Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

Writing in isolation: How pandemics can lead to wonderful art

Maybe we weren't quite as creative as we had hoped a year ago, writes Apocalypse Then columnist Ainsley Hawthorn. Still, history shows that prior pandemics helped foster many landmark works of art and literature.

From Macbeth to Frankenstein, many great works were created during pandemics

Macbeth — seen here in a Stratford Festival production starring Ian Lake and St. John's actor Krystin Pellerin — was one of a series of plays William Shakespeare wrote during lockdown. (David Hou/Courtesy of Stratford Festival)

Last year, in the innocent days before we realized just how many months of pandemic restrictions we were in for, there was a movement to use our time in lockdown to create: to make art, play music, or write literature.

As we all now know after a year's experience, isolation isn't always as good for productivity as it sounds, since it comes with its own pressures and stressors that can leave us feeling too drained for creative pursuits.

Still, some of the world's greatest literary works were created when their authors were enduring periods of forced isolation due to pandemics or other natural disasters.

William Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, when a major plague outbreak shut London down for months.

Theatres were always among the first venues to close during plague flare-ups in the Elizabethan period, not just because officials wanted to prevent mass gatherings, like we do today, but because theatres were considered houses of vice and skated a thin line with authorities at the best of times.

Shakespeare’s plays might not make many direct references to the plague, but the bleak setting of Macbeth seems to reflect the isolated circumstances in which it was written. This painting by Henry Fuseli, based on the play, dates from the late 18th century. (The Wellcome Collection)

Although Shakespeare's life was deeply touched by plague — several of his siblings died during outbreaks, and he may have lost his only son, Hamnet, to it as well — his characters are rarely felled by disease, perhaps because Tudor audiences didn't like to be reminded of the real dangers that surrounded them while they were trying to enjoy an afternoon at the theatre.

Desolate landscapes, foreboding in the air

The psychological strain of isolating in plague-stricken London, though, may have infiltrated Shakespeare's work in more subtle ways. King Lear and Macbeth are set in desolate landscapes, almost devoid of people, and both are suffused from the beginning with a deep sense of foreboding.

Even a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet gives its characters some joy before things turn sour. Macbeth, on the other hand, opens on three witches plotting together during a thunderstorm, while King Lear describes himself only moments into the play as "crawl[ing] toward death."

Lord Byron writes on the balcony of the Villa Diodati above Lake Geneva in what was known as the Year Without a Summer. (Edouard Rishgitz/Public domain)

It might not have been a pandemic, but the social isolation that followed another natural disaster led to one of the most electric events in literary history.

In 1816, a few young British friends decided to spend the summer in Switzerland. Instead of passing hot, sunny days boating on Lake Geneva, however, they found themselves trapped indoors by constant rain.

Commonly called the Year Without a Summer, 1816 was a record cold year due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Ash lingering in the atmosphere caused temperatures around the world to plummet, a phenomenon known as volcanic winter.

Part five-way love triangle, part meeting of literary luminaries, the party isolated at the Swiss villa included the poets Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Percy's soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley and her sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's personal physician, John Polidori.

One particularly stormy night, the group challenged each other to write ghost stories, feeling they could improve on the ones they had been reading to each other during the long, dark evenings. Out of that pivotal moment came two stories that forever reshaped English fiction.

The tale Mary Shelley told became the basis for Frankenstein. A landmark work of Gothic horror, her book is also considered by many to be the world's first science fiction novel, spawning a new genre of literature based on the possibilities of technology.

Death, jealous of an author writing his memoir, comes to collect him, in this lithograph by Edward Hull from 1827. (The Wellcome Collection )

Inspired by some ideas of Byron's, the doctor Polidori sat down and wrote a short story called The Vampyre over the course of "two or three idle mornings." The narrative revolves around a British nobleman based on Byron himself who, unbeknownst to those around him, is actually a vampire.

The story marked a dramatic departure from portraying vampires as hideous monsters, reimagining them as dangerously seductive and able to blend seamlessly into human society. The Vampyre is the direct ancestor of all modern vampire fiction, from Dracula to Twilight.

If the staggering inventiveness of these stories weren't enough, the ages of their authors make them even more amazing: Polidori was 20 years old, and Mary Shelley was just 18.

10 days of stories

The literary work that most definitely represents enforced isolation, though, is probably The Decameron, which was written by Giovanni Boccaccio between 1348 and 1353. Not only was the book conceived during the Black Death, its plot takes place during that devastating pandemic.

Characters from The Decameron tell each other stories while waiting out the Black Death in a Florentine villa. (Public domain)

The Decameron follows 10 young nobles, seven women and three men, who, finding themselves alone in Florence after their relatives have either died or fled, leave the city for an estate in the countryside.

Each of the characters tells one story every day for 10 days to pass the time — the book's title, "decameron," means "10 days" in Greek. Using these tales, the youths entertain and educate each other, sharing their ideas about how to lead morally upright lives.

Despite being set at a terrible time, the book is witty, raunchy and generally optimistic. Its young characters represent loyalty and integrity: as the world falls apart around them, they recreate society and stability for themselves in their own little microcosm of 10.

The very same features of pandemic- or disaster-induced isolation that impede some authors probably encourage others.

Time alone can be monotonous and uninspiring or an opportunity to give your imagination free rein. Being confined with a small group of people can result in a higher burden of care (especially if some of them are children) or in profound conversations that stimulate new ideas.

LISTEN | Ainsley and Andrew Hawthorn look at how great art has come out of historical pandemics: 

Even the fear of imminent death could be paralyzing or motivating, depending on your personality.

Whether you find yourself more or less creative during COVID-19, the isolation that we'll be enduring for at least a few months more may be the perfect time to enjoy some of these great pieces of literature that arose from similar periods of solitude.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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