A “rage to master”

One of the most depressing results of the Academy’s philological dissection of literature’s golden goose is the almost total removal of his genius. After centuries of being told that, lacking any evidence of formal education it was genius alone that allowed William of Stratford to grasp recondite elements of the Law, Medicine, Astronomy, etc., the English Departments flip to the opposite pole with Shakespeare learning enough at his local grammar school to get all he needs to know about ancient Greek drama from mediocre Latin translations, while anything that appears to be too early for him gets assigned to a nameless ghost writer.

Fitting the horse to the shoe, the great creator is transformed into a plagiarizer, the great original into a hack, the fountain of Renaissance creativity into a tight-fisted and squeamish little dealer in land and properties. No artistic genius ever behaved like the Shakespeare bequeathed us by the Academy. Rejecting him as opposed to common sense and human experience, we must begin with the reality of what the author knew and what that vast trove of knowledge might suggest about his origins.

Ellen Winner’s prescription

In 1996, Boston College Professor of Psychology and Harvard Senior Research Associate Ellen Winner published a book that can help to define what to look for in the origins of such a genius. In Gifted Children; Myths and Realities she examines the elements that are invariably present for that unusual child who will become what she calls a “creator.” With conclusions based on clinical trials, the biographies of some extraordinarily talented children plus those of historic geniuses, Winner’s credentials, her evidence and her field, the Psychology of Creativity, give her the kind of authority that are so obviously absent from anything offered by our 20th-century History and English Departments.

What then, in Winner’s terms, should we expect to find as the background of the genius we call Shakespeare? Rather than paraphrase or condense and so risk misinterpreting what she has taken pains to clarify, we must quote her at some length. She begins by describing the characteristics of gifted children, only a handful of whom will rise to the level of creator. Atypical of ordinary children, these children

are precocious. They begin to take the first steps in the mastery of some domain at an earlier-than-average age. They also make more progress in this domain than do ordinary children, because learning in the domain comes easily to them. By domain, I refer to an organized area of knowledge such as language, music, mathematics . . . .

Second, they insist on marching to their own drummer:

Gifted children not only learn faster than average or even bright children but also learn in a qualitatively different way. . . . they need minimum help or scaffolding from adults in order to master their domain, and much of the time they teach themselves. The discoveries they make about their domain are exciting and motivating and each leads the gifted child on to the next step. Often these children independently invent rules of the domain and devise novel, idiosyncratic ways of solving problems.

These children have what Winner terms a rage to master. “They are intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they show precocity. They exhibit an intense and obsessive interest, an ability to focus sharply. . . . They experience ‘states of flow’ while engaged in learning––optimal states in which they focus intently and lose sense of the outside world. The lucky combination of obsessive interest in a domain along with an ability to learn easily leads to high achievement” (3-4). Later she defines “the right personality structure for mastery”: these

children are highly motivated to work to achieve mastery, they derive pleasure from challenge and, at least by adolescence, they have an unusually strong sense of who they are and what they want to do as adults. . . . [They are] fiercely independent and nonconforming . . . [and] they tend to be more introverted and lonelier than the average child, both because they have so little in common with others and because they need and want to be alone to develop their talent. These qualities of thought and feeling add up to a kind of subjective experience that is both more pleasurable and fulfilling, and more painful, isolating, and stressful than that of the average child. (212-3)

She addresses several common myths regarding giftedness, among them:

the commonsense “folk” psychology . . . that giftedness is entirely inborn: you either have it or you don’t. The abilities of Mozart, Picasso, Newton, or Einstein are so unfathomable to us that we explain them by saying that these individuals were just born geniuses. The environment has no interesting role to play if talents are inborn and fixed. . . . Psychologists like to attack folk psychologies in general . . . but psychologists have their own myth: that giftedness is entirely a product of the environment [and that] the right kind of training, begun at an early age, is sufficient to account for even the very highest levels of giftedness. (143)

She shows that both expectations are unrealistic, that in fact, both factors must be present for gifted children to excel in any domain. They must be born with talent, in her terms, with a “rage to master.” At the same time they must also have the support of caregivers who value their efforts, who can provide them with what she terms an “enriched environment,” one in which education is valued and which includes “opportunities for reading, playing and talking” (185). Without these, no matter how great the inborn gifts, nothing can develop. Says Winner: “There are undoubtedly many children never identified as gifted because of their disadvantaged environments” (186).

But giftedness in childhood can only go so far. Only a few go from gifted child or prodigy in a domain to a creator in that domain––“a pattern exemplified by Mozart and Picasso”––and, we would add, by Shakespeare. Says Winner, “Those who traverse this route must make the profound transition from being an expert in an established domain to being someone who disrupts the domain and remakes it, leaving it forever altered.” Moreover, they must be born when the zeitgeist is right––when a domain is ready for the kind of change that the creator envisions. A domain can change only so much and thus can accommodate only a very few creators. So the factors that predict who will become a creator include not only the traits of the individuals in question but also historical and cultural factors (281).

In her final pages Winner goes into detail on the characteristics of creators as they have been determined by numerous tests and studies. To follow the route she has outlined “requires not only extreme early ability but also a rebellious personality, a desire to shake up the status quo (281). Creators are

hard driving, focused, dominant, independent risk takers. They have experienced stressful childhoods and they often suffer from forms of psychopathology. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice . . . [They are] workaholics. The most creative people are also the most prolific. . . . [They] must be able to persist in the face of difficulty and overcome the many obstacles in the way of creative discovery. They must persist because of what has become known among creativity researchers as the “ten-year rule”––the dictum that it takes about ten years of hard work in a domain to make a breakthrough. (293)

Winner details the research that led to the formulation of this “ten-year rule”:

Even Mozart did not produce his first masterpiece until after about ten years of composing. A willingness to toil and to tolerate frustration and persist in the face of failure is crucial. . . . Creators are strong, dominant personalities with an unshakable belief in themselves. They must be able to believe in themselves, for otherwise they would be felled by the inevitable attacks that come when one goes against the established point of view. (293 fn)

The only-child syndrome

Several times in the course of the book Winner describes the need creators have to be alone. Prodigies are often “only children,” raised in the company of adults, allowed to go their own way to a much greater extent than ordinary children. Such children often suffer from being so different from their peers, feeling odd or out of place among them. Even so they prefer being alone to being bored in the company of children who don’t share their interests.

They set challenging goals for themselves and believe that they can achieve what they aspire to. Those who would be recognized must also be able to tolerate competition––some even thrive on it. . . . Creators are independent and nonconforming. . . . Caring about pleasing everyone cannot be a priority for anyone who is going to challenge an established tradition. . . . Creators must be willing to sacrifice comfort, relaxation, and personal relationships for the sake of their work. They are often ruthless and destructive of personal ties. . . . Creators have to be willing to risk failure, since anything new is likely initially to be denounced. [Those] who produce the most works are most likely to produce a masterpiece, but they also produce the most failed works. Perhaps the most important of all is the desire to set things straight, to alter the status quo and shake up the established tradition. Creators do not accept the prevailing view; they are oppositional and discontented. (292-298)

Winner examines the typical family life of great creators:

The future creator seems to grow up in a family that is much less child-centered and supportive, and far more stress-filled than does the gifted child not destined to become a creator. Three-fourths of the eminent creators studied by [leading researchers] experienced some kind of extreme stress in their early family life: poverty; death of a parent; divorced or estranged parents; rejecting, abusive or alcoholic parents; fathers who experienced professional failure or bankruptcy; and so on. They came from atypical families––irritable, explosive families, often prone to depression or to large-scale mood swings. . . . Particularly shocking is the frequency with which eminent individuals have lost a parent in childhood. . . . In [one] study of major creators, over a fifth had lost one or both parents in childhood . . . the only other groups with such high levels of parental loss are delinquents and depressive or suicidal psychiatric patients. . . .

As she continues she approaches our area of inquiry:

Family trauma is more often characterized by those who became writers, artists, musicians and actors in comparison to those who became scientists, physicians and political leaders. . . . [In one study] of eminent twentieth-century figures, 89 percent of the novelists and playwrights, 83 percent of the poets and 70 percent of the artists had difficult family lives, while this was true for only 56 percent of the scientists. . . . The same distinction was found in a comparison between Nobel Prize winners in science v. literature; those in literature were more likely to come from unstable family environments. Literature winners were also eight times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood. (298-300)

Winner draws a number of conclusions from these studies, all pertinent to our quest. Though all are interesting, we’ll quote only the most apposite. Regarding family trauma:

Trauma could make a child feel different from the start and thus lead to a willingness to be different. The perception that one’s environment is unpredictable may lead to the desire to achieve in order to gain control over one’s destiny. . . .   Loss of a parent may also lead to a kind of compensation––desire to replace the lost object by creating one’s own object, whether a work of art or a scientific theory. A horror of the void left by death could stimulate a child to create an ideal world and to lose [him]self in its creation. The desire to replace emptiness and the lost object with an ideal created world may be so strong that [he] is not overly critical. . . .

“Ideal created worlds”

Such a world is a good description of the island of Ephesus where the shipwrecked family is reunited in A Comedy of Errors, or the magical isle of The Tempest, where father and daughter are wafted to safety out of the grasp of evil relatives, or Illyria in Twelfth Night where brother and sister wash ashore following yet another Shakespearean family shipwreck.

Based on Winner’s detailed analysis, and Shakespeare’s erudition, what sort of biography should we be looking for? Certainly we would expect to see at least some of the following: a rage to master, an enriched environment, a stressful home life, a solitary childhood, a painful childhood trauma, a parental failure, the early death of a parent, an indomitable will, an oppositional and discontented nature.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that his father suffered some sort of business failure when he was twelve, little of this is apparent in anything we know about William of Stratford. It must be for this reason that despite the genius attached to his name and its immense importance to our culture, among the upper tier of creators whose biographies and careers she discusses, creators whose “rage to master” led to “altering their domains,” Winner never mentions the one who created the language we speak; she never mentions William Shakespeare. Is this because nothing in the life of William of Stratford matches the guidelines she and her colleagues have unearthed from thousands of reports on gifted children and biographies of geniuses? Which is at fault here, Winner and the Psychology of Creativity, or the Stratford biography?

Note: The above is excerpted from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Shakespeare and the Birth of the London Stage.

7 thoughts on “A “rage to master”

  1. Dear Stephanie,

    Thanks for the introduction to the work of Ellen Winner. Yet another nail in the coffin of the ‘Stratfordians.’ When will your forthcoming book be published?

    Best regards,


  2. Young “Shakespeare,” in a Nutshell

    Precocious? Check.
    March to own drummer? Check.
    Rage to master? Yep.
    Lonely child? Check.
    Select, nurturing caregivers? Got it.
    Loss of father figure? Check.
    Indomitable will? Check.
    Creator of worlds? Right you are.
    Oppositional nature? Check.
    Genius? Check.

    An earl, perchance? Nope, sorry: just a dealer in real estate, leather goods, and petty lawsuits,
    pulling wisdom out of infinite space–or a vacuum?

  3. Bertrand Russell, Bobby Fisher, William Blythe (posthumous only-child, brutal, alcoholic, ne’er-do-well stepfather Roger Clinton), Nixon (struggling, 8th grade-educated father, 2 bros dead of TB), Reagan (turned 18 in 1929, low-income, alcoholic father), VI Lenin (idolized older brother executed under Czars), Gerald Ford (deserted by father, workingclass-adoptee, soda-jerk made into UMich football star–2 NFL contract offers), Obama (illegitimate, abandoned son of a foreigner, funny name, years of youth in Indonesia), Hitler (low grades-HS dropout aimed at art career–2X rejected by Vienna Art school, father died when son 13, mother when son 18, fled to Germany as draft-dodger), Hebert Hoover (son of blacksmith dying when HH 6, mother died when HH 8–raised in series of Quaker foster-homes), Alice Rosenbaum (Jewish family in Russia with German name in WWI, hometown repeatedly changed hands in Russ Civil War, opened adulthood as anti-Soviet refugee, left behind beloved sister, hid real name under Ayn Rand.

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