Hands off our Bard

Talking of conspiracy theories: it was good to see another bucketful of icy water being poured over the heads of the Bard deniers in the Observer today. I’ve always believed – to misquote Theresa May – that ‘Shakespeare means Shakespeare’. He wasn’t really Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Essex, or Christopher Marlowe, or perhaps a reptilian shape-shifter, in a clever disguise. Recently the American James Shapiro published a brilliant book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), which put the cap on this. His conclusions, which seem to me obvious, are now corroborated a little further by some painstaking work done among the archives by ‘willowy, bright-eyed manuscript scholar’ Dr Heather Wolfe, reported here: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jan/08/sherlock-holmes-of-the-library-cracks-shakespeare-identity. Of course it doesn’t ‘prove’ Shakespeare’s authorship. Nothing will. But in the absence of any evidence at all that any of his rivals penned his plays, it should be good enough for any but the most irredeemable conspiracy nutters.

Of course, the reason why those nutters, and even distinguished non-nutters like Derek Jacobi and (in the past) Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, held to the belief that Will Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon couldn’t have written Hamlet and all the rest of the plays (we’ll make an exception for the co-written ones), was that he was too common. How on earth could the lower-middle class son of a glove-maker, living out in the sticks, have possibly known enough about royal courts and classical history and Italy to have been able to re-create them so convincingly? – Well, there were books (remember them?): Holinshed for the history plays and Lear, for a start. Stratford wasn’t such a dump then, and its grammar school certainly taught Latin. People travelled abroad and talked about it. Shakespeare will have got to know about Denmark from his actors, who were members of a troup that toured there, and probably performed in Elsinore. Of course the inquisitive young Will of Warwickshire had access to all the materials he needed to stage his plays; plus the genius and imagination to make something brilliant of them.

Above all, he was lower-middle class. That wasn’t a handicap (just as being a woman wasn’t a handicap if you wanted to be a novelist in the 19th century), but an advantage. Moreover, he was an aspirational lower-middle. (Heather Wolfe’s researches have mainly been into his efforts to achieve the status of ‘gentleman’ by getting a coat of arms.) Contemporaries made fun of this: ‘an upstart crow beautified with our feathers’ (Robert Greene). But it was what made him what he was; just as a similarly uncomfortable or aspirational lower-middle class status enormously helped just about all Britain’s greatest artistic geniuses in history: Shakespeare, Turner, Dickens, Elgar: lower-middle max, every one of them; resulting in their being similarly mocked for it by their ‘betters’. How many world-class British artists or writers or composers have been fathered or mothered by bankers? Or gone to Eton? Or spoken posh? There must be a few (Parry? no, he was good, but second-rank); but in general genius and creativity – in many fields, not only artistic – are grown and nurtured in ‘lower’ soils. You can only hold on to the belief that Shakespeare must have been an aristo, or have been to Cambridge (like Marlowe: my college, as it happens, so I’d be rooting for him if anyone), if you’re entirely blind to social context, and – probably – a snob.

Of course I might be biased by my own lower-middle class origins. But I’d be interested to hear of any significant exceptions to my generalization. Naturally, it’s up to me to judge their significance.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Hands off our Bard

  1. Students are rewarded for creativity but only within the confines of questions and tasks that pretty much rule out taking a critical view of the text. A question such as, ‘Discuss how Macbeth’s character evolves in the course of the play’, offers little scope for criticism, at least for year 12 students writing for one hour in an exam. The approach to assessment is probably quite different in the UK, where studying Shakespeare must have a greater cultural resonance than it does in Australia. Here, Shakespearean language is situated somewhere between contemporary English and a foreign language. Thus too much of the teaching has to take the form of translation. (Oddly, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is often taught to year 9 and 10 students, even though its speeches are often much more complex than those in ‘Macbeth’ which appears later, usually in 11 and 12.)

    As for Orwell, ‘1984’ must rate as one of the greatest novels, in the way art and politics are fused. It is an excellent vehicle for introducing the critical spirit to final year secondary school students. Interestingly, the ahistorical reader might regard elements of the text as exaggerated and extreme, yet the famous rat-in-a-cage torture was actually used by the Cheka in one region of the USSR. The agony evoked in the novel barely scratches the surface of the suffering endured under Stalin.

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  2. My friend Sylvie suggests – on Facebook – Orwell, Byron, Shelley and Trollope for significant upper-class artists. I did consider Orwell, but does he count as an artist rather than a brilliant political writer? And if he does get into the ‘significant’ category it’s only because he kicked over his Etonian roots. As for Byron, Shelley and Trollope: nah. Good, but second-rate in world-genius terms. Just my opinion, of course; but remember I’m the judge.


  3. There are some disturbing features of the long-running Shakespeare cult. How many serious books have been written that make a systematic attempt to topple him from His pedestal? I suspect that it would be next to impossible to get such a book published were anyone foolish enough to waste their time writing one; a parallel would be the embargo against atheistic writings prior to the nineteenth century, when no publisher would go near such texts.
    I have taught Macbeth for many years and confronted its obvious deficiencies: the climax occurs at the end of Act II, after which interest fades; except for Macbeth and his wife, the characters lack individuation and could of often be interchangeable; Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane and “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”, are quite pathetic plot innovations that would be better placed in a comedy; and I could go on. Yet for Bard-worshippers, the faults of the play are construed as literary virtues; Shakespeare in the great plays can do no wrong.
    Alternatively, those who offer critical comments like the above are allegedly missing the point entirely; the plot, characters, themes – the usual features of dramatic works that are considered important – are mere scaffold to hang the beautiful poetic language, which is naturally beyond reproach and immune from criticism.
    Acts I and II are brilliant, I will concede; however, it is quite difficult to find criticisms that offer a measured appraisal of the work in its various parts. Those students wishing to survive the exam unscathed are required to take up a full-length kowtow posture.


    • Interesting – thanks Philip. I agree that the idolaters are not much better than the deniers. Actually I’m a bit of a worshipper myself. I was overwhelmed by ‘doing’ Lear for A-level, under an inspirational teacher. That play has burned within me ever since. I won’t hear a word said against it, despite – or perhaps because of – its ‘unperformability’. But I’m more discriminating with the others. Macbeth I’ve never taken to; nor any of the comedies. My personal favourites are certain scenes and Acts from the histories, apart from RIII and HV – which I find less subtle. Perhaps over-familiarity? But then if WS were consistently perfect he wouldn’t be human, would he, and so such a profound voice for our humanity. That’s the problem I have with Mozart. Faultless.

      Long ago I used to be involved in dramatics, but as a scene-designer. (I couldn’t act – had a bad stammer.) I set no Shakespeare, unfortunately. The nearest I got was a couple of Marlowes (Tamburlaine and the Massacre of Paris), and a Ben Jonson (Bartholemew Fair). Tamburlaine, I think, was transferred to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Not sure – it might have been another production.)

      Do you mean your students wouldn’t get credit for originality?


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