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Phil-osophically Speaking - June 18, 2010

The Mystery of Shakespeare’s Unique Genius

The body of work is so luminous, so full of rapturous delight, so profound in taking the full measure of the human personality from its frivolous pretensions to its deeper resonances that one is tempted, indeed compelled, to ask if the hand of a single mortal could have sculpted such an enduring monument.

William Shakespeare died some 400 years ago at the age of 52. Yet even today, he towers over the literary landscape as its most formidable and resplendent expositor of the English language. It’s not just the plumage of the language, the stateliness of his cadences or the musicality of his poetry, all wondrous in themselves, but it’s also the power and depth of his understanding where the reader becomes strikingly aware of the poet becoming the philosopher and the philosopher becoming the poet. One wonders how all these multifaceted thoughts condensed into a single, illuminating intelligence.

As a dramatist, Shakespeare was revolutionary. Before him there are no characters, only types that are single-minded and not multidimensional. Even Oedipus’ sense of guilt over killing his father and marrying his mother is portrayed generally rather than particularly. It would be Shakespeare, the master psychologist, who would flesh out his characters in all their marvelous complexity.

Such is the magnitude of Shakespeare. For centuries, scholars were perplexed how someone from a small provincial town, a mere glover’s son from Stratford, bereft of a university’s education, with bloodlines forlorn of any pretensions of literary genius, could become the central imagination of the English tongue. One of his biographers, Stephen Greenblatt, puts it all so aptly: He makes his audiences laugh and cry; he turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history, while at the same time he effortlessly mimes the accents of country bumpkins and takes delight in old wives tales.

The mystery of Shakespeare’s unique genius could only be explained if the Bard, or so it seemed to some distinguished lights, was really someone else or, perhaps, some corporate entity of writers who wrote under the rubric of Shakespeare. The Stratford playwright was not alone in this regard. It was jocularly remarked that Homer, the greatest of all ancient writers, was not Homer but someone else with the same name.

No writer, however, generated greater controversy over authorship than Shakespeare. Some said Edward de Vere was Shakespeare, others claimed it was Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and even Queen Elizabeth! The harbingers of these heresies against the Holy Grail of English literature were striking in both their range and notoriety. They included such luminaries as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, Helen Keller and Orson Welles.

Perhaps only the real identity of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” generated as much excitement. Unlike the Ripper, however, none of the candidates for the real Shakespeare surfaced during his lifetime or even in the immediate years that followed, but rather some 200 years after Shakespeare’s death.

This is telling in itself, but it did not stop the controversy from spreading its wings. Even the revolutionary Malcolm X felt compelled to weigh in on the debate. Malcolm X, an intelligent and eloquent man, argued, not unpersuasively, that since the King James translation of the Bible is considered, along with the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the English language’s greatest masterpiece, it would seem only natural that England’s greatest poet would be involved. From 1604 –1611, while Shakespeare was alive and at the peak of his powers, King James recruited the most sublime poets to translate the Bible. Yet nowhere was Shakespeare connected to the King James Bible.

My own interest in the subject dates back to 1984 with the publication of Charlton Ogburn Jr.’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare. A distinguished scholar, Ogburn was a Shakespearian skeptic who passionately believed that someone other than Shakespeare was the author. After reading Ogden, my faith in the Bard, while not shattered (inchoate and uniformed as it was), was shaken. Since then, doubts lingered like leeches preying on the inner flesh of the soul.

Those doubts have been erased by James Shapiro’s Contested Will, a cool and reasoned historiography that proves definitively that William Shakespeare was no imposter, although there was probable collaboration on one or two of his minor plays. I won’t catalogue the author’s all too persuasive arguments except to say that Shakespeare’s education, in terms of the classical languages, was better than most Ivy League universities. When coupled with the cultural riches of Elizabethan England, it gave a precocious and restless imagination wings to soar.

Imagination, as is true for all great artists, is the fiery core of Shakespeare’s immense creative power. It looms mysteriously in the mansions of the mind, an exalting, unfathomable quality, suffusing both soul and mind, like a burning inner sun, that lights the world of the artist. It is mysterious because it cannot be learned - - - it must strike like lightning.

So it must have been with Shakespeare. From the time he was first conscious of sounds and colors, he must have been enthralled by the sumptuousness of the world. Every nuance, every mood of mind and temperament must have stoked the roaring fires of his creative genius. Like an insatiable lust buried deep in his soul, he craved the sound of words. The miracle of language crackled in his brain like an electric storm. The long silences of starry nights, the gentle rain beating upon a fertile earth that mirrored his own fecundity, the soft breeze sweeping over the colorful English countryside and the everyday sounds of the hustle and bustle of life in London, the center of the world, must have awakened and enlivened in him that godlike endowment from which flowed fountains of sublimities.

His sensitivity to the sensuousness of language infused his verbiage with grandeur, tenderness and magic reflecting every shade of human personality, from its darkest recesses to its most heroic aspirations. In the vault of his consciousness one finds treasures about the most important subject of all: We, ourselves, and our relationship to the world around us. It is a feast of epicurean proportions; a chef d’oeuvre prepared, we now know, by the deft, improvisational hand of a solitary cook.