There's no reason a glover's son couldn't have written the plays. To think otherwise is little more than snobberyby Jonathan Healey / May 3, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Could a glover’s son from a provincial town really have created some of the greatest works of literature ever written?
They usually deny it, but for those who doubt the “man from Stratford” wrote the Shakespeare plays, this question lies at the heart of the issue.
The authors of the ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare’—which has over 4,000 signatories—for example, are incredulous that a man who grew up in an “illiterate household” in the “remote agricultural town” of Stratford, could be such a sublime and timeless genius.
There’s no evidence he travelled; his daughters—so they claim—were never taught to write. Nor did he go to university.
How could such a man have written the Merchant of Venice, or the Sonnets?
“The works,” they argue, show extensive knowledge of law, philosophy, classical literature, ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, military and naval terminology and tactics; etiquette and manners of the nobility; English, French and Italian court life; Italy; and aristocratic pastimes such as falconry, equestrian sports and royal tennis.”
“Nothing,” they conclude, “that we know about Mr Shakspere [sic] accounts for this.”
Hence the attraction of one of the most popular alternatives: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, may have been dead by 1604, but he was at least sufficiently well-to-do.
“I had forgotten the fart”
In fact, the direct contemporary evidence for the “man of Stratford” is very strong.
There are numerous references to ‘William Shakespeare’ as the author of the key plays, and the First Folio—published in 1623—is unequivocal.
Biographer and wit John Aubrey, writing half a century after Shakespeare’s death, was in no doubt. The Earl of Oxford, meanwhile, he remembered as a courtier who accidentally farted in front of Queen Elizabeth, before scurrying away to the Continent out of sheer embarrassment (according to Aubrey, when Oxford returned after seven years, Elizabeth quipped “My Lord, I had forgotten the fart”).
What’s more, the ‘problematic’ evidence brought up by doubters evaporates once subjected to basic techniques of historical analysis.
Yes, Shakespeare signed his name in a multitude of ways—but this was quite normal for the time. Edward Coke, the greatest legal mind of the age, used both ‘Coke’ and ‘Cook’, and nobody is claiming that he was a fraud.
Yes, Shakespeare’s daughters either signed their names poorly or with a cross, but people learned to read before they learned to write. In any case, in an age of strict gender codes, teaching your daughters to write was a far lower priority than teaching them to run a household.
And sure, there are no books in Shakespeare’s will, but there is no pressing archival reason why there should’ve been—and they might well have been listed in a lost inventory of his goods taken after his death (and what a source that would be!).
A lawsuit for every family
Most of all, though, there is literally no robust evidence that anyone else wrote the plays.
No lawsuit, no dark hint in a contemporary letter, no rumours, no archival slips of the tongue that fleetingly reveal the real author. Nothing.
So the question of whether William Shakespeare could have had the knowledge and cultural capital to write the plays becomes the final hill for the anti-Stratfordians to die on.
And there, I think, their cause must fall.
For it is quite believable, to anyone with any knowledge of the social history of Shakespeare’s time, that a middling guy from a small town, a grain-trading son of a glover, could have written the plays.
In the last generation or so, social historians have exploded the idea that wealth, knowledge, education, and brilliance were confined to the aristocracy.
From around 1500 onwards, the English population grew, causing prices and rents to rise. The middling sorts, families like the Shakespeares, saw their incomes soar. With their wealth, they invested in property, of course, but they also threw themselves into a vibrant cultural world of books, manuscripts and print.
They were the children of the Reformation, charged with managing the parish church, so they thought about complex points of theology, drawing inspiration from printed English Bibles and travelling lecturers.
Their world was a stunningly litigious one: on average, each family was involved in one lawsuit per year. Middling people also staffed juries of life and death, and acted as overseers of the poor—judging whether their destitute neighbours deserved relief from the parish tax. They knew the law and they thought about morality. They had to.
In London, they rubbed shoulders with lawyers, merchants, and people from the four corners of the Earth. They bought books at St Paul’s Cross, and listened to marketplace gossip about the comings and goings at Court and Parliament.
Snobbery and little else
Of course, Shakespeare had a unique genius for drawing ideas from the full diversity of his environment. This included his Stratford childhood: careful references to the leather trade, for example, are more likely to come from a provincial townsman than an aristocrat courtier.
And this, really, is the thing. Far from it that only an aristocrat, or someone with obvious court connections, could write the plays.
To anyone who understands the social history of this expansive age, such genius would have been well within the horizons of William Shakespeare, the glover’s son from Warwickshire.
To think otherwise is snobbery, and little else.