Theatre: 'Twelfth Night' and the Bard's father
William Shakespeare was born 450 years ago last week in modest circumstances but died – just 52 years later – "a gentleman". That was dramatic progress in Elizabethan England, but it had nothing to do with his success as a playwright, which was a disreputable business.
Instead, this story of upward mobility is rooted in that of the thwarted fortunes of his father, John. And that story, in turn, finds itself reflected in William's plays – notably in the comedy Twelfth Night, which opened this week at the Abbey (www.abbeytheatre.ie for details).
The drama of Twelfth Night is, as Stephen Greenblatt notes (in his biography, Will in the World), one of "restoration": siblings Viola and Sebastian, shipwrecked and separated, who have lost their station in life.
Viola, in disguise as a manservant, is asked what is her parentage. "Above my fortunes, yet my state is well. I am a gentleman," she replies. At the end of the play, the siblings are restored to their proper station – in fact, they exceed it, marrying somewhat above themselves.
This journey illuminates William's own, and his in turn illuminates the play.
John Shakespeare was a glove-maker and, on the side, a dealer in the profitable black market for sheep's wool.
Despite his black market dealings, he was a respectable citizen, and acquired a series of prestigious local roles, rising to "chief alderman", a kind of local judge.
These roles were a means of achieving the status of gentleman. When William was 11 or 12, his father applied to the College of Heralds for a coat of arms – official recognition that the family had effectively risen in class.
As the son of a successful gentleman, William could have expected to go on to Oxford, as did the sons of some of his father's contemporaries in business in Stratford.
But suddenly the family's fortunes collapsed. Greenblatt stitches the narrative together from various official documents.
There was a crackdown on illegal wool trading. John was fined. He started neglecting his civic responsibilities. And none of his children followed him into the glove-making business, suggesting that the official family business may have collapsed.He abandoned the petition for gentlemanly status and apparently retreated from public life. He was likely broke. Meanwhile, William didn't go to university (he may even have left school early) and instead married young, in Stratford.
Somehow, he made it to London and, by the age of 27, had become an actor and playwright. How he did so remains a mystery.
But as he did so, he must have felt keenly the collapse in fortunes of his father.
Had his father become a drunk? Greenblatt probes the evidence of the plays, such as when an austere Hamlet rages against the drunkenness of the Danish nobility.
More acute is the portrait of the tragic drunk Falstaff in Henry IV, who is regarded as a father by Prince Hal but cruelly rejected when Hal becomes king. "I know thee not, old man," says Hal, banishing Falstaff until he can prove he has "reformed" himself.
Around the time that William was writing Henry IV, his father's petition for a coat of arms was successfully revived – presumably by William himself. The motto inscribed on the arms (probably devised by William) was "Non sanz droit" – not without right. Despite his errant years, John Shakespeare had finally become a gentleman, and his son William with him. The family had been "restored" to a social status long desired and to which, their motto suggests, they felt entitled.
Even still, William must have been conscious of the likely part played in this pursuit by vanity: his motto and newfound status were mocked in a play by his contemporary Ben Jonson.
Is this why the character of the pretentious Malvolio in Twelfth Night is so acute? Malvolio's delusions of grandeur are derided in the play but, as the critic Harold Bloom suggests, "we shudder a touch even as we laugh". All of us nurse private vanities that would seem ridiculous if exposed: William Shakespeare too.
Twelfth Night is a delirious comedy. But between the lines, perhaps, lies the story of a man's complicated relationship with his father.