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 🙂