Genius & Madness: What About Wil?

I originally wrote this piece for the Creative Nonfiction Writing Forums September Writing Challenge.

Cut off an ear. Throw paint at a canvas. Rocket a motorcycle across the Grand Canyon. Rob some graves and stitch the parts together. During a midnight thunderstorm, throw the switch and bring the creation to life. Madness and genius closely aligned — one of our most enduring cultural tropes.

But what about Wil?

There are missing parts to what’s known about William Shakespeare’s life — so many lacunae that some scholars doubt he was really the author of the sonnets and the plays. (Shakespeare’s plays, once quipped humourist Richard Armour, were actually written by another man of the same name.)

In reality, quite a bit is known about Shakespeare’s life, and that’s the problem. He doesn’t fit the trope. Shouldn’t the man who created the madness of Lear, the conflicted soul of Hamlet, and the grotesqueness of Caliban have, at the very least, lopped off an appendage or two?

As far as the evidence shows, Shakespeare was a plucky, well-educated young man (and getting a good education in the 16th Century tells you a lot about his social status growing up). He became an actor in the increasingly popular, and lucrative, world of theatre. At some point we know he began contributing material for his company to perform.

He may have had interesting affairs and even entertained his share of stage groupies, but the one thing we know for certain is that he was a good businessman. He was part-investor in the Globe Theatre and he wrote plays to attract large, paying, audiences, competing with other playhouses and playwrights doing the same.

He married Anne Hathaway, had children, and shrewdly managed his money. He sent home funds to Stratford-upon-Avon to be invested in land and real estate. By all accounts his investments prospered and when he retired from the theatre, moving back to Stratford, he proudly became a town burgher. Only men of considerable wealth became burghers.

Few persons in history have so deftly distilled the heights and depths of the human condition, the tragedy and comedy of life. A universally acclaimed genius, yet a satisfied, and rotund, town burgher. His example alone convinces me that you needn’t be mad in order to create master works. Yet down deep, there’s still a little whisper in my head that says, “But it helps.”

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