Whoever he may have been, Shakespeare had a nose for business as well as an eye for metaphor. He was in on the ground floor of the flourishing new London theaters, won himself one-tenth of the shares in Lord Chamberlain's drama company (the most important stage company of the day) and ended up as a prosperous property owner. New Place, the house he bought himself in Stratford, was the second-largest residence in the town. Because of Lord Chamberlain's powerful patronage, he was a minor courtier as well as a commercial entrepreneur, thus combining in his person aspects of the old feudal England and the rising bourgeoisie.
As Kermode points out in this sparkling little study, Shakespeare was acquainted with much that went on in social ranks both above and below him as a result of his own ambiguous social status. It is a complex richness of experience to which his plays bear eloquent testimony. In fact, it is eloquence that one associates with him above all, as his characters produce torrents of unstanchable verbal intricacy just to announce that there is someone at the door. The butchers and candlestick makers in the pit may not have followed it all, but they were oral types accustomed to listening to rhetoric (in church, among other places), as we moderns are not.
It is remarkable how many of the most eminent names of English literature have been socially ambiguous. Jane Austen was a member of the poorer gentry--poor enough to be an outside observer of the governing class, yet genteel enough to know it from the inside. Most of the major nineteenth-century novelists were from the lower middle class, caught painfully between rulers and ruled, and so able, like Shakespeare, to look both ways. The Brontë sisters were the daughters of a down-at-heels provincial parson; Charles Dickens was the son of a feckless clerk in the Admiralty; George Eliot's father was a provincial farm steward; Thomas Hardy was the son of a small-time rural builder and alternated standard English with the local dialect. D.H. Lawrence's father was a coal miner, while his mother had genteel proclivities. Virginia Woolf was impeccably upper class, but as a woman was a misfit in the Establishment and married a Jewish socialist. All of these men and women knew the tension between aspiration and bitter reality. And it was partly out of this discrepancy that they produced such distinguished art.
Shakespeare went even further, caught as he was not just between two social classes but between two historical modes of production. His Globe theater was a profitable enterprise, charging only a penny for standing space (a third of the cost of a pipeful of tobacco), but able to accommodate an audience of 3,000. Even so, this budding capitalist venture still needed the protection of the court, and could suffer political censorship at its hands. Queen Elizabeth, an expert political operator, would have been quick to score a red line through any script that advocated popular rebellion.
With his usual exquisite sense of timing, Shakespeare managed to get himself born at exactly the right moment for artistic greatness. Major art often flourishes on the fault lines between civilizations, fed by complex cross-currents between one form of life and another. Tragedy in particular has flared up at these points of turbulent transition. Shakespeare's England was still a repressive, court-centered monarchy, in which Jesuits could be torn apart in public as popular entertainment. But Kermode points out that finance and commodity markets were growing apace, as middle-class opportunists like the Swan of Avon stealthily accumulated power. It was in the reign of Elizabeth that the joint-stock company first took off.