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Shakespeare, Dylan and self-creation myths


‘No artist can accept reality,’ Nietzsche observed. This is not surprising since artists live in fictional worlds. They make things up for a living, so it’s also not surprising they should make things up about themselves. Everybody does it in minor ways, but the scale of deception deployed by Bob Dylan when he first emerged on the New York music scene was heroic. For one thing, he wasn’t Bob Dylan at all, but Robert Zimmerman, though that seems of minor importance compared to the elaborate tales he told of a wild boyhood spent roaming the US.

Interviewed in 1962 he claimed, ‘I was with the carnival off and on for six years… I skipped a lot of things and I didn’t go to school for a bunch of years.’ Two years later he was explaining to Nat Hentoff of the New Yorker, ‘I started running when I was ten. But always I’d get picked up and sent home. When I was thirteen, I was travelling with a carnival through upper Minnesota and North and South Dakota, and I got picked up again. I tried again and again, and when I was eighteen, I cut out for good.’

It now seems astonishing that the scale of his self-invention wasn’t challenged. Didn’t anybody think to check with his high school, or maybe ask his parents? That he was able to spin the same stories for over two years suggests nobody bothered to question them. In part, this must have been because his extraordinary talent was unquestionable so an extraordinary genesis was to be expected. He was also a young man at a point where youth was taking over the world. His was the voice of the future and no-one wanted to examine his past.

Had they done so, they would have found he’d been born in a decaying mining town on the edge of a lake in the far north, in 1941. Two years later the Zimmermans moved from Duluth to nearby Hibbing where he was brought up by a loving family in which he was indulged by aunts and uncles. He joined the boy scouts, wrote affectionate poems to his mother and father and didn’t run away to join the carnival even once.

There are many explanations why Dylan might have wished to create an exotic backstory. He may have thought it would help sell records. Perha

ps telling lies to journalists was a form of self-protection. Or perhaps the stories helped bridge the gap between where he’d started and what he’d become. It was easier to invent a pack of lies than try to explain how it was that the child he later described in Chronicles as a ‘skinny, asthmatic introvert’ had so quickly become the man who would change popular music for ever.

He wasn’t alone in self-mythologizing. John Lennon posed as a working class hero when really he’d been brought up by nice Aunt Mimi in Menlove Avenue, David Bowie created a whole new persona in Ziggy Stardust while at least in song, Hendrix proclaimed that the ‘night I was born, I swear the moon turned a fire red’ and Jagger claimed to have been ‘raised by a toothless bearded hag’. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. It could just be that if you’re a rock superstar and international sex god, but until a few months ago you were a pimply, reserved student at the LSE and your dad is a PE teacher in Dartford, then the distance between where you’ve arrived and where you started from is too great to comprehend. Even with the help of mind-bending drugs. In which case a self-creation myth answers all needs.

And what has any of this got to do with Shakespeare? It’s my belief he suffered a similar dislocation of reality, which he helped adjust by inventing a new family history for himself. For while he had abundant talent he lacked pedigree, and though by the mid-1590s he was becoming seriously rich he was without social position. Unlike Christopher Marlowe, from a similar background, he didn’t even have a Cambridge degree. This situation had to be addressed. Instead of claiming he’d run away to the carnival (though ironically it’s likely he did go off with a band of travelling players after he’d married Anne Hathaway), he made the equally preposterous claim that he came of gentlemanly stock.

So to prove this, in 1596 he set about acquiring a coat of arms –though not for himself, but his father. This may have been an act of filial thoughtfulness towards an ailing old man, since John Shakespeare had applied for a coat of arms himself in 1576, before financial ruin. It’s more likely though, that his son was attempting to legitimate his right to armigerous status – an inherited coat of arms, after all, has slightly more lustre than one bought off the shelf.

And buying a coat of arms is what Shakespeare did. The cost of a ‘patent of gentility’ was considerable, ranging from £10-£30, depending how monstrous the claim. Even at the lower end, it was more than most people earned in a year. But that was only the start of the expenses, since there was no point having a coat of arms unless you blazoned it above the entrance to your house, had it carved into furniture and embroidered onto hangings and canopies. And since gentlemen were entitled to wear silk, you probably had to buy new suits of clothes to display your gentle condition.

When it came to the coat of arms itself, Shakespeare went for a visual pun, something typical of the nouveau riche in Tudor England. It was relatively simple in design – a shield displaying a gold spear on diagonal black band with a gold background. The tip of the spear was silver, the use of silver and gold connoting wealth, while the spear itself was the kind used in jousting tournaments, suggestive of chivalric deeds.

The shield was surmounted by a silver falcon, its wings part outstretched. In falconry this is termed ‘shaking’, the movement just before the bird takes flight. Since it also holds a spear in its right claw, the visual pun is complete.  But according to Katherine Duncan Jones in ‘Ungentle Shakespeare’, this use of a falcon might have occasioned the rift between Shakespeare and his early patron, the Earl of Southampton. His coat showed four silver falcons in profile and he may well have thought that in choosing to adopt the courtly creature, his upstart protégé had gone too far.

In his choice of gold and silver, depiction of a jousting spear and aristocratic bird, Shakespeare was certainly making a bold claim to gentle birth. This was further emphasized by his choice of motto in medieval French, NON SANZ DROICT. This translates as ‘not without right’, though his right to gentlemanly status was dubious at best.

It was claimed that John Shakespeare’s great-grandfather had given ‘faithful and approved service to the late most prudent prince King Henry VII of famous memory.’ This was spurious – again according to Katherine Duncan Jones – since Richmond’s army at Bosworth mostly comprised Bretons, not Midland yeoman. And if the alleged great-grandfather’s service wasn’t at Bosworth, it’s hard to see where it could have been.

Although by 1597 Shakespeare had bought his father the coat of arms and himself a swanky house, New Place, in Stratford, his assertion of gentility was shaky. Two years later in 1599, perhaps to substantiate his claim, he appears to have unsuccessfully applied to have his arms quartered with those of the Arden family. This attempt to incorporate the arms of a well-born family into his own was another piece of social bluster since although an Arden, his mother was the youngest daughter of a junior branch of the family, yeoman not gentle. And even if she had been, the fact that she was female meant she couldn’t confer gentle status on her husband since things didn’t work that way.

Genius though he was, Shakespeare couldn’t get around the fact that he came from humble stock. And his attempts to prove otherwise rendered him ridiculous. In 1599, Ben Jonson wrote ‘Every Man Out of His Humour’, performed by Shakespeare’s company The Chamberlain’s Men. In it, the uneducated Sogliardo arrives from the country in London to make himself a gentleman, having sold a few fields for the purpose.  Discussing a coat of arms, Puntarvolo tells him the motto should be ‘Not without mustard’ – a direct allusion to ‘Non Sanz Droict’.

It’s possible that Shakespeare had come to recognize the absurdity of his situation for in ‘Twelfth Night’ we see Malvolio punished for his social ambitions. Deceived by a letter he thinks from Olivia, he reads that ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em …cast thy humble slough, and appear fresh.’ As importantly, he is tricked into wearing cross garters with yellow stockings – a colour Olivia ‘abhors’ yet one often used to represent gold in heraldry. The dress also created a mocking visual pun, the black diagonals of the garters against the yellow stockings a reminder of black band on a gold background of Shakespeare’s arms. Later, when pleading with Sir Topas to be released from his cell, Malvolio cries out for ‘a candle, and pen, ink, and paper’ – emblems of the writer’s craft – and adds, ‘as I am a gentleman, I will live to be thankful to thee for’t.’

If by 1600 when he was writing ‘Twelfth Night’ Shakespeare still had any pretensions to gentility, his tenuous claim was finally undermined when Sir William Dethick, the herald that had granted him the patent, was suspended from the College of Arms in 1604. Argumentative, bullying and corrupt, Sir William was finally sacked for bringing the college into disrepute in 1606. Perhaps significantly, that was the year Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ in which the Fool asserts ‘he’s a mad yeoman that sees his son a gentleman before him.’ The game was up.

I first became aware of both Shakespeare and Dylan in the 1960s and one way or another they have been in my head ever since. In the early 1970s I was on the top deck of a bus in London when my girlfriend began reciting The times they are a changin’, particularly emphasizing the verse, ‘Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land/And don’t criticize/What you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’./Please get out of the new one/If you can’t lend your hand/for the times they are a-changin.’

What strikes me now is how naïve we were. Not just us, but pretty much a whole generation. Quite what we believed and how we thought things might change is obscure, but it seemed to involve Love (which we’d been assured was all we that we’d need), flared trousers, a few beads and lentils. In retrospect, not a very rigorous manifesto.

On the other hand, America now has a black president, Maine and Maryland voted to introduce same sex marriage, Colorado and Washington legalised smoking cannabis for recreational use and Wisconsin elected the first openly gay senator. Perhaps the times really were changing after all. And maybe on some level Dylan really had run away with the carnival. And Shakespeare was a gent all along.


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