Why Shakespeare Is Shakespeare: Simon Schama

Simon Schama is a more interesting case.  He is really a major writer--certainly one I admire greatly and always try to take seriously.  And Schama says Shakespeare is Shakespeare too.  To doubt it is "snobbery" and "a fatal lack of imagination on the subject of the imagination."  

No question Shakespeare the poet had imagination; Shakespeare himself wrote some of the best descriptions of that visitor Muse.  "Such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends...."  Equally there's no question--or there shouldn't be--that imagination doesn't need an academic education.  Think of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman.  Think of Machado de Assis, the national novelist of Brazil, son of an illiterate slave.  Creative imagination needs academic education like a bird needs roller skates.

But creative imagination all by itself--?

This idea is not only true in its broad outlines, but has a pedigree as far back at least as the eighteenth century and Garrick.  "'Twas Nature taught him first to write."  Shakespeare didn't need travel; his imagination allowed him to comprehend more than other men.  Or, as Schama says, "He didn’t need to go to Italy because Rome had come to him at school and came again in the travels of his roaming mind. His capacity for imaginative extension was socially limitless too: reaching into the speech of tavern tarts as well as archbishops and kings." 

That's another assertion, and not so defensible.

Time to introduce my friends.

Start with me:  I have had the immense privilege of having students and readers come up to me and tell me that the books have changed their lives.  I have that academic education.  (B.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard; study at University of London and in Paris.  Fulbright, Mellon, other fellowships.  Studied Shakespeare with Harry Levin, Northrop Frye, William Alfred, and Robert Lowell.  For a number of years I taught English at Tufts.  As Kevin Kline says just after sniffing his armpits, "Don't ever call me stupid.")  

I've been telling stories since I was four, writing since I was eleven.  I have a few books out and some stories.  (They've been published in fourteen languages, made bestseller lists, made Best of the Year lists including the New York Times, twice, and the London Times.  I've won the Agatha and the Massachusetts Book Award.  Don't ever, etc.)  From time to time I teach writing, and I'm in two fairly high-powered writing groups.  

What this buys me is a lot of creative friends: writers, poets, actors, musicians.  Among them they have done a lot more than I have, and done it more intelligently and faster.

So next time, I'll talk about their imaginations, which they less grandiosely call "the writing process."

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