Shakespeare – Upbardly mobile?

I rather loved the reports at the weekend that manuscript scholar Dr Heather Wolfe has now proved beyond doubt that William Shakespeare wrote all his own plays. For centuries, people like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin have argued that someone else wrote at least half of his great works, mostly on the basis that a) no one person could be that clever and b) Shakespeare was too much of an oik to produce tortured nobs like Hamlet, Lear and MacBeth.

David Mitchell Upstart Crow
David Mitchell starring as Shakespeare in BBC2’s Upstart Crow

Ironically, Dr Wolfe, who is a forensic librarian and could probably single-handedly inspire a spin-off CSI-type series, maybe called LSI and featuring implausibly gorgeous librarians blowing the dust off manuscripts while driving fast cars, snogging and drinking cocktails, made her discovery because poor old Shakespeare turns out to have been the Hyacinth Bouquet of his day.

Dr Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library
Dr Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library

His father, a glover (which admittedly was a lot more glamorous and lucrative in the days when everybody wore gloves all the time), had made some attempts to get a coat of arms, which meant hitching yourself up a class or two, from a worker to a landowner and gentleman, and Shakespeare’s efforts to continue this, after his father died, attracted a lot of derision. The fact that the mockery joins the dots between the playwright and the would-be gentleman proves, basically, that there was only one Shakespeare and he wrote the plays.

It seems a shame, when we know so little about Shakespeare, that the few facts out there are pejorative. Leaving his second-best bed to his wife seems pretty much a mean slap in the face, then there were a few squalid fights over money and theatre premises, and now this effort at social climbing. Is this the bard that launched a thousand similes? Well, so it seems. Shakespeare, whose writing is transcendent and transformative, seems to have been a bit of a git and a snob to boot. As he said himself, all that glisters is not gold.


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