acting badly but we agonize about speaking up because it might be rude or disruptive. Psychologist Catherine Sanderson studies when and who intervenes in “ambiguous” situations:


When facing an ambiguous situation, our natural tendency is to look to others to figure

out what’s going on. But here’s the problem: If each person is looking to the people

around them to act, and no one wants to risk feeling foolish and embarrassed, the

problematic comment or behavior may be left unchallenged. And this silence conveys a

lack of concern, or even tacit acquiescence, making it far more likely that it will continue.

(https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/six_tips_for_speaking_up_against_bad_beh avior).


When Cordelia realizes her sisters are playing along, she is faced with a very difficult decision. Ultimately Cordelia chooses to resist her father’s command, exclaiming, “I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (1.1.90-1). She refuses to participate in the love test; famously, she says “nothing”; the opposite of remaining silent, her answer is a damning indictment of Lear’s domestic drama. She does not consent.


Consent in the time of COVID: Two Vignettes

In two recent cringe-worthy encounters – one personal and one professional – I needed Cordelia’s help. Stuck in ambiguous situations with shifting notions of COVID-informed consent, I found myself struggling with how to express deep discomfort. Cordelia helped me process the ambiguity around consent and helped me (re)engage in critical empathy.


First, the personal conundrum:


After months of living in Quebec (which has been a “COVID hot-spot” consistently since March 2020) we retreated to our family cottage in July; ensconced in rural New Brunswick, this retreat from the plague-infested cities felt distinctly early modern. We “bubbled” with my parents and our neighbours: this small COVID bubble (which included 5 children under the age of 12, two immunocompromised adults, and two seniors over the age of 70) felt safe because we all shared a heightened awareness of risk (and acted accordingly).


A few days into vacation we had a bonfire on the beach. A different neighbour walked over to say hello. However, we had just learned this neighbour and his wife chose not to get vaccinated because they “are waiting for more information.”


We all froze: this unvaccinated human was walking amongst us, completely oblivious to the deep discomfort he was causing for those around the bonfire. My father engaged him in small talk and tried to keep him contained at the edge of the gathering; the rest of us were silently agonizing about what to say while feeling anxious and unsafe.


We waited for my father to politely express the consensus of the group. But my father, ever the welcoming host, did not speak up. And the rest of us remained silent. And our unvaccinated neighbour remained oblivious.


The encounter felt like a violation of the bubble we had worked so hard to protect. We did not give consent. Nor was consent solicited. And our representative, tasked with making our expectations around consent clear, didn’t want to be rude to the interloper. By remaining silent the group experienced harm.


Second, the professional encounter:


As universities across Canada geared up for a return to campus, the provincial government in Quebec identified education as an essential service and has mandated that classrooms should be in-person. All other ancillary events related to higher education (sporting events, extra-curricular activities) are not exempt from COVID protocols and require the vaccine passport and other measures (masks, physical distancing, capacity limits, proof of vaccination).


My department chair sent around a meeting invite for a three-hour planning retreat a week before classes began. I suggested that we all meet virtually because meetings (unlike classroom teaching) were deemed a non-essential activity. I explained my discomfort – with the fourth wave, the Delta variant, my unvaccinated children and a spouse battling cancer – and even included a few articles about creating inclusive and safe workspaces. My request was met with silence. And then, in a comedic misfire, one of my colleagues accidentally sent me an email with a screen cap of my Twitter feed in early July when I met with two colleagues for a work meeting (off campus, double vaxxed, good ventilation). The three of us took off our masks for the photo. This photo, for my colleague anyway, constituted evidence of my hypocrisy around COVID protocols.


And, indeed, earlier this summer the air was palpable with hope: we were promised a “hot vax summer” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/post-vaccination-summer-partying-dating-sex/2021/05/17/a04ca36e-b43c-11eb-9059-d8176b9e3798_story.html): vaccination rates soared, hospitalization stats dropped and, for a brief moment, we imagined the utopian fantasy depicted in a viral chewing gum commercial. (https://www.today.com/food/viral-extra-gum-ad-imagines-post-pandemic-life-t217627). But the euphoria was quickly quelled as the Delta variant emerged and the rules changed – again.


Last week we met for the three-hour meeting in a hybrid form: four departmental members met face-to-face on campus in a small conference room (seated, no masks, door closed). Two departmental members joined virtually. One departmental member did not attend.


The encounter felt like a violation of the critical empathy and care we had worked so hard to create in the early days of the global pandemic. Consent around gathering was nether solicited nor, when lack of consent was expressed, was it respected. Collegial governance necessitates a work culture that is safe, humane, and respectful: however, the energy expended to identify evidence of hypocrisy and recalcitrance (rather than choose to exercise critical empathy) lacked critical empathy. And the rest of the department remained silent. Without candid and transparent conversations about consent, the group experienced harm.


Hands form the letters L O V E

So what would Cordelia do?


Cordelia’s story does not end with her refusal to grant consent. She is exiled and dowerless, but she leaves court with her integrity intact and a plan to regroup and return. She also continues to love her father despite his betrayal. Cordelia is loyal to the highest ideals of what Lear can be (without judging him for his worst moment) and persists in loving him. In this way critical love is fundamentally hopeful because it has the possibility to be transformative—and even redemptive. She teaches him (and us) that consent can be learned. When she is reunited with her father at the end of the play, he frames their future interactions through the lens of consent:


When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news. (5.3. 10 – 14)


Lear values Cordelia’s agency (it is her choice to ask for his blessing).

He understands his role as supplicant (I will kneel).

And then he signals a future request (I will ask you for forgiveness).


IF + THEN + REQUEST = healthy, inclusive interaction grounded in consent.


Cordelia has helped me work through consent and critical empathy in my own two ambiguous encounters. In the first situation I emailed our unvaccinated neighbour and – with loving kindness – outlined my fears about the health and safety of my high-risk loved ones; I suggested that we could host outdoors, 2 metres distanced, and double masked. He politely declined. More importantly, my father was able to critically reflect on his silence and the nuances of consent – which still unfamiliar territory for many. Everyone learned something (including the neighbours, who are now vaccinated!). We had to sit with the difficulty and work through it – individually and together. In the second encounter I continue to critically love my colleagues – and the ideals we share for inclusive, delightful, transformative learning – because I can exercise critical empathy: I have to honour their desire to return to normal after an exhausting and fraught year and a half. They are tired. And tired of being tired. As Morrison writes earlier the sheer timeline has taken a significant toll:


When we went into lockdown, we could acknowledge a crisis, a difficulty, a loss, pain,

confusion. We made some space for that. We cheered ourselves with the idea that we

would get back to normal, soon. But it's been 17 months. That normal is gone, something

new will emerge.

So how do we do we anchor consent in future practices for our workplaces, classrooms, and social gatherings? What lessons can we learn from Cordelia and Lear to help us navigate the “weight of this sad [and critically hopeful] time”?



Penciled checklist

Tips for the Trenches


1. Think about the purpose of the meeting and provide that clear framework for others: “Would you be available to engage in [this type of gathering]?”

2. Clearly outline, in advance, the roles and expectations of all the participants: “In asking you to participate I hope we can tackle [XYZ] together”

3. Be explicit about the conditions of the proposed meeting: “We will exercise the following cautionary measures, including [outdoors, masked, limited group, double vaccinated, ventilation, etc.].”

4. Provide a dignified way for people to not offer consent. “if you are feeling overwhelmed by COVID, limiting your in-person interactions, committed to being off campus, or for any other reason (that is none of my business), we can organize a virtual meeting at a future date.”

5. Offer room for a more nuanced RSVP. “Please indicate your level of availability and or level of comfort”

6. Be attentive to the uneven access to power. Philosopher Shannon Day has a wonderful Twitter thread where outlines ways we can be attention to the concentric circles of institutional and cultural power and take steps to be more inclusive to those who are more precarious and contingent (but might also feel less safe) https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1415850778066051075.html

7. Appreciate that consent can be withdrawn. If the meeting is scheduled well in advance, check in a few days before to see if everyone still feels comfortable (consent can be withdrawn at any time, illustrated by the very funny viral video that compares consent to making someone tea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZwvrxVavnQ)

8. Develop a menu of choices for people to connect: video-conference, phone call, walk and talk, chat (on Teams, texting, Slack), in-person outside, etc.


We need to exercise critical empathy in order to understand there is a spectrum of readiness to re-enter the world. If we can make space for consent in all our encounters, we can continue to co-create without having to know what “normal” looks like yet. Critical hope allows us to take the leap with the faith that, when we emerge in a different place and transformed, we are immeasurably enriched for the experience.


Jessica Riddell


Rainbow of chalk writing on white paper


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