Distressing news, friends. William Shakespeare died today. Okay, so technically it was 397 years ago today, but it’s still distressing. You don’t get over it that quickly when a major genius dies. It’s not, like, ‘Whatever’.
Of course, some people also say that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare at all. That is, they think that Shakespeare’s Complete Works, as they are known, were written by A.N. Other: by the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or Sir Francis Bacon, or Queen Elizabeth, or some other Southern stiff. This is largely because the historical William Shakespeare was a Midlander and there is a massive anti-Midland bias in English culture, which is consistently imaged in terms of the North/South divide. Midlanders are the squeezed-out middle.
THE IMMORTAL BARD (DECEASED): ARTIST’S IMPRESSION
If you want proof that the so-called ‘Authorship Controversy’ (the argument that Shakespeare was really someone else) is anti-Midland in origin, you only have to consider when it began – around 150 years after Shakespeare’s death, when the celebrated (Midland-born) actor David Garrick decided to restore a sense of the Bard’s geographical rootedness by holding a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon. For the occasion, a large, fashionable crowd trooped from London into the wilds of Warwickshire – and promptly decided that if the historical William Shakespeare really came from this dump (i.e. the rapidly industrialising West Midlands) and spoke with a Brummie accent akin to Jasper Carrott, then there was no way he could actually have written those plays.
Shakespeare was hardly the only important Renaissance dramatist to lack a university degree or formal court connections (the reasons usually cited as evidence that humble West Midlander Billy Shakespeare couldn’t have written the sublime Works of William Shakespeare). Ben Jonson’s education similarly stopped at the grammar-school stage, but despite the high degree of learning evident in his plays no one has ever suggested that their author was anything other than the Cockney son-of-a-bricklayer that the standard biography suggests. Thomas Kyd wrote the linguistically high-flown blood-and-thunder stage smash The Spanish Tragedy (an important source for Hamlet) without attending Oxford or Cambridge, but again no scholarly hue-and-cry has ever been set up to prove that Kyd was merely a front for a better-educated nobleman. Perhaps that’s because, like Jonson, he was born and raised in London. Cultural commentators understand London and the South; they understand the North too – the regions’ respective PR machines ensure that they do, as does the obsessive media attention paid to the North/South divide. Had Shakespeare hailed from Yorkshire or Liverpool, the Authorship Controversy would never have taken hold.
But what’s most crucial here – though it’s never said – is that no Northerner or Southerner COULD have written the Collected Works. They are beyond the sympathies and imaginative reaches of both. Shakespeare’s plays are products of a recognisably Midland consciousness or state of being. Much of the doubt about the identity of their author ultimately stems from the difficulty of inferring much about him and his attitudes from the plays. As the nineteenth-century critic and essayist William Hazlitt wrote, Shakespeare was ‘the least of an egotist that it was possible to be’. More than their sublime language, it is the plays’ openness to different interpretations, their inherent adaptability, that has made them so enduring. Their ‘meanings’ are hard to pin down because they are properly dramatic, and not simply vehicles for Shakespeare’s authorial voice. The plays are both left-wing and right-wing, socially conservative and politically progressive, cosily pro-Establishment and full of radical fury. This extraordinary openness grows out of their author’s lack of egotism, as Hazlitt had it. No true son of the North or comfortably conformist Southerner could have written with so little ego, so little bias, with an understanding of and sympathy for all points of view. That’s right: if you look at the Works carefully, you’ll see that they must have been written by a middling Midlander rather than a Southern Establishment figure or Northern rebel. They were written by the quintessential shape-shifting Midlander, in fact.
N.B. Why do I call Shakespeare only the 2nd Greatest Midlander, you don’t ask? Well, although the Bard was voted Man of the Millennium in a national BBC poll in 1999, old Bill’s fellow Midlanders rated him only Number Two in a local survey of Greatest Midlanders – Staffordshire-born R.J. Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire, got the top spot. Midlanders love an outside bet.