a likely story

“Is it likely,” the anti-Stratfordians often say, “that these greatest of plays could be written by a half-educated glover’s son from the provinces?” To which one plausible answer is, “More likely than their being written by a known hack like the Earl of Oxford.” But a better answer is: Of course’s it’s not likely. There is nothing in the least likely about King Lear; just as Mozart’s career as a musical prodigy doesn’t make it likely that he would write the Confutatis of the Requiem mass, nor Picasso’s early virtuosity that he would produce Guernica. The greatest of artistic masterpieces are intrinsically unlikely — far more than that, they’re shocking: we can’t plumb the depths of their origins, and before their advent none of us could have predicted them.

The least likely things in the world are Bach’s B Minor Mass and the Iliad. There are no plausible ways to account for that heart-piercing moment when Hector tries to console his beloved Andromache without denying that he will soon be killed and leave her widowed, after which he bends to pick up his infant son, only for the boy to be terrified by the great plume of his father’s war-helmet. (But whoever Homer was, he wasn’t an aristocrat.)

Just so, it is not remotely plausible that anyone would make for us that moment when Don Pedro tells Beatrice that she was born in a merry hour, only to hear her reply, “No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born”; or make Macbeth say “Light thickens; and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood”; or cause Paulina to present to Leontes the statue of his long-dead wife, hint that it may be brought to life, and then tell him, “It is required / You do awake your faith”; or (is there a moment in theater more complexly glorious than this?) give us Miranda’s transfigured ecstasy at seeing for the first time in her memory human beings other than her father — “O brave new world, that hath such people in it!” — followed instantly by her father’s weary, knowing, gently ironic reply: “‘Tis new to thee.”

Moments like these are not explicable by any calculus of social privilege — nor by any other calculus known to us. Blustery assertions about how the poet “understands the inner workings of the court” or “has intimate acquaintance of legal terminology” are truly remarkable exercises in missing the point. If you are awed and incredulous at the thought that a glover’s son could teach us that sleep “knits the raveled sleeve of care,” but find the assignment of that image to a nobleman an adequate explanation for its existence, you are simply paying no attention to what really matters, to “the shock of the new” that every real work of art brings to us, no matter the social status of its maker.