Why Shakespeare Is Shakespeare: Imagination and the Stuff on Your Shelves

Last time I threatened to talk about Shakespeare's imagination and the imagination of creative people I know.  I'm making an assumption you may disagree with.  The assumption is that Shakespeare isn't an alien.  He was better at what he did, enormously better, than other playwrights or poets.  But he wasn't entirely different.  When I start talking in a minute about modern popular writers and using them to talk about Shakespeare, I don't mean they are equal to Shakespeare--nobody is.  I'm using what they do to talk about forms of creative process.

"He was no one and everyone," Hazlitt said.  John Keats talked about the poet's "negative capability," the capacity of the poet to stand aside from himself, from all the personality and fear and limitation that trammel the individual person.   Or, as an expert on the subject put it, the poet puts flesh on "the form of things unknown":

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven.
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination...

Imagination is the center; imagination runs the show. 

So all Shakespeare has to do is to call on his imagination, right?

Maybe.  He's Shakespeare.

But, for the people I know who do creative work that way, there's more to it.

The creative imagination is hungry and it wants to be fed.  It doesn't require an education, but it shapes one.  It takes over your bookshelves and your hobbies.  It decides how your house looks, where you go on vacation, what you wear.  It wants you to go and find out about things, everything from "how to write better dialog" to "in what order did the social services get destroyed during the Paris flood of 1912."  It picks up magpie things on the street, quorking over them and muttering shiny.  

Let's have examples.  

I write fiction set around the turn of the last century.  I'm writing this in my living room.  Without even going out of this room, I see a typewriter from 1890, a toaster from 1920, two Victorian irons, a clock from around 1880, a gasogene, an apothecary jar.  I'm planning a book about Brazil, and in this same room are a couple of elegant wood statues, a bumba-meu-boi, a Brazilian hobby horse, a trickster-dancer's-head statue carved out of a coconut.  Ellen Klages, a prizewinning historical novelist, has a series set in the 1950s; her house has rooms of cool 1950s stuff.  Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (fantasy, music, folklore, historicals) have musical instruments, thousands of CDs, Victoriana, artists' interpretations of folktales.  George R.R. Martin has historical dioramas, books about the Wars of the Roses, and medieval cookbooks.  Laurie King has busts of Holmes, magnifying glasses, and loads of other writers' interpretations of Sherlock Holmes.  

(And this seems to be true not only of writerly and poetic imagination, but of any kind of work pursued with passion.  If you're a carpenter, electrician, plumber, boat builder, and like your job, you may or may not get an official education, but you're always looking for new planes, Dremel bits, better boat design software.)

Part of your education is who you know, who among your contemporaries you read and talk to.  Look at most books and you'll see a list of acknowledgments, an interlocking grid of who knows who.  Laurie King knows all the Sherlockians.  Shakespeare apparently knew Marlowe--he quotes him and seems to refer to him in Sonnet 80.  Shakespeare (whoever he was) knew Burbage and Robert Armin and Edward Alleyn.

All these things are an education.  If your imagination tells you to write something, you go out and get that education.  It's not proper and blessed and academic.  It's the imagination feeding itself with whatever it can find.

So when Schama says “Shakespeare needed no education,” he means “he got his education at the theater, off the streets, through talking with friends.”  And that’s the way that most creative people work, no matter what other kinds of education they have.

Theoretically, at least, no problem there. 

In my next, I’ll explain how Shakespeare could have sounded educated in various fields without having had any sort of a formal training in them.

And then we’ll talk about magpies.

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