Were Shakespeare's Plays Written by an Aristocrat?


Though Oxfordians disagree among themselves about many aspects of their scenarios, one belief that virtually all of them share is that Shakespeare's plays must have been written by a well-heeled, well-educated aristocrat. Only someone intimately familiar with court life, they assert, could have written so realistically about kings and dukes and the corridors of power.

Unfortunately for the Oxfordians, the idea that Shakespeare was an aristocratic writer, or that he was particularly accurate in his depiction of aristocrats, is unknown before the 19th century. Indeed, critics from the 17th century onward depicted Shakespeare as a "natural" genius, and often criticized what they saw as his lack of court knowledge. For example, one of the earliest explicit mention of Shakespeare's accuracy in that regard is found in the writings of John Dryden, whose "Of Dramatic Poesie" (1668) compared the writings of Beaumont and Fletcher to those of Shakespeare. There, the dramatist and Poet Laureate wrote that "they understood and imitated the conversation of Gentlemen much better." Later, in his "Essay on the Dramatic Poetry of the Last Age" (1673), Dryden wrote: "I cannot find that any of them [the Elizabethan dramatists] had been conversant in courts, except Ben Jonson; and his genius lay not so much that way as to make an improvement by it."

Dryden was writing only 57 years after Shakespeare's death, and was himself quite familiar with Restoration Court life. I'm inclined to give more weight to his opinion than to the unstudied intuition of somebody in the late 20th century. And in fact, Dryden's view is supported by 20th-century scholars who have spent a lot of time studying Elizabethan Court life: Shakespeare's depiction of it was not particularly accurate, and often betrays his middle-class origins. The following is part of a post I made to the humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare newsgroup, responding to the claim that Shakespeare was uncannily accurate in his depiction of Court life. More broadly, I address issues of class, and the common Oxfordian assumption that there was a huge, unbridgeable gap between William Shakespeare and the court life he wrote about.

(I wrote:)

Paul, I'm just curious -- where are you getting your information about Elizabethan class structure, and about the way lords intereacted with their servants? Can you give us a citation?
(Paul wrote:)
Are there any serious uncertainties about the Elizabethan class structure?
Well, yeah, actually. Have you read any literary criticism or social history on the Elizabethan era from the last 10 or 15 years? An awful lot of it deals with power relations (of which class was a major part) and how a lot of art (including Shakespeare's plays) can be seen as subversive of the dominant power structure. But I have a hard time pinning down exactly what your view of this class system is. In some of your posts you seem to acknowledge that Elizabethan society was in transition between the rigid feudal system and the more egalitarian system of the Enlightenment, with a growing middle class and more chances than ever to improve one's station in life; yet in other posts you seem to be insisting -- almost stating as an obvious truth -- that class distinctions were rigid, with little or no opportunity for the lower classes to interact substantially with the higher classes or aspire to become members of those higher classes. I have a hard time reconciling these two positions, and your refusal to cite any sources for your information does not make things any easier.
I don't have any particular sources. It's described in many history books.
I see. I had assumed that since you were speaking so authoritatively, nay almost condescendingly, that you had read substantially on Elizabethan social history and were not just basing your statements on your own feelings about what must have been the case. Forgive my error.

For the record, the following are a few of the sources on which I base my information about Elizabethan class structure and social history, information which does not agree particularly well with the way you depict things (see below for more discussion):

(Paul wrote:)
On the way lords interacted with their servants -- well, that's the way upper classes have always reacted with lower classes in their employment in all societies with well-established structures and with great differences in wealth and status.
I see. Again you have no evidence except your convictions, and your insistence that "that's the way upper classes have always reacted with lower classes in their employment." I had hoped for something more substantial than your own opinions, particularly since Elizabethan society was not the same as our own, as I'm sure you must be aware. Any sociologist or social historian who advanced the above "evidence" for his ideas about Elizabethan society would be laughed at (or at least looked at askance), and would be forfeiting his right to be taken seriously.
However, the pervasiveness of class is essential part of an understanding of Shakespeare and in my opinion it is an important aspect of the Oxfordian case. It would have been nearly impossible for a near-peasant from Stratford to gain entry to the circles that Shakespeare clearly did, to acquire his knowledge, or to learn how to adopt such a fearless, independent and clear-thinking mind-set.
Where on earth do you get the idea that William Shakespeare was a "near-peasant"? That's just plain bizarre, and I can think of no explanation other than your irrational bias against William Shakespeare and what he represents. In some of your posts, you seem to recognize that class in Elizabethan society represented a complex continuum, but other times you seem to take a reductionist binary approach, impling that anyone who was not an aristocrat was a "near-peasant," with an unbridgeable gulf between the two. The following continuum (adapted from a table by David Cressy on p.321 of Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life) represents a fair approximation of the Elizabethan class system, from top to bottom: This is just an approximation; distinctions were not rigid (for example, Christopher Marlowe was sometimes described in legal documents as "yeoman," other times as "gentleman"), and of course people could move up or down the scale. Now, Shakespeare's paternal grandfather Richard might be described as a "near-peasant"; he was a husbandman, though he served on juries and was friends with the local vicar. John Shakespeare, William's father, improved his lot by marrying into the Ardens, a family of local gentry, and he became a prosperous tradesman (a glover), wealthy enough to own at least two houses and lend out the substantial sums of 100 and 80 pounds at interest. William himself did even better, gaining a coat of arms (which entitled him to automatically be called "gentlemen") and very substantial land holdings in and around Stratford. William Shakespeare was a member of the landed gentry, very far indeed from being a "near-peasant." Such people had access to a much greater range of Elizabethan society than you seem to imply. Richard Quiney, who was not even as high as Shakespeare in social standing, says in his surviving letter to Shakespeare that "I am now towards the Court in hope of answer for the dispatch of my business" and that "I fear I shall not be back this night from the Court." (He was in London on a combination of personal matters and official Stratford business.) If Richard Quiney knew what to do in Court and could spend a night there, then I don't see why his friend Shakespeare couldn't have picked up a thing or two on the same subject.

Apart from the "near-peasant" business, I have a lot of problems with your second sentence above. You say that it would have been "nearly impossible" for Shakespeare to gain the knowledge he did, and the access you allege he had. This subject has been run into the ground on this group, but my response can be summed up as follows: there were tons of resources and opportunities in Elizabethan London for an enterprising person to learn about anything under the sun, and there is ample evidence that many of Shakespeare's contemporaries took advantage of them. How would you account for Ben Jonson? He spent his childhood in poverty, was the stepson of a bricklayer, and never went to a university. Yet he managed to pull himself up to become recognized as the most learned classical scholar in England, and to spend a lot of time at James's court hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. He's probably the most extreme example among many similar ones, such as John Taylor the Water Poet. And I'm uncomfortable with your statement that it would have been "nearly impossible" for William Shakespeare (or by implication, anyone not of the aristocracy) "to learn how to adopt such a fearless, independent and clear-thinking mind-set." I normally try mightily not to use the word "snobbery" when arguing with Oxfordians, but I think it applies perfectly here.

They are not learned by someone brought up in an atmosphere of subservience -- which was the case for the great bulk of Elizabethan society. The writer of those plays had gone far beyond a university level of education; he knew the worth of such institutions, and how small it was. It is very hard to achieve that level if you never attend them.
I would question your assumption that the writer of "those plays" must have been a member of the aristocracy. Muriel St. Clare Byrne (who, apparently unlike yourself, read and wrote widely on Tudor social history) came to a very different conclusion. I am inclined to take Ms. Byrne's opinions on this subject seriously; she was the author of Elizabethan Life in Town and Country, one of the standard Elizabethan social histories, and she edited the letters of both Henry VIII and of Arthur Plantaganet, Viscount Lisle, so she knew something about sixteenth-century court life. She wrote the chapter on "The Social Background" in the 1940 book A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison. In this essay, she illustrates that Shakespeare made numerous mistakes in the depiction of court life in the plays, and that his "court" households often bear a much closer relationship to a typical middle-class household than they do to an actual Tudor noble household. She also found that the accuracy of his depiction of noble households increased in the later plays, as though the author had gained knowledge and experience (by whatever means). For example, Ms. Byrne writes (pp.189-90):
It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example -- old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a "nobleman" bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate "realistic," or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely "romantic," or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, "a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince," as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William's father's friends. They probably got in the way of all their busy servants and kitchen staffs on the occasions of daughters' weddings: but it is quite certain that an Elizabethan nobleman, with his retinue of anything from twenty to eight hundred gentlemen officers, and from a hundred to five hundred yeomen servants, did not come into personal contact with Antony and Potpan, Peter and Angelica, and did not himself have to issue orders for the quenching of fires and the turning up of tables. In these scenes Capulet is brother to Dekker's jolly shoemaker, Simon Eyre, not to Lord Burghley.
A little later (p. 199), after she has given many examples of Shakespeare's noblemen acting in ways no nobleman would have really acted:
The etiquette and ceremonial complications of regal life find but little reflection in the plays. What Shakespeare either did not know, or else deliberately rejected for dramatic purposes, was the circumstance and order of life in a royal household. By ignorance or design -- more probably a mixture of both -- he has given us a romantic picture. It was natural that he should seize upon as apt for dramatic purposes the popular aspect of royalty, with which Elizabeth's subjects were well acquainted: Shakespeare and his Queen both possessed a superb sense of the theatre. What is surprising, however, is that he should so entirely neglect the dramatic opportunities offered by the intimate-formal routine in Court life, had he been acquainted with it. Henry VIII, in which we must allow for the collaboration of Fletcher, is the only play which exploits it in any way, though the natural dramatic value of this carefully staged remoteness is enormous. But Shakespeare will have none of it. Court life in the plays is definitely a homely affair in comparison with Court life at Whitehall.
There is much more in Byrne's article, but these excerpts give the gist. You are free to disagree with Byrne if you choose, but if you want anybody to take you seriously it would be a good idea to present some sort of evidence other than your own pronouncements and opinions.

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