My history hero: William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

"The fact that he bought property only in Stratford suggests he was a committed family man. What he did with his success is indicative of who he was: a man who valued loyalty and family ties": Ben Elton tells Jem Roberts why William Shakespeare is his history hero...

Portrait of William Shakespeare by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Shakespeare is one of the key pillars of our civilisation. His biography may seem scant: in brief, he moved to London, performed and wrote for the Chamberlain’s Men (subsequently the King’s Men), was acclaimed as the greatest playwright of his time, and died back home in Stratford-on-Avon 400 years ago. Yet his achievements are still celebrated. Ben Elton’s new sitcom Upstart Crow, part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival, reimagines his struggle to make his name and provide for an unruly family.

When did you first learn about Shakespeare?

Like most people, I encountered Shakespeare for the first time at school and, like most people, I didn’t find it an easy entry point. But I can pick out two points at which Shakespeare was unlocked for me. When I was 16 and studying Theatre Studies A-level, an inspired teacher called Gordon Vallins took us out in a storm. We all shouted: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” from Lear, and the thrilling urgency of the language suddenly became very real. The other occasion was when I first saw Ken Branagh on stage, performing Much Ado with such conversational skill that I sat there firmly believing that he was cheating, paraphrasing the dialogue. I was utterly thrilled to discover I was wrong!

What kind of person was he?

The fact that he bought property only in Stratford, and left what he had to his daughters, suggests to me that he was a committed family man. He made a great effort to help his father rebuild his reputation in Stratford, purchasing a coat of arms. Clearly, what he chose to do with his success is indicative of who he was: a man who valued loyalty and family ties. The idea that Shakespeare is some kind of mysterious ‘other figure’ on whom we can stamp any kind of personality we like – a rakish blade pursuing Gwyneth Paltrow [as in the film Shakespeare in Love] or some amorphous collection of other poets who really wrote his plays – is nonsense. We know a lot about Shakespeare.

What makes Shakespeare a hero?

I have many historical heroes – Mandela, Churchill – but after researching Upstart Crow, more than ever I stand in awe of Shakespeare’s peculiar genius. He is constantly being reinterpreted for every generation, and questions are, quite rightly, asked about the sexual, racial and economic politics in his work. These are interesting questions, because Shakespeare, famously, is “our contemporary”, as the Germans call him. Clearly, his liberal instincts were very real, even though he lived in an age of intolerance.

What was his finest hour?

That’s a very difficult question to answer, because his entire life was a ‘finest hour’. Think of all the mentions in Shakespeare of the briefness of our time on Earth – he chose to sum up each person’s life as an hour upon the stage, so I would say his finest hour was his life and work.

If you could meet Shakespeare, what would you say to him?

If, by any chance, he was aware of the various individuals who seek to primp their own intellectual credentials by doubting his achievement, I would assure him that anybody with any sense at all can see that it’s just one of the world’s favourite conspiracy theories – which rely on a lack of evidence, as opposed to real theories, which rely on evidence.

This was a man who was a prominent figure in his own day, and remained prominent – there’s never been a point at which we lost Shakespeare, who he was and what he’d achieved. There is no evidence whatsoever in any contemporary writing or thinking to suggest that anyone other than this very brilliant lower-middle-class boy shone a light on the world that was to dazzle the entire planet.

I always remember a joke my dad told me years ago: “Of course Shakespeare didn’t write all those wonderful plays – it was some other fellow with the same name!”

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Ben Elton is a comedy writer and performer, playwright and bestselling novelist, famed for Blackadder, The Young Ones and We Will Rock You. His new series, Upstart Crow, will air on BBC Two soon as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare Festival, which starts on 23 April.