October 17, 2020 / VOLUME NO. 127
The Conditions for Creativity

A pandemic had shuttered the playhouse.

The deadly outbreak had closed every business or gathering place — including the playhouse where one particular playwright and actor worked. Suddenly unable to perform in front of contained, close audiences, his company embarked on a traveling circuit to host outdoor performances.

In closing The Globe, the theater where William Shakespeare performed, the bubonic plague pandemic of 1606 set off a creative spark that still burns across the world.

“The horrific disease’s latest deadly assault on the London area turned out to be the greatest thing that could’ve happened to this playwright,” writes Ben Cohen in “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks.”

“He didn’t stop writing. He kept going. And his talent was about to collide with the oddest bit of circumstance. What could have killed Shakespeare really made him stronger.”

Shakespeare wrote in “inspired bunches,” according to James Shapiro, an English professor at Columbia University who has studied the playwright’s life and work and is cited in the book. The year 1606 was an especially inspired one for Shakespeare — but one that was first defined by challenges stemming from the bubonic plague.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Shakespeare adjusted to the realities of the pandemic by shifting to traveling outdoor performances with his company, the King’s Men. His biggest competitors, acting troupes comprised of children, proved especially vulnerable to the plague. But Cohen writes that by this point, Shakespeare had little interest in acting anymore, freeing his time.

The plague forced Shakespeare to adapt to a changed competitive landscape. It altered how he thought about his role and profession, and freed up his time to be more creative. The result: masterpieces like “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that they’re all tragedies and include the occasional reference to plague.

The coronavirus pandemic has proved to be a time of great and acute change. It has brought both universal and unique challenges. Perhaps, as it wears on, it will inspire similarly profound and insightful expressions of creativity.

Kiah Lau Haslett, managing editor of Bank Director
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