Our lives have changed in dramatic ways in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Government officials have advised us to stay at home while the virus continues to ravage our communities. Many of us find ourselves confined to our homes feeling bored, restless, listless, and unmotivated. As someone who has gone through these different mental and emotional states during this ordeal, I was particularly interested in finding out if there were any great minds from the past who didn’t stop their work despite a plague that ravaged their communities. To my surprise, I found not one but several historical role models to choose from who produced some of their best work when their lives were upended due to the scourge of the plague.
Here is a list and brief background of six great men who were singularly productive during the worst epidemics facing them. The list below is not meant to be complete since there are others like Francesco Petrach (1304-1374), Titian (1488-1576), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), to name a few, who were undaunted by the plague, creating works of profound importance during these difficult times. I chose to focus on the following six because of my familiarity with their lives and work.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), the Florentine writer and poet, was personally affected by the bubonic plague. When the plague struck Florence in 1348, he lost both his father and stepmother to the plague. In order to survive the outbreak, Boccaccio fled the city, seeking refuge in the Tuscan countryside. During this period, he wrote The Decameron, which is a collection of stories that seven men and three women shared with each other while they were quarantined inside a villa during the plague. To pass the time, each person amused the others by telling a story at night. The stories told over ten days contained dramatic and humorous elements in their descriptions of human behaviour: aristocratic pretensions, clerical failings, romantic disasters, corrupt institutions, business deals and marriages gone awry, and more. Boccaccio challenged his readers to think about responsibility to others, especially the poor and the marginalized ones. To this day, Boccaccio’s Decameron is regarded as one of the greatest Italian literary masterpieces.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) experienced the plague at different stages in his life. Just weeks after Shakespeare’s baptism in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, the register read, “Here begins the plague.” Shakespeare was indeed fortunate to survive not only the first plague after his birth but many further outbreaks in his lifetime. It is remarkable that he composed much of his work if not in lockdown, then in the shadows of deadly plagues that were decimating England and Europe. When the theatres in London were closed for an epidemic in 1592-3, Shakespeare produced his successful narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. When the plague resurfaced in 16031604, claiming the lives of one in five Londoners, Shakespeare was busy writing Measure for Measure. Then during the plague outbreak in 1606, Shakespeare was working on King Lear. During and after the worst outbreaks of his lifetime, Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest works: “King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens. According to Columbia University professor and author, James Shapiro, “These plays really bear the mark of living through such a terrible experience, and it may well be that his move toward writing tragedy at this time is a kind of response to the tragedy that his society was experiencing in these years.” What strikes Shapiro about Shakespeare and the bubonic plague is that the playwright never fled London. According to Shapiro, Shakespeare stayed put in London because he felt his role as an artist was to help people deal with difficult periods when the theatres reopened.
Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) was an Elizabethan playwright who became famous around the same time as Shakespeare. When the bubonic plague hit London in 1592, Nashe fled to the English countryside to avoid getting infected. This was the same time when he wrote his magnum opus, Summers Last Will and Testament, a play that captures his experiences as he was living through the pandemic. Scholars point out that this play is notable for breaking new ground in developing English Renaissance drama. One famous and oft quoted 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.
The verse describes how it feels to live inside an infected body, speaking the voice of illness and echoing the proximity to death. Nashe died when he was only 34. While details about his death are uncertain, several of his biographers have blamed the plague for his death.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was one person who stayed in London throughout the 1665 plague. The British naval administrator kept a diary, which documented the severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Pepys’ diaries offer a firsthand account of living through the horror of that year. His diary provides detailed information about sick people and corpses, his horror at the sheer numbers of dead, and then how the toll started to decrease as the weather grew cold at the end of the year. Pepys’ diary continues to be used as a great source of historical knowledge and as a reflection of a brave man who didn’t run away from the epidemic but chose to stay put in what is regarded as one of the most terrifying times in human history.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) found himself in the unenviable position of trying to avoid the deadly plague a few decades after Shakespeare wrote several of his highly successful plays. In 1665, when Newton was in his early 20s and a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, the bubonic plague struck England again. Consequently, Cambridge University cancelled all classes. Newton was forced to retreat to his family estate, which was approximately 60 miles away in order to continue with his studies. While there, Newton produced some of his best work by writing papers that would become early calculus. During this period, he developed his theories on optics while he was busy playing with prisms in his bedroom. This was also the time when his theory of gravity evolved. We are all familiar with the story of the apple tree outside his window and how the tree may have been instrumental in his revelation. In 1667, Newton returned to Cambridge with his theories. He was made a fellow and two years later a professor. In 1705, Newton received his knighthood at his beloved Trinity College from Queen Anne when she was visiting Cambridge University.
Edward Munch (1863- 1944) was a Norwegian expressionist artist who didn’t just witness the Spanish flu pandemic around him, he contracted the disease around the beginning of 1919, but was fortunate enough to survive it. Although Munch created thousands of pioneering and influential paintings, illustrations, lithographs and etchings, ironically, he is known all over the world for creating The Scream, which Arthur Lubow in Smithsonian Magazine describes as a “sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset.” Munch, who lived until 80 to make great art, is revered today for creating paintings that capture our angst and tragedies. Munch believed that a painter must not merely record external reality, but she/he should convey the impact the remembered scene had on the artist’s sensibility. In times of coronavirus, Munch’s iconic painting, The Scream, has taken on a new significance because it captures our anxieties about illness and death, of financial and societal collapse.
If we feel depressed or discouraged during this pandemic, we can certainly remember the examples set by these six great minds. They not only endured devastating plagues, but they also came out triumphant. We may want to draw inspiration from these brave men who made the best out of their excruciatingly difficult situations.
While I certainly don’t suggest that we will become geniuses like these six men, but the forced isolation will give us the time to reflect and may even help us create work that would not be possible in a busy, structured and comfortable life.
The writer is professor emeritus of communication studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles