Even Shakespeare did research (probably)

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

So there was an article in The Atlantic this month by Elizabeth Winkler about whether the works attributed to William Shakespeare might have actually been written by a woman named Emilia Bassano. It is fascinating. Highly recommended.

Like, I kind of knew that there were some disagreements out there about who might have actually authored Shakespeare’s plays. But I had no idea how many gaps and inconsistencies there were in the historical record that scholars have trouble explaining when they’re defending Shakespeare as the author. The information in this article makes the case in his favor seem surprisingly weak.

But why am I writing about this here? Well, a core piece of the argument against Shakespeare and in Bassano’s favor is related to the amount of research that would have gone into creating these plays and other works.

I’m guessing Shakespeare’s plays are more often thought of as the subjects of research rather than the products of research, but Winkler reports that whoever wrote these plays had to have had a lot of knowledge about history, Elizabethan court, linguistics, music, and all sorts of other things. This knowledge had to have come from somewhere, whether education or books or direct experience. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare had any of that. He wasn’t educated past thirteen. He didn’t travel and his will seems to indicate that he didn’t own any books or musical instruments. Bassano, on the other hand, did have the necessary education and access to written knowledge. Plus, she’d actually been to a lot of the places that appear in the Shakespearean plays.

The point about research is especially interesting because one of the reasons the role of research in the creative process doesn’t get a lot of attention is in part because we all seem to prefer the myth of the artist as a divinely inspired genius. And when it comes to divinely inspired geniuses through history, Shakespeare is pretty much the poster boy. So much so that it seems like the people who defend him as the author of the works in question use the myth to explain how he could have written so knowledgeably (and beautifully)  about things he probably had no direct experience of or information about.*

This reflects a tendency in the books I’m studying to privilege the role of inspiration over the role of research. When talking about his own work in On Writing, for example, Stephen King spends a lot more space talking about how “pure blue sky imagination” helped him “become” a psychotic nurse for a little while than about any research that might have gone into making such a transformation possible. And obviously imagination and inspiration do play important roles in the creative process. Arguably, there would be no creative process without them so they should take up a lot of space in these books. Plus, it’s way more sexy and exciting to talk about this stuff than boring old research.

The trouble is, privileging inspiration and imagination in this way leaves the false impression that research isn’t necessary. That if you are enough of a genius, you should be able to create a story without using outside information to fill a gap in your knowledge. As Janet Burroway puts it in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, “you will inevitably know” what is right for the story. (That quote drives me insane, by the way, and I’ll be talking about it a lot more when I get to that book on my list.)

But come on. Once you think about it, it makes sense that some kind of research must have gone into creating Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t even have to buy into the Bassano theory to see it. And if even Shakespeare (Shakespeare!) (or whoever wrote the plays attributed to him) had to do research, then maybe it’s no sin to admit that research is part of the creative process after all.



*One question, though, which I also had was whether Shakespeare could have gotten the information from Bassano, since it seems like they knew each other. A scholar Winkler quotes in the article says that this is certainly possible but unlikely due to the sheer amount of information he would have needed to get from her to fill in the likely gaps in his own knowledge. If the simplest explanation is the best explanation, this one probably doesn’t qualify.

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