In times of quarantine, William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work.

As the coronavirus situation continues to develop, governments and experts are urging for social distancing and quarantine. As we all spend more time at home, it's only natural to get a little stir-crazy. But you're in the same boat as great thinkers like William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, who were isolated at a time when medical knowledge struggled to combat plagues. And even though conditions were rough then, the time spent isolated led to breakthroughs for both of them.

A good Tweet for your consideration:


What's "Quarantine"?

The idea to separate the diseased from the healthy is older than our understanding of things like bacteria and viruses. For example, the Old Testament in the Bible had rules for isolating lepers. But the word quarantine traces back to the 14th century when Europe and Asia were ravaged by the Black Death, or bubonic plague. As a mitigating measure, Italian-speaking Venice began to pass laws demanding ships arriving from plague-affected areas to isolate for 30 days. They called the period of isolation the trentino. 

In the next century, other countries had adopted the practice and lawmakers increased the isolation period to 40 days—a quarantino—and gave us the root for the word we use today.

The Bard of Avon's Show Must Go On

William Shakespeare (or in the past-tense, Wouldiwas Shookspeared), was born at a tough time to be a baby. In 16th-century England, Shakespeare was considered lucky to reach adulthood amidst repeating outbreaks of the bubonic plague (sadly, his siblings weren't so lucky).

By the reign of King James I, Shakespeare had become the premier playwright—but because of the plague, London theaters were closed more often than they were open. London officials, in their timely Elizabethan English, were worried that crowds of libertines and laypeople gathering to "see certayne stage plays" would be "close pestered together in small romes," that "whereby great infeccion with the plague, or some other infeccious diseases, may rise and growe, to the great hynderaunce of the common wealth of this citty."

When the plague closed theaters in 1606, Shakespeare got to work. According to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, author of The Year of Lear, in that one year of cooped-up self-quarantine, Shakespeare churned out three plays: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. These, some of Shakespeare's best dramatic plays, were surely born in part from Shakespeare's own dramatic circumstances of a pandemic. The loneliness of Lear, the omens of Antony and Cleopatra—and where would we be without Lady Macbeth's coronavirus handwashing routine?

out damn spot
Meme courtesy of Reduced Shakespeare Company @reduced on Twitter.

Newton's Quarantine and the Gravity of the Situation

Sir Isaac Newton would call it his annus mirabilis, his “year of wonders," though at the time he wasn't a Sir at all. He was just Isaac, another 20-something college kid at Trinity College in Cambridge, England. And then the Great Plague of London hit, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague. Trinity College sent everyone home. With a lot of time to think and no Skype calls from teachers, Newton did some real good science.

He started with some math homework, and that became the basis for early calculus.

Then he played around with light in his room—he shuttered windows and used prisms to split the light coming through. This was the start of his theories on optics.

And outside his window was a certain apple tree ...

apple tree
"Newton's apple tree" courtesy of It's No Game on

The story where an apple gives Newton the laws of motion and the theory of gravity with a scholarly bonk to the noggin isn't true. But Newton's assistant would later describe how thinking about this tree and its apples were what kickstarted Newton's weighty explorations.

By 1667, Newton had brought his homebrew breakthroughs back to Trinity College. In six months, he was made a fellow, and in another two years, he was a professor—and well on his way to Sir.

A quarantine inopportune

The outbreak of coronavirus is hugely unfortunate. Those that can safely self-quarantine without too much inconvenience are lucky. As we all do our part to slow the spread with social distancing, we're likely to catch a little cabin fever.

But maybe working or studying from home comes with some hidden silver linings. This could be the perfect time to develop personal projects, discover, and grow—all from the comfort of your living room and favorite pair of sweatpants.

What projects are keeping you busy right now? Is it nice or stifling to be stuck at home more?

Chime in with a comment!