Shakespeare Wrote King Lear During the Plague: Quarantined in Portugal

When the Western world started to slowly work its way into mandatory quarantine, I saw this meme posted on Facebook: “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined for the plague.” My email inbox filled with essays about how to channel your quarantine boredom into a creative output. The BBC published an article about how extreme boredom sparks creativity. Neil Gaiman was quoted as saying: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”

In 60+ days of quarantine I hadn’t written a thing. After work (where I am a full-time content writer, but the writing I’m talking about now is my own creative stuff) each day, I sat in front of my laptop and stared at blank pages. I made minor line edits to works-in-progress, sent a rough essay draft (which had been finished pre-quarantine) to friends, and scribbled in my journal maybe once every two weeks.

Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague.

I started to hate seeing this phrase popping up all over Facebook and Twitter. If I wasn’t finding the energy to write during mandatory do-not-leave-your-home time, would I ever? People posted things saying, “If you’re not doing the things now that you always put off because you ‘didn’t have time,’ then you were never going to do them.” Was that true? For the first time, I started to wonder if I was going to be one of those people who got an MFA degree and then never ended up doing anything with it.

As the two months of fica em casa (“stay in home”) gradually wore to an end and shops and cafes started to allow 25% capacity, I realized the problem hadn’t been that I’d been sitting at home doing nothing. As per usual, I’d managed to do a lot. Extreme boredom wasn’t sparking great creativity because I hadn’t been bored. Restless? Sometimes. Bored? I wish.

Billy Shakes

It feels appropriate to add a picture of this one time I was Shakespeare in a high school play.

My Portuguese quarantine started in my living room. I sat with my boyfriend on the twin bed that I used as a couch. We’d just learned that the president of Portugal would declare an official state of emergency in the evening.

“Do you want to stay at my place?” E asked.

We wouldn’t know what a state-of-emergency meant until the president spoke. Portugal’s COVID numbers were low, but Spain’s were skyrocketing. Because Portugal’s only borders are with Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, it seemed like an immediate strict lockdown was likely. But would the lockdown be the same as Italy and Spain where people couldn’t even go for runs and needed special permission to walk a dog? Or would we have some leniency?


Quarantine measures outside my old apartment.

E and I had only been dating for a few months. We lived in separate Porto suburbs. His brother and sister-in-law were currently at his apartment, visiting him from Brazil. Staying with him during quarantine wouldn’t be a cute couple’s retreat; it would be a sudden immersion into the family unit.

Then there was the language barrier. E’s brother and SIL speak as much English as I do Portuguese (but, honestly, they speak way more English than I do Portuguese, but none of us have the confidence to really converse). In a normal circumstance, I could handle living in an apartment where 75% of the occupants spoke the same language, and I was the odd person out. But when that 75% is also your boyfriend’s family? Meaning I couldn’t just hide away in a room less I be pegged as “that rude, aloof American E is dating”?

Thus my quarantine options looked like two equally stressful situations: either see it out by myself and have a possible Marquês de Sade from Quills moment, or make like Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior.

After creating a quick text poll among close friends and family members, I agreed to go. I felt further bolstered by the fact that the quarantine rules in Spain and Italy still allowed people to travel to their personal home within a city. E’s apartment was 14 km (about 8.5 miles) from mine. If anything really went awry, I could always walk home.

Empty tourist areas in Porto.

I lived with E and his family for about two weeks. The experience was about what I expected: me staying quiet most of the time and trying to keep up with the Brazilian-Portuguese conversations as much as I could. Most of the time, E served as a translator for the group. I spoke broken Portuguese and was answered in broken English.

When E’s family was finally able to return to Brazil, I thought that maybe this would be the time for me to finally be bored and write, but no. E and I are lucky that we both kept our jobs throughout the pandemic. As a content writer, I spend 40 hours a week writing about the relocation policies and How Tos of countries around the world. By the time 5 p.m. rolls around, I’ve written so much that I barely want to respond to text messages. And unlike when working in an office, moving from writing on a couch to writing on a bed doesn’t seem to help my mind shift enough from work writing to my writing.

As the 15-day state of emergency was extended three times, I kept waiting to write. Instead, I kept getting sidelined with news about how my native US is basically imploding; a doctor’s call telling me that the results of an exam required a further check that couldn’t wait until after the quarantine; I moved apartments (I’m not talking about packing a bag and moving into E’s place for a while; I mean moved from my one-bedroom beachside suburban apartment into a studio near the downtown); had a month-and-a-half long fight with my previous landlord and his realtor, and eventually lost nearly €600 to the spineless goblins.

But still: Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine. Hadn’t he been stressed, too?


Moving Day.

So, what’s Portugal been like during the pandemic? Portugal has remained relatively stable throughout the global crisis. For such a small country, with an even smaller health system, we could have easily had an Italy-like catastrophe, but the government went into a strict lockdown pretty early on, which I think it saved a lot of lives.

For about six weeks, we were all told to stay inside. You could go to the grocery store, pharmacy, and for “short, personal exercise.” Any group larger than a pair was told to separate. During a run one day, a cop drove past me. Via a loudspeaker, he told me and another jogger to return home. When I did, E and his family said they saw the cops arrest a group of three teenagers. I’ve heard rumors that the Portuguese police are often criticized for not being forceful enough, so these may have been more of take-us-seriously! tactics rather than a brief foray into a military state.

Other Quarantine Notables

The Car Accident

Mid-quarantine, a car accident happened late at night right outside E’s window. A drunk driver slammed into two parked cars, jack-knifing one of the cars into the cement gate outside E’s building. From the balcony, E and I watched as neighbors poured into the street. The man with the nicest car was held back from beating up the drunk driver. The men lit cigarettes as they waited for the cops to arrive and the women took photos of the scene with their phones. At some point, the drunk driver managed to slip away. He made it one block around the corner before a mob of eight pajama-wearing locals chased him down and brought him back to the scene he’d so stupidly caused (it is also worth noting that the driver was the only person involved and he was not hurt). When the cops arrived, they wouldn’t get out of the car until everyone social distanced/went home if they were not the owner of one of the cars involved.

Runners, Walkers, and People Who Just Need to Move

I need to rant really quick about everyone needing to get out of their house during the quarantine. As someone who also needed a long walk or jog each day, I completely understand this, but what I could not stand were the couples who walked side-by-side and refused to move when I passed. Then there were the groups of three or more, who slightly social distanced between themselves, but when the blonde jogger intersects them? Nada. During one jog, I stayed in the road with the cars. I wanted to shout at these people, “We all have to social distance! You’re practically bumping into me! Just walk single-file for one second when people pass and then you can claim the entire sidewalk as yours again.” I also briefly thought about approaching them and coughing, but that seemed a bit mean.

Breaking Quarantine

I have to confess that E and I broke quarantine once: we had a friend over for dinner and then the three of us zoom’d with other friends for a happy hour. We had been following quarantine rules and so had our friend, so we figured that the three of us meeting in a private home wouldn’t be that bad, but still. And, if I’m being totally honest, I guess we technically broke quarantine two other times with another friend, but the timeline of when restrictions were in place and loosened are a bit blurry in my mind. What month is it?


Although my writing has stalled during quarantine, my reading has flourished. As a writer and the daughter of a librarian, you would think I would consume books like Pringles, but I don’t. I am an incredibly slow reader. On average, I read about 5 to 6 books a year (except when I was in school). During quarantine, I’ve already flown through four, and am nearly done with the fifth. Any suggestions for the sixth?


Go Easy on Yourself

I think my main takeaway during quarantine is that we should all go easy on ourselves. As restaurants and shops slowly start to reopen here, there’s still a small tinge of anxiety in the air of but will we still get sick? How many people is too many people in one space? Are we just going to have to quarantine again? For expats not living in their own country, I think this stress is magnified because when can we easily travel between our two homes again? There are many of us sitting abroad and wondering if/how we can return to our home country if a loved one gets sick, and then will we be able to return to our new residency?

I’ve spoken with friends, too, who feel somewhat stuck mentally and emotionally during all of this. If you or a loved one are not actively sick, it feels like we have nothing to complain or be stressed about, but I think it’s valid for everyone to feel a bit uneasy and uncertain. Does this mean we need to storm capital buildings with automatic weapons like some sort of crazed militia (sorry, not “some sort of”–they are a crazed militia)? No, it doesn’t.

So yes, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. That’s great. Will I write some great novel during this plague? Probably not. But I can at least congratulate myself for writing and editing something even if it’s only for work and not the creative pieces that I crave. And even if there are people out there who aren’t doing anything–if there are artists who haven’t produced or touched a scrap of creative work–does that make them not an artist? No at all. It just makes them human during a scary-to-be-a-human time.


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare Wrote King Lear During the Plague: Quarantined in Portugal

  1. Pingback: COVID Life in Portugal – The Wandering Writer

  2. Pingback: COVID Life in Portugal – The Wandering Writer

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