On an airline flight yesterday I was watching a 2014 Mark Wahlberg film called The Gambler. I had not heard of it before. Apparently it didn’t do too well at the box office last year, due to its depressing and nihilistic tone.
Regardless, there was a great speech near the beginning of the movie by Wahlberg, who plays an existentially-troubled English teacher. In the speech to his class, he offers a few words on the whole “Shakespeare controversy”: that is, were Shakespeare’s plays written by him, or by someone else?
You may know that there is an industry built up around the denial that Shakespeare wrote his places. These deniers claim it must have been some aristocrat or some professor who wrote the plays attributed to him.
I’ve always been amused by this debate. Despite the ample documentation demonstrating that Shakespeare authored his own plays, there are some who persist in thinking that he couldn’t have written them.
He had no good education!
He had no good connections!
He did not know much about literature!
And similar arguments along these lines. I always smile when I read this sort of thing. Because the people writing it usually have little knowledge of Shakespeare, his life, and his times: more vitally, they find it hard to understand how someone of his “limited” country background could have written the incredible works that are attributed to him.
As if only “trained experts” can produce good things. How absurd this is, really. It’s the same mentality that insists that ancient man could not have done the things we attribute to him. It must have been aliens who built the Great Pyramid! And similar such nonsense.
How limited a faith these people have in the human potential! If they only knew. Not only did ancient man do the things ascribed to him, he did much, much more, which has been lost to time. The doubters can’t conceive of this, because they underestimate the manpower and time that ancient man had at his disposal.
Never underestimate manpower and time, aggregated together. They can move mountains.
But let us return to the Bard.
A careful look at Shakespeare’s plays shows that they do not contain an unusually large amount of erudition or scholarship. He took his plots from Plutarch, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and other readily available works. He had a basic education, within the means that his family could provide; his knowledge of the classics was not deep, but he knew them through the translations of the day.
Had he learned more, he might just have become another government official, laborious and unknown.
The works of Shakespeare derive their power from the psychological insights, the great characterizations, their wisdom in showing human foibles, and from the richness of the English language used. None of these required the erudition of an Oxford don to achieve. He did not need to be a nobleman or an aristocrat.
Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of human behavior by being exposed to the rough-and-tumble of life. He lived life in a way that no cloistered aristocrat could. He was not sequestered in a castle or on a country estate. The Elizabethan stage in those days was a rough playground. Those who could not deliver were quickly shunted aside.
It is also forgotten that Shakespeare never made much (if any) money from the publication of his plays. He earned his living by his investments in theatre enterprises. He owned shares in the theatres where he worked. It was this which made him wealthy. And he was prominent enough to be attacked by other playwrights of the day. In fact, the first known reference to Shakespeare is a spiteful little aside written against him by another, apparently less successful, dramatist.
And he was also a genius. That helped. Despite the fact that he had a limited education, he was a great observer of human nature. He had to be. His job depended on it.
But some people find it difficult to accept this sort of thing. They just can’t bring themselves to believe that some country bumpkin could have penned such sonnets, or wrote such incredible drama in blank verse. But it is true.
Great ability has no particular, mandatory lineage. It can, and does, spring up in the most unlikely places. And when it manifests itself, it is truly a wondrous thing.
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