The Bard

Today he’s been knocked off his plinth by an entertainer called ‘Prince’ – an odd name – and our lovely nonagenarian Queen. But I don’t imagine that will last long. Most of the time just now it’s Shakespeare. He’ll be 400 years dead this weekend, giving plenty of employment to the Bardic aficionados – writers, producers, actors – here in Sweden as well as in Britain. For a Shakespeare obsessive like me this is very welcome. (Not that we’re exactly starved of Shakespeariana at any other time. One or other of his plays are nearly always playing in Stockholm – Kurt Wallander performing King Lear recently was an eye-opener; or if not, then West Side Story or Kiss Me Kate.) I thought I ought to write something here to mark this anniversary; but of course I’m not an expert, only an amateur, and so my self-denying ordinance, only to comment on issues I have a particular experience or knowledge of (below, February 22), forbids that. I just have one idea that may be original, however, and derives from my study of cultural history generally. That relates to the vexed question of authorship.

I have to say that I have no doubts at all about who wrote ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays – apart from the smidgeon of doubt any thinking person ought to have about anything. (Perhaps the earth is flat.) It was a fellow called William Shakespeare, who hailed from Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, married an older woman called Anne, then moved to London, where he acted, and wrote. And wrote, and wrote. (He died aged only 52, remember.) If you need any further persuasion, James Shapiro’s superb Contested Will (2011) should do the trick. The surviving historical evidence for Shakespeare’s life is patchy, but there’s enough of it to leave no question of this. The ‘proof’ adduced by the doubters is flimsily circumstantial at best. They’re idiots.

What interests me, however, is the main reason they all give for doubting Shakespeare’s authorship: which is sheer snobbery. Their favourite alternative candidates are Sir Francis Bacon; the 17th Earl of Oxford; the 6th Earl of Derby; and Christopher Marlowe. Notice anything they have in common? They’re all nobs, except perhaps Marlowe, and he had a Cambridge education. (At my old college, as it happens.) What the anti-Stratfordians can’t stomach is the idea that Shakespeare wasn’t a high-born or highly-educated man. He came from the ordinary provincial middle classes. How could he possibly have known as much as he clearly did about the sufferings of kings, Renaissance Italy, and the Greek classics if he went to an ordinary grammar school near Birmingham, of all places? (Actually Birmingham hardly existed then.) No country yokel could have written ‘To be or not to be’. It had to be someone with the refinement bestowed by high birth and a privileged education. – But of course this is utter nonsense.

In fact if we look at most of the undoubted cultural geniuses in British history (and there were not all that many of them, compared with French, German or Italian), nearly all of them came from lower-middle class backgrounds. Turner, Constable, Purcell, Elgar, Dickens… all came from roughly the same stratum of society as the Stratford Shakespeare. I first latched on to this when I realized that most of the leading working imperialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also came, not from a particular class in British society, and certainly not from the ‘uppers’, but from between the classes; and maybe for that reason. Uppers and middles had accepted and comfortable places within the British class system, and so didn’t need to strive, perhaps, or to look beyond their social confines. On the other hand the ‘interstitials’ – the word I coined in one of my books for those who fell uneasily between the classes – did need to. Nearly every one of the most important cultural and political figures in modern British history has been an ‘interstitial’. Will Shakespeare of Stratford falls into that category perfectly.

Indeed, one could go further, and say that if you were an upper or middle-middle class person, you were (and are) at a disadvantage if you wanted to do anything truly remarkable. How many sons or daughters of investment bankers have ever done anything great and original in any field (except banking)? I don’t know much about ‘Prince’, but I don’t imagine he really was a prince to begin with. And our beloved Queen, admirable as she has been in many respects, has not come up with any really great works of art that I know of. That’s a cheap point, I realize; but it may illustrate a truth: that it’s a terrible burden to live under, to be secure in your social position. Almost as burdensome as being male, if you wanted to be a famous writer in the nineteenth century. Have you ever wondered why there have been so many famous women novelists? Women were interstitial, at any time. (So am I, class-wise, I feel, which is maybe why I find this such an attractive theory.)

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I was introduced to Shakespeare – the enduring love of my life – by a sixth-form teacher who would probably have failed any tests for teaching quality today. He was called William E Barron, nicknamed ‘Spud’ because he looked like a little fat potato, and had a silly high voice, which is why he couldn’t become the great actor he had clearly wanted to be; who nonetheless spent our classes acting out all the characters in King Lear, as well as filling in the bowdlerized dirty bits. I was transfixed, and have remained so ever since. Unfortunately he took against me at the end, because I decided to read History at University rather than English Literature. So I couldn’t thank him. He must be dead by now. If this blog is read Up There: thank you, Spud.

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Recommended reading (apart from the Bard himself): two more books by James Shapiro: 1599 (2006), and The Year of Lear (2016). Good, for me, because they are excellent history, too.

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3 Responses to The Bard

  1. Philip: Of course actors and others (especially his comedians, like the one who played the Porter) made insertions to Shakespeare’s plays, as he himself will have done to the plays by others he acted in; and there are examples late on in his career of collaborations – for example, Henry VIII. He also wrote new versions of others’ plays – Hamlet and ‘Leir’ are the the main examples. That’s been known for decades, and more recently born out by computer analysis of the texts. It doesn’t alter the fact that the bulk of Shakespeare’s canon was by him, and not by some highly-educated nob.

    One interesting thing about British imperialism was that it wasn’t supposed to be ‘cultural’ at all. Shakespeare’s fame spread through the merit of his works, which were usually regarded as belonging to ‘all mankind’; except by the Germans, who tried to appropriate him for themselves. Britain’s ‘greatness’, such as it was, was thought to lie in her practical achievements, and not in her art; which most Brits felt was inferior to the Continentals’. Indeed, there was a widespread notion that ‘high culture’ was actually inimical to real and significant ‘greatness’, and that its relative absence was one of the reasons why Britain was ‘top nation’ (supposedly). See my ‘Absent-Minded Imperialists’, and the references to the works of Samuel Laing, in https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/1497/, below. As well as this, I don’t know of anyone in the 19th century who regarded him as ‘infallible’. Otherwise they wouldn’t have bowdlerised him, and given Lear a happy ending.

    I’m afraid i don’t get the point you’re making in the final sentence of your first paragraph.

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    • Philip Cassell says:

      “I can imagine its being appreciated by a sixth form boy – for two reasons in your case, Bernard Porter.” A banal comment I concede; however, the two reasons are: firstly, you are a Porter, and so is the character in the play; and secondly, connecting the over-consumption of alcohol with erotic failure strikes me as the sort of humour that would amuse a sixth form boy.
      Thank you for the references, which I will consult.
      I was surprised by your statement: “One interesting thing about British imperialism was that it wasn’t supposed to be ‘cultural’ at all”. In the writings of dominant critics such as Leavis, the superiority of English writing seems to me to be taken for granted. When I went to school – in Australia – and studied literature at university, the canon was filled with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Romantic poets, T.S.Eliot etc. There was a nod to the worth of the Russians, but Literature was synonymous with English literature. Was this elevation of the English above all others because they really were greater than all others or did they ride on the coat-tails of the Empire?

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  2. Philip Cassell says:

    “I have no doubts at all about who wrote ‘Shakespeare’s’ plays – apart from the smidgeon of doubt any thinking person ought to have about anything.” However, there are more than doubts that Shakespeare wrote everything in all his plays; for example, in the case of Macbeth, there is a consensus that Hecate’s rather weak speech was added by an actor; and I would like to think that the Porter’s drollery was not Shakespeare’s, though I can imagine its being appreciated by a sixth form boy – for two reasons in your case, Bernard Porter.

    In addition, as you are an historian of the Empire, I would have been interested in your reflections on the role of the Shakespeare cult in the promotion of ideas of English cultural supremacy, in the far off colonies and elsewhere. As at least one theorist has pointed out, for a very long time, it would not have possible to gain and keep a job in an English department without showing one’s allegiance to the Bard cult. Disparaging any of the works would have been akin to a theology student repudiating the Gospels. Thus English departments spawned Shakespeare hagiography and graduates who would, as teachers, pass on their dedication to their students. Thus certainty of Shakespeare’s infallible English genius spread virtually unhindered.

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