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.

Portrait of Shakespeare with a winged muse
William Shakspeare [with a winged muse and two cherubs which hold a crown of laurel] [graphic] / Alexandre Bida, 1893. Folger ART Box B584 no.21
But an artist’s muse could also be a living person, and Shakespeare appears to be directing his sonnets to multiple figures. There is the so-called “Dark Lady” sonnet sequence and the “Fair Youth” sonnet sequence; both identities remain unknown. There is also the mysterious “Mr. WH,” who appears in the dedication to the first published edition and is described as “the onlie begetter of these sonnets.” Was he the same person as the “Fair Youth,” or did he do something else to “beget” the sonnets? It’s possible that he might have been a patron of Shakespeare’s or paid for the sonnets’ publication; in either case, cash money can also be a wonderful form of inspiration.

When he’s not praising the beauty of the Fair Youth or lusting after the Dark Lady, Shakespeare personifies his own internal creative spirit as a muse. Venting his creative frustration, Shakespeare complains that his muse is inarticulate, insufficiently inspiring, and has even outright abandoned him. But in Sonnet 38, he explores the tension between this internal muse and his external living one. “How can my muse want subject to invent / While thou dost breathe…” he begins, before suggesting that his human muse be added to the pantheon of divine ones. “Be thou the tenth muse,” he writes, “Ten times more in worth / Than those old nine which rhymers invocate,” expressing the desire that his mortal muse become immortal, if not as a goddess, then within the lines of these poems.

Shakespeare seated next to the Dramatic Muse
Shakespeare seated between the Dramatic Muse & the Genius of painting [graphic] / I. [ie. T.] Banks R.A. Fecit. ; James Stow sculpt. London [England] : J. & J. Boydell, 1798. Folger ART File S527.2 no.134 copy 1 (size M)
As his comfort with divinity and immortality suggests, Shakespeare was certainly no stranger to the supernatural, filling his plays with ghosts, fairies, sprites, witches, wizards, soothsayers, and all manner of “quaint devices.” These elements show that Shakespeare acknowledged the mysterious and ineffable not only in his work, but in the creation of his work. Dr. William Casey Caldwell, visiting assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, points out that two of the three plays Shakespeare wrote that aren’t largely based on existing source material — A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest — are filled with magical elements.

There is something magical about the act of artistic creation. It’s fascinating that when conjuring stories and characters from his own imagination —  “extempore, from [his] mother wit,” in the words of Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew — Shakespeare returns to magical characters, powers, and themes to drive the narrative. He understands the inexplicable but very real nature of the creative process and its value as a theatrical metaphor. Fairies and sprites are invoked in those plays in the same way that Shakespeare invokes the muses in his sonnets — and who knows, possibly in his real life.

Is Shakespeare’s genius, in words attributed to Thomas Edison, “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” or are those percentages tilted more heavily towards mystical and supernatural elements? The real answer, of course, is that we don’t really know and may in fact never know. But as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously stated, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Until such time as we understand scientifically how to replicate innate creative talent — or call forth ancient muses — I’m perfectly comfortable calling Shakespeare’s “sufficiently advanced” genius its own kind of magic.

3 Comments


  • “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!

  • 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.

  • 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.


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