William Shakespeare - The Case for His Being Gifted

Portrait of William Shakespeare
FierceAbin/E+/Getty Images

If you want to find an argument about William Shakespeare, you don't find one on the brilliance of his works. What you might find, however, is an argument over who "really" wrote all those plays and sonnets. Why do people argue about it? Because Shakespeare came from relatively humble beginnings. He wasn't a peasant, but he wasn't of noble birth either: His father was a glovemaker and tradesman. Shakespeare grew up in a small town 100 miles from London, the cultural center of England, so he had no access to any of the culture it had to offer.

He did attend a grammar school, where he received a classical education. In those days that meant studying Greek mythology, Roman comedy, ancient history, rhetoric, grammar, Latin, and Greek. That was the extent of his formal education since he did not attend a university.

So how could such a man write some of the best known, most highly respected, most performed, and most enduring works in the western world, arguably in the entire world? How could such a man have such insight into the nature of man? To have such an in-depth understanding of our emotions and motivations? Clearly, some people don't believe it is possible, and therefore look elsewhere for the "true" authorship of the works with Shakespeare's name on them. As Lee Jamieson, About's expert on Shakespeare says, "Perhaps at the heart of the Shakespeare authorship controversy is a more philosophical debate: can you be born a genius?" Yes, you can.

I have no doubt that Shakespeare was a grown up gifted kid, verbally gifted, most likely highly gifted, but maybe even profoundly gifted. What gifted traits might he have had that would explain his exeptional ability to write plays that provide such insight into the nature of man and sonnets that speak so well to our emotions?

Advanced Verbal Ability

Advanced verbal skills are quite common in the gifted population. It's so common that it's often considered an identifying trait of giftedness (although not all gifted children have this trait). Rather than figuring that a man with the background Shakespeare had couldn't possibly have written the plays and poems with Shakespeare's name on them, why not assume instead that Shakespeare was a verbally gifted individual?

Coined Words and Phrases

To understand just how verbally gifted he was, just consider the number of words and phrases Shakespeare coined - that we still use today. There is some debate over exactly how many words and phrases Shakespeare coined, but the current estimate rests at around 2,000. That is incredible. If you don't realize just how incredible it is, you might want to consider how difficult it is for a coined word to get picked up by enough speakers of a language to make it into the lexicon, and stay there for decades (let alone centuries).

One of the reasons his words and phrases stuck is that they appeared in memorable plays, so the context of the words and phrases helped to contribute to the endurance of the words. Even so, if a new word - or new use of an old word - doesn't add anything to the language and if people don't use it, it isn't going to work its way into the lexicon.


Not only did Shakespeare engage in the kind of language playfulness we see in verbally gifted kids by coining new words and phrases, he was also remarkably creative in using earlier written works and weaving them together with his own ideas to create his memorable plays and sonnets. It was, and still is, a common practice to use someone else's work and create a new one based on that work. "Romeo and Juliet," for example, was the source for "West Side Story," and countless other stories of "star-crossed lovers." It's what a writer does with the source material that matters. "Romeo and Juliet" was based on "The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet" by Arthur Brookes.

If you want to understand Shakespeare's brilliance in reworking his source material, take a look at that early version of the tale.

Observant and Sensitive to Others

Another trait of gifted individuals is their keen sense of observation. They are able to notice details that others may miss. These details can include the subtleties of body language and other non-verbal cues people use as they interact. As a gifted individual, Shakespeare would not have needed to grow up among nobility to understand the interactions among those of noble birth. Shakespeare could also see that what motivated nobles was really no different than what motivates any other human being: love, greed, power.

Much of what we see in Shakespeare's works is a deep understanding of human behavior. His characters are as complex as those in most modern fiction. We expect this in playwrights today, but this was not the case in the 1600's. It is one of the reasons that Shakespeare's plays are so enduring, why we can appreciate them more than 400 years after they were written. We understand Lady McBeth's guilt and King Lear's hubris that leads to his downfall. In spite of their flaws, we care about them. And we understand better what it means to be human.

Closing Thoughts

I could point to a few more signs that Shakespeare was undoubtedly a gifted individual. For example, one could argue that Shakespeare understood the unfair and unjust way some people were treated in Elizabethan society. In the play "The Merchant of Venice," the Jewish lawyer Shylock is subjected to the antisemitic treatment common in the time. Jews were not sympathetic characters, but in this play Shylock is not portrayed as a purely unsympathetic character.

Shylock's monologue in which he asks "Hath not a Jew eyes?" is an eloguent speech which shows that Jews are as human as Christians. Christian characters, such as Antonio, are not portrayed as very honorable characters, and yet the play is crafted in such a way that Shylock could be easily seen as the villain of the story. And up until the early 1800s, that's exactly how he was portrayed. He has since then been treated more sympathetically.

With all the evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was basically a grown-up gifted kids, there is no need to look elsewhere for who authored the many plays and sonnets with Shakespeare's name on them.

Books About Shakespeare for Kids

Books that Make Reading Shakespeare Fun

Continue Reading