Evidence vs Story

Does the truth matter? Most of us would instinctively answer yes. But does it matter more than established belief, long-standing tradition, or a good story? Have you heard the one about William Shakespeare? How he had to give up his place at the King’s New Grammar School after his father fell into debt? How he left Stratford-upon-Avon after being caught poaching deer in Charlecote Park? Or how he got his start holding horses outside a London theatre?  We do not have sufficient primary source evidence to support any of these stories as true.  Two of them were circulating by the early 18th century.  The other was constructed by certain biographers (and dismantled by others).  We don’t actually know whether Shakespeare attended Stratford’s grammar school at all, for though it is reasonable to assume that he did, there are no records.  If the truth matters, it is worth noting what is evidenced, and what we have only assumed.

‘Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it’, said Jonathan Swift.[1] Shakespeare has become a near-mythical figure, and so much has been invented to fill the chasm of his meagre biography that many things invented and hung upon that idol are now repeated as fact.  What do we actually know about Shakespeare? Can we at least say, for example, that he wrote the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet?  Published anonymously seven years after his death, the play did at least appear in the 1623 First Folio as one of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. But the play didn’t mention a balcony. Romeo courted Juliet at her window until David Garrick introduced a balcony to the scene in the middle of the 18th century.  The word ‘balcony’ didn’t even appear in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, until two years after William Shakespeare’s death.

Those curious to find out what we really know about Shakespeare – what can be supported by solid evidence rather than speculation – find many aspects of the ‘Shakespeare’ they have imagined begin to vanish.  At this point, one might be tempted to look away. What none of us want to be left with, when contemplating the world’s most famous author, is a void.  Nevertheless, there are fascinating facts to be discovered. Let us consider the following multiple-choice question. Which of these is true?

  1. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was partly written by Thomas Middleton.
  2. Shakespeare’s youngest daughter Judith couldn’t write her own name.
  3. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus contains a ‘Yo Mama’ joke.
  4. There is a spelling mistake on Shakespeare’s funeral monument.

Whichever one you picked, you are correct.  The ‘Yo Mama’ joke is purely here (and indeed in the play) for entertainment, and is worth sharing.

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron:        That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron:       Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron:        Villain, I have done thy mother.

But the other items have implications for our understanding of Shakespeare, and raise a number of questions.  How did Macbeth, such a central and canonical play, come to contain lines from Middleton’s The Witch?  And upon what grounds are Shakespearean scholars arguing that at least nine ‘Shakespeare’ plays, a quarter of the canon, were at least partially written by somebody else?  What might explain why the youngest daughter of Shakespeare, whose strong and literate women included even servant women and shepherdesses writing letters, was unable to sign her name?   As for the spelling mistake on Shakespeare’s funeral monument (sieh for sith [since]), it pales into insignificance against the strong probability that the face most often represented as Shakespeare’s these days belongs to the poisoned courtier Sir Thomas Overbury.  But surprisingly, the two things are related. These interesting nuggets are the foundations of this website.  If you are curious to know more about the author of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and you don’t mind a few myths being unravelled in the process, then this website is for you.  This – the search for the truth – was where I began.

Ever since school, Shakespeare (as a subject) had felt about as engaging as the repetitive drone of the whole class reading Julius Caesar aloud. Shakespeare biographies told me nothing, recycling the same unsatisfactory facts in a scaffolding of assertion.  Those reassurances that Shakespeare ‘must have’ done this and ‘might have’ done that brought me no closer to the keen intelligence that crafted the words ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once’.  Then I stumbled across something which made Shakespeare both fascinating and fresh again. All it took was to become more flexible in the way I thought about Shakespeare; to be open to the possibility that we might have the wrong idea about him.  If you are the curious type, perhaps you will enjoy exploring this subject as much as I have.  It is something of a detective story, and though I cannot promise you the neat denouement of a whodunit, there are certainly some twists and delights along the way.  The trail begins in the late sixteenth century with some obscure and anonymous Elizabethan plays, and with a subject that has been widely disparaged by our most respected Shakespearean scholars.  That subject is known as the Shakespeare authorship question.

[1] Swift ‘The Examiner’ No XIV, 9 November 1710. A proverbial version of this sentiment has been around ever since, for most of those 300 years involving lacing boots or shoes until a more modern version (usually misattributed to either Mark Twain or Winston Churchill) introduced pants: ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.

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Absence of Evidence

The Shakespeare authorship question – the idea that William Shakespeare didn’t write the plays or poems – is fuelled by one primary thing: the absence of evidence that he was a writer. Almost everywhere you would expect to find evidence of Shakespeare, it is absent.  Despite being the acknowledged author of at least 37 plays and 156 poems, Shakespeare left no manuscripts or partial manuscripts of his literary works, and no correspondence of any kind. We possess no certain samples of his hand-writing barring six shaky signatures on legal documents towards the end of his life, three of which are on his will. His will lists numerous items, but none which we associate with writers; no books or manuscripts, no bookcase, no desk. The detailed inventory that would have accompanied the will is missing.  Nobody who knew him personally, though some of them kept diaries or wrote voluminous correspondence, speaks of him as a writer. This frustrating pattern of evidence, noted by many scholars and biographers over the centuries, does not rule him out as an author. Naturally we expect gaps in the evidence after four hundred years. Nevertheless, the absence of personal evidence connecting Shakespeare to any kind of literary or theatrical circle is exceptional when compared to the historical records of his peers.[2] It is the absence of this kind of testimony that sows the seeds of doubt.

The standard response to Shakespeare’s absent evidence, repeated by scholars as eminent as Professor Stanley Wells, is that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.  It sounds reasonable enough, but it is a logical fallacy. This fallacy, known as argument from ignorance, is most commonly used to defend the existence of God.  You might say it is fitting, given that critic Harold Bloom has declared that ‘Shakespeare is God’ and love for Shakespeare sometimes has the quality of worship.  But it is nevertheless an unscholarly defence of the traditional attribution, and is ripe to be challenged.  Even if we do accept it as a valid defence of an invisible entity’s existence, it is not a valid explanation for the uniquely deficient historical record of a real human being.

The people who can tell us what absence of evidence is most likely to mean are those who work in the field of evidence science. David Schum, an academic and lawyer who has worked for the CIA and specialises in the analysis of evidence, began a presentation to the British Academy conference ‘Enquiry, Evidence, and Facts’ (2007) with an extract from Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze — a story about a racehorse theft — to demonstrate that the absence of something we would expect to be there qualifies in itself as an important piece of evidence for which any explanatory narrative must account:

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night time!’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.

In Silver Blaze, the mystery is solved because the absence of the dog’s bark points to the racehorse thief being someone familiar to the dog, rather than a stranger.  It is through this clue that the mystery is solved.  It is unlikely that the Shakespeare authorship question will be resolved so easily, and one ‘curious incident’ is not in itself significant.  Nevertheless the larger pattern of absent evidence where we would expect evidence deserves thoughtful consideration, not dismissal with a logical fallacy.

[2] Diana Price, in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, compared Shakespeare’s literary paper trail with 24 of his Elizabethan and Jacobean peers.  Her methods and data will be examined closely in a future post.

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His Name is On the Plays

The first defence against those who say Shakespeare didn’t write the works we know as his is simply this: his name is on the plays and poems attributed to him.  William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a shareholder in the theatre company that performed Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV Part 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear and Pericles.  Every one of these plays was published in his lifetime with both his name and the playing company printed on their title pages.  His will, drafted and witnessed at Stratford-upon-Avon shortly before his death, bequeaths ‘to my fellows John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, 26 shillings and 8 pence a piece to buy them rings’.[1]  Heminges, Burbage and Condell were fellow shareholders in the King’s Men, formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s men.  This line, like the famous bequest of ‘the second best bed’ to his wife is an interlineation; in essence, an afterthought.  Nevertheless, he remembers his ‘fellows’, and thus firmly establishes that of all the William Shakespeares then living (and there were many, even in Warwickshire) it is he who was a ‘fellow’ of their theatre company and thus the attributed author of those plays.

All three of the men who Shakespeare names were actors; John Heminges was also the company’s financial manager.  Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, Burbage had died, but Heminges and Condell wrote a letter prefacing Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works, which attests to their knowing the man and receiving his manuscripts.  ‘His mind and hand went together,’ they say, ‘and what he thought, he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers’.  Given his documented position as a ‘fellow’ of Heminges and Condell, shareholders in the theatre company that performed the vast majority of the thirty-six plays that were published under his name in the First Folio, this argument — his name is on the plays — seems to settle the matter.

The Apocryphal Plays

But the name William Shakespeare on a title page is not proof of authorship.  In his lifetime, the name William Shakespeare, or the initials W.S., also appeared on a number of plays which we know were not written by the same person who wrote Othello and Hamlet.  These plays, a key part of what is known as the Shakespeare apocrypha, include Locrine (1595), Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602), The London Prodigal (1605), The Puritan (1607), A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608) and The Troublesome Reign of King John (1611).  The play Sir John Oldcastle may also have been published under Shakespeare’s name in his lifetime, though the only copy we have (dated ‘1600’) is from the ‘False Folio’ of 1619.  In 1664, all seven of these plays were added to the Third Folio of Shakespeare’s works and remained part of the Shakespeare canon until they were removed by the more discerning scholars of the 18th century.

The vast majority of works in the 1623 First Folio were either not published in his life time, or were published anonymously; Henry V, Romeo and Juliet and three other canonical plays never bore his moniker.[2]  To put it in perspective, someone scouring the bookstalls of St Paul’s churchyard for dramatic works by William Shakespeare in the year 1612 might find up to twenty; but only thirteen of them would be plays we now recognise as his.

The Apocryphal Poems

William Shakespeare was also declared as the author of various poems which were not written by the same person who wrote the Sonnets.  A collection of poems called The Passionate Pilgrim published as being by William Shakespeare, first in 1599 and again in 1612, contained early drafts of two of Shakespeare’s sonnets (138 and 144) and three poems from Love’s Labour’s Lost. But it also contained poems by Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Barnfield, Bartholomew Griffin, Thomas Heywood (in the second edition) and other unidentified writers.  Certain scholars have argued strongly that A Lover’s Complaint, published as an appendix to Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609 with the clear attribution ‘By William Shakespeare’ was not by him. And whether or not that is his, A Funeral Elegy, published in 1612 under the initials ‘W.S.’, and argued to be Shakespeare’s by Donald Foster in the 1990s, is now known to be by John Ford.

‘Rogue Publisher’ Theory

The standard explanation for these non-Shakespearean works being published or registered under Shakespeare’s name or initials is that publishers were taking commercial advantage of his reputation, and this has been widely accepted.  But subjected to closer scrutiny, this explanation raises a number of interesting questions.  Not least of these questions is this: if Shakespeare’s name was being used by London publishers, without his permission, to represent work (often rather poor work) that was not his own, why did he not object?  Thomas Heywood published a pointed objection letter when his poems were represented as Shakespeare’s in the 1612 edition of The Passionate Pilgrim, stating that the author under whose name his poems were published was also ‘much offended’.  But if that was true, why had Shakespeare not voiced his objection as Heywood did?  Heywood’s objection led to the name ‘William Shakespeare’ being removed from the title page. Why, if Shakespeare was really so offended, had he not asked for the same courtesy when it was first published thirteen years earlier?

An uncritical acceptance of the rogue publisher theory has led to some important considerations being overlooked. As an author, Shakespeare was extremely aware of the value of reputation. In both the plays and the sonnets, he writes repeatedly of the importance (and fragility) of one’s good name.  In Othello, for example, Iago says:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. ’Tis something, nothing:
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Is it really possible that the writer of this passage genuinely wouldn’t care if other people’s work was published as if it were his own?

Coming at it from another angle, the rogue publisher theory does not sit well with the facts we have relating to William Shakespeare’s business dealings. A play was a company asset; Shakespeare was a shareholder of the company.  Stratford-upon-Avon’s court records reveal that he would happily take a person to court to retrieve his property and seek damages.  If official legal proceedings were not possible, Shakespeare had recourse to other actions.  In the autumn of 1596, for example, one William Waite took out what nowadays would be known as a restraining order against Shakespeare and three others, using the common legal phrasing ‘ob metum mortis’ – ‘for fear of death’. The implication is that Shakespeare and the others named in the document had physically threatened him.  Yet from 1598 to 1611, publishers printed both canonical and apocryphal plays under the name Shakespeare, seemingly without concern.  If they were making money out of his name without his permission, why did he take no action of any kind against them?  Is a better explanation simply that Shakespeare was behind the publication of all these plays?

“Careless about literary fame”

Until now, Shakespeare’s relationship to the spurious works published under his name has been understood as a symptom of his general lack of interest in publishing.  Beyond the immediate requirements of writing plays for performance, Shakespeare, we are told, was unconcerned by the fate of his works.  As early as 1821, antiquarian Edmund Malone wrote ‘We… can now pronounce with certainty that our poet was entirely careless about literary fame, and could patiently endure to be made answerable for compositions which were not his own, without using any means to undeceive the public’.[3]  But this ‘certainty’ is no more than an assumption which arises from taking the rogue publisher theory as a fact.

Recent scholarly work radically undermines the much-cherished idea that Shakespeare cared nothing for literary fame.  His very first publication, Venus and Adonis, is fronted by a quotation from Ovid’s Amores that makes a ‘claim to poetic immortality. Though the writer’s body will perish, the best part of him, his elite verses, will survive.’[4]  Shakespeare’s sonnets also show us an author enormously preoccupied with this idea. No fewer than twenty-eight of his 154 sonnets address the issue of outlasting his mortal span through his works. And we should not imagine that, in foregrounding this theme, Shakespeare was merely following some kind of sonneteer’s protocol. James Blair Leishman, in his book on Shakespeare’s themes, noted that Shakespeare wrote ‘both more copiously and more memorably’ on the topic of poetry as immortalisation than any of his contemporaries.  What Shakespeare reveals of his yearnings in the sonnets is very much at odds with the Shakespeare that scholars have been touting since the early nineteenth century as a man immune to the idea of fame.  Shakespeare reveals himself in his sonnets as a man ‘obsessed with the transcendence of his own poetry.’[5]

Plays for Reading

Nor does it seem that Shakespeare intended that only his poetry be read and savoured.  The idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written purely for performance is still very much in vogue, though it is counteracted by the existence of every Shakespeare play which has come down to us.  These texts have only survived because publishing plays was profitable; because publishers knew plays had a readership entirely independent of that small minority who might wish to stage them. From the 1590 publication of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine onwards, prefatory material of printed plays makes it clear that they exist in different versions from their stage incarnations, and were aimed at a new literate class who composed a more sophisticated market than every-day playgoers. The length of many Shakespeare texts alone is enough to indicate that they were created for readers rather than performance.  Documents of the era indicate plays ran for two to two and a half hours, and that longer texts were cut to meet these performance times.  The full text of Hamlet runs to four and a half hours.

Plays Corrected

In his detailed study of Shakespeare’s publication record, Lukas Erne concludes that in the period 1594 to 1603 (i.e. from the time Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain’s men as a shareholder, to the year they became The King’s Men), the pattern of publication suggests a concerted effort by Shakespeare and his company to publish each play within two years of its staging.  According to Erne, every play from this period that could legally be published, was.[6]  Several of these plays were published as having been played by Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and were advertised on their title pages as ‘Newly corrected and augmented’ (or similar words) by Shakespeare.  Heminges and Condell’s First Folio preface – which wishes ‘that the Author himself had lived to have set forth, and overseen his own writings’ – also implies that Shakespeare involved himself in such things.


Is it possible, therefore, that the claim of Locrine – whose title page announces the play as ‘Newly set forth, overseen and corrected, / By W.S.’ – could be true, and have come directly from Shakespeare?  Plays in his eras were the property of the theatre company who bought them, rather than their authors.  Then as now, a play, once it had left the author’s hands, might be altered and adapted to suit the actors and performance space.

The idea that Shakespeare’s name and initials were used without his permission on the basis of his reputation holds no water in the case of Locrine. When the play was published in 1595, readers would not have known William Shakespeare as a dramatist.  The only publications connected to his name at this point were the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.  By the end of 1595, the only Shakespeare plays that had found their way into print were Titus Andronicus and the second two parts of Henry VI,[7] and all three had been published anonymously.  If Thomas Creede’s intention was to publish Locrine under the initials W.S. on the basis that the public would be fooled into assuming it was by William Shakespeare, he could hardly be trading on Shakespeare’s reputation for dramatic excellence.  In any case, if that were the intention, what was to stop him using the full name, rather than initials that might belong to another writer?  The point is, Locrine doesn’t say it is ‘by W.S.’   It says it is ‘Newly set forth, overseen and corrected, / By W.S.’   This is a statement of editorship; it leaves the authorship of the piece open.

The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy

Ten years later, when the name William Shakespeare had some dramatic clout, the title page of The London Prodigal did claim that it was ‘By William Shakespeare’.  It also declared the play was ‘played by the Kings Majesties Servants’; the new name for the company in which Shakespeare was a shareholder.  Similarly, 1608’s A Yorkshire Tragedy, apparently ‘Written by W. Shakspeare’, was ‘Acted by his Majesties Players at the Globe’.  If the claims of Locrine had been tentative, the claims of these two plays were forthright in the extreme, declaring both authorship by Shakespeare and affiliation to The King’s Men.

Plays were a business asset of a theatre company.  How did these plays come into the publishers’ hands from Shakespeare’s own company, with Shakespeare’s name on them, and with his company’s name on them?  Was the process any different from the means by which Richard II and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were published, bearing identical claims? From the evidence of their other publications, can we conclude without question that the publishers involved were dishonest?  Is there evidence that ‘Shakespeare’ had become a brand bearing minimal relationship to actual authorship? What might explain Shakespeare apparently not objecting to either the publishers themselves, or to the officials of Stationers Hall, where the ownership of publications was registered? Is it possible William Shakespeare himself sold these plays to the publishers, acting as a middle-man, or broker?  These are the chief questions that must be addressed.

[1] In original spelling ‘to my fellowes John Hemynges, Richard Brubage [sic], and Henry Cundell, xxvj.s. viij.d. a peece to buy them ringes’.  Throughout this book I have modernized spelling for ease of reading, except where I consider the original spelling is vital to the argument.

[2] Though in 1598, Francis Meres named Romeo and Juliet as being by Shakespeare, and extracts from the play featured in the poetic anthologies Belvedere and All England’s Parnassus in 1600 were also attributed to him.

[3] Boswell-Malone Shakespeare 1821 III p.329.

[4] Katherine Duncan-Jones and H.R.Woudhuysen (eds), Shakespeare’s Poems (2007), p.11.

[5] Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (2003), p.6.

[6] Erne, p.86.

[7] Published as The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous House of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York.

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Shakespeare the Businessman

The name of William Shakespeare is so powerful in the collective imagination that it’s hard to achieve a neutral stance when considering it.  So let us first imagine that all the non-literary documents connected to William Shakespeare belong to a man called John Smith.  A historian asked to examine those records and conclude what Smith did for a living, would conclude he was a successful businessman.

shakespeare businessmanBy 4 May 1597 (aged thirty-three), he was rich enough to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon.  In January 1598 it was reported that he was looking to buy some tithes ‘in Shottery or thereabouts’.  In 1602 he bought 107 acres of land and a cottage in Chapel Lane, which he rented out.  In July 1605 he bought one fifth of the Stratford tithes for the sum of £440, which generated £60 a year income.[1]  To put these amounts in perspective, a schoolteacher at the time earned around £18 a year. For ten months, from August 1608 to June 1609, he pursued debtor John Addenbrooke, and then his surety Thomas Hornby, through the Stratford courts for the sum of £6. On 10 March 1613, he paid £140 for a share of Blackfriars Gatehouse in London.   Whatever else William Shakespeare knew how to do, he knew how to make money.


[1] £38 net after paying £5 a year to the original leaseholder and £17 to the Stratford corporation

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Grain Broker

Much has been made, in recent years, of the fact that Shakespeare apparently hoarded grain in a time of famine.

His name appears on a list, compiled in February 1598, of Stratford householders who, against orders drawn up by the Privy Council, were holding large quantities of grain. The largest holding in the area was eighteen quarters of malt; Shakespeare held ten. Only a dozen men had more than Shakespeare, according to E.K. Chambers. Shakespeare’s holding surpasses, by a considerable amount, the quantity of malt that would have been needed for household brewing purposes. Ten quarters is eighty bushels, which equates to 640 gallons of malted barley, weighing an estimated 2,720 lbs or 1.234 metric tonnes.

A sound explanation for his holding such a quantity of barley in a time of shortage is brokerage. It is good business practice to buy a commodity when it is cheap and plentiful, and sell it when it is in short supply and will fetch a good price. There is no question that Shakespeare sold grain; in 1604 he sued the apothecary Philip Rogers for thirty-five shillings and ten pence, plus ten shillings damages, to recover a small loan and the unpaid balance on a sale of twenty bushels of malt. By that time he was the owner of 107 acres of farmland, and the grain may have come from his own acreage, although it is most unlikely that he farmed the land himself. But in 1598, when he was recorded as one of Stratford’s grain-hoarders, he had no land that we know of besides the garden at New Place. A plausible explanation for his holding, therefore, is that he was acting as a broker or middle-man; he had bought the grain from a farmer at a lower price and was intending to sell it at a higher one.


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Loan Broker

The only surviving letter written to him – though apparently never delivered – also attests to his role as a middle-man, an arranger. In October 1598, the Stratford-upon-Avon corporation was in trouble. Richard Quiney—whose son would marry Shakespeare’s daughter in 1616— wrote from the Bell Inn in London to ‘To my Loving good friend & countryman’, begging him to help with arranging a £30 loan (then a very sizeable sum of money) on behalf of the Stratford Corporation. Many biographers have read this document as Shakespeare being asked for the loan directly, but the wording suggests otherwise. Quiney says:

You shall neither lose credit nor money by me, the Lord willing, & now but persuade your self so as I hope & you shall not need to fear butt with all hearty thankfulness I will hold my time & content your friend, & if we Bargain farther you shall be the paymaster yourself.

The key phrase in understanding the request as loan arrangement rather than loan provision is ‘I will hold my time & content your friend’. He is reassuring Shakespeare that he will keep to the repayment schedule and thus satisfy ‘your friend’: the person of Shakespeare’s acquaintance who will provide the money. Were the loan to come from Shakespeare himself, Quiney would say ‘content you’. However, when he goes on to say ‘if we Bargain farther you shall be the paymaster yourself’ there is a suggestion that he might also want to borrow funds from Shakespeare personally. Quiney’s father Adrian had suggested to him in another letter that he might get a loan from Shakespeare to finance the purchase of wool stockings.


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Marriage Broker

There is another reason to think that Shakespeare may have had talents as a middle-man, and derived part of his income this way. Although activity of this sort is generally only recorded when it goes wrong, we know from the break-down of one particular negotiated deal, that Shakespeare acted as a marriage broker. During 1604 he was lodging with wig-making family the Mountjoys on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street in the Cripplegate area of London. According to William Shakespeare’s deposition, dated 11th May 1612, Mrs Mountjoy asked him to ‘move and persuade’ Stephen Belott, her husband’s former apprentice, to marry their only daughter. According to Stephen Belott, a dowry of £60 was promised, with a further £200 to be bequeathed by Christopher Mountjoy in his will. Subsequently, Christopher Mountjoy disputed any such amounts had been agreed, and eight years after the marriage, Stephen Belott went to court in an attempt to settle the matter.

In his deposition, William Shakespeare said that a ‘portion’ had been agreed, but claimed not to remember the amount agreed upon, or when it was to be paid. Whether his forgetfulness was genuine, or arose from a wish to be neutral and discreet, is impossible to tell; when not under oath he had given the figure as about £50, and Charles Nicholl concludes that his memory was ‘more selective than defective’.[1]

Since the discovery of the Belott-Mountjoy papers in 1909, commentators have been inclined to see Shakespeare’s role as marriage broker in a somewhat romantic light, imagining the author of the Sonnets and Romeo & Juliet conducting the hand-fasting of two lovers. But the arrangement appears to have been far more tempered by financial considerations than by love; since not only did Shakespeare have to ‘persuade’ Belott to marry his former boss’s daughter, but the promised payments for doing so appear to have been the chief object of persuasion.

William Shakespeare, described on his deposition as ‘of Stratford upon Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman’, emerges from the Belott-Mountjoy case as an effective negotiator. His selective memory under oath suggests he was also a discreet one, unwilling to divulge what might be termed sensitive commercial information. As with his holding 1.23 tonnes of malted barley in a time of famine, the best explanation for his role in the marriage of Stephen Belott and Mary Mountjoy is that he was the broker; that neutral yet persuasive central party who acts as an anonymous buffer, matching the needs of buyer and seller, while potentially making a profit in the process.


[1] Charles Nicholl, The Lodger on Silver Street, p.13.

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Play Broker?

It is clear from the many legal documents connected to his land-holding, tithe buying, grain dealing, and money-lending, that William Shakespeare was always looking for a way to turn a profit.   Is it likely that his natural profit-making and middle-man tendencies ceased when he became involved in the business of theatre?  The main product of a theatre company is the performance of plays, and although some might be written in-house, the majority had to be bought from the available pool of writers.  As a share-holder, it is reasonable to think that William Shakespeare, a person clearly adept at buying and selling, might involve himself in purchasing suitable texts.  Once bought, they belonged to the company.

Though the sum a company could gain from selling a play for publication was only estimated to be around thirty shillings this could nevertheless recoup a proportion of the cost to the company of buying the play from the writer.  Thirty shillings is approximately the same sum that Shakespeare went through the courts to recover from Philip Rogers in 1604, so it should not be considered insubstantial. It was a good night’s box office takings for Henslowe at The Rose. A performance of Henry VI on 19 May 1592 brought in exactly thirty shillings, whereas a performance on 11 June 1594 of The Taming of A Shrew (an early version of the play later to become Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew) netted only nine. In addition to a manuscript sale making the company the equivalent of a good night’s takings with minimal effort, the title pages of published plays posted around the city of London as advertisements could function as free promotion for the associated theatre company, who in some cases appeared to have revived old plays to coincide with their publication.

In the Elizabethan period, plays were rarely connected publicly their authors, being associated instead with the theatre companies that owned them. If a play was performed but unpublished — as is the case for just over half of the Shakespeare canon until 1623 — most people would not have known the identity of the author.  It would be a century before playwright’s names began appearing on playbills.[1]  Throughout the 1590s, it was also common practice for plays not only to be performed anonymously, but to be published anonymously too.  Indeed, up until 1594, the year that Shakespeare became a shareholder with the Lord Chamberlain’s men, only one writer — George Peele — had been attributed on the title page of a play originally performed on the public stage.[2]  That year, publishing practice changed, and seven out of the eighteen published plays that have survived from 1594 feature an author’s name. By the turn of the century about half of all published plays were still anonymous, but subsequently naming the author became increasingly common.  This shift towards publishing plays with an authorial attribution appears to have been linked with a general move by publishers to present dramatic works as suitable for ‘gentlemen readers’ by associating them with an originating author rather than the collaborative process by which so many plays in fact came about.

The diary of theatre-owner Philip Henslowe reveals that from the summer of 1597 to the summer of 1600, sixty per cent (thirty out of fifty-two) of the plays the company bought were co-authored, but in the same period, not a single one of the thirty-two published plays acknowledges more than one author.  Less than twelve per cent of the plays published in the forty years from 1584 to 1623 bears more than a single author’s name on the title page.  This mismatch may be read two ways.  Either co-authored works were rarely of a high enough quality to qualify as readable literature, or publishers were deliberately representing co-authored works as being the fruit of a single mind.  Certainly when play extracts were presented in the poetic anthology England’s Parnassus, editor Robert Allott attributed extracts from jointly-authored plays to one author only, generally the more famous one.  It may be wise, therefore, to see single authorial attributions not as accurate records of authorship, but rather as a marketing tool that helped to lift the ‘respectability’ of a play into the realm of literature.

A good parallel to the position of the Elizabethan playwright is that of the Hollywood screenwriter.  For a start, only people in the industry will generally be aware of who wrote the screenplay of even a very successful movie.  Though, unlike Elizabethan plays, films will always give at least one writer credit for the script, screenwriting credits do not always reflect the contributions of those involved.  The chief name attached to a screenplay is rarely the only writer and quite often not the originator of the text. The entire screenplay of the 1998 film Ronin was written by David Mamet, but even after arbitration with the Writers’ Guild of America, he was denied a film credit under his own name, being forced to accept it under a pseudonym. And as I will discuss in a future post, there are documented cases where screenwriting credits — and at least one Oscar — have been awarded to someone who didn’t create a single word of dialogue.

Let us, then, add some of these details together.  In Shakespeare’s era, a play, once sold to a theatre company, was the property of the company’s shareholders.   The text of that play, once sold to a publisher, was the property of the publishers.  Writers who were not also company share-holders had no control about how (or whether) their work was sold on. Writers were rarely credited for their works in the period. Even when they were, there was a good chance that co-authored texts would bear only a single name because that was deemed a successful marketing strategy.

No-one knows for certain when William Shakespeare first became involved in the business end of theatre, but the earliest theatrical record citing his name dates from 15 March 1595, in an entry in the Treasurer of the Chamber’s accounts recording £20 paid to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for plays performed in front of the Queen the preceding Christmas.  The payment was made out:

To William Kemp, William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberlain, upon the Council’s warrant dated at Whitehall 15th March [1595], for two several comedies or interludes showed by them before her majesty in Christmas time last part viz St. Stephen’s day and Innocents day.[3]

His name as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s ‘servants’ denotes that William Shakespeare, like the company clown William Kemp and lead actor Richard Burbage was, by 1594, a shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  The company appears to have been founded in the summer of that year; Henslowe’s diary notes performances by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, alongside those of the Lord Admiral’s Men. Not all actors in the company would be shareholders; some were hired men, paid per performance. But shareholders took a cut of profits and were involved in the business side of things.  1594 was also the year when somebody sold the playscript of Locrine to the printer Thomas Creede; it was entered into the Stationers Register, without an author’s name, on 20 July 1594.

At this point, there were only two publications with the name ‘William Shakespeare’ on them, both long poems.  Venus and Adonis had been published the previous June, and The Rape of Lucrece, registered 9 May 1594, was probably on the book stalls by the time Thomas Creede bought Locrine.  Both poems were published by Richard Field, a man raised in Stratford-upon-Avon who very likely would have known William Shakespeare.   Field’s connection to Shakespeare is a point to which we will return, but one thing is certain; he didn’t publish plays.

Shakespeare play broker LocrineThomas Creede printed or published a number of canonical Shakespeare plays.  In the same year that he published Locrine, 1594, he printed The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster for the publisher Thomas Millington – a revised version of which would become Henry VI Part 2 in 1623’s First Folio.  Henry VI Part 2 and Titus Andronicus were the first plays in the Shakespeare canon to be published. Both were published in 1594, with no author’s name attached.  The following year, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (later to become Henry VI Part 3) was the third Shakespeare play to be published, again anonymously; and Locrine was published as being ‘newly set forth, overseen and corrected’ ( you will note, not ‘written’) by ‘W.S.’  It is therefore fair to say that Shakespeare’s career as a published dramatist, and as a person associated with the plays of others, coincided exactly with the formation of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in which he was a shareholder.

It has been argued that the initials on Locrine might be those, not of William Shakespeare, but of minor playwright and scrivener Wentworth Smith.   There are a number of reasons for rejecting this possibility.  For a start, the only record we have of Wentworth Smith’s playwriting activity begins seven years after Locrine was registered. Smith co-authored fifteen plays for the competing company, the Lord Admiral’s Men, between April 1601 and March 1603.  None of these plays were successful enough to survive. But more crucially, Wentworth Smith was never in a position to sell his plays, or the plays of others, for publication. He was not a theatre company shareholder, and it was theatre companies who owned the plays they performed.  This play was not Wentworth Smith’s play to sell in any capacity. But it may well have been Shakespeare’s.


[1] John Dryden notes this new practice with surprise in 1698; Erne p.44.

[2] I am indebted to Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare  as Literary Dramatist for many of the statistics in these paragraphs, and have been much influenced in my thinking by his chapter on the legitimation of printed playbooks (pp.31-55)

[3] The record in fact says 1594, but it means 1595 in our modern calendar. The discrepancy is due to the fact that until 1752, the new year officially began on Lady Day, 25 March, rather than 1 January. A vestige of this remains in the fact that the tax year begins on 6 April, which is 25 March adjusted for the days lost when the calendars were changed over.

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