Sunday, January 08, 2012

Shakespeare and genius

Who was William Shakespeare?  Who was it that wrote the magnificent plays and sonnets we all know so well?  Who wrote those works that are still regarded as pinnacles of English-language literature some 500 years after they were written?

Was the poet and playwright actually the man that bore that name?  The man born of a tailor in Stratford-upon-Avon, with the grammar school education?  Or was the name Shakespeare a pseudonym for some other person?  Perhaps, as the movie Anonymous speculated, "Shakespeare" was actually Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.  Other Shakespearean scholars have suggested Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe.

I'm of the belief that "Shakespeare" was actually Edward de Vere.  But rather than recount all the arguments and evidence supporting the various theories, let me explain my conclusion with an examination of the term "genius."

The Online Dictionary defines genius thusly:
A person of extraordinary intellect and talent: "One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius" (Simone de Beauvoir).
That's a broad definition, of course.  And Lord knows the term "genius" gets thrown around a lot these days.  I've heard it applied to pop musicians, football coaches, and nerd-whiz software developers. Put that down to human admiration and hyperbole.  Nonetheless, no one can reasonably doubt that "genius" is an apt descriptor of the author of Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet.

So, using the strictest interpretation of the term, which historical personages can we safely call geniuses without being disputed?  Let me suggest several:  Mozart, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Beethoven.

What do these men have in common?  Firstly, they were all beneficiaries of the finest of educations.  Mozart was instructed by his father, Leopold, who was a virtuoso violinist in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzberg.  Leonardo and Michelangelo were both tutored by the greatest minds of their time.  Beethoven learned at the knee of Haydn, who was himself a gifted composer.

Further, all of these men had access to considerable resources.  Michelangelo and Leonardo were sponsored by the Catholic Church.  Mozart and Beethoven were scions of wealthy families.

Lastly, all these men lived in stable societies unconcerned with the immediate requirements of daily survival.

In short, not only were these men exceptional, but their individual circumstances were such that they had the resources and conditions that allowed them to fully develop their gifts.

A genius, then, is like a delicate plant that can only thrive under a very specific set of conditions.

Now, returning to Shakespeare, it seems highly unlikely (to me, anyway) that the son of a tailor, with a middling education and unremarkable resources (Stratford man's sole endowment to his wife, upon his death, was his "second-best bed") had the tools necessary to pen some of the most eloquent expressions of the human condition that have ever existed.   Don't you agree, dear reader?

In the end, I suppose, it doesn't really matter who actually wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.  They exist, and we all benefit from them.

But, if my postulate has any merit, it does beg the question:  How many potential geniuses have lived and died forever unrecognized?  How many Shakespeares are even now begging for food in the streets of Calcutta or tending their crops along the Niger River?

1 comment:

Hschumann said...

Genius is how the author Shakespeare used his knowledge and creative imagination to produce great works of art. It does not, however, account for how he obtained the immense amount of learning in the plays that included using French, Spanish, and Italian untranslated works as sources, a detailed knowledge of the law, medicine, music, aristocratic sports, and many others.

The author is, quite obviously, a deeply educated man with a broad knowledge of classical literature, a man who is well read and well traveled. Yes, genius is part of the story but cannot be the whole story.