When asked to muse on the subject of The Greatest Briton, I will admit I found myself torn. I didn’t wish to discount the achievements of anybody. Keir Hardie? Mary Wollstonecraft? I am deeply interested in the history of the common man, how one person can rise to make a difference to the world, no matter how small. This is how I came to make my final decision. A man from modest beginnings who became the stuff of legend. A man who inspires like no other, even 400 years after his death. A man who has influenced my own choice of career more than any other: William Shakespeare. Perhaps an obvious choice, but his popularity shouldn’t make him any less valid…although far be it for me to succumb to bardolatry.(Thank you for that phrase, George Bernard Shaw).
The mystery that shrouds Shakespeare has excited conspiracy theorists for generations. The Oxfordian theory suggests that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, inciting support from actors such as Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. After all, how could a humble boy from Stratford with terrible handwriting and little knowledge of the world pen such beautiful tales of far away countries and exotic lands? For my own part, I believe that the tale of that humble boy is far more thrilling than any other alternatives.
Little is known of his early years. We know he was born in 1564 to John Shakespeare – a glover and whittawer – and Mary Arden, the daughter of local gentry. Young Will attended the local grammar school. In the 1570s, Stratford-upon-Avon was a popular stop for touring companies and may have given Shakespeare his first taste of the theatre. He married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and had three children. Thus ends the sum total of knowledge on his early life.
Shakespeare’s first documented appearance in London comes from dramatist Robert Greene who dubbed him ‘an upstart crow.’ We do not know how he had come to be there – it has been suggested that he replaced a murdered actor in The Queen’s Men and followed them to the capital – but the years following established him as an actor and playwright of great esteem.
Shakespeare’s plays often subtly queried the morals of Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Theatre had the power to influence the masses and all would feel the messages in his plays keenly. Gender, race, sexuality and the divine right to the throne; all were questioned at Shakespeare’s quill.
The latter would once bring him close to danger. In 1601 the Earl of Essex sponsored Shakespeare’s company for a performance of Richard II at the Globe, hoping to fan the flames of rebellion as he plotted to overthrow the Queen. Elizabeth I herself saw the parallels in the play whereupon a monarch is deposed and murdered. Upon trying to march upon the City of London, Essex was arrested and beheaded for treason. Thankfully, Shakespeare and his company were left unscathed by this brush with the revolt.
Othello tells the story of a Moorish general who marries a white woman, only to be driven mad by his scheming ensign. Two years prior to the play’s creation, Queen Elizabeth I had demanded the removal of “blackamoors” from Britain. For Shakespeare to write of an interracial marriage with the black protagonist corrupted by the whim of a jealous white colleague was extremely shocking. Despite Othello’s murderous actions, the audience are asked to sympathise with him at the hands of Iago’s manipulation. In the seventeenth century, this was utterly unheard of. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare himself had a love affair with black prostitute Lucy Negro– the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets.
English Jews had been expelled in 1290 and not permitted to return until Oliver Cromwell. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is often viewed as anti-semitic stereotype, but sympathisers point out that Shylock is given a beautiful speech that celebrates tolerance and understanding “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons…If you prick us, do we not bleed?” How can this be read as anything other than a plea for equality? It is a tragic twist of fate that the Nazi Party used the image of Shylock as anti-Jewish propaganda; they corrupted him as they corrupted the Swastika, an ancient symbol of luck and eternity.
In Romeo and Juliet, two youths defy their family for love. In Twelfth Night a young woman uses her own intelligence and wits to survive alone in a strange land. In The Tempest he questions colonisation, a common endeavour for the period. Time and time again, Shakespeare uses his plays as a platform to encourage non-conformist thinking. With theatre, he challenged and he provoked; reaching the people of England like no other medium could.
After the death of Elizabeth I and the ascension of James I, Will found wealth and renown. The new King favoured him greatly – Shakespeare wrote Macbeth for him and James responded with a coded birthday message in the King James Bible. James was supposedly a descendent of the real Banquo and the Witches’ assertion that Banquo’s children would be kings proved Will’s loyalty to the new monarch. He was greatly rewarded: his company was renamed ‘The King’s Men’ and offered the patronage of the sovereign.
William Shakespeare died in 1616, a writer sponsored by the King and a gentleman with a coat of arms. Not bad for a grammar school boy from the Midlands.
Will Shakespeare from Stratford was the master of words. He spun magic with his quill; magic that is still a fundamental part of modern life. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote close to a tenth of the most quoted lines ever and invented over 1700 words of our language. He is the second most quoted English writer, after the authors of the Bible. He wrote women beautifully and although men performed those parts in his time, he unknowingly provided the first role for an actress. Margaret Hughes appeared as Desdemona in Othello in 1660 thus paving the way for female actors everywhere, myself included. He started my own career; my first few jobs were exclusively in Shakespeare plays. He is many people’s first experience of the theatre and his tales have been adapted into countless of modern stories. I doubt there are many people in the world who have not heard of him; who cannot name at least one of his plays.
I marvel when a person of humble beginnings rises up out of their designated station in life. When one is not born of aristocracy or royalty, to have the ear of the king and to influence the thoughts of a nation is nothing short of miraculous. For his contemporary achievements, for his posthumous ones and for the everlasting legacy he has left behind, I whole-heartedly believe that William Shakespeare is the Greatest Briton.