The English class system: Why people don’t want Shakespeare to be a grammar school boy.

'I'm first to bowl, then, am I?' Image: Pixabay

‘I’m first to bowl, then, am I?’
Image: Pixabay

What class do you think you belong in? I’ve never been sure about myself.

My parents came from shopkeepers and manual workers. When I was a kid we ate broken biscuits and chocolate mishaps – mangled, rejected foodstuffs sold off cheap because they lacked the required perfection – because they were cheaper than the ‘real thing’. The biscuits came in plastic bags inside a plain brown cardboard box, all the flavours jumbled together, so Bourbons, Custard Creams ‒ everything ‒ tasted of Ginger Nuts. All of them were oddly shaped and powdery and there were woefully few chocolate digestives. It was sugar, though, so I wasn’t complaining.

Does our lack of funds make me working class?

Today I work in a shop, as I did when I had my first job at the age of fourteen. (Behind the Deli counter in a Fine Fare supermarket, if your asking. I wore a tabard, though I don’t remember a hairnet, and I used to weigh out bacon and haslet and corned beef and hide in the walk-in fridge to steal slivers of pate because I went there straight from school and didn’t finish until 8pm – way past my tea time. And I went home every night smelling of mince. Mmmmmm.)

Now, I may work in a shop, but I have a good degree. My husband has a good degree and a post grad qualification and works in the media. When I met him I was working in an off licence and he was working in a video shop. So, are we middle class or working class made good and does anyone give a monkey’s anymore?

Well, in a way, I think people still do and as evidence of this I give you Mr William Shakespeare.

What? You exclaim. How can the Bard of Stratford demonstrate the English preoccupation with class? Well, if you’d hush up a mo, I’ll tell you.

We all know the story. William Shakespeare, son of a glover. Not the highest ranking job, but what they might have termed a little later and before current class stratifications were invented, one of the ‘Middling Sort’. Not gentry but not a peasant – a respectable craftsman.

Young Will probably went to Stratford grammar school where he would have studied Latin authors such as Cicero, Ovid and Seneca. He vanished from the records for a few years before resurfacing as an actor and playwright in the 1580s, going on to write some of the best regarded literary works the world has ever seen.

But …

There are some people who don’t think a grammar school boy would be capable of writing great works, believing instead that only a nobleman – better educated, widely travelled, mixing with the finest scholars in the land – would be capable of such wonders.

Earls of Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Stirling, Essex, Pembroke and Southampton have all been suggested as potential alternatives to Midlands Bill over the last two hundred years, along with various Barons, Countesses and even a couple of queens (Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the I). Mind you, Cervantes – author of Don Quixote – has also been mooted, suggesting  that not all of these names are sensible or remotely credible.

Why this need to ascribe literary greatness to high social standing?

The link between money and literary talent is clear – Lord Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, Robert Browning, Charles Baudelaire are just a handful of writers who began their lives financially secure, not having to work whilst writing.

But money is not a prerequisite to intelligence or talent – it just means the writer can dedicate more time to their craft without having to dig tunnels so they can afford to buy bread and keep a hovel over their heads.

Imagine how many great authors, poets, artists, sculptors have been lost to the world because they happened to have been born into the wrong social stratum, lacking the opportunity to flourish.

Working class writers do and can exist – D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Irvine Welsh, Pat Barker and so on, and though most would and could not be compared to Shakespeare, it does show that given the chance anyone from any background can show talent.

I wonder why, then, some are so loathe to allow the grammar school educated, glove maker’s boy the spotlight.


I must have missed out a million working class literary heroes – can you give me more names to add to my list?

Post inspired by a thread on Calm Groove. Many thanks for the conversation 🙂

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24 thoughts on “The English class system: Why people don’t want Shakespeare to be a grammar school boy.

  1. Great post, Lynn. You could add Jeanette Winterson and Caitlin Moran to the list or (going back to the early 19th century) John Clare who was known as “The Peasant Poet”. Although he also claimed he was Shakespeare too…

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    1. Thank you. Oh, good call for both of those ladies. Can’t believe I forgot Caitlin Moran especially. John Clare is a good suggestion too – son of a farm labourer definitely counts as working class.How on earth could he claim he was Shakespeare when he was born such a long time later? Was he deluded or an adherent of reincarnation?

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  2. I absolutely agree, Lynn, this obsession with class in the case of Shakespeare’s authorship is beyond reason. What’s especially odd is that many of the proponents of the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare came initially (and latterly) from North America, where they claimed to have got rid of all that privileged upper-class thing two centuries ago.What’s worse is the attempt to denigrate this person, a star of the London stage, by calling him ‘illiterate’; presumably this was on the basis of the ‘little Latin and less Greek’ evaluation, though all this implied was that he didn’t have a university education where the ability to converse in Latin was a sine qua non.Next, he was the ‘son of a glover’. Well, the glover just happened to be so humble that he became a Mayor, and if that’s a good enough job for Boris Johnson that’s good enough for Shakespeare Senior.And when he retires to Stratford for the last couple of years of his life he puts his house in good economic order. Somehow that makes him a mere ‘dealer in malt’ and so on, as though being careful with money was a bad thing.Really, people with aconspiracy theory mentality seem able to believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of inconvenient facts and explanations. Me, I’m with Will.

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    1. Absolutely. And he does have those fabled ‘missing years’, so who knows what he got up to. He might have been off studying who knows what, bathing in the glories of Renaissance learning. And, as any reader of Wolf Hall knows, in Tudor England a man could rise from low beginnings to become one of the most powerful men in the land – so why couldn’t Will be the son of a craftsman? I shall believe it’s so unless someone proves catagorically otherwise.

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  3. It’s just another case of the public trying to belittle a great artist. People love to find some reason to dispise and deny artists and artistic talent. Shakespeare is a big name, and he wasn’t quite the thing, old boy, so he’s bound to get it in the neck, don’cha know.

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    1. It’s sad but true. A fellow blogger told me that this could all stem from the 18th century when Will was rediscovered, raised to the status of demi-god for his talent. And surely, somewhen who possessed such talent couldn’t possibly be a craftsman’s son. Snobbery all round, I’m afraid

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      1. Someone who possessed such talent couldn’t be a craftsman’s son.
        Interesting – I wonder whether those doubters believed in Christ. I believe he was credited with some unusual talents.
        I know, that’s a totally different thing, but still…

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      2. That’s a succinct way to put it.
        My dad gave up financial comfort when he dragged the family down from London to North Devon. I think he did it in order to isolate my mum -not that I don’t love the area, but he took away all of our opportunities to succeed in life.
        It seems I really have it in for him at the moment.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. We all go through these spells – I go through periods like that with my dad too. I just have to ride the anger out until I come to a more peaceful place again.
        That shows a real need in you dad to control, doesn’t it? I think my dad was the same with my mum. His behaviour came from insecurity, I think and it drove her away in the end. But that was fine. They were happier apart.

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      4. Some of us are comfotable in the trap we make for ourselves. My mum broke away eventually, but it took her years. In the end it was better for eveyone. In my experience, it’s not always best for the kids for parents to stay together

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      5. People are realising that now.
        I sometimes wonder whether we are happier now that we are happier n0w that we have the leisure to look for happiness.
        That response seems unconnected to your comment, but it’s not – you got my mind wandering along connected avenues of thought.

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      6. I wonder if we have too much spare time, really. Maybe that’s why we all have so many emotional, mental health problems – too much time to think. But living at subsistance level isn’t the answer either. Maybe we should return to the fifties – a certain amount of technology around, making life easier, but without the convenience and fast foods and high sugar intake.But then, no laptop. Hmm. A rethink is required.

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      7. No laptop? Arghhhh!
        I wish I had more spare time. I’m not working at the moment – on the sick for the first time in my life. Everyone takes that to mean that I’m at a loose end, and they assume I’m available at any time of the day or night. All I want to do is write, but I hardly have time for that, in between protracted visits and phone calls.
        I have been trying for the past 4 hours to get over to my blog. I haven’t managed to have dinner yet, because of the long phone calls, and any minute a relative will turn up, and I know he won’t leave until midnight. I love them all, but it’s so frustrating.

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      8. Oh, bless you. Are you okay? I adore my family too, but there are times when I’d really love to be alone to write – selfish, I know, especially considering I usually have plenty of time to myself, but there we go.
        Hope you get some time to write soon 🙂

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      9. I’m fine thanks. I read a post from a writer, which said that we should be selfish. We need to write like we need to eat.
        But our families and friends need us too, and we need them.
        I’m currently pulled between the question of whether to write , or whether to arrange a decent office space in my bedroom. The weeks go by too fast these days, and my condition slows me down.

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      10. We need to be a bit selfish (and I am!) but I think I’d go bonkers if it was just me and the laptop ALL day. I need my family to keep me (slightly) sane 🙂 Sorry if you’re struggling. Hope you get to tackle that office soon – that’ll be very satisfying

        Liked by 1 person

      11. Right. Right! Now. I’ll start it now.
        Or very soon… any minute now I’ll walk away from my laptop and get on with the office area… I just have to reply to a few comments, and there’s a poem in my head… and I have to stare out of the window at the wind turbines for a couple of minutes…
        I’m beginning to think that maybe the wind turbines are stealing a lot of my time…

        Liked by 1 person

      12. Aha! You sound exactly like me! There are piles of stuff (old books, baby things – bearing in mind my son is now eleven- old clothes) all supposedly going to the charit shop, still kicking about our house, gathering dust. I should just deal with it, because it gives me a low-lying sense of guilt/depression that I’m incapable of sorting ANYTHING out 😦

        Liked by 1 person

      13. I’d say you probably have more important things to do, such as caring for your son, cooking, blogging, reading interesting books, sleeping…
        Let everything pile up. Your great-grandchildren will be able to sell it all for a fortune one day, with labels attached that say “Vintage”.

        Liked by 1 person

      14. Great idea – maybe they’ll thank me for leaving them piles of unidentifyable rubbish. As you say, by then, it’ll be fascinating

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