Genius may be difficult to define, but most of us are aware that there is a qualitative as well as quantitative difference between a genius and someone who is very good at something. Philip of Macedon was gifted at military strategy––his son Alexander was a genius. Jean Racine was a brilliant dramatist––his friend Molière was a genius. Robert Hooke was a leading physicist––his rival Isaac Newton was a genius. There is a difference between one who has mastered an art or science, and one who moves it to another level, who revolutionizes it, leaving it and everything it touches permanently altered––a difference not only in degree but in kind.
Shakespeare was a writer who grew immensely over a fairly short period of time (though not so impossibly short as the Stratford bio would have it), one who was not afraid to experiment and fail. We have only to compare works like Hamlet or King Lear with an early (never revised) play like Titus Andronicus. Yet even Titus was an immense leap forward from the period just preceding, one C.S. Lewis aptly terms “the drab era.”
One has only to compare Shakespeare with the poetry of Thomas Churchyard (active 1555-1575) or George Whetstone (active 1574-1587), with plays like Gorbudoc (1561) or Tancred and Gismund (1568), or with prose works like Thomas Hoby’s translation of The Courtier (1561). Try reading any of these out loud! The difference is not only one of time. A gulf in style, in wit, in richness, in ease of expression and comprehension separates their language from his. This would be achievement enough, but even this is not the sole reason he has achieved iconic stature worldwide, that has spread his works and his name to the farthest reaches of the planet.
However important the mighty language he gave us, Shakespeare’s greatest gifts are his stories. More than just entertainment, deeper even than language, story moves past differences of language and culture to the center of what we all hold in common, what’s most basic about being human. As psychologist Bruno Bettleheim and poet Robert Bly assure us, human psychology is best revealed, explained, and even healed through story-telling. It is story that reflects us to ourselves, that tells us who we are, as humans, as members of any particular community, as a sex, as youths, as elders, as professionals, as individuals.
While History is true in the sense that it reports the facts truthfully (we hope), it is little more than the cold earth out of which is born the stories that inspire us, that move our hearts: Abe Lincoln hewing logs into fences by day and reading law books at night by candlelight; Washington being rowed on his doubtful journey across the Delaware; Patrick Henry shouting “Give me liberty or give me death!”; Nelson on the deck of the Victory, quenching Napoleon’s fire with his own life’s blood.
Out of the dull clay of history Shakespeare brought to life, for everyone who had a penny to spare, the great Romans: Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Coriolanus; the great British monarchs both terrible and good: Richard the Second, Richard the Third, Bolingbroke, Henry the Fifth, Macbeth. He brought to life the great flawed heroes, the Bastard Fauconbridge, Prince Hal, Brutus, and Antony, and perhaps the greatest, most living fictional being of all time, Hamlet the Dane.
But were these stories really “his”? Didn’t he find them in the works of other writers?
Yes and no. He took stories from every possible source, but never without altering or enhancing them to suit his purpose. This was nothing new. From the time of the Bards and shamans, storytellers have been borrowing from each other in this way, adding their own spin and style. What may have been a peculiarity of Shakespeare’s was the way he combined elements from two or more (or three, or four, or five) different sources, sometimes even from two or more different genres. We can look at some examples, but the possibilities are endless.
Shakespeare’s history plays reflected an idea that was popular in his time––one inherited from the Greeks––that there was nothing new under the sun, that current events always corresponded in some way to past events, and that it was the challenge for an important writer to show his audience the right comparisons between the present and the past, a technique in dialectic that points to a university or at least a scholarly training.
He found these stories in sources ranging from the ancient Greek and Latin texts he’d studied as a child in school, from ancient folktales told by the kitchen hearth on winter nights by members of his household, to the current events, the illicit romances, murders, and scandals that constituted local or national gossip. These he tweaked, combined, and retold through the words and actions of characters so alive that they still live with us today. He has left his imprint on every facet of our modern life. Harold Bloom, Yale professor, literary critic, prolific author of books on Shakespeare, calls him “a mortal god” and his mental offspring, Hamlet, “the secular Christ”:
To catalogue Shakespeare’s largest gifts is almost an absurdity: where begin, where end? He wrote the best poetry and the best prose in English,or perhaps in any Western language. That is inseparable from his cognitive strength; he thought more comprehensively and originally than any other writer. It is startling that a third achievement should overgo these, yet I join Johnsonian tradition in arguing, nearly four centuries after Shakspeare, that he went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we continue to know it. (xviii)
How did he do this? Through his stories. And where did he get his stories? From his life, his loves, and his amazing education.
He’s been dead for four hundred years, but still whenever we reach for a pithy phrase in conversation it’s more likely to be his than any other. We walk down the aisle to music written by Mendellsohn for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta that ends A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s everywhere, in the language we speak, in the concerts, ballets, operas, plays and films we see for entertainment, in the stories and characters that reflect us to ourselves, one at least for every phase of life, from Romeo to Lear, Silence to Falstaff, Ophelia to Cleopatra; for each social role––from villain to victim, hero to madman, lover to saint––each speaks, most cogently and poetically, pitifully and hilariously, to a particular condition of being human. He may be the most important person in all of western history.
He is everywhere and yet, strangely, he is also nowhere, for however well we may know his stories, we know nothing of the man himself. Nor have we been able to decipher from the mouths of his characters his personal religious or philosophic views. It is almost as though, through the process of giving life to the greatest panoply of characters in literature, his own life was absorbed, leaving not a rack behind. Why should this be?
There is, of course, a biography, but as anyone who has read more than one or two biographies of great artists, particularly the great romantic poets, must soon come to realize, these biographies of Shakespeare fall short of telling us anything that might bring the writer himself to life. We get lists of the flowers he “must have grown” in his garden, London sights he “must have seen” in his perambulations through the City, but absolutely nothing about the man himself, that is, nothing that brings him to life as a poet, a lover, a man of the theater.
We do (sometimes) get reasons for his apparent obsession with suing his neighbors for small debts, his even more peculiar disinterest in the publication of his plays, or, in fact, in anything that went on in London during his years of fame. We get convoluted explanations for why, despite the learning demonstrated in the plays, there is no record of a university or even a grammar school education. We get bizarre explanations for the fact that the only things written in his own hand are six childish signatures on legal documents. We get no explanation for the fact that ten eyewitnesses of the period who should have had every reason for noting him in print, did not. Nobody did. What gives?
The two Shakespeares
Everything falls into place once we realize that the name means two different things, things that are irreconcilable, that cannot be seen as one and the same, that the author and the man who sold him his name are two separate people. Yes, this “can of worms”––as one academic called the AQ some years ago at a Shakespeare Association of America conference in LA––takes us into some dark and messy places, places it’s clear that the dainty-minded heads of university English Departments would rather not go.
Then let them stand aside and make way for those of us who are undaunted by the truth. They, and those who pay attention to them, condemn us as snobs because we hold that the author had to have been a courtier. We’re “disappointed cranks” because we can’t ignore the defects in the Stratford biography. It’s easy to fall back on name-calling when logic fails. We are only following the evidence, something they refuse to do. It is the absurdly empty, lifeless story they refuse to examine that is “preposterous,” not ours.
3 thoughts on “Shakespeare the genius”
Great stuff! Wonderful summary of Shakespeare’s genius, and from an angle I hadn’t considered before.
Shakespeare was not as ingenious as you think. He was not a scientist or mathematician, but a humanist. He excellently describes the “logic” of human behavior in his plays. However, human behavior is pre-scientific and arbitrary, and in many ways irrational. Shakespeare, in describing the human, was describing an irrational entity, albeit in ingenious ways. But, there are vast amounts of scientific, mathematical and artistic insights besides those of Shakespeare. There is nothing like the paintings of Jasper Johns or the music of Bach or Mozart in Shakespeare’s works. There is nothing of the discoveries of hundreds of thousands of scientists and mathematicians in the centuries after Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a genius, yes, but his genius is a few tablespoons of water in the overall ocean of human insight and discovery. No matter how ingenious a thinker, in general, most geniuses only contribute a few fractions of a percent to the overall knowledge pool. In coming decades, as scientists figure out how to reverse engineer the human brain and create genetically modified, super-scientific, super number-crunching mathematical humans, Shakespeare will more and more be viewed as intellectually puny. Remember that just to rationally calculate the movements of the atoms in a single glass of water in a second would require thousands of times more floating point calculations and number crunching than Shakespeare’s brain performed in a lifetime. Shakespeare, for all his genius, would not have been able to fully understand a glass of water.
O wonderful! Here speaks the unmonitored left-brain at full volume! To compare the man who basically created the language we (and most of the rest of the world) now speak to Jasper Johns?!
Thank God these “genetically modified, super-scientific, super number-crunching mathematical humans” who are to take over our future are but figments of what wisps of imagination are all that a poor right-brain challenged left-brainer can conjure up.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on him, if, as seems likely, this Shakespeare critic is still a kid, probably about thirteen or fourteen, one whose right brain was put to sleep in the second grade and hasn’t yet been allowed to awaken. If so there’s still hope, but only if he gets out of school before the damage becomes permanent.