Foundations of genius

Pulsing beneath the surface of our research into the life of William Shakespeare and the publication of his First Folio is the “authorship question”. This “question” is pulsing in the same way that people can still be found who, in the face of evidence and the keenest scholarly research persist in maintaining that the US government brought down the World Trade Centre, the moon landings were faked, the Earth is flat, and Elvis lives. These questioners generally separate “The Man from Stratford”, who is generally acknowledged as an actor of his time, from Shakespeare the Author who has come down to posterity as one of mankind’s pre-eminent creative geniuses.

Their reasoning? The former could not possibly be the latter as there is little in the historical record linking these two entities; the documentary biographical evidence for either Shakespeare is regarded as sketchy at best; and, anyway, the Stratford Man had too humble an upbringing and education to have possibly given us all those transcendent plays and poems, not to mention the vast and inventive range of English vocabulary with which he is credited.

It may or may not be significant that there was little questioning of The Actor’s authorship of The Plays for a couple of centuries after Shakespeare’s death, nor that the “question” – having been pretty much satisfactorily addressed by 20th century scholarship – has flared up again more recently on the more febrile platform of the Internet. But if all that clickbait, all those trollings and flamings have contributed nothing else, they have kept alive a couple of fascinating and enduring questions: what is a genius, and what are its implications?

There does appear to be a consensus that The Actor was a pretty bright fellow but no genius as an Actor: he wasn’t even pre-eminent within his own company. Posterity’s lists of Great Shakespearean actors never include the man himself. Equally, there is little doubt that the author of those plays, whoever it was, was indeed a genius, measured not only in terms of mental acuity but in magnanimity of spirit. Big brain, big heart. But was that chap also The Actor? It’s something of a confusing rabbit hole to start making claims about the documentary evidence for either man, inasmuch as what record we do have points to the same man.

It is the disparity between the creative output and what we know of The Actor/Writer’s humble beginnings that seems to be too much for some people to accept. History is full of genius standard people who excelled despite – or sometimes, arguably, because of – their humble backgrounds: Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, and so on and on. It’s a long list. And it can be argued that what we know about genius might encourage a different question altogether: might the disciplines and structures of more formal “Higher” education in fact have inhibited the driving curiosity of genius as often as they enabled it?

Could the very average actor have been also the surpassing genius who wrote the plays? Our experience of genius – how it manifests, impresses, bounds from point to point with disarming alacrity – suggests that he could well have been the Same Man – and there is precisely zero evidence to suggest that he was not.