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.