George Buck

We are fortunate enough to possess, in the public archives, the reaction of someone who knew who wrote the play Locrine.  The title page of a copy owned by George Buck (sometimes referred to as Buc), who in 1603 would be knighted and become James I’s Master of the Revels, bears the following hand-written inscription:[1]

Charles Tilney wrote a
Tragedy of this matter
he named Estrild: which
I think is this. it was lost
by his death. now some
fellow hath published it.
I made dumb shows for it.
which I yet have. G.B.

This note testifies that Buck’s late cousin Charles Tilney was the original author of Locrine.  Tilney had been executed in 1586 for his part in the Babington Plot, so the play was at least a decade old by the time it was published. The text shows signs of revision; there are clear borrowings from Edmund Spenser which could not have been added in Tilney’s lifetime.  Nevertheless Buck recognises the play as the one originally written by his cousin, a play for which Buck himself wrote the dumb shows — that is, sections of the drama to be acted without speaking.  Observing that ‘some fellow’ has published it, he is keenly aware that the fellow in question, one ‘W.S’, is not the author.

And this becomes particularly interesting when you consider that Buck is one of the very few people who record a conversation with William Shakespeare.  Stratford neighbour Richard Quiney mentions in a letter that Shakespeare is thinking of buying tithes; his lodger Thomas Greene records in his diary conversations with his landlord about enclosing common land, and Thomas Heywood apparently has words with him about his name being on the title page of a collection of poems which include Heywood’s; but George Buck talks to him about the authorial attribution of a play.

The play in question is George A Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield.  At the time Buck scribbled on his copy of Locrine, he did not apparently know the identity of the person who had ‘overseen and corrected it’; that person was just ‘some fellow’. Given his personal connection with the play, however, it seems reasonable that he might have made enquiries to discover who that ‘fellow’ was.  And when, a few years later, he acquired an anonymous 1599 copy of George A Greene, and wondered who the author might be, it appears that the first person he sought out to ask was William Shakespeare.   On the title page he noted:[2]

Written by …………. a minister who acted
the pinners part in it himself. Teste W. Shakespeare

And beneath this,

Ed. Juby saith that this play was made by Robert Greene.

James Shapiro describes this as Buck’s ‘flesh and blood encounter with a man he knew as both actor and playwright’ but in fact we have no idea whether Buck knew Shakespeare as an actor or a playwright. What seems much more likely is that he approached Shakespeare for this information because he knew that Shakespeare bought and sold plays.  Had he, as seems likely, been curious as to the identity of the ‘fellow’ who published his cousin’s play, it is Shakespeare in a play-broking role that he would have uncovered.

The person from whom he seeks a second opinion, Edward Juby, was an actor and occasional playwright, but what seems more pertinent here is that Juby bought plays for the Admiral’s Men.  Of all the people Buck might approach for information, he must have been aware that the people most likely to know would be the company play-brokers.  That Juby was the documented play-broker of the Admiral’s Men surely increases the likelihood that Shakespeare was the play-broker for the Lord Chamberlain’s, given that Buck has asked them the same question.

But what of the answer?  Though we cannot be entirely sure, the order of the inscriptions makes it probable that it was Shakespeare who was approached first.  His unsatisfactory answer is reminiscent of his Belott-Mountjoy testimony; a selective or defective memory fails to supply the author’s name, for which Buck leaves a blank to be filled.  His answer is also distinctly implausible: a minister of the church would not be suffered to act on the public stage, and Buck would know this.[3]  None the wiser after seeking Shakespeare’s opinion, Buck sought out Juby and gained a direct and clear answer: the author was Robert Greene, who had died in 1592.  Scholars, studying the text of the play, have determined that Juby’s answer was correct.   Shakespeare’s answer, in the light of this, smacks of obfuscation.  He didn’t know (or didn’t want to reveal what he did know), so he made something up.

Buck was clearly very interested in correct authorial attribution.  Two important conclusions can be derived from his title page inscriptions involving Shakespeare.  Firstly, that the likelihood of his being the play-broker for the Lord-Chamberlain’s Men is increased by Buck’s approaching both him and the Admiral’s play-broking counterpart Juby.  And secondly, that both title pages (Locrine and George A Greene) can be interpreted as linking Shakespeare with a practice of obfuscation and mis-attribution.


[1] This inscription is presented in modern spelling, with contractions and errors corrected. The edge of the title page is damaged, meaning some words and parts of words have been lost, but the re-instated version is widely accepted.  The original version is as follows (with missing text bracketed):

Char. Tilney wrot[e a]
Tragedy of this mattr [which]
hee named Estrild: [which]
I think is this. it was [lost?]
by his death. & now s[ome]
fellow hath published [it.]
I made du[m]be shewes for it.
w[h]ch I yet haue. G. B.

[2] Again, the spelling has been modernised, and missing letters restored.

[3] This play was certainly a public play. Henslowe’s diary records its performance on five separate occasions, by Sussex’s Men, from 29 Dec 1593 to 22 Jan 1594.

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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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2. ‘Some Fellow’ – The Man Who Met Shakespeare

Locrine BucCharles Tilney wrote a
Tragedy of this matter
he named Estrild: which
I think is this. it was l[ost]
by his death. now s[ome]
fellow hath published it.
I made dumb shows for it.
which I yet have. G.B.

This chapter explores the evidence that William Shakespeare consistently acted as a middleman, or broker – and that once he got involved in the business of theatre, he bought and sold plays for his company.

Read the first section, and continue through chapter by using the links at the bottom of each post. Sections are summarised below.

  • Shakespeare the Businessman Whatever else William Shakespeare knew how to do, he knew how to make money. The documentary evidence shows he was a successful businessman.
  • Grain Broker William Shakespeare hoarded grain in a time of famine. Over a ton, at a time when he had no lands. He wasn’t a farmer. So was he a grain broker?
  • Loan Broker The only surviving letter written to Shakespeare asks him to arrange (not provide) a loan. This attests to Shakespeare’s role as a loan broker.
  • Marriage Broker Shakespeare’s role as a middle-man is supported by evidence that he was also a marriage broker, as attested by documents from the Belott-Mountjoy case.
  • Play Broker? Was William Shakespeare also a play broker? The first apocryphal play appears within months of the evidence he has become a theatre company shareholder.
  • George Buck George Buck asked Shakespeare who wrote the anonymous play George a Greene, and wrote down his answer. What does that answer tell us about Shakespeare?

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