Why Shakespeare Is Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Education

Many of the people who have doubts about Shakespeare say that he couldn’t have written about some of the things he’s written about without having done them.  Simon Schama says that they’re underestimating the creative imagination.

Schama may be right.  To some degree at least--and to a bigger degree if you're Shakespeare--you can sound like a lawyer or a doctor, or a concert pianist or a cop, without being one.

Here’s how.

Many lovely middle-aged men and women in the mystery writing field have to write about police, private detectives, forensic chemists, or lawyers.  If you’re lucky, your sister-in-law is on the job and your hairdresser’s husband reconstructs faces from skulls.  If not, you go out and find someone.  You take them to lunch, you ask them if you can come on a ride-along, you get them to read your books in draft.  

And every moment you are talking to them, you are looking at the way they hold themselves, the kinds of words they use, the assumptions they make about the world.  

And if you are the kind of person who is able, just a touch, to "be no one and everyone," that negative capability to set yourself aside, then when you come to write your character, you can do a pretty convincing job of inhabiting their skin.

Shakespeare must have been superlatively good at this kind of self-education.  Shakespeare probably never walked into a bar without noticing the guy down at the end of the bar, the one with the perpetually not-quite-finished beer and the shabby cuffs, or the laughing man on his second six-pack with the minnows of uncertainty and desperation in his eyes.  Shakespeare sued lots of people; he knew lawyers.  Shakespeare had a friend who married a woman in the book trade.  Shakespeare knew lots of people, right down to their bones.

There are limitations to how well you can do this—maybe not if you’re Shakespeare.  We’ll get to them later. 

But now, let's talk about magpies and shiny things.

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