Everything to declare – except my genius

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‘not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike
conversant in general services, and more remarkable…’
Cymbeline 4.1.

In Edgar Fripp’s introductions to the first four volumes of the Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon the reader grapples with the minutiae of the lives of Stratford’s “Middling sort”. The self-made men of the middle ground, such as John Shakespeare, organized the Borough into the vehicle for their prosperity and the elevation of their families. The touchstone for the “middle” class surely remains the goal of getting the children into the “best” schools. So it was in sixteenth-century Stratford and so it remains today.

To suggest that Alderman Shakespeare would have been indifferent or uncaring about his son William’s own education makes no sense on any level. By Shakespeare’s time, King Edward VI School educated the children of the self-made and when one looks at the serious academic credentials of its early teachers, the lucky few received the highest quality learning available. Even my own school, founded in 1650, has a school song that carols that there were “ twelve boys on the roll…who bent their will to the grim book drill for the good of body and soul…”.

Much has been made out of the idea that William Shakespeare was less educated than his fellow playwrights, was an unsophisticated country bumpkin, or somehow worked among them at a social disadvantage. However a careful examination of the education and background of the leading playwrights of London’s Early Modern Theatre clearly supports the conclusion that Shakespeare was, in reality, “Mr. Average”.

The first problem in analyzing the data lies in determining which playwrights should be considered as Shakespeare’s peers. In the absence of a third party definition of who was or was not a major playwright it would be possible to skew the selection of data towards a favoured conclusion. However, The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature does make a useful distinction between “major” and “minor” playwrights. While one can take issue with some of its editor’s criteria for the categorizations this is outweighed by the independent nature of the data. To supplement these individual entries, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography can be used to supply the personal data – again, an independent source.

Using these publications, a pool of 24 “major” playwrights can be identified revealing the following characteristics:

Ten come from London – hence fourteen, including Shakespeare, are from outside London.

Fourteen can be linked to a university – but not all of these graduated. A University education was probably never a sine qua non for a successful playwright and it certainly was not so by the time Shakespeare arrived in London in the early 1590s. Though my own researches are from a financial direction, they do support the literary analysis of Alfred Harbage in his Rival Traditions of 1968. After examining the plays of the period he concluded that: ‘no more than two fifths of the popular repertory as a whole was composed by men with pretensions of learning.’

Only Ten have fathers in the non-manual trades and it would be one less if “scrivener” were considered a manual rather than intellectual pursuit. A father or family originating in “trade” is the customary background, not the exception. It is true that a start in trade for many of the fathers became something else in career terms – John Shakespeare is a case in point – however Shakespeare’s family origins would have been no barrier to his establishing himself as a playwright.

In Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England Louis B. Wright concluded that with the emergent mercantile class the “cunning of the peasant [quickly] gave way to the shrewdness of the businessman.” True, but it is always necessary to look beyond Wright’s conclusions as he frequently takes facts at face value when it suits his argument. For example, seeking to show the humble origins of many playwrights, he lists George Peele’s father James as a mere “salter”, whereas a more comprehensive summary comes from Reid Barbour’s detailed entry in The Dictionary of National Biography:

‘[James Peele was]…Clerk of Christ’s Hospital […] the author of two works on double-entry book keeping […] A respected citizen and salter of London, James was also responsible for city pageants, and he was the clerk of Christ’s Hospital, the second in its history, from 1562 until his death.’

But I would argue that Wright’s main conclusion, that social “elevation” could always be achieved with enough money, remains valid. Birth and other medieval means of social advancement such as prowess on the battlefield had been joined, if not actually eclipsed, by plain hard cash.

I believe the evidence shows that William Shakespeare would not have been disadvantaged by his origins. Nor was his education in any way remarkable either above or below the norm for a successful playwright. Just as his father had been in the right place at the right time with his move to Stratford, so William had the good fortune, or perhaps good sense, to arrive in London when his personal “mix” of background and skills gave him the opportunity to succeed.

William Shakespeare was the Everyman amongst the playwrights – in everything but genius.

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David studied Law at Aberdeen University before embarking on a career in finance. Retiring in 2001, he pursued his interest in the arts studying at Plymouth College of Art & Design, Dartington College of Arts and the University of Exeter where he took his masters degree in Staging Shakespeare. He completed his Ph.D on the finances of the Shakespeare family in 2011.

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