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William Shakespeare: A class act

The English are a curious breed. We pretend to love peace but seem to be forever at war. We invented most sports but are hopeless at playing them. We laugh at the monarchy but wouldn’t contemplate an alternative. We benefit from immigration, yet fear and loathe immigrants. We produce pioneering scientists yet take no interest in science. And we take pride in our extraordinary artistic tradition but find artists troubling and inconvenient. We like them to be romantic but favour them dead. Best of all, we prefer them romantic and dead.

That is Shakespeare’s problem. Although unquestionably dead, he is resolutely unromantic. That is why so many scholars have wasted their dreary academic lives trying to prove that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare weren’t written by him but by the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or even Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. It is also presumably why Robert Emmerich felt the need to waste millions of pounds making Anonymous– though fortunately few people have felt the need to go and see it.

In part, the insistence that the author of Henry V, King Lear or Hamlet had to be an aristocrat was driven by a belief that a playwright whose work inhabited the minds of kings and explored the world of power had necessarily to belong to an elite caste. This of course rather misses the point that imagination can do whatever it chooses, conjure what it will.

There was almost certainly another impulse behind the need to prove Shakespeare of noble blood: snobbery. This seems to have characterised Thomas Looney, first proponent of the notion that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Aptly named, Looney appears to have been an obsessive reactionary who hated the modern world, loathed democracy and hoped England might return to its feudal past.

Despite the Earl of Oxford having died in 1604, ten years before Shakespeare’s last play, Looney’s theory was taken up by others. For while most of the greats of English literature such as Samuel Jonson, John Keats or Charles Dickens have come from lower middle class backgrounds, most academics and commentators have come from a stuffier, more privileged milieu.

Frankly, they deplored the notion that England’s supreme writer should have been a tradesman’s son and the product of a provincial grammar school. Christopher Marlowe was a drunken, violent, atheistic homosexual, but at least he had been to Cambridge; he was part of the establishment. For these sniffy, cloistered snobs the thought that Shakespeare might have spoken with a flat midlands accent was too much to contemplate.

We know relatively little about his life, but almost everything we do know suggests he was pragmatic and calculating; a businessman as much as a poet. To all appearances, Shakespeare was an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who saw the theatre as a good way to make money. This was always going to upset some people. We prefer our artists to die young and in poverty. Keats had the good taste to die of a writerly disease, poor and at a young age in tasteful Italy.

Without seeming to care that it would upset snobs, aesthetes and others of refined palate, Shakespeare chose to end his days in a comfortable bed with a small fortune under the mattress. Good for him.

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