Shakespeare’s Originality

Posted By on September 17, 2011


Rhys Ifans as De Vere.

Contrary to the prevailing trends within the Shakespearean industry, it seems to me that Shakespeare, like the Duke in Measure for Measure, must have been one who “above all other strifes contended especially to know himself.”   Such a view of Shakespeare as a man of accumulating wisdom and self-awareness, if it is not impossible within an orthodox paradigm of authorship, is at least alien to its usual construction, which seems largely to consist of what Keats called an “irritable searching after fact” coupled with various avoidance mechanisms to prevent considering any more rational possibilities.

Such a perspective may help us to more fully comprehend the the vexing problem of Shakespeare’s creativity.  For there is no question, whatever some of our savants insist, that the romantics had a particular affinity with Shakespeare that had not previously been experienced, and probably has not been since.

As is well known, before the romantics, Fletcher and Beaumont or Jonson would by popular acclaim have been the most accomplished dramatists. The full appreciation of the Romantics had grown over the previous century, after Rowe wrote the first “life” to accompany his 1709 edition of the works; by 1769, Garrick had established the foundations of today’s Stratford-Upon-Avon tourist industry, and Shakespeare was on his way to being liberated from the neo-classical assumptions of nearly two previous centuries.

The question is not, as some have posed it, that there is an affinity between the romantics and the bard, but why?  I’m sure this topic has been written on by somebody, but for the most part leading commentators seem to just ignore the problem.  I think the answer is probably pretty simple. I suggest that Shakespeare was a romantic living in a different century. I started to write “the wrong century” and then realized that its not that Shakespeare’s romanticism was at the wrong time, but that it was different from the 19th century standard.

The literary structures around Shakespeare were mostly medieval or neo-classical.*  So his literary variations remain more closely tied to the traditions of those two literary ideograms than did the poetics of Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. He is still attuned to the power of number.  They saw further down the trail he  had already blazed for them, into the possibilities of human subjectivity.

But if that is so, then the comfortable problem remains that we seem attached to a Shakespeare who just wrote a bunch of stuff, collected his paycheck, and went home to the sheep-shearing.  How can we reconcile this child of nature with the artistic implications of the former portrait?

Let us suppose that we try a thought experiment. This is especially recommended for any Stratfordians who may be reading.

Suppose that the man who wrote the Shakespearean plays starting publishing his work under names other than his own at about the age of the young prodigy of Winter’s Tale, Prince Mamilius. That he grew up as one who “takes the pain to pen the book” but “reaps not the gift of goodly golden muse,” as he would once put the dilemma under his own name.

How, I wonder, might that influence his psychology?  He was a man surrounded by the voices of characters whom he could not suppress. And, his work was anonymous. He was alone.

What might such a man discover?


* n.b. 10/7/11: Of course, in a strictly technical sense, “neo-classical” refers to a period spanning approximately a century (or more) after the bard, the age during which Jonson was venerated.  But I am using the term more broadly to refer to the entire literary/cultural response to the recovery of antiquity that began during the 1490s in Florence and continued to exert a powerful influence for at least another two hundred years in various permutations — bringing with it in England at least the high literary traditions of Chaucer or Skelton. I have come to think that the differences between Shakespeare and Jonson in this regard have been, like reports of Twain’s demise, unduly exaggerated.  In this sense, “neo-classical” really continues up until the decisive event of Wordsworth’s redefined poetry in Lyrical Ballads (1800) as  “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


2 Responses to “Shakespeare’s Originality”

  1. Kathryn Sharpe says:

    One thing he would discover, if his work was not linked to him, would be freedom–the freedom to say everything he thought and felt without being punished for it. A cloak of invisibility. An invitation to journey to the center of his being. To go to the edge of the precipice and jump off, or imagine jumping off, without harm.

  2. Roger Stritmatter says:

    Yep. Here’s my take: if you compare the rate of new word use in the letters to that in the canon, its much higher in the canon. This could mean two things: 1) Oxford isn’t Shakespeare, because Shakespeare’s rate of word formation is considerably higher; 2) Oxford is Shakespeare, but something about either the literary genre or the pseudonym, or — the most interesting proposition — both of them together, freed his creative spirit to, as you say “journey to the center of his being.” Hmmm. I like that phrase. I think that’s just what he did. And the pseudonym was his parachute.

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