It’s only right to start at the bottom, with the people we barely notice, the men and women who survive off the scraps we leave behind: the beggars, the homeless and the destitute. They hardly feature in classical drama and are, for the most part, left out in the cold. But in one of the most surprising scenes in Shakespeare, their experience suddenly takes centre stage.
The storm is raging when the Earl of Kent, disguised as a lowly manservant, offers his master shelter in a makeshift hovel. It’s no palace, but the king accepts. First, however, he wants to pray, and sinks to his knees and begins:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoever you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
This isn’t a conventional prayer, addressed to the Almighty. Instead, it’s a rhetorical question addressed to those whom Lear doesn’t know, who are so far beneath him that he’s had little contact with them and probably never asked about their well-being before. And it’s a question full of tenderness and care: how do the desperately poor—‘houseless poverty’, as he soon calls them—manage in a storm like this? Their clothes are ripped and torn, their heads are bare and they’re wracked with hunger; they’re ‘poor naked wretches’ indeed.
But Lear expresses more than mere sympathy. By admitting to his neglect and exhorting ‘pomp’ to ‘feel what wretches feel’, he acknowledges the yawning gap between rich and poor, the powerful and the wretched, and suggests that only a radical redistribution of wealth can heal the unbearable injustices of the world. It’s an iconic moment around which this shattering masterpiece revolves.
It’s often claimed that Shakespeare’s plays reflect an ‘infinite variety’ of human experience, and that all forms of human life can be detected there. But how are we to read his portraits of those ‘below the salt’, that vast army of people whose labour ensured that society functioned, but left hardly a trace behind?
We should start by acknowledging the obvious: most of Shakespeare’s working people play a smaller role than their masters. Compare the common soldier Barnardo with Prince Hamlet, the manservant Peter with the noble Romeo, or the maidservant Charmian with the Empress Cleopatra, and it’s clear that Shakespeare gives more space to the ruling elite than to their servants, and that their experiences make up the bulk of the drama.
We should also accept that there are many aspects of everyday life that Shakespeare never considers: there are no workers in mining, industry or construction, nor people engaged in unsanitary or intimate work, from delivering babies and clearing excrement to disposing of corpses (with one famous exception), and only a handful of sex workers. There are some criminals, but nothing like the thousands who thronged the streets of London, and few of his characters are actually destitute. It’s almost as if, for all his inclusiveness, there’s a group of ‘untouchables’ (Lear’s unseen ‘poor naked wretches’) beyond even Shakespeare’s reach.
There were practical reasons for this. First, the actions of the powerful have the greatest impact on society and raise the dramatic temperature accordingly. Second, Shakespeare was simply following standard assumptions and had to please his aristocratic patrons who liked being celebrated in the plays they supported. Finally, the theatre helped working people understand their rulers, and a lively demonstration of their speech and behaviour was fundamental to its raison d’être. We should hardly expect a commercial playwright to ignore such imperatives.
An unfortunate consequence is that Hamlet’s despair with the ‘groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show and noise’ or Coriolanus’ contempt for ‘the many headed multitude’ have been taken as representative of the playwright’s own views. Thus, Coleridge detected ‘a tone of almost affectionate superiority, something like that in which a father speaks of the rogueries of a child,’ while Tolstoy declared that the playwright ‘despises the crowd, that is, the working classes’, and Bernard Shaw (who regularly sneered at ‘Shakespear’) declared that ‘everybody, including the workers themselves, know that they are dirty, drunken, foul-mouthed, ignorant, gluttonous, prejudiced.’ Where critics have been more sympathetic, they’re often as patronising as the pious AC Bradley who maintained that Shakespeare’s ‘poor and humble are, almost without exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful’. And, even today, they’reso often treated in the theatre as grotesques, ‘whose antics the “barren spectators” can laugh at but whose comments can’t be taken too seriously’. Shakespeare, we’re told, despised working people and had little interest in their lives or their value.
But how credible are these claims? After all, most of his plays were written for a notably diverse audience and a fair representation of working people would have been essential to its commercial success. He certainly included many of them in his dramatis personaeand it’shardly likely that such a savvy playwright would consciously insult a large proportion of his public. If these characters aren’t as outspoken as the modern progressive might like, we should remember the stringent censorship under which he was writing. And once we consider the different assumptions about social justice prevalent at the time, our views will gain essential historical perspective.
It’s self-evident that Elizabethan working people were poorly educated, little travelled and lacking in confidence when confronted by those in power. But, as I want to show, Shakespeare compensates for this by giving them extraordinary degrees of practical and unschooled knowledge. They frequently question whether the injustice they face is God-given or can, instead, be redressed by human beings. Sometimes, this leads to acts of rebellion, at others to a philosophical acceptance of the status quo. But the extraordinary thing is how complex, finely textured and three-dimensional they are. Dismissing them as ‘simpletons’, ‘ignorant’ or ‘comic relief’ says more about the commentator than the playwright.
While Shakespeare needed working people for the smooth running of his dramatic action, they’re rarely mere functionaries. Instead, they interact with their masters in ways that have a direct effect on the action. What’s more, given centre stage, they play a philosophical—and occasionally contrary—role: sometimes just expressing their pleasure in being alive, at others offering fresh perspectives on the world in which they live. Above all, as the Marxist critic Victor Kiernan insisted, they ‘supply a sense of permanence, of the people as the enduring basis of social existence, always ill used yet always surviving.’ The poor, Shakespeare knows, are always with us.
Elizabethan England offered Shakespeare endless models on which to draw. For all its cultural, political and scientific achievements, the majority of its population lived in conditions found in the poorest corners of the developing world. What’s more, they were deteriorating:
The poor lie in the streets upon pallets of straw, and well if they have to, or else in the mire and dirt […] having neither house to put in their heads, covering to keep them from the cold, nor yet to hide their shame withal, penny to buy them sustenance, nor anything else.
There were various reasons. First, the population was growing exponentially—from two million in 1485, to just over three in 1550, and at least four by 1603—which inevitably placed a huge strain on limited resources. Second, despite the boom in banking and luxury goods, the economy was in deep trouble: Henry VIII’s military adventures had been financed by the rapid sale of monastic lands and a cynical debasement of the currency and, while Elizabeth’s early successes laid the foundation for economic growth, the wars against the Spanish and in Ireland had cost a fortune. And so, by the 1590s, life was increasingly difficult for many—especially those at the bottom.
This crisis had its roots in the countryside. The catastrophic destruction of hundred of priories and monasteries wiped out an ancient set of social relations, which had provided employment, shelter and food for tens of thousands. This was exacerbated by rich landowners enclosing open land that had been held in common, as well as a century of stagnation in the wool trade. And the reclamation of marshland rendered the seashore even harder for subsistence living, just as extensive deforestation stripped the countryside of its most accessible raw materials. As if this wasn’t bad enough, England was crippled by four years of exceptionally bad harvests and two dramatically cold winters. This worsened the already rampant inflation—which between 1594 and 1597 exceeded an eye-watering 10% per annum—while wages in the same period hardly rose at all.
One consequence was an increased migration to the cities, especially the capital, whose population doubled from 120,000 in 1550 to 250,000 in 1600. London wasn’t just bigger than any other city in England, it offered an entirely different way of life: full of opportunity and considerable wealth, it also hosted unheard of levels of poverty, unemployment and degradation, fostering many of the social challenges with which big cities still struggle.
Faced with this rapid increase in the numbers and concentration of the poor, the authorities combined traditional Christian charity with more authoritarian attempts at control. The Elizabethan Poor Laws (‘laws against the poor’, as one historian insisted) distinguished between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, offering draconian punishments for ‘sturdy beggars’ and the most modest parish support for those whose poverty was deemed unavoidable.
By modern standards, Shakespeare’s England was a bafflingly hierarchical place. At the top (answerable only to God) sat the monarch, around whom stood lesser royalty, the nobility and the senior clergy, with merchants, yeomen and rich farmers jostling for position beneath. These tiny groups increasingly came into conflict with each other, but reserved most of the power, wealth and status to themselves.
The rest consisted of a huge number of skilled and unskilled workers: peasants and labourers, craftsmen and shopkeepers, clerks and schoolteachers, entertainers and victuallers, ostlers and shepherds, carriers and carters, all of whom—to a greater or lesser extent—could only survive and feed their families through the services they offered. Their livelihoods were insecure, dependent on the changing seasons and the ups and downs of the economy. And they had no vote and minimal political representation. Being a household servant was slightly more secure, but even the longest serving was subject to the fortunes of their masters. Destitution was a step away.
The growth of those living in poverty was matched by improvements for others. In the countryside, there was a tendency for peasant smallholdings to be bought up by richer yeomen, and the emergence of the gentry—a new group of small landowners and farmers eager to exploit every chance for betterment. Meanwhile, in the towns and cities—especially London—changing attitudes to money lending, fresh markets for foreign trade, and an increasing demand for luxuries and other commodities, created a new mercantile middle class. Huge opportunities opened up for some but—as is often the case—many at the bottom got left behind.
Thus, Shakespeare lived in an increasingly restless and changing world, riven by profound religious, political and social conflict. The fixed hierarchies of the past were being eroded and no one knew what the future would bring. A challenging time to be alive, certainly, but ideal for the great playwright.
In studying Shakespeare’s working people we should be careful about the terms we use. Thus, strictly speaking, ‘class’ is a nineteenth-century concept, anachronistic when applied to these alien social conditions. It would be more accurate to speak of ‘degree’ or ‘status’, and make the ‘lower ranks’ (or simply the ‘commons’) the subject. If I cling doggedly to the ‘working’ and ‘labouring classes’, it’s because I believe we should never forget how different their experience of life was from those above them. Class is still an elusive concept but just as we know the difference between a hospital porter and a hedge-fund manager, we shouldn’t deny the distance between an aristocrat and his servant, a pauper and a prince.
At the heart of this book are more than a hundred character studies. The notion of ‘character’ is often dismissed in modern criticism and is, one breathless study announced, ‘what the twentieth century left behind in discovering dramatic poetry’. But these are critiques of conservative notions of character as something stable and resolved, whereas anyone who works in the theatre knows that the best written characters are contradictory, dynamic and provisional. The indeterminacy that modern critics hold so dear is second nature to actors and directors, and to deride character as ‘a dirty word’ is to deny much of the pleasure of theatregoing.
My selection, though wide-ranging, is hardly comprehensive. It’s been easy to settle on the figures from the bottom—the carriers in Henry IV, the slaves in the Roman plays, the prostitutes and the common soldiers, etc.—but harder from further up the social ladder, where, for the most part, I’ve used an assessment of their (lack of) power rather than their standing. Thus, I’ve included the aspirational chambermaid Maria but not the steward Malvolio; Desdemona’s chamber maid, Emilia, but not Othello’s ‘ancient’, Iago; the soldiers, players and gravediggers in Hamlet, but not the student Horatio. My criteria are inevitably open to question and the knowledgeable reader will find many gaps.
I’ve arranged my characters by professional type rather than play title. While this risks repetition, it allows familiar episodes to be seen from a fresh perspective. Thus, reading the opening moments of Hamletfrom the point of view of the common soldiers, Juliet’s apparent death as experienced by the musicians, or Hal’s regal apprenticeship as seen by a real apprentice, helps us observe Shakespeare’s dramatic method in action. More importantly, it grants these long-neglected figures a welcome degree of literary dignity.
My approach reflects what I do when directing these parts: I ask basic questions about their living conditions, experience of work and social status, and offer the actors as many insights as I can to stimulate their imaginations. I also illuminate the historical and cultural references in the text and show how they can help create character and tone. ‘Building a character’ is usually reserved for nineteenth-century naturalism, but is invaluable in approaching Renaissance drama too. It’s painstaking work which helps actors convey something of the palpable realities of the character’s life and allows audiences to engage in an immediate and unapologetic way. It’s the bread and butter of staging a play.
Shakespearean theatre in Britain has been transformed over the last fifty years. Perhaps the most striking changes have come from the emergence of a bolder and more physical approach to acting, and a view of the director and designer as auteurswhose role is not so much to organize the action of the play as offer a new and striking interpretation. This has its roots in the pioneering work of Max Reinhardt, Harley Granville Barker, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Brook and others, but, grew exponentially after the 1970s. At its heart has been an impatience with naturalism and a reaction against what’s sometimes called ‘museum theatre’. While it’s a truism that everything (and I mean everything) has been attempted in staging the plays, it’s possible to detect three main schools of thought.
The first is the search for a theatrical expression of Shakespeare’s ‘universalism’, the belief that once you strip away its period accretions, the plays mean the same to all human beings wherever they live and whatever they do. Its many champions believe that his writing is the most profound expression of the ‘human condition’ and that seeing him as a product of his time belittles his towering significance. This has meant productions which strive for timelessness, where actors wear shapeless robes or one-piece pyjama suits, and the setting is made as abstract and non-representational as possible. Peter Brook, with his ‘immediate theatre’, is the dominant figure and his best productions have been compelling and stylish (but he doesn’t bear imitation). And recent years have seen attempts to further universalise the plays by challenging the dominance of the white, male and able-bodied in casting.
The second is the idea that Shakespeare can be seen as ‘our contemporary’. The theatre, it’s argued, exists only in the present moment, and the chief criteria for success should be its immediate impact. And so characters wear sleek business suits, send love letters as text messages, and kill each other with modern revolvers. Echoing Brecht’s insistence on a theatre that speaks to its audience about the society in which it lives, as well as the visions of Jan Kott’s seminal Shakespeare Our Contemporary, the plays are recast to reflect our own experiences and concerns. The best productions are strikingly alive, especially in debating political leadership and the travails of our times. The worst are banal, to put it kindly.
Finally, frustrated with the limits of both universality and contemporaneity, some directors and designers have set the plays in a different, but coherent social world, be it Freud’s Vienna, the last days of the Raj or 1980s Las Vegas. Ingenious parallels are discovered and part of the pleasure is seeing how familiar passages are reimagined to suit the alien location. This approach stands the best chance of catching something of the social range found in the plays, but often substitutes one set of problems with another.
But while these have released dynamic theatrical energies, each has its limitations, especially when it comes to class. Because they eschew a particular social setting, or replace it with a drastically different one, they often blur the finely drawn social distinctions so evident in the text, and the contradictions and conflicts that drive the action are smoothed out or, worse, avoided. For if King Lear is an old man in a suit complaining about the weather, how can his prayer to the ‘poor naked wretches’ over whom he rules have any meaning or impact? And if Peter in Romeo and Julietis a young lad in a tracksuit and hoodie, his illiteracy becomes symptomatic of a learning disability rather than a lack of education. The danger is that modernity is made to stand proxy for the universal, while the complex fabric of Shakespeare’s social world is ignored.
Recent years have seen a renewed fascination with the spirit of ‘carnival’ as lying at the root of Renaissance theatre. But because this is usually drained of any subversive content, the results can be dismaying, with the working people represented by actors indulging in the grotesque. In such productions the plays are reimagined as ‘tales told by an idiot’, and notions of human dignity are forgotten in the race to the bottom. The symptoms are familiar: characters with funny walks and uncoordinated limbs, grotesque facial expressions and obscene gestures, exposed cleavages and bare chests. It’s desperately predictable, and, I’m afraid, profoundly unShakespearean.
One might think that such an approach would be restricted to the more traditional theatres, especially those with an appeal to ersatz‘original practices’. But it’s striking how often it’s observed in more refined surroundings, and even the most fashionable directors’ theatre is not immune. This has been exacerbated by the increasing exclusion of working-class artists (both actors and directors) and the dominance of the privately-educated middle classes. Staging Shakespeare is hard (as I know from bitter experience) and I wouldn’t dream of offering proscriptions, but it’s shocking (and symptomatic of a broader malaise) that in the progressive modern theatre Shakespeare’s working people are so often held up to ridicule and neglect.
There are exceptions, and two legendary directors—Peter Gill and William Gaskill, veterans of the Royal Court in the 1960s—have had a particular impact on my thinking. Their scrupulous attention to the challenges and consolations of working-class life, as well as their insistence on the reality of social difference, resulted in productions which caught the complexities of great drama in fine and moving ways. Their work was clear, particular and granted every character their own dignity, individuality and almost sacred value. But it’s striking how even Peter Hall and John Barton - two Shakespearean giants - fell back on traditional views of the working people. Their successors hardly show more interest.
I’m indebted to the many actors I’ve directed over a long career. One of the seedbeds for this book was a two week workshop I held in the early 1990s at the National Theatre Studio with a group of working-class actors. We read many of the scenes described here, which helped developed my thinking in all sorts of ways. It’s difficult to imagine such a project being given house room today, but in the fractious and conflicted times we live in, it’s more pertinent than ever.
These changes in theatrical practice have been echoed by a tendency in scholarship to overlook class and labour, poverty and social difference. It’s as if the turn towards gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion has taken up all the available oxygen, with one American scholar claiming a ‘bias against the working class and the poor [being] structurally useful and even necessary in the academy.’
Needless to say, this isn’t universal: William Caroll’s Fat King, Lean Beggaris a revealing study of destitution in the plays; MM Mahood’s Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare covers some of the same ground as I do, but not defined by social class; Fiona McNeill’sPoor Women in Shakespeareexplores the representation of working women’s lives, especially unmarried ones, but with little emphasis on the plays themselves; while Kiernan Ryan’s Shakespeare’s Universality argues that the presence of so many common people lends the plays a quality of ‘utopian realism’, which reaches forward to our own divided times.But these are the exceptions.
As a result, much of the literary criticism cited here is of some vintage, with the great Romantics (above all Coleridge, Hazlitt and Schlegel), the British Marxists who came of age in the 1930s (Victor Kiernan, Arnold Kettle and Margot Heinemann), and mid twentieth-century originals (WH Auden, Jan Kott and Mark van Doren among others) taking pride of place. Where I refer to more modern critics, they tend to be idiosyncratic ones. The social history is more mainstream, above all the work of Keith Thomas,Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill, but supplemented by younger scholars. My references and citations range freely across centuries and continents, and are defiantly contradictory. The richness of the subject deserves nothing less.
My argument throughout is that Shakespeare’s working people are written with a three dimensionality that is too often ignored. But if this is to be sustained, how do we locate these characters within a broader cultural framework? What were the templates that Shakespeare adopted, and to what extent was he writing within a living tradition? And here we should look to Christianity, Ancient Rome and popular culture for our answers.
The modern atheist tends to discount Christianity as the enemy of social reform. But Christianity’s attitude towards working people deserves respect: for the New Testament insists that Christ was the son of a carpenter, entered Jerusalem riding on an ass, and was mocked and beaten every step of the way to his common criminal’s death. What’s more, with its central narrative of humiliation, suffering and early death, Christianity goes out of its way to locate the divine in the physical, the transcendental in the everyday. And this offered the great playwright an unparalleled range of models from which to draw. The result is that while Shakespeare’s plays may be resolutely secular, his characters are imbued with a Christian aura, in which the rich and the powerful are reminded of their duties to the less fortunate, while working people are given blissful glimpses of ‘a better world than this’. It’s an extraordinary combination.
Central to Christianity’s appeal was its challenge to the hierarchical certainties of the Roman world, for the idea that a rich man might find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven would have struck the average Roman citizen as absurd. Ironically, perhaps, such sceptical materialism was invaluable to those born later, for Rome offered an image of a complex society unencumbered by the transcendent morality claimed by Christianity. Some argue that there’s little explicitly revolutionary in Latin literature and that the threat to the status quoalways comes from foreign enemies, or a struggle for power within the ruling elite. Regardless, the great Roman writers recognised that society consisted of people of every class and a belief in art’s ability to represent the full range of social relations was fundamental.
Finally, in creating characters from outside the centres of power and influence, Shakespeare drew on his own indigenous culture. This manifested itself in two, often interrelated, ways. The first was resolutely secular, and is evident in a ‘hodgepodge’ of popular entertainments: songs, riddles, dances, juggling, slapstick etc. These expressed an increasingly robust class-consciousness and frequently questioned the injustices of the time. It could also be detected in the figures, rituals and deeply-held beliefs of English folklore and mythology. These may have been in decline during the sixteenth century but magic and superstition survived, especially in remote communities. And such an indigenous culture, however consoling, inevitably gave expression to popular feelings of identity and, occasionally, rebellion. Because of a rationalist reaction against ‘folkishness’, it has sometimes been dismissed. But the dual strands of the popular tradition gave the dramatist invaluable prototypes for his portraits of those whose lives are usually forgotten.
Although Shakespeare’s Working People is largely empirical, three giants of twentieth-century German aesthetics have left their mark.
Erich Auerbach’s Mimesisis a hugely ambitious work of literary scholarship which traces the evolution of ‘European realism’. It offers three key insights. The first is into the radical nature of much Christian literature: Auerbach demonstrates that the great poets of the Italian Renaissance rejected the conventional hierarchies of their times and, by including all classes, achieved astonishing three-dimensionality. Second, he insists that writing that denies the lower classes their own viewpoint cannot be deemed realistic, and he dismisses as ‘idealist’ anything that merely privileges the ruling elite. Finally, he shows how the great writers employ the vernacular liberally. As one critic argued, Auerbach’s ‘realism is the artistic form that takes the life of the common people with supreme seriousness’.
My second inspiration is the playwright, poet and director Bertolt Brecht. Like Auerbach, Brecht first encountered Shakespeare through German Romanticism, and was deeply suspicious as a result. By the late 1930s, however, he identified him as the supreme dramatist of a changing world, whose plays are politically coherent, theatrically innovative and rich with social detail.He emphasised the ‘relative’ nature of Shakespeare’s characterisations (people aren’t ‘just one thing’, and are best understood in relationship with each other) and explored the lower class characters who give the plays such a rich texture. In a crucial passage, he describes Shakespeare as a‘great realist’ who‘shovels a lot of raw material on to the stage, unvarnished representations of what he has seen’; andthis vigorous quality of observation, he insists, is fundamental to Shakespeare’s greatness. It was the directness of Elizabethan theatre that appealed most: the emphasis on the story, a determination to dramatise history and social change, and the resulting quality of ‘complex seeing’. Indeed, it could be argued that everything meant by Brecht’s practice is evident in Shakespeare, and that his greatest achievement was to adapt Elizabethan dramaturgy for the modern world.
My third influence is Robert Weimann, whose groundbreaking Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition of the Theatreattempted a sociological explanation of theatrical form. He starts with an in-depth survey of late medieval English drama, and clarifies the different roles it played in society. He then explores the quality of ‘topsy-turvy’ implicit in it, and shows how a potent mixture of ritual and realism brings out the frequently subversive nature of lower-class comment. He argues that the popular tradition created an impure but inclusive theatrical form, which does more than reserve classicism for the powerful and delegate popular forms for the ‘plebs’. Instead, he insists, the two registers cross-fertilise each other in a rich and fruitful fashion. He also emphasises the survival of medieval theatrical conventions, in which a direct relationship with the audience, an emphasis on word games and riddles, and a sense of communal celebration are central. In this way, Weimann argued, Shakespeare featured characters from all walks of life, and gave those at the bottom an ideal platform to make their voices heard.
Different as they are, all three acknowledged the central importance of ‘realism’ in thinking about drama. And while they knew that this is a notoriously elusive term, they understand people live in the material world and that environment helps shape character and behaviour. They also recognised that a sceptical approach to life is an essential antidote to idealism and fundamental to the development of a decent society. Together, they can help us avoid what EP Thompson memorably dubbed ‘the immense condescension of posterity’ and clarify how the best plays endow the humblest of everyday experiences with value and meaning. Although they only make occasional appearances, they are the book’s intellectual godparents.
Let me end at the beginning, with Francisco in Hamlet, the ‘honest soldier’ whose very name (after St Francis) is a byword for poverty. He’s on guard on the ramparts, in the middle of the night, and it’s freezing cold. His fellow soldier, Barnardo, calls out to him in the dark:
Bernardo: Who's there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.
Bernardo: Long live the king.
Francisco: You come most carefully upon your hour.
Bernardo: Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.
Francisco: For this relief much thanks. Tis bitter cold
And I am sick at heart.
Bernardo: Have you had quiet guard?
Francisco: Not a mouse stirring.
Voltaire, that great Enlightenment champion, objected to Francisco’s ‘mouse’, declaring that ‘a soldier may speak like this in a guardroom, but not on a stage, in front of the elite of a nation, who use elevated language and before whom one should do the same.’ Little says as much about the difference between the true genius—demotic, vivid and material—and the snobbery of some of his critics.
Francisco is soon relieved and (I always imagine) goes down to the guardroom, warms his hands against the fire and misses the tragedy unfolding over his head. Who knows what happens next? Perhaps he dies trying to stop Laertes’ rebellion. It’s even possible that he joins Fortinbras. But the extraordinary thing is that in a few lines Shakespeare brings this ‘honest soldier’ to life and makes us interested.
‘Who’s there?’ asks Barnardo. We need to ask the same question of the hundreds of working people in Shakespeare who’ve so often been ignored. Lear confesses that he’s ‘taken too little care’ of the ‘poor naked wretches’ and, in reading Shakespeare, we should avoid the same mistake.
Let Francisco’s despised mouse show us the way.