As a novelist I've always wondered how a novel by Shakespeare would read. But he never wrote one. Cervantes, on the other hand, wrote the greatest novel in history. The two were contemporaries. Cervantes was born in 1547, Shakespeare seven years later. Both died in 1616, a few days apart. Why did they choose such different literary paths?
Our contemporary culture is divided into artists and whores. Artists create works of art for art’s sake, whores for money. The pretentious artists shun the whores. The market-driven whores aren’t even aware of the artists’ existence. In publishing this divide takes the form of literary or commercial fiction. Occasionally a writer stands in both worlds, but not often.
As a teenager I assumed I should write what I wanted to write, what I needed to write, without regard for the market. This, after all, was what “real” writers did, or said they did. When asked in interviews what audiences they wrote for, these writers always answered, “Myself,” or “None.”
And it’s true many great writers, like Tolstoy and Flaubert, wrote mainly for self-fulfillment. But what of those who needed to work for a living, like Dickens and Dostoevsky? Dickens started his own magazine to serialize his work and toured America giving readings to paying audiences. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in four weeks to pay his own gambling debts. But to twentieth-century writers and critics the former example seemed purer. Artists disappeared into themselves.
And what of Cervantes and Shakespeare? Did Shakespeare write Hamlet to wrestle his own existential demons? Did Cervantes write Don Quixote to humor his personal muse?
Neither man came from nobility or received a university education. They both needed to work for their bread, and their literary gifts gave them the means to rise above their class. Shakespeare succeeded and became a prominent landowner. Cervantes wrote the most popular book in the world, but he sold away the rights and remained impoverished.
Still, his intent was clearly to profit from his writing. He did write many plays, but he wasn’t a good poet, and the great Spanish playwright of the age, Lope de Vega, was a more formidable and hostile opponent than Don Quixote’s windmills. Cervantes was more strongly influenced by the chivalrous novel, which enjoyed immense popularity in Spain, and twenty years before his masterpiece appeared he published a novel in that genre, La Galatea, which brought him early renown, if not riches.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, was an actor as well as playwright, which gave him entrance into the theatrical world. And his main rival, Christopher Marlowe, born the same year, was stabbed to death in a tavern at the age of twenty-nine.
We find strong evidence that Shakespeare’s work was motivated by the marketplace in his activity from 1592 to 1594 when plague closed the London theaters. An art-for-art’s sake acolyte would have holed up in a garrett and penned plays for the theater of his mind. But Shakespeare turned to poetry and found a wealthy patron.
The late Norman Mailer revered the novel form for its heroic dimensions, but history’s most heroic writer, who found time to write thirty-six plays, 154 sonnets, and several long poems, never made time to write a single novel. He was more interested in property, and when he had enough he gave up writing even plays and poems and enjoyed a well-deserved retirement in Stratford.