King Lear, calculus and gravity: What has quarantine ever done for us?

‘Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.’

This tweet, from @roseannecash, went viral recently. So I decided to investigate if it’s true, and who else over the ages has managed to be productive in confinement, while ‘living dully sluggardized at home/ Wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness.’ (from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which may also have been written during a plague outbreak).  

In fact, Shakespeare’s life was shaped by the plague so profoundly it is difficult for a modern observer, even in the middle of this pandemic, to comprehend. For one thing, he was a baby when a severe outbreak swept through Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and killed a quarter of the population, an event that surely cast a long shadow over his childhood. In the period from 1603 to 1613, the height of his career, London theatres were forcibly closed due to plague outbreaks more than 60% of the time. The summer of 1606 saw a major plague in London, and that year is probably when Shakespeare, with the theatres all shut up, cranked out King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra.

The other big name in self-isolation productivity is Isaac Newton. In 1665, when Newton was in his early twenties, classes were cancelled at Cambridge when the last major wave of bubonic plague hit the country and he was stuck at home for an entire year. Thank goodness he did not have to video-conference his professors and email in his coursework, however, because he got so bored that he invented calculus. He also came up with his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom and first thought about gravity from looking at the infamous apple tree while wandering around his garden that year. 

Samuel Pepys on the other hand, in the very same outbreak, did not submit to staying at home (not that it mattered much, given the disease was actually carried by rat fleas). On August 16, he noted ‘how sad a sight it is to see the streets so empty of people’ and that, walking home in the dark, ‘to my great trouble I met a dead Corps, of the plague, in the narrow ally…but I thank God I was not much disturbed at it.’ But the very next day,  he went boating with four friends and then ‘to supper mighty merry’. ‘I have never lived so merrily as I have done this plague-time’ he wrote, looking back on 1665 on New Year’s Eve. So unfortunately, his diaries cannot really qualify as something productive achieved in quarantine. 

So what else? Edvard Munch, of The Scream fame, painted Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu in 1919 as soon as he was strong enough to hold a paintbrush again after contracting the illness. But other than these figures, there are not many examples of great work achieved while in complete self-isolation. Perhaps that is because being confined to your house is not the recipe for inspiration and productivity judgemental people on the internet claim it is. But mainly, it is because we have never really done this before. I’m sorry to say there really is a limit to how much we can learn from the history books in this situation. But I imagine the journalist of the future who decides to look into what humans have achieved in quarantine will find a whole lot more to write about.

 

Image: via pxhere.com

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