Often this idea of burning is confirmed when the flammable genius in question drops down dead: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Marlowe etc etc. Too great to grow old and other such claptrap.
It is curious that we think like this, but that is the popular notion. Shakespeare does not obey it in the slightest.
Shakespeare’s first plays are, to be frank, nothing special.
Nobody is quite sure of the order the early plays were written in, but we have a fair idea. If we take as a rough metric of a play’s quality how many quotable lines it contains, we can go through and you'll see what I mean.
How many lines can you quote from Titus Andronicus? None? Then you’re normal. Don't worry. Comedy of Errors? Love’s Labour’s Lost? Anything springing to mind? Henry VI part 1? Nope? Nope.
Shakespeare’s first famous line is probably “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It's hardly one of the immortals but it's the only memorable thing in Henry VI part 2. Part 3 has a couple of good lines. Richard III has four or five and so it grows: steadily and by degrees. Each play is a little better than the last. Each play shows a slight improvement, a greater technique, the mistakes are ironed out.
Of course there are dips, but over the course of a decade, by these slow degrees, Shakespeare went from Titus Andronicus to Midsummer Nights’s Dream, to Julius Caesar to Hamlet, which contains precisely a thousand and one memorable lines.
And there are no great turning points on the way. There is no coming of age, no moment when he realised the Secret. If his ability was a gift from God then it seems to have been paid in instalments.
He climbed Mount Helicon by inches. He can appear rather like the dim but diligent schoolboy who learns the syllabus by heart. He was the opposite of the Coleridge method; the opposite of the brightly blazing genius whose combustion we have become so familiar with.
Of course, there's nothing strange about this idea when you think about it. Logically one would imagine that anybody in a non-physical job should get better and better as time goes on. That's how we would think of doctors or lawyers or poultry farmers, yet for some reason it's not how we think about artists and not how we think about genius.
If, by genius, we mean a gift that a man is born with and which cannot be learnt, then Shakespeare didn’t seem to have it. I said elsewhere that Shakespeare was all technique. I would go so far as to suggest that he had no genius at all. He learned it.
Which leads to the curious conclusion that the greatest artist the world has ever produced was talentless.
Not that good.