Life has changed rapidly since WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. As the novel coronavirus that causes the disease has spread across the U.S., offices have closed, public spaces have emptied, and officials have urged people to stay home as much as possible. Many Americans have suddenly found themselves with more free time (at least the ones without kids home from school to take care of) and limited ways to spend it. Isolation or quarantine is a great time to prioritize your mental and physical well-being, but if you also want to use it to be productive, you have plenty of historical role models to choose from. William Shakespeare wasn’t the only person who produced some of his best work during a pandemic—here are some other great thinkers and artists who used social distancing to their advantage.
1. William Shakespeare
“William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine” is exactly the type of exaggerated story you’d expect to see spread during a wild news cycle, but this is one viral tidbit that’s rooted in truth. Shakespeare was an actor and shareholder with The King’s Men theater troupe when the bubonic plague forced London theaters to close in the early 17th century. The official rule was that after weeks, when the death toll exceeded 30, public playhouses had to shut down. This meant that the theater industry was paralyzed for much of 1606 when the plague returned to the city. After suddenly finding himself without a steady job and lots of free time, Shakespeare got to writing. He composed King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra before the year was over.
2. Isaac Newton
A few decades after an isolated Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays, Isaac Newton found himself having to avoid disease in England. In 1665, when Newton was in his early 20s, one of the last major outbreaks of the bubonic plague hit the country. Classes at Cambridge University were canceled, so Newton retreated to his family estate roughly 60 miles away to continue his studies there. He didn’t have to worry about responding to professors' emails or video conferencing into classes, and with zero structure, he excelled. The young mathematician produced some of his best work during his year in quarantine, writing the papers that would become early calculus and developing his theories on optics while playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity germinated. While an apple likely didn’t hit Newton on the head, there was an apple tree outside his window that may have inspired his revelation.
3. Edvard Munch
The Scream painter Edvard Munch didn’t just witness the Spanish Flu pandemic change the world around him—he contracted the disease around the beginning of 1919, while living in Norway. But instead of becoming one of its many victims, Munch lived to continue making great art. As soon as he felt physically capable, he gathered his painting supplies and began capturing his physical state. Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu shows him with thinning hair and a gaunt face sitting in front of his sickbed.
4. Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe was an Elizabethan playwright who gained fame around the same time as William Shakespeare. When the bubonic plague hit London in 1592, Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid infection. This was the same time he wrote Summers' Last Will and Testament, a play that reflects his experiences living through the pandemic. One famous passage reads:
Adieu, farewell earths blisse, This world uncertaine is, Fond are lifes lustful joyes, Death proves them all but toyes, None from his darts can flye; I am sick, I must dye: Lord, have mercy on us.
5. Giovanni Boccaccio
Florentine writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio was personally affected by the bubonic plague. When it hit Florence in 1348, both his father and stepmother succumbed to the disease. Boccaccio survived the outbreak by fleeing the city and hiding out in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron [PDF], a collection of novellas framed as stories a group of friends tell each other while quarantined inside a villa during the plague.