How Much Genius Do I Need?

Post Date: April 29th, 2010

“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?


  1. Anonymous says:

    Before passing judgement, Lyn, you might read something from the other side of the issue. No one disputes that genius can arise from low income areas. That’s a straw man created by the Stratfordians to avoid the real issue, which is that there is simply no way that William of Stratford could have written the works. Yes, part of it is because he had no access to the kind of education that Shakespeare shows, but mostly because there is simply no evidence anywhere of any kind (except the name on published plays) that he was even able to write his own name.

    You won’t get the truth from the books you name. The real story is a lot more interesting. Try my blog:

    Stephanie Hopkins Hughes

  2. Hi, Stephanie,

    I’ll definitely check out your blog. I also plan to read Shapiro’s book.

    I think part of what informed my “theory” (again, not at all researched) was what Bryson says in his book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. He points out that all boys of middle class or higher had access (via fees) to the grammar schools. These schools offered more education in Latin rhetoric and literature than today’s PhDs in Classics have. (Mathematics and other subjects weren’t covered much if at all.) Might that explain Shakespeare’s robust knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology, Roman history, and rhetoric?

    Bryson also notes that in the Bard’s day, you could spell any word plus your own name a hundred different ways and no one cared. There are 80 different spellings of Shakespeare’s name recorded—from Shappere to Shaxberd to Shakspere. The latter is endorsed by the OED (Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage).

    It sounds as if no one knew how to spell their own name, or could enjoy many a spelling 🙂



  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ve read a number of articles concerning whether Shakespeare was, well, actually Shakespeare, and I keep reading this phrase, one that you, Stephanie, just used yourself. It goes “there is simply no way that William of Stratford could have written those works,” or some variation of such. Now, to deny the mere possibility of such an event occurring is a pretty bold, and also fallacious, statement, considering Shakespeare is long dead and none of us were there to witness him write, or not write, the plays. In truth I freely admit there is evidence for both sides of this discussion, but to deny even the chance, the freak occurrence that may have transpired, is to insult the way research and theory works; we must talk in degrees of certainty.

    That being said, I think you’re approaching this from the wrong point of view; it would appear as though you are assuming that William of Stratford was NOT Shakespeare until proven otherwise. The man’s name is on the plays, his life events match perfectly with those of his writings, but somehow Stratfordians are expected to disprove the possibility he was NOT the author. This logic is backwards, it is you who must make an argument for another individual. In other words, if it wasn’t Shakespeare, Who was it? Bacon? Oxford? Marlowe? Since there is debate amongst dissenters regarding these individuals as well, it seems clear that even those who find “simply no evidence” that the person who signed the work is the author cannot offer a valid alternative.


  4. bobmust says:

    The same has been said of Leonardo da Vinci as well – that he stole his inventions; even the paintings were some form of ripoffs. I suspect that historians, having to make a living and – ironically – seeking renown in their own branch of literature, get on the deconstructive bandwagon, which amounts, as Vince implies, to attacking reputations in ways that can neither be proven nor disproven.

    In the end, who cares? The story’s (the painting’s, the invention’s) the thing, anyway.
    The most cogent thing written here has been by Lyn:

    “And the ultimate goal is to make a living touching lots of minds and hearts…not to make a million doing so.”