May 4, 2009


According to a recent article in the New York Times, Genius isn’t “who you are, it’s what you do.”

NY Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks published an article this past week analyzing the modern scientific take on “Genius” as presented by scientific research. Science tells us that “Genius” does not come from some innate spiritual connection to a muse or the like, but rather a set of circumstances which are predictable, and more importantly replicateable. According to this research, what truly leads to a genius is practice, analysis, logical function of the brain, the ability to quantify and sort data, and the ability to develop and maintain a “deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.”.

Brooks uses the example of Mozart, who was not always a genius at the piano. In fact, suggests Brooks, Mozart’s early works are merely a clever amalgamation of others’ pieces. Mozart’s true key to this “Genius” we have labeled him with was his ability to practice for so long at such a young age. So my question is… what about Shakespeare?

Yes, it’s true, grammar schools during Young Will’s the time did provide the practice with language as outlined by Brooks. Though he was no University Intellect, Shakespeare did spend his young years meticulously translating Latin texts to English, making lists of synonyms in Latin, memorizing and re-writing portions of ancient documents, et cetera so on and so forth. But this was not unique to our Young Bard, this was education as an institution. Any who could afford the time to be sent to school would have had the same exact methodologies applied to their education. Those who went to University would delve even deeper into these methodologies, thereby (according to this article) given even more of that meticulous practice regime which Brooks claims is so key to the “Genius” factor. Marlowe, Kid, Johnson, Fletcher, Webster… the same educations but more. And yet these playwrights are often reduced to footnotes, if they are even mentioned, in the great books of general Theatrical knowledge which Shakespeare is our key and sometimes only player.

Consider a few numbers. An Elizabethan company learned a new play about every seventeen days, and depending on the play’s popularity it would be performed for a period of between one and two years. During a four-week period in the Autumn of 1595, fifteen different plays were recorded to have been performed. The first reference to Shakespeare as an actor was recorded by Robert Greene in 1592 (the famous death-bed utterance of “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”). Green’s editor, Henry Chettle, later apologize publicly for the remark in the preface to his work “Kind-Heart’s Dream”. This apology leads us to believe the Shakespeare was already a well-respected thespian by 1592, and indeed records indicate that several of his plays (including Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, and The Comedy of Errors) had been performed and were popular before this time (Henry VI is supposed to have been written around 1589/1590). The theatres were closed due to plague from 1592-1594. We’re pretty sure Shakespeare returned full-time to Stratford in 1610 (though again, this is Shakespeare so nobody really knows). This gives Shakespeare a solid seven years of performance at the peak of his career in London (and likely more like eight or so). The cannon (that survives) is thirty seven plays large, and there is evidence that Shakspeare co-wrote another five plays which we either no longer have or have been attributed to others. So… for arguments sake… assume Shakespeare wrote fourty two plays. This averages out to five and a quarter plays per year, not a hefty sum considering that a playhouse had the potential to go through twenty two plays per year.

So… practice? While Shakespeare was without a doubt constantly writing (churning out a new play every two and a half months or so), this isn’t exactly the kind of intense practice that Mozart was getting. And truly, couldn’t one argue that other playwrights of the time were getting as much, if not more practice than Shakespeare was?

The reason why we remember Shakespeare’s plays is because of the clever wordplay, but it’s also because of his clever use and treatment of the human condition. He speaks of issues that effect us even to this day, four hundred years after his death. In his capable hands, the troubles of the universe are alit in ways that make them relevant to us, despite space and time.

And really, no amount of practice can make some so capable.

I’m not saying that Shakespeare made a pact with the devil or was blessed with some divine astronomical event at the time of his birth, but maybe the scientists need to take another look at their definitions. Not everything can be explained in numbers. Human beings are highly emotional and rarely rational creatures, and the discussion thereof thereby must maintain a sense of irrationality in order to parallel it’s true meaning.