The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Was William Shakespeare a writer?

William Shakespeare is the world's most famous playwright, noted as the greatest writer and poet in the English language at any time. But was he?

This is the odd question posed by the "Shakespeare Authorship Coalition" - a group of 287 people who are, as far as I can see, British actors.

Why would actors of all people doubt the authenticity of the great Bard himself? This is a question that has been troubling me since I heard of this group. You see, when I was younger, I acted in Shakespeare's plays including Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet (in two different shows) and The Taming of the Shrew. I have, therefore, a personal acquaintance with the issue. I also familiarized myself with many other works including Hamlet, Macbeth, Cymbeline, Henry V, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, As You Like It, Love's Labours Lost, Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar. I have either seen or read all of these plays.

So, my remarks on this question come from three perspectives: one is that I have actually learnt, imbibed, understood and performed Shakespeare's works from several plays; the other is that I am a writer, too, so I know deeply what a writer is and does - and thirdly, I know what a genius is, too, and what they are capable of, having been witness to such in my life, more than enough to know the breed.

William Shakespeare was reputedly born in 1564, on April 23. I say "reputedly" because the date of birth is not recorded - only the date of Christening, which was April 25. Curiously enough, he died exactly 52 years later in 1616, also on April 23. Perhaps birthdays didn't agree with him.

During his life he is credited with having been an actor and playwright for some 25 years, during which he penned 37 plays, many sonnets, and a couple of longer poetic works. That is quite an output for one life - and it is this fact that has alerted the doubt of some of his thespian detractors.

Sir Derek Jacobi, a British actor who has worked on Shakespeare's plays, said that he subscribed to the "group theory...I don't think anybody could do it on their own."

Now, he may have a knighthood, but that doesn't mean he also has a brain. He believes that Shakespeare's plays were written by a group, a committee, a let's-sit-down-and-see-what-we-can-put-together-today consortium. I am flabbergasted that he should think so. I have acted in Shakespeare's plays, learnt his lines, let them become part of me and roll off my tongue in performance as if they had formed themselves in my mind - and I can tell you one thing about Shakespeare's works that is clear: he has a very personal style. His works are definitely of a oneness. They all carry the same mental flavour, or verbal sign. To hear one of his lines, is to know his work. How could a committee of writers ever create something of such unity? Would not their disparate styles jar and clash? Would they not be unable to create such smooth, expressive poetry that all runs together perfectly upon the tongue? It is staggering to think that an actor, of all people, could not have observed how alike all Shakespeare's works are in verbal style. They are definitely the work of one man. It is nonsense to suggest that they are the jottings of a group working together.

Poetry does not emerge from a group. It emerges from the heart and mind of a sole creator.

In interpreting Sir Derek Jacobi's comment I can only assume that he is projecting himself onto the task when he says that no one man could do it. He is basically thinking: "Well, I am the great Sir Derek Jacobi, Knight of The Realm of England - and if I couldn't do it, no-one could." Well, I don't think so, Sir Derek Jacobi. An actor may be a writer - as Shakespeare was - but an actor who is not also a writer - like Sir Derek Jacobi is not - really has no ground to stand on. His opinion is not founded on personal acquaintance with the issue. Sir Derek Jacobi is neither a genius nor a writer - so how can he make an informed judgment about whether a genius writer could write such a body of work in a fifty-two year lifetime?

Well, there is one way to look at it, which might help. Let us analyse Shakespeare's output by comparison to the output of a writer I know well. Shakespeare's surviving works amount to 884,647 words, in total. Look at that number. Is it a lot, do you think? Is less than 900,000 words a great output for a lifetime of writing? Well, I have another number for you to consider: the number of words in my first book (yet to be published), is about 750,000 words, or thereabouts. Therefore, my own lifetime output, when my other works are considered actually exceeds that of Shakespeare's in terms of number of words, somewhat significantly. One work alone is almost as much as his entire output. So, indeed, it is more than possible for one man, alone, to accomplish so much, in terms of quantity of output. That really does lend perspective to Sir Derek Jacobi's belief that no one man could do it - of course one man could do it - and in a lot less time than 52 years, too. It could easily be done before the age of 30 by a motivated genius, with great verbal gift. I had written more than Shakespeare by that age - and if one person could do it, another could, too - especially one as verbally gifted as Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition believes that it is impossible for "a 16th century commoner and son of an illiterate household" to have penned plays so versed in law. They are laughable. There is such a thing in this world as a book. Anyone can learn anything if they are bright enough, no matter what their background. Clearly this group of 287 actors don't have a single intellectual among them. If they had, they would know that the only limit to the knowledge of a truly gifted person is their time on this Earth, and access to books. All Shakespeare would have to do is read - or talk to a lawyer every now and again over a pint of ale. There is no deeper mystery to it than that.

I am not a lawyer - but my brother is. If he can do it, so can I - and so could William Shakespeare, who was more than smart enough to handle the task.

As for the "illiterate household" bit, I marvel at their lack of historical research. His mother, Mary Arden, was of the landed gentry: a high born woman of substance. I really rather think that she could read. His father, though a yeoman, rose to be High Bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon by 1568. This a position akin to mayor. Clearly, in terms of giftedness, Shakespeare had gifted parents. I don't for a moment believe that they lacked the ability to read - or to teach him to read, too. Even, for argument's sake, if they were illiterate, they clearly were of gifted stock - and so he would no doubt find it rather easy to pick up the skill himself.

What I find really interesting - and telling - is that the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition seems not to understand the contribution that imagination makes to a writer's work. They critique the probability of Shakespeare being the author of his own works, by presupposing the non-existence of his imagination. They say that he wrote mostly about the upper-classes - so suggest therefore that, since he was not a nobleman, he could not and would not do this. Well, wait a minute, I know of writers who write about dragons - but that doesn't mean that they are personally acquainted with them. Their arguments are all very weak, and presuppose that the writer of Shakespeare's plays had a limited mind and imagination - rather like their own, I presume. The upper classes were the players of Shakespeare's day - all that was significant seemed to revolve around them and their actions - so, of course, he was interested in writing about them - in doing so he was being what a playwright should be - dramatic. There is drama in the passions of rulers and the doings of the great. Focusing on the deeds of a peasant would not have "put bums on seats", in Shakespeare's day (or even now for that matter).

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition also question Shakespeare's knowledge of Italy. They say that because he got the details right of how Italy was in his day, that Shakespeare could not have written it. Well, how odd. Shakespeare could have travelled there, or spoken to people who had, or read books about it. There any number of means by which he could have come by this information. That Shakespeare was careful about his research does not prove that he did not write his own works - it proves only that he was careful about his research!

This Shakespeare Authorship Coalition recently unveiled a "declaration of reasonable doubt" concerning the authorship of Shakespeare's works, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, West Sussex, England. The list of supporting names included 20 prominent doubters of the past, including Sir John Gielgud (what is it about these Knights and their doubts?), Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Mark Twain.

Sir Derek Jacobi proposes Edward de Vere as the most likely candidate - or the foremost member of the "group" who, according to him, wrote Shakespeare's plays. Edward de Vere was an aristocrat and therefore in line with the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition's bizarre belief that only an aristocrat/nobleman could have written Shakespeare's plays. They seem to be suggesting two things: firstly, and most offensively, that only a nobleman could possibly be gifted enough to write such great works - and that secondly they seem to have too much knowledge of the upper classes to have been written by anyone who wasn't himself noble.

I find the whole argument ridiculous. A writer can write about anything or anyone - he - or she -needs only three tools: talent/genius, good research and imagination. All the rest is just effort.

Sir Derek Jacobi appears to have overlooked the awkward fact that Edward de Vere predeceased Shakespeare by over a dozen years and wasn't even alive to have written the later works supposedly written with his involvement. Perhaps Sir Derek Jacobi believes it was a ghostwriter.

I think this whole argument comes down to a simple fact of life: little minds cannot imagine the capacity or capabilities of great minds. Those who propose that William Shakespeare could not have written his works are saying that they, themselves, could not have written his works - so they doubt that he could, also. They are saying that William Shakespeare's works are of such genius, that only a superman could have written them. So they propose that it must have been a nobleman (ie. a selectively bred superman of his day) - or that a group of hardworking lesser humans like themselves must have done so. I marvel at their essential vacuity. They clearly do not understand that genius does not come from groups - it arises from the superlative gifts of one unusual human being. I once read a good metaphor here. If you want to find someone to jump seven foot tall, in the high jump, you don't look for seven people who can each jump one foot: you have to find one person who can jump seven foot high! No matter how many "lesser mortals" you throw at the problem, they will never equal a single Shakespeare: individually and collectively they simply cannot jump that high. So, Shakespeare's works could not have been written by a group - because you are not going to find a group of seven foot high jumpers. Furthermore, using Occam's Razor, only one such high jumper is necessary to jump seven feet. It seems foolish to propose a whole bunch of them. Especially since the actual lifetime quantity of output is not even as much as one blogger's (me).

There is one final point which I think really kills this whole argument, in one word: credit. Do you really think that the "true author" of William Shakespeare's works is going to sit idly by while this actor got all the credit for being the greatest writer in the history of the English language? I don't think so. If there truly had been another author, he would have said, at some point, "err...excuse me, I wrote that." The only possibility is that someone conspired for unknown reasons of his own, with Shakespeare, to create a false public persona of a playwright for works written by him or her, instead. But why, oh why, would anyone wish to hide their authorship of the greatest plays in the English language? Occam's Razor defeats this one - it is just too far fetched that there would have been a great conspiracy, initiated by the author of the plays, to hide his own authorship. Only in such circumstances, could there possibly be an author who didn't come forward to claim authorship, other than Shakespeare himself. I find it absurd in the extreme. No creator would, I feel and think, do that to themselves. Even if they wanted a quiet life, it would make no sense not to reveal authorship, upon one's death.

I, for one, have no doubt that Shakespeare is the genius he was reputed to be. I have no doubt that he was the author of his works. I equally have no doubt that should there have been another author, that that author would have come forward to claim ownership - for why ever would they not?

In some ways, this is all rather sad. Imagine that you had been Shakespeare, that you had written all your life long and created the most beautiful of poetic works - and then, hundreds of years after your death, the very people who have made their living from putting on your works: British actors - start proclaiming that you were too much of a commoner to have written such noble works. It is tragic really. All of this actually tells us little about Shakespeare - but a lot about the actors who attack him. I will leave you to decide what it tells.

I will leave you with an eyewitness account of Shakespeare's gifts from his time. First Folio publishers John Hemminges and Henry Condell said of Shakespeare: "His mind and hand went together and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers."

William Shakespeare, poetic genius that he was, and greatest of writers - wrote almost perfect, error free copy. That is testament enough for me: to write such wonderful plays, without a blot.

Rest in Peace, William. There are still many who believe in you (and 287 who don't).

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and nine months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and two months, and Tiarnan, nineteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 11:25 AM 


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