“To deny that Shakespeare’s plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself–a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality.”
— Terry Teachout
Teachout’s article, “Denying Shakespeare” in The Wall Street Journal, has my full attention. I’ve nurtured my own private theory for a while: that the naysayers to Shakespeare’s authorship dismiss genius residing in low-income communities. I have done no research on this topic; my expertise comes from teaching, where I’ve seen, heard, and contemplated brilliant children from all walks of life. It would not surprise me at all if a lower-middle-class guy from Stratford penned all those timeless plays.
Teachout is absolutely convinced that Shakespeare dunnit, and he leads us to James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. I’m going to get a copy. Shapiro’s premise is to research this question as objectively as possible, and I’m further intrigued. But what does this mean for us authors? Teachout thinks people question Shakespeare’s authorship much more readily than any other author because “the world is full of innocents who sincerely believe in their secret hearts that they could write a best-selling novel if only they tried hard enough.”
So I can’t go off on American Idol here, can I, with the argument that everyone today wants to be a karaoke hero or a reality show star? Because every day I wake up to write at the crack of dark and tell myself, “You’re talented, but what you don’t have in genius, you make up for in sweat. The best-seller will come!”
Call me an innocent. I do subscribe to the Edisonian claim about the one percent of inspiration and the ninety-nine percent of perspiration. I looked this statement up, and apparently his full claim is this: “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
Looking at the context, I wonder if what Edison is really saying is that great accomplishment comes from constant practice and commitment by a person who, we have to assume, has some skill and insight, never mind paradigm-busting ability.
I’m very clear on one thing: I am not a paradigm-buster. Shakespeare was, Virginia Woolf was, ee cummings was.
And I think it’s okay to want a best-seller that isn’t genius, but just very, very good. Maybe even great. There’s a place for good commercial fiction. And the ultimate goal is to make a living touching lots of minds and hearts…not to make a million doing so. That’s a robust, shiny, healthy American dream.
I don’t purport to offer a yardstick measuring skill and sweat. I don’t have time to worry if other authors are rich or poor or impostors. I am happy to have some skill and the will to hone it, and I choose not to worry if I have enough. That’s perhaps why a genius from the lower middle class doesn’t disturb me; he may have been a slacker or a workhorse, but this one guy, whoever he was, wrote incredibly well.
What I do resent is when audiences cling to an artist because of looks, stature, money; when audiences don’t have any idea what good art is because they’d rather watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians than read a good book; when artists step on each others’ backs to get ahead; when artists work for free because they don’t have to earn an income. I don’t believe Shakespeare had the looks or stature, because even his one portrait is disputed, and his biography is so thin as to almost guarantee he wasn’t a big kahuna. I don’t know if Shakespeare was a backstabber or not, but he sure didn’t elevate characters such as Iago and Polonius to great heights of respect. I’m going to guess that Shakespeare was what the records tell us; a working actor and playwright who needed every shilling, farthing, or pence he could scrape, since there were no such things as royalties on published plays.
The Shakespeare we honestly know so little about (see Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare — fantastic read!) left us great work. That’s enough. And those of like me who continue to dream about a particular work we’re crafting someday touching millions…Shakespeare doesn’t offer us hope to be an equal as much as inspire. His words are more than one percent needed to persist, because literature enriches, uplifts, transcends…and ain’t it fun to try and write it?