Ben Elton: Only snobbish, elitist Britain could say that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays
As the comedian and writer gives the Bard the sitcom treatment in Upstart Crow, he argues that Bill suffered from class prejudice then - and is still suffering from it now...
The Shakespeare of popular imagination might not seem the most obvious character on which to base a sitcom. He is generally thought of as quite a puzzling figure about whom little is known. A man of mystery. A shadowy genius. His world populated by half glimpsed romantic figures. The Dark Lady of The Sonnets. The illusive Fair Youth, whose identity will forever be hidden within the lines of perhaps the greatest love poems ever written. Recently the Bard’s image was sexily re booted by dashing Joseph Fiennes pursuing the gorgeous Gwyneth Paltrow. Some people doubt the man even existed at all.
What a load of Bollingbrokes.
In fact we know a very great deal about Shakespeare. It’s true that there are (as Bill Bryson has so wittily pointed out) only a handful of absolute facts, but oh what a wealth of information those facts reveal. And what a very different Shakespeare emerges from the wild and impetuous vagabond of myth.
Shakespeare was in fact, a dedicated family man. An over worked commuter. A homeowner who dreamed of upsizing. And he had a deeply embarrassing Dad.
He is in fact the perfect character to make into the hero of a British sitcom. And, as we shall see, the perfect figure to fall victim to that ancient English curse, snobbery.
By the early 1590’s, when both Shakespeare In Love and Upstart Crow are set, Will Shakespeare had been married for more than a decade and had three children. I have searched in vain to find a single scholar who has ever thought it worth mentioning that at the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, he actually had a teenage daughter of his own.
Will’s wife and kids get pretty much ignored in the Shakespeare of both popular imagination and learned criticism. The existence of Anne, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith is inconveniently ordinary and so people prefer to think of Will as having ditched them to live a romantic single life in London.
But he didn’t ditch them. He housed them, supported them and we can only imagine loved them. All his life he was interested in buying property yet he made all but one of his investments in Stratford, continually improving his family’s circumstances. Most of his contemporaries ended their days amongst the taverns and low dives of London but Shakespeare went home to Stratford where he lived in comfortable retirement and died surrounded by his wife and children. Recent research has concluded that Will probably did the majority of his writing at home. He was in fact an early commuter.
Will also looked after his parents. They shared the family home, think of it, Anne Shakespeare lived with her in-laws! How good is that for sitcom tension? Particularly when you consider that Will’s Mum, Mary Arden came from the arse end of the poshest family in Warwickshire whilst his Dad, John Shakespeare was a lowly Yeoman farmer who, having risen from nothing to become Mayor of Stratford, ended up ruined and disgraced. Shakespeare senior was in fact a deeply dodgy geezer who was twice brought to court for fixing interest rates and fiddling the price of wool. In 1592 he was fined for non-attendance at church. The reason he couldn’t attend was because the congregation was full of people he owed money too!
Will was so ashamed of his father’s fall from grace that one of the first things he did when he made some money was to go to the considerable trouble and expense of buying his Dad a coat of arms - an act of social climbing a bit like buying a personalised number plate. Joseph Fiennes? More like Del Boy Trotter.
Snooty Mum, dodgy Dad, long suffering wife, grumpy daughter. I’m telling you, the whole family are perfect for a sitcom.
As is the class prejudice and snobbery Will had to deal with at work. He was the only established poet of his day who did not go to either Oxford or Cambridge. Then, as now, graduates of those two universities dominated many areas of English public life and Shakespeare’s lack of an Oxbridge degree marked him as an outsider from the start.
He had attended Stratford Grammar which offered municipally funded free education to the sons of the town, so effectively he was a State School boy and his formal education ended at fourteen. In the only contemporary critique of Shakespeare that has survived the centuries, fellow playwright (and of course, Cambridge graduate) Robert Greene calls Shakespeare a ‘jack of all trades’ and an ‘Upstart Crow’ who sought to ‘beautify himself’ in the ‘feathers’ of a gentleman.
Shakespeare was that classic cog in the English class machine, the lowly born but talented, aspirational figure surrounded by a bunch of posh boys.
And sadly the snobbery exhibited by Robert Greene in 1592 has remerged in later centuries. For there exists today the popular and much discussed notion that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays. The only evidence ever given for the various conflicting theories is that the plays are just too good. The writing is too brilliant, the depth of understanding too deep, the terms of reference too broad, for such an unsophisticated, uneducated town schoolboy to ever have mastered.
Only in Britain could such an utterly contemptible notion be given credence. Of course Shakespeare wrote his plays. His genius was absolutely recognised (and as we have seen, resented) by his contemporaries and he was honoured at his death. When Heminges and Condell published the First Folio, or Will’s friend and rival Ben Jonson eulogized him, none saw fit to mention the idea that the plays were too clever for the man they knew. Indeed for more than two centuries after his death not a single person thought to question the wealth of historical evidence that links the plays to the man. Nor indeed the absolute lack of any evidence whatsoever that links the plays to some reclusive and shy aristocratic genius.
But this is Britain and so snobbish elitism continues to cloud our view of our greatest ever writer. A rather sad reflection on a society still crippled by its lack of social mobility. In 2016, four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, the upper echelons of the arts (and of course every other aspect of society) are still dominated by the same two universities that held sway in his day. And even more worryingly by a tiny group of prohibitively expensive private schools.
Is Britain doomed to remain like this for another four hundred years? Are we capable of better? When I was growing up in the seventies I remember feeling that we all lived in a land where anything was possible. Actors, rock stars, innovators, business people and politicians came from a much wider social background than they do now. It seems to me we’ve taken a step back.
I’m not blaming individuals here. And of course I don’t seek for a moment to deny proper credit to the many highly talented Oscar Winners, Pop stars and Arts Council funded Theatre Directors who went to private schools. This is a problem we need to address together, as a society. And a good start in this year of Bardish reflection might be to remember that the man whose sublime genius and ferocious work ethic gave us the greatest body of work in all literature was the son of a dodgy glove maker and the 16th century equivalent of a State School kid. Verily, he was an Upstart Crow.