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Jonathan Healey: Think a ‘middling sort’ like Shakespeare couldn’t come up with those plays, sceptics? Think again

Mark Rylance in Richard III at the Apollo Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Mark Rylance in Richard III at the Apollo Theatre in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The Shakespeare authorship question has raised its head again, with Mark Rylance voicing his doubts about the ‘man from Stratford’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, coinciding with a four-day event for sceptics at Brunel University.

Few Shakespearian specialists from the world of literary scholarship take the authorship ‘question’ seriously, and they can perhaps be forgiven for seeing events such as this as little more than an annoyance.

As ever, though, I’m struck by how this has always been considered a literary debate. In reality, it’s surely one about social history and the interpretation of early modern documents.

No one familiar with early modern manuscripts, for example, could quibble that a literate man signed his name differently at different times, or even with different spellings. This was normal.

Nor could any such person treat a will as an ‘ego document’, baring the soul of the man, rather than simply a dry list of possessions to be disbursed. Nor could they take an absence of books in such a will to be evidence of an absence of reading across a person’s life.

Most of all, they could never believe that a townsman from Stratford was incapable of genius. Yet this is what many of today’s sceptics believe: that a ‘middling sort’ could not have come up with these plays.

Too much focus has been given to what Shakespeare may and may not have been able to learn from his (probable) grammar school education. Instead, we should think about the cultural world of a ‘middling sort’ of man of his time.

Many, perhaps most, of the greatest minds of the age were people of ‘middling’ origins

England’s ‘middling sort’ were in the throes of a massive expansion of wealth, as they benefited from rising prices of land and goods. Increasingly they were literate; they had access to books and manuscripts, including the wonders of the English Bible.

Their worlds were increasingly under the pull of London, as the centre of politics, culture, and – most of all – the law. It was they who managed the parish church, decided which criminals deserved prosecution, and which of their neighbours merited poor relief. They debated the finer points of religion, of economics, and of justice, because these issues were central to their lives.

Small wonder that many, perhaps most, of the greatest minds of the age were people of ‘middling’ origins: if we can’t accept Shakespeare’s genius, then what do we do with Thomas Cranmer, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Tallis, John Milton, Aphra Behn or John Bunyan? What of Gerard Winstanley, George Fox or Margaret Fell? Where do we think the ideas of free thinkers such as the Levellers, the Diggers, or the Quakers came from?

In reality, far from being the kind of world in which a glover’s son from Stratford couldn’t scale the heights of genius, Shakespeare’s age saw an efflorescence of the culture of people just like him.

At its end, one man from a background not dissimilar to Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, became head of state. At its beginning, another Cromwell, Thomas – from a more humble background still – rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister and one of the greatest political minds in English history.

Rylance knows this, of course, for in the TV adaptation of Wolf Hall he played him. Rather brilliantly in fact. If the age could produce the Cromwells, it could give us the genius from Stratford.

It’s time Rylance accepted what any serious historian does: William Shakespeare, glover’s son, was William Shakespeare the playwright

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