Recent research, I was amused to read, shows that Shakespeare was fined for hoarding malt and corn and selling it to his neighbours at times of poor harvest. At the time, he was already an established author with (presumably) a reasonable income, so indigence could not have been an excuse. We already knew that in his youth he poached deer and that as an adult he was fined for not attending church. The two latter are perhaps more in keeping with the anarchic streak that we expect from a writer, but discoveries of the Bard’s foibles and failings are always greeted with a sense of incredulity, if not outrage. This is curious, for surely it is illogical to expect the nation’s most profound student of character to have been himself a colourless tabula rasa. Besides, living in Elizabethan England was an uncertain business at all social levels and we know that Shakespeare was not without the type of social ambition that could be fuelled only by money. His acquisition of New Place, a substantial house, would have sent a message to prosperous Stratford burghers that he could claim his place as their equal.
The world seems to require a moral standard from Shakespeare, as if his intellect and wordpower somehow elevate him to a heavenly plane, where there is a writer paradise entirely free from sin, that we may look up to and admire; we don’t seem to require this of other writers in the same way. Byron’s poetry, for example, is not judged by his immorality. So why the sense of shock with Shakespeare? Perhaps it is because we know so little of Shakespeare’s life, so that every new snippet of information about him carries greater weight and significance than if his career were better documented. I do, however, think that it is more likely that it is because he is viewed as a kind of literary god, whose grasp of humanity is superhuman, and as the yardstick by which we judge all our literary heritage; it is unthinkable to ascribe grubby behaviour to such a mighty individual!
However, as a writer of murder stories, I am glad that Shakespeare was demonstrably a sinner and very human. His understanding of and rapport with the realities of human behaviour and character paved the way for the rest of us by creating some of the most eloquent murderers of all time. I’m not sure that a goody two shoes would have been able to manage that.