Miscellaneous, Opinion

Learning From Our Productive Predecessors

By Sophie Fisher ‘21, News Editor

Productivity may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about quarantine, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. Given how much more spare time many of us now have, we are spending much of our quarantine indulging in relaxing activities such as binge-watching shows, speaking to friends, and catching up on sleep. This relaxation does not mean that we have stopped putting effort into school; it merely reflects how much our lives have slowed down as the Coronavirus has curtailed regular routines. But what about viewing self-isolation as an opportunity for creativity and reflection? Many distinguished people, including some that students have learned about in classes at Heschel, thrived during the quarantines of their times, making scientific discoveries and generating brilliant works. 

Historians speculate that William Shakespeare, whose work Heschel students read almost every year of high school, wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra while in quarantine. In the summer of 1606, a major plague broke out in London that led Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to close. The epidemic persisted through early fall, and Shakespeare was directly affected when his landlady died from the illness. Though it seems incredible that Shakespeare wrote three lengthy plays in less than a year, there is evidence to support the theory that he did so. According to theatre historians, it is clear that the dark tragedies within the framework of the epidemic influenced Shakespeare’s texts. 

Shakespeare isn’t the only notable person to make the most of self-isolation. As the Great Plague spread throughout England in 1665, Isaac Newton, then a student at Cambridge University, was forced to leave campus and return to his childhood home indefinitely as a means of  “social distancing.” Unlike our current situation, where technologies such as Zoom, Google Docs, and PowerSchool allow us to continue our studies and extracurricular activities, Newton’s schooling was suspended entirely until the plague ended a year later. Without the distractions and responsibilities of his normal life, Newton set out on a path of discovery that would later be named his “year of wonders.” While quarantined at home, he discovered differential and integral calculus, came up with the theory of universal gravitation, and studied optics by experimenting with prisms and investigating light.  

Not only have historical figures seized the opportunity presented by quarantine to embark on ambitious projects, but some also used the time to document their experience living through a plague. Among these was Edvard Munch, who is famous for his 1893 painting The Scream. Munch contracted the Spanish Flu in 1919 while living in Norway. Rather than letting the disease overcome him, Munch fought the illness and lived to create more art. As soon as he felt well enough to do so, the artist depicted his physical state in Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu

Perhaps most famous for living in self-isolation is Henry David Thoreau, though in his case the separation from society was voluntary. As Heschel juniors learned earlier this year, Thoreau resided in a tiny cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, for over two years to retreat from the corruption of everyday life. In Walden, a book that details his experiences in solitude, Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” As difficult and restrictive as quarantine may be, Thoreau might have seen it as a prime opportunity to slow down and develop a greater appreciation for life.   

While our contemporary obligations might not enable Heschel students to write an entire play, formulate scientific theories, or paint an intricate work of art, we can still follow the example of these historical figures by seeing the opportunities that these unusual times offer. In an age with so much fear and negativity, it’s uplifting to know that people before have experienced similar crises and have not only come out on the other side but emerged with new perspectives and an enhanced sense of self.  

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