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Shakespeare & Beyond

Shakespeare's muses: The magic in his method

Portrait of Shakespeare with a muse

Shakspere [portrait surrounded by a muse, clown, lion, cupids, and various characters from his plays] [graphic] / [Johann Heinrich Ramberg]. 1832. Folger ART Box R167 no.1 (size L)

It’s a tantalizing mystery: What was Shakespeare’s inspiration? What was the source of his talent? How on earth did he do what he did? Were his abilities and success the product of native talent forged by practice and honed by association and collaboration with talented theatre colleagues and great actors — or was he in fact touched by the gods?

Shakespeare mentions his “muse” many times, mostly in his sonnets but a few times in his plays. Historically, the “muse” refers to one of nine Greek goddesses, said to personify the arts (literary, visual, musical, and dramatic) and sciences. In a wonderful way, they anthropomorphize inspiration (and the desire for it), as well as being a convenient focus for the frustration of not getting it. Shakespeare famously calls upon the muse in the opening line of Henry V — “O, for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention” — a classical invocation drawn from Homer and Virgil that could easily be something Shakespeare muttered to himself while trying to create his third five-act play in twelve months with a deadline looming. And in Othello, when the villainous Iago complains of his own lack of “invention” and says, “My muse labors, and thus she is delivered,” Shakespeare draws a nice parallel between literary creation and childbirth.


“Cash money can also be a wonderful form of inspiration”?
With all due respect, I think you’re talking about the wrong person. The Earl of Oxford was writing love sonnets to the Earl of Southampton. The semi-literate Shakspere of Stratford was not writing for his “patron.”
It’s difficult to do justice to the crucial topic of Shakespeare’s inspiration unless we’re talking about the actual author.
Freud unsuccessfully encouraged his fellow psychoanalysts to re-examine Shakespeare’s plays, based on the new understanding of who wrote them. But it’s never too late!

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — October 2, 2019

I don’t follow Austin Tichenor’s thinking. Mr. Tichenor posits that Shakespeare’s genius may result from great effort (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration) or from “mystical and supernatural elements.” There are plenty of examples of literary genius resulting from great effort, but none resulting from “mystical and supernatural elements.” It’s therefore perplexing how Mr. Tichenor is comfortable calling Shakespeare’s genius “its own kind of magic” based on a present inability to “understand scientifically how to replicate innate creative talent – or call forth ancient muses.” I don’t get it. And Mr. Tichenor’s position contradicts generations of scholars who have argued (convincingly or not) that a 16th century grammar school would have provided sufficient education for a person writing the Shakespeare plays.

Richard Myers — October 5, 2019

Sorry for the lack of clarity. Of COURSE “a 16th-century grammar school education could have provided sufficient education for a person writing the Shakespeare plays” — but the fact remains only one man did so. I find that wondrous and, yes, magical.

Austin Tichenor — October 23, 2019