Shakespeare wrote a bunch of his material during epidemics, and so could you

by Nick Gonzales

If you’ve been on the internet, watched TV, read a newspaper or flipped through a magazine lately, you’ve probably seen lists of all the things you could be doing while self-isolating from you-know-what. They’re often accompanied by anecdotes of what historical figures did during quarantines of the past – anecdotes perfectly designed to make you feel guilty about your own lack of productivity. Among these is the factoid that William Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during one of these times.

It turns out that particular bit of information is a bit misleading: Yes, the Bard of Avon wrote “King Lear” during the epidemic of 1606, but this wouldn’t have been the only time, nor the only classic, that he wrote during a shutdown. A plague of one sort or another was near constant at the turn of the 16th Century, and whenever the number of weekly deaths exceeded 30 all the theaters shut down. (Much like you today, English peasants of the time had to wait extra long to see “Ye Olde Mulan” or whatever.) And whenever Big Willie Style wasn’t at the theatre, he was writing for it.

As such, during the same epidemic that he produced “Lear,” he also wrote “Macbeth,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Timon of Athens.” During an early epidemic in 1593, he wrote the narrative poems “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis,” and started thinking about “Romeo and Juliet.” (“A plague o’ both of your houses” indeed.)

Inspired to sit down and write something yet? If not, don’t worry – we haven’t exactly been penning the Great American Novel in our free time – unless Masters of the Universe/Tiger King mashup fan fiction counts. Having time with nothing better to do has been productive for some people, with literary agents seeing increased appeals for representation. Even established authors like George R.R. Martin have more time to write.

“If there is a silver lining in these clouds, this will give me more time to finish ‘Winds of Winter.’ I continue to write every day, up here in my mountain fastness,” he wrote on his “Not a Blog” blog regarding the second-to-last book in his “Song of Ice and Fire” series, which was supposed to come out years ago. (I’m sorry for criticizing you, Mr. Martin; Please don’t have crossbowmen kill me and my family Red Wedding-style.)

If you are feeling inspired to write, make sure it’s not just about the world as it is right now. Phoebe Morgan, editorial director at HarperCollins, tweeted, “I know this is my personal opinion and I am only one editor … but I am advising my authors not to add pandemic into contemporary novels. My reasoning: I don’t think anyone wants to remember this when they’re trying to escape. Fiction is fiction.”

So unless you’ve got the mother of all coronavirus allegories brewing in your soul, maybe write about something else. (Also don’t write about He-Man, Joe Exotic, and Battle Cat teaming up to defeat the combined forces of Carole Baskin and Skeletor — that idea’s taken.) Maybe focus on an ill-fated couple or a man taken down by his corrupt hangers-on. Those seemed to work well for ol’ Billy Shakespeare.

Nick Gonzales


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