Any scholar who dared to suggest that Bach’s work wasn’t by Bach or Rembrandt’s by Rembrandt would, I trust, be handled thereafter with the academic equivalent of padded tongs. Yet outside of the ambiguous evidence of their work, we know scarcely more about the inner lives of either man than we do about that of Shakespeare. Why, then, is he the only creative giant around whom an ever-growing edifice of pseudoscholarly fantasy has been erected?
The answer may be as simple as this: Most of us are far more at home with words than with sounds or images. Not being able to do much more than sketch a crude stick figure, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have felt like to paint “The Night Watch.” But I, like you, express myself with words each day of my life, and though I know I’ll never write a play like “Cymbeline” or “The Winter’s Tale,” I also know how it feels to sit down at the keyboard and set down my thoughts about the world.
That’s interesting, but I don’t know…it doesn’t really ring true to me. I am constantly, intensely envious of writers and bloggers who are not only smarter than me but more artful writers to boot, but I can’t say it’s ever occurred to me to doubt their authorship out of jealousy; it just makes me want to try harder. And while it takes more than a little sustained effort to understand and appreciate Shakespeare, I would think that music and visual art, being more immediate and visceral, would inspire more intense interest and speculative theorizing about the mere mortals responsible for creating them. His earlier remarks about democracy and genius seem closer to the mark:
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. The mere existence of a Shakespeare is a mortal blow to the pride of those who prefer to suppose that everybody is just as good as everybody else. But just as some people are prettier than others, so are some people smarter than others, and no matter who you are or how hard you try, I can absolutely guarantee that you’re not as smart as Shakespeare.
If anything, Shakespeare’s story reminds us of the existence of a different kind of democracy, the democracy of genius. Time and again, the world of art has been staggered by yet another “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” (to borrow a phrase from “The Great Gatsby”) who, like Michelangelo or Turner or Verdi, strides onto the stage of history, devoid of pedigree and seemingly lacking in culture, and proceeds to start churning out masterpieces. For mere mortals, especially those hard-working artistic craftsmen who long in vain to be touched by fire, few things are so depressing as to be reminded by such creatures of the limits of mere diligence.
Still, as he says, there are other great artists of humble backgrounds and means who aren’t subject to speculation about the true author of their output. Alas, ’tis a mystery.
But however it got started and for whatever reason, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery as to how it should have accumulated enough mass to become a recurring issue — people just love digging into others’ potential secrets, and thrill to the idea that they might be distinguished by possession of some esoteric knowledge. Why did supposedly intelligent people invest so much time and energy into proving that Paul McCartney’s death was being covered up? (Speaking of the Beatles, and getting back to the aforementioned comments on democracy and genius, I seem to recall hearing how there was some initial skepticism about how four working-class boys with no official training could have possibly crafted those songs.)