With all the argument about his identity, the one thing that no one denies is that Shakespeare was an artist, one of the greatest that ever lived. Yet what does that mean to most people? Far too often in discussions of what he must have read, what he believed, why he wrote, even who he was, the one thing that we do know about him, that we can be certain of––that he was an artist––somehow gets lost. When it comes to discussing his motivations, there seems to be very little real understanding of what makes an artist tick, particularly one of the greats.
To a genuine artist Art trumps all. Nothing, not religion, not politics, not professorships or money or property or status, not heritage or titles, not even love, that powerful motivator for so many great works of art, come before Art itself. When Keats said that “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know,” he wasn’t speaking to lawyers, clergymen, doctors, patrons, English professors, etc., he was speaking to artists like himself. Byron understood. Shelley understood. Mary Shelley understood. Bobby Burns would have understood. But how many of their readers or publishers or critics or professors have ever understood?
Those who cheerfully accept the notion that the great theater artist we call Shakespeare quit the Stage in mid-career to spend his final decade buying and selling land and hoarding grain in a small market town, two days ride from any theater, certainly don’t understand. Sure, the author, the true author, cared about important issues, his plays show that. Sure, he loved his children, his friends, the women (and perhaps the men) he slept with. Doubtless he wanted to see better governors in power. But these were not what drove him. Politics, events, the people he knew, the stories he grew up with, even his own sorrows and disasters, were ultimately but grist for the mill, fuel for the fire of his uncontrollable creativity.
It got him into trouble, he cut too close to the bone, he told too much, but all that did was to stimulate his ability to dodge, to equivocate, to hide. He asked King James to invest him in motley––that is, allow him to continue to write for the Stage––but long before James he’d already invested himself. It was his path and, will he nill he, he was bound to it. That he had the will to shake his spear in the face of the most daunting odds and get away with it is one of the great stories of all time. We should acknowledge him for that, as well as for all he accomplished.
He took his motto from the ancients and from his name, which in Latin means truth (and in French, green), a challenging motto in a time of great and dangerous secrets. Even his spear-shaking was less to, as he said, “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” than to feel the sense that he was rising to the level of the greats of classical literature. He learned from experience that the more powerful the circumstances and pressures that besieged him, the better the play, which is why Hamlet, when confronted by his father’s ghost with the horror of his murder, rather than seeking immediate revenge, calls for, and revises, a play! We can imagine how more than one of his victims, finding themselves skewered, like Claudius, felt like crying “Away!” as they hurried from the room.
Also recorded for posterity is the grief he felt when he first realized how alone he was in his passion. Raised by a man who, something of an artist himself, admired the artistry of the stylists of antiquity, it must have been a shock to the young teenager to find so many in London, even in his own household, even his own guardian, who not only didn’t respond to Art, but actually disliked it.
How do we know that Burghley disliked Art? His biographer agrees that despite his immense output of letters and papers, he himself was a tedious, uninspired writer. We know that most regard Polonius as a portrait of Burghley. We also know that two of the books that provided Shakespeare with so many of his stories were published shortly after Oxford arrived at Cecil House––Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1565, and the following year, Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, on which title page the word “Beautified” is emphasized in extremely large type. We can also see that Painter’s Palace was dedicated, not to Cecil, but to the Earl of Leicester.
In Hamlet: Act II Scene 2, while explaining to Gertrude and Claudius why Hamlet is mad, Polonius reads them the poem that Hamlet gave Ophelia: “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,” then, pausing for an aside, adds his opinion: “that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase . . . .” I think we can take Shakespeare’s word for it, that Polonius’s opinion of Hamlet’s poetry was Burghley’s opinion of Oxford’s poetry.
Following where their daimon takes them, to the next painting, or sculpture, or dance, or song, ignoring all obstacles and, if necessary, all obligations to family, friends, patrons and creditors, all health and money issues, critics, rivals, their own best interests, on they go until brought down by death, whether the death of the body or, sometimes, even more sadly, the death of their passion. Why? Because, while in pursuit of perfection, while “in the zone” as a modern rubric has it, they stand in the light of a spiritual reality that is closest to that of great scientists like Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Philip Farnsworth, architects like Philippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, saints like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Edmund Campion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, athletes like Babe Ruth or Mohammed Ali, dancers like Nuryev or Michael Jackson.
If the needs of family or community concern them at all they will, if necessary, shove them aside; aimed at eternity, they see that in the long run, once they’re gone, these things won’t matter, all that matters is that from their activity a tangible work is born, one that combines both beauty and truth to the highest possible level, something that, unlike their lowly sinful selves, has the potential to survive death. Disappointment or inspiration only drives them to try again. And again. And again.
This is not to say that all who are born to this path find success––far from it. The restaurant kitchens and taxicabs of the great art centers, New York, Paris, Rome, LA, are manned by struggling artists who haven’t yet and probably will never leave behind works that posterity thinks worth keeping. They care of course. They would like to be successful, but only to buy more paint, rent a real studio, get new head shots or a better camera, get the piano tuned. What matters most is the calling itself, is being able to stand in the light of truth and beauty as often and as long as possible. For a genuine artist, that is all they know and all they need to know.
For this reason we must keep in mind that from whatever works formed the foundation of his education in childhood, the boy who became Shakespeare would take different things from what other bright boys, what boys who became lawyers, clergymen, scientists, adventurers, or statesmen, would take. Where future Latin or Greek scholars would want never forget the correct form of a verb, Shakespeare was content with what sounded best. Where future grammarians were concerned with syntax, again, Shakespeare was concerned with sound. Where future historians were concerned with the accurate timing of past events, Shakespeare was concerned with their meaning.
Life, he could see, was filled with drama. How to take the facts of history, to distill away the dross, bringing to life the essentials. That’s what concerned him. Where most students then would experience little beyond the drudgery of translating, the boy Shakespeare would feel that frisson described by one poet, that repeating a great line will make the hairs of his chin stand up while shaving, every single time! Long before he shaved, he knew what poetry could do. In the imaginary gardens described by Marianne Moore, he would have seen real toads.
There’s a good reason why Sir Thomas Elyot and other Reformation pedagogues like him warned tutors like Sir Thomas Smith against allowing noble children to become too attached to an art. Once Art (or Science, or God) claims your soul, it may drive you to self-destruct, to poverty or madness, but it rarely lets you return to your hometown to invest in land and grain and engage in trivial lawsuits with your neighbors.