The Case for Sixteenth Century Doubt of Shakespeare’s Authorship

When the ‘Labeo’ material first came to light, some orthodox scholars accepted it as evidence that Hall and Marston had doubts about Shakespeare’s identity, but concluded they were simply mistaken.  H.N.Gibson, who vigorously defends the traditional attribution of Shakespeare’s works, nevertheless says ‘We may agree that Hall is patting himself on the back because he thinks he has guessed the identity of an author writing under a pseudonym and collaborating with an inferior poet’.

_case-for-shakespeare-end-authorship-question-scott-mccrea-paperback-cover-art-1322141729The more common position now is to deny that Hall and Marston are referring to Shakespeare’s poems.  Scott McCrea in The Case for Shakespeare refutes the idea that the works Hall and Marston are referencing are Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. ‘Probably Hall had Samuel Daniel or Michael Drayton in mind,’ he says, without providing any evidence that their poetry had the specific features which Hall mentions. ‘In any case,’ he asserts ‘it wasn’t the Author [Shakespeare]’.  This is his belief, but he has hardly proved it.  McCrae only deals with those parts of the evidence that are easy to demolish, such as the idea that Marston’s ‘mediocria firma’ is a reference to Francis Bacon.  He entirely ignores the critical passage about the ‘crafty cuttle’ who uses ‘another’s name’.

Other orthodox responses have been as inadequate as McCrea’s. It has been argued that Labeo is Marston himself but this ignores both the specific qualities of the verse identified by Hall, and also the awkward fact that Marston writes about Labeo too (and not in a self-referencing manner).  Others have suggested that Labeo is simply Hall’s term for any bad poet.  But the reference to ‘this bawdy Poggies ghost’ is surely far too specific to stand for an archetype, and Marston put the words of Venus and Adonis directly into Labeo’s mouth.

new place sketch by george vertue 1737The reason why orthodox scholars now deny that Hall and Marston are doubting Shakespeare’s identity (when some once accepted that they were) is because the very existence of sixteenth century doubt about the authorship of works published under the name William Shakespeare legitimises the authorship question. It also raises some significant and difficult questions.  If William Shakespeare was as active and present on the London theatre scene at this time as is generally believed, why would his authorship be doubted?  When Pygmalion and Virgidemiarum were published in 1598, Marston was establishing himself as a playwright and both Marston and Hall could presumably have confirmed the author’s identity for themselves were Shakespeare – as orthodox scholars assume – physically present and well-known on the London literary scene.  What is more, Marston was from Warwickshire, Shakespeare’s home county. Indeed, Marston’s father was appointed counsel to the city of Coventry, and was lawyer to Thomas Green, solicitor to the corporation of Stratford-on-Avon, who has been described by orthodox Shakespearean scholar Dave Kathman as ‘one of Shakespeare’s closest friends in Stratford’. Green, who was a lodger in the Shakespeare household from 1603 to 1611, and who refers in his diary to ‘cousin Shakespeare’, was sponsored to enter the Middle Temple by John Marston and his father in 1595.

John Marston therefore had solid Warwickshire and Stratford-on-Avon connections, and stood surety for ‘one of William Shakespeare’s closest friends’ three years before he published his satirical comment about Labeo. Of course, Kathman’s label for Thomas Green isn’t necessarily correct.  And even if it were true by 1611/2 when Green first used the term ‘cousin’, the term was used somewhat loosely in the era, and we have no idea whether Green knew Shakespeare as early as 1598.  Nevertheless one can’t help feeling that if the talented author of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece was the Stratford man, John Marston would have been well-placed to know. It is no wonder, in the circumstances, that orthodox scholars find it difficult to look closely at this evidence or give the argument more than a dismissive wave of the hand.


Collier's_1921_Hog_Wild_BoarLet us summarise the evidence. Hall undoubtedly testifies that he suspects a contemporary author of using a front. The ‘crafty cuttle’ who uses ink as a defensive disguise, who likes to ‘complain of wronged faith or fame’, fame which he may shift onto ‘another’s name’, is surely too explicit a reference to deny. Marston paraphrases two lines from Venus and Adonis and alludes to Hall as a hunter of a famous boar – the poem’s motif. Hall’s critical assessment of Labeo’s poetry has seven points of specific correspondence with Shakespeare’s two poems that no other poet published in the years before 1597 can match:

  1. ‘Heroic poesy’ – both Venus and Lucrece fall into this category.
  2. ‘Big But Ohs’ – both Venus and Lucrece have many lines starting But and Oh.
  3. Hyphenated epithets – common in both Venus and Lucrece.
  4. The poet implores Phoebus/Apollo to guide his enterprise (Venus and Adonis)
  5. The poet steals ‘whole pages’ from Petrarch (The Rape of Lucrece)
  6. The poems are sexual in nature (both Venus and Lucrece)
  7. ‘bawdy Poggies ghost’ – the poems are in Marlowe’s style (both Venus and Lucrece)

We can accept that Hall doubts the authorship of Shakespeare’s earliest published works without accepting that he was correct to do so. Whether Marston doubts Shakespeare’s authorship is less clear, since his reference to a ‘strange… metamorphosis’ is too ambiguous for us to be certain, but he doesn’t challenge Hall’s ‘crafty cuttle’ passage, and says nothing that would link Labeo to William Shakespeare of Stratford, despite being from the same county.

By 1598, when Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image was published, orthodox scholars believe that William Shakespeare was the leading playwright for the Lord Chamberlain’s men, as well as being a shareholder and (at least occasionally) an actor. Most scholars think that by this time Titus Andronicus, all three parts of Henry VI, Richard II, Richard III, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor had all been written and staged.  But if the authorship doubts of Marston and Hall are accepted as valid (and I have seen no convincing rebuttal), they surely cast some serious doubt on either Shakespeare’s visibility (in a physical sense) on the London literary scene in 1598, or his ability to convincingly pass as the author of these two narrative poems.

straw-230112_640This is the year in which William Shakespeare bought a load of stone in Stratford in January, and in the same month, was said to be interested in buying some local tithes. His Stratford grain-holding was assessed in February, and in October he was not found in his London lodgings when the taxman called, but that is as much as we can say about his whereabouts.  This is also the year in which he would be listed, eighteen years later, as ‘principle comedian’ in the play Every Man in His Humour; an item of evidence we will assess more fully when we turn our attention properly upon Ben Jonson. The seeming doubt of Hall and the possible doubt of Marston leads to an important question.  Exactly how visible on the London scene was William Shakespeare in the 1590s?


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Lynceus the Boar-Hunter

Whoever conjured up ‘this bawdy Poggies ghost’, Joseph Hall believed that works of ‘heroic poesy’ with sexual subject matter, full of hyphenated adjectives, where many lines begin with ‘But’ or ‘O’, fronted by a request for guidance from Phoebus/Apollo, and/or mirroring whole pages of Petrarch, were written by someone he calls Labeo, and published under another person’s name. If there are other works of the period that have all of these characteristics, no-one has yet named them.

But if orthodox scholars feel Hall leaves the identification open, John Marston, answering Hall in The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image and Certain Satires (1598), pinpoints Venus and Adonis as the target of Hall’s criticism, paraphrasing two lines of it in a reference to Labeo:

So Labeo did complain his love was stone,
Obdurate, flinty, so relentless none:
Yet Lynceus knows, that in the end of this,
He wrought as strange a metamorphosis.

The first two lines reference lines 200-1 of Venus and Adonis:

Art thou obdurate, flinty, hard as steel?
Nay more then flint, for stone at rain relenteth

It was common for writers of the period to near-plagiarise each other, as we have seen, so one could argue that this is all Marston is doing.  However, we should not forget Hall’s Labeo has seven points of correspondence with Shakespeare’s two published works, and Marston’s Labeo ‘did complaine his love was stone’ in exactly the same terms that Adonis does in Shakespeare’s poem.

The ‘Lynceus’ of Marston’s poem is commonly thought to be Hall. Lynceus means lynx-eyed.  The original Lynceus was an argonaut who participated in the hunt for the Caledonian boar.  Since the crests of both the Bacon family and the de Vere family contained a wild boar, supporters of the authorship of Sir Francis Bacon and the 17th Earl of Oxford suggest that the choice of the name Lynceus (boar-hunter) for Hall points towards their candidate.  But a wild boar may simply pinpoint the text under debate, since the animal is the source of the culminating tragedy of Venus and Adonis; it is a wild boar that gores Adonis to death.

Since there were other boar-hunting argonauts, why might Marston choose Lynceus in particular?  Lynceus, as well as being a boar-hunter, was the jealous murderer of Castor (twin of Pollux and the brother of Helen of Troy).  In the satirical poems in the same volume Marston says it is Hall’s ‘envious eye’ that leads to him attack other writers.  In other words, it is possible that Lynx-eyed Lynceus was selected not only for the boar-hunting which so usefully ties to the boar motif of Venus and Adonis, but for his murderous envy.


Commentators on Marston’s poem note that Marston is comparing the metamorphosis of Pygmalion to that of Adonis who, after his death, is transformed by Venus into an anemone, a flower whose beauty can be enjoyed only briefly.  I have seen suggestions that it is Labeo’s male lover (a biographical leap if ever there was one), or sharp-eyed observer Lynceus who ‘wrought as strange a metamorphosis’. However the most obvious subject of the sentence is the person first referenced, Labeo himself: it is Labeo who has metamorphosed into Shakespeare; the very thing that ‘Lynceus [Hall] knows’.

Does John Marston know who ‘Labeo’ is?


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Who is the ‘Crafty Cuttle’?

The argument that Joseph Hall and John Marston were the earliest (sixteenth century) doubters of Shakespeare’s authorship was first developed by the Baconians: those non-Stratfordians who favour Sir Francis Bacon as the true author, or at least the chief co-ordinator, of the works we know as Shakespeare’s. H.N. Gibson, who argued against a range of authorship candidates in his book The Shakespeare Claimants (1964), concluded that B.G.Theobald, who developed this argument, was ‘probably correct in his identification of the poems concerned’ and called the argument ‘the one piece of evidence in the whole Baconian case that demands serious consideration.’

Marston and Hall appear to believe that Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written under a pseudonym.  Nicknaming this author Labeo, Hall writes in the first satire of Book II of Virgidemiarum:

For shame write better, Labeo, or write none
Or better write, or Labeo write alone.

He seems to think that whatever Labeo has written, he has written it in conjunction with somebody else. He castigates Labeo as someone who ‘abjures his handsome drinking bowl’ because ‘the thirsty swain with his hollow hand’ has ‘conveyed the stream to wet his dry weasand [throat]’.  Here he is referencing the Greek philosopher Diogenes, also known as the Cynic, who had rid himself of all his possessions except his drinking bowl, but cast this off too when he saw a peasant cupping his hands to drink. This is a perfectly workable metaphor on its own for someone who has cast elements of their life aside. But in the context of a possible reference to Venus and Adonis (which will shortly be established), it may refer to the prominent quote from Ovid which fronts that work, relating to the Castalian spring, close to the Oracle at Delphi, where Roman poets went to receive inspiration. Then switching to italics for emphasis, Hall says:

Write they that can, tho they that cannot do:
But who knows that, but they that do not know?

At first sight, ‘they that cannot [write] do’  brings to mind Robert Greene’s ‘he that cannot write true English’ needing to make himself ‘the father of’ plays.  In this case, the second line of the couplet is translated as the secretive (and deniable) nature of the ‘underhand brokery’. But another interpretation is that bad writers write even though they cannot write (well), and being bad writers, don’t have sufficient judgement to know they can’t write.  Hall’s general criticism of Labeo’s poetry suggests this second interpretation is quite likely.

Yet there is a genuine accusation that Labeo is not writing under his own name, but someone else’s.  In the first satire of Book IV, Hall says:

Labeo is whipped, and laughs me in the face:
Why? for I smite and hide the gallèd place.
Gird but the Cynic’s Helmet on his head,
Cares he for Talus, or his flail of lead?
Long as the craftie Cuttle lieth sure
In the black Cloud of his thick vomiture;
Who list complain of wronged faith or fame
When he may shift it on to another’s name.

‘Hide’ in the second line doesn’t mean conceal, but ‘thrash’ – another verb to go with ‘whipped’ and ‘smite’.  The reference to the ‘Cynic’s Helmet’ is another reference to Diogenes the Cynic.  It was reported that ‘when asked what he would take to let a man give him a blow on the head, he said “A helmet”’; Labeo is protected from being whipped, and just how he is protected, Hall is about to make plain.  ‘Talus, or his flail of lead’ is a reference to the iron man in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590/1596), who, with a metal flail, ‘threshed out falsehood, and did truth unfold’.[1]  And what follows is Hall’s unfolding of truth.

The cuttlefish is known for defending itself from its enemies by squirting a cloud of black ink.  Labeo, says Hall, ‘lies sure’ in a defensive cloud of black ink.  ‘List’ is used in the archaic sense of ‘likes to, desires to or chooses to’ and Hall says that Labeo, concerned with the issues of ‘wronged faith or fame’ is protecting himself by ‘shift[ing] it on to another’s name.’  Whether or not Labeo is the author Shakespeare, this is undoubtedly another piece of fairly explicit 16th century evidence supporting the idea that using another person’s name was a known practice in this dangerous era (an era when ‘fame’, especially if linked to issues of religious faith, could be deadly).  Though Venus and Lucrece are not identified by name, references to the stylistic elements of both Shakespeare poems in other passages addressed to Labeo make them strong candidates as Hall’s target.

What are these elements? Read on.


[1] Edmund Spenser, The Fairie Queene, IV, i, 37-44.

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A Dangerous Age

Elizabethan censorship John Stubbs hand

The late 16th and early 17th century was a dangerous age in which to be a writer in England.  There was no such thing as freedom of speech.  Those who wrote works that upset others (particularly if those others were powerful, or had powerful friends) could easily find themselves in prison, and worse. A famous example is that of John Stubbs, who in 1579, when Shakespeare was just 15, published his opinions about the Queen’s proposed marriage to the Duke of Anjou and Alençon in a pamphlet entitled The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf. In this pamphlet he argued that the queen, at forty-six, was too old to have children, making the marriage pointless.  The Queen was incensed and John Stubbs was arrested, along with his publisher William Page and his printer Hugh Singleton.  On 13 October all three were found guilty and were sentenced to have their hands cut off. Hugh Singleton, being very elderly, had his sentence rescinded but both John Stubbs and William Page had their right hands cut off in the market place in Westminster on 3 November. It took three blows to sever Stubbs’s hand.

If this penalty was particularly severe, it was nevertheless a strong indication that writing was a dangerous business.  Despite peddling fictions, the writers of plays were not exempt.  Though Shakespeare’s era has long been depicted as a Golden Age of wit and manners, writers of that era were living under a repressive regime. Those in power were extremely conscious of the power of words to influence opinion and were paranoid about being criticised, mocked, or satirised. A number of the age’s most successful writers felt the sharp end of this particular stick.

Ben Jonson was arrested and imprisoned for a play he co-wrote with Thomas Nashe, The Isle of Dogs (1597). We have no idea why because all copies of the play have been destroyed. He was questioned by the Privy Council about his portrayal of political corruption in Sejanus (1603) and was imprisoned again, along with co-author George Chapman, for offending King James I with an anti-Scottish reference in Eastward Ho (1605).  The other author of Eastward Ho, John Marston, fled to escape imprisonment.  Ben Jonson reported later that they were threatened with having their noses and ears cut off.  Though in this case they were reprieved, physical punishments were a very real possibility.

Thomas Nashe prisonerSatirist Thomas Nashe was another popular and successful writer.  The only known portrait of him is a woodcut that shows him as a prisoner, with his legs chained together.  He was imprisoned for writing Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem, which offended the powers-that-be with a satirical portrait of London.  Presumably his time in prison was not something he wished to repeat; endangered as a co-author of the Isle of Dogs, he escaped to the country when Ben Jonson was arrested.  His house was raided in his absence and he remained away from London, effectively exiled in Norfolk.

The Bishops’ Ban

Two years later in 1599, his name featured prominently on The Bishops’ Ban. Issued jointly by the Archbishop of Canterbury (the chief censor of publications) and the Bishop of London, this was a list of books to be banned and brought to Stationer’s Hall to be burnt. In what has been described as ‘the most sweeping and stringent instance of early modern censorship’, a number of individual titles were named, chiefly satires, and all histories and plays not specifically licensed.  The final line of the ban targeted everything Thomas Nashe had written and would write in future:

That all NASHes books and Doctor HARVEYs books be taken wheresoever they may be found and that none of their bookes be ever printed hereafter.

The other person whose entire oeuvre was outlawed in the Bishops’ Ban was respected scholar Gabriel Harvey.  He, too, had been imprisoned for his writing.  In Three Letters, a published correspondence between him and the poet Edmund Spenser, he had referred unflatteringly to someone he referred to as Spenser’s ‘old controller’. The Controller of the Household, Sir James Croft, took this to be a reference to himself and had Harvey thrown in the Fleet Prison until Harvey managed to convince the Privy Council that he had, in fact, been referring to someone else (who was conveniently dead).


Thomas Kyd Spanish TragedyOne didn’t even have to publish a work to be at risk.  Playwright Thomas Kyd, author of a very successful and popular revenge tragedy, was arrested in the wake of government anger about what is now known as the Dutch Church libel; a poem, written in the style of his former room-mate, Christopher Marlowe, which had been posted on the wall of a church frequented by Huguenot immigrants.  The Privy Council had sanctioned the use of torture to discover the author of the poem.  Though the author wasn’t Kyd, he never recovered from his treatment in Bridewell prison and died the following year.  Christopher Marlowe was arrested soon after and released on bail, apparently being killed in a fight just ten days later.

It would be no wonder if, under such a regime, some writers were perfectly happy for their works to be published anonymously, or to even bear the names of other people.  Thus we should not necessarily judge it a terrible thing if Shakespeare published works under his name that were not his own.  In Thomas Heywood’s case, this was clearly without the author’s permission. But Robert Greene says explicitly that this is a service that some writers sought out.

Robert Greene Batillus Farewell to Folly 1591It is interesting how resistant mainstream scholarship is to this idea. When I discussed Greene’s statement with another scholar he insisted that Greene is referring to a poor or mediocre writer (‘Batillus’) trying to appear competent by engaging the services those who can write (i.e. parish clerks). But this is not what Greene says.  If you don’t believe me, read the passage for yourself.  When Greene says certain poets ‘get some other Batillus to set his name to their verses’ they are not engaging a scribe; they are persuading someone else to put his name on their work in order to avoid being publicly associated with something profane. Greene’s text is strong evidence that some writers used fronts in this period.

1590s ENGLAND / 1950s AMERICA

That this practice might have arisen in the Elizabethan era should not surprise us.  Similar human situations spawn similar strategies. We know that writers in at least one other repressive and politically paranoid era, finding pseudonyms not sufficiently protective or effective, co-opted real individuals to act as their fronts. The parallel can be found in 1950s Hollywood.[1]

Under McCarthyism, writers with suspected communist sympathies began to be hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Commission and questioned about their political affiliations.  Writers found to be communist sympathisers were black-listed, meaning they could no longer work as screenwriters for the big studios. Those who refused to name other communist sympathisers were jailed. In order to get around the prohibitions, certain black-listed writers secretly engaged people prepared to represent screenplays they had not written as their own.  Woody Allen’s The Front depicts the possibly comedic repercussions of such a practice, but the realities were distinctly unfunny.

Roman Holiday Dalton TrumboOne might imagine that such an arrangement would be impossible to maintain if the hidden writer were famous, or their work became a high profile success, but history shows that this is not the case.  In 1953, the Oscar for Best Screenplay went to the romantic comedy Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn, and was awarded to the supposed screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter.  But the author of Roman Holiday’s screenplay was actually Dalton Trumbo. It is now known that from 1947 (when he became one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’) to 1960, Dalton Trumbo wrote or co-wrote seventeen screenplays for which he received no writing credit.

In Trumbo’s case the historical record has now been corrected, thanks to enormous efforts on his behalf by his son, and by the Writers Guild of America.  However, there are still numerous works from the era that remain wrongly ascribed to their fronts.  Alan Wald, professor of English and author of Writing from the Left, says that the writers who had employed fronts

were often in the difficult situation of having other people sign legal documents and even accept awards; thus, to reveal the names of fronts, even decades later, could bring lawsuits. However, it is now known that black radical novelist John O. Killens ‘fronted’ for blacklisted Abraham Polonsky in the important anti-racist film noir Odds Against Tomorrow. One former Communist who wrote Classics Comics in the 1950s made me promise never to reveal his identity.[2]

Even though some of the people who know the truth are still alive, the identity of many of these hidden writers will never be publicly known.  Bear in mind that in these cases the truth remains unknown despite the fact that these deceptions occurred in an era of telephones, recording devices, and general literacy. How much more difficult to retrieve the truth about writers’ identities from 400 years ago?

Playwrights in 1590s England and screenwriters in 1950s Hollywood were in not dissimilar positions, in that they were trying to express ideas freely in a political landscape where the free expression of ideas was considered dangerous.  The chief difference is that with Hollywood’s blacklisted writers only their livelihoods were at stake; for Elizabethan playwrights it was potentially their lives.  For though being executed for your writing was a rare occurrence — one suffered nevertheless by religious writers Edmund Campion and John Penry — the conditions in Elizabethan prisons were sufficiently poor for a prison stay to become a death sentence.  The poet and playwright Thomas Watson, a friend of Marlowe’s, seems to have died after being imprisoned.  And of those writers mentioned above who fell foul of the authorities, three of them (Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Kyd) appear to have died, and certainly dropped out of sight, within a couple of years of being brought to account by the powers-that-be.


[1] These ideas were first explored at length in Daryl Pinksen’s Marlowe’s Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare (2008).

[2] Professor Alan Wald, author of ‘Writing From the Left’, interviewed on :

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From Jonson’s description, the identity of Poet-Ape will clearly be a name with which scholars of early modern drama will be familiar, since this person has ‘grown to a little wealth, and credit in the scene.’   It is a writer, for his works are ‘the frippery of wit’.  It has been suggested that this poem arose out of the so-called War of the Theatres, and is directed at either Thomas Dekker or John Marston.  The War of the Theatres is the name given to the satirical feud that developed between Jonson on one side, and Dekker and Marston on the other, between 1599 and 1602. Jonson’s Poetaster, in which he first used the term ‘poet-ape’, was part of this feud.  If Jonson is calling either Dekker or Marston ‘Poet-Ape’, he is presumably accusing them of being bad poets who recycle other people’s words.

It was common enough for writers to echo and in some cases even plagiarise parts of other people’s works, or even to write thinly-veiled copies of other people’s plays; there were no copyright laws, and theatres required a constant supply of new material.  As Anna Bayman puts it in her study of Dekker’s prose pamphlets, ‘the habit of plagiarism and reuse of material was so commonplace that it could be considered orthodox literary practice’.[1]  Though Dekker railed against derivative poets in his pamphlet The Wonderful Year (1603), calling upon the Muses to ‘banish these Word-pirates… into the gulf of Barbarism’ he was distinctly derivative himself.  Jonson accused Dekker of plagiarism after the latter’s Satiromastix used one of Jonson’s characters (Tucca) from Poetaster.

Yet there is one word in Jonson’s epigram which means we must rule out Dekker’s being Jonson’s Poet-Ape, and that is the word ‘wealth’.   According to the Dictionary of National Biography Dekker was ‘constantly shadowed by debt’ and occasionally overwhelmed by it. He was imprisoned for debt in 1598 and 1599, and then again in 1612, spending seven years behind bars after failing to repay £40 which he had borrowed from the playwright John Webster’s father.

So is John Marston Jonson’s target?  He appears to have been a little wealthier, and Jonson had accused Marston (in the guise of the character Crispinus) of stealing his poetry in Poetaster, saying ‘hang him Plagiary’ (4.3.96).  There is no evidence that Marston was a broker of any kind, but the accusation of ‘brokage’ need not mean that the target was a play-broker. John Marston twice used the word ‘broker’ in situations similar to Jonson’s epigram, and in those passages the term just means to recycle the ideas of others, or to pass them down second-hand.  In Certain Satires I Marston writes of someone who ‘scornes the viol and the scraping stick, / And yet’s but Broker of another’s wit’.  In The Scourge of Villainy we find someone ‘Who ne’er did ope[n] his Apish gurning mouth / But to retail and broke another’s wit.’   In other words, ‘brokage’ may refer to a lesser form of plagiarism, where ‘theft’ refers to the larger form.  There is also nothing in the poem that suggests printed plays.  Though the ‘sluggish gaping auditor’ who ‘marks not whose ’twas first’ could conceivably be an official of the stationer’s company who registered plays, ‘auditor’ also means ‘listener’.

There is an interesting echo in Jonson’s epigram of a scene in an anonymous play of the period, The First Part of the Return to Parnassus, which was performed at Cambridge university around 1601.  In this play, a foolish young man named ‘Gullio’ ‘apes’ poets by quoting, according to a character called Ingenioso, ‘pure Shakespeare and shreds of poetry that he hath gathered at the theatres’, generally misquoting them.  The final line of Jonson’s ‘Poet-Ape’ uses the same word, ‘shreds’, in the final line of his epigram: ‘shreds from the whole piece’.  Ingenioso, like Jonson, refers to this practice as ’theft’: ‘O monstrous theft! I think he will run through a whole book of Samuel Daniel’s.’  He says this in response to a quote from Romeo and Juliet, interestingly associating Shakespeare’s play with misattribution.


So Jonson’s Poet-Ape could be someone who, like Gullio, quotes shreds of other people’s poetry and is (wrongly) thought by his listeners to be have originated those lines himself.   This person is a figure on the theatre scene, whose works are witty. We are likely to have heard of him.  Because he is wealthy, he cannot be Dekker, but could be Marston, whom Jonson had already accused of plagiarism and recycling (‘brokage’)  There is just one sticking place; ‘Poet-Ape’ has bought plays.  Jonson explicitly says that this is how he began: he would ‘buy the reversion of old plays’.  Now you could argue that any aspiring playwright might buy plays in order to study how successful ones were constructed, but there is something about Jonson’s phrasing—buying ‘the reversion’ of a play—that suggests a different kind of buying; something more like a business transaction.   A ‘reversion’ is a term from property law and is a future interest retained by the grantor when the lease expires.  A reversion explains how a play might sometimes be performed by another company than the one that owned it.  And to buy a ‘reversion’ of a play would mean that when that agreement expired, the play would belong to the new owner.   We have no evidence that Marston bought old plays.  His name does not appear on old plays that weren’t his.  Shakespeare’s does.

Just because a piece of evidence doesn’t exist now, it doesn’t mean that it never did. But we can only argue from the evidence we have. Of course one can speculate that Marston bought the rights to old plays, but it is most unlikely. He was not a share-holder in an acting company. Indeed, very few writers held that particular position, and no-one considered a writer of note, except for Shakespeare.  Perhaps there is another writer of ‘wealth and credit in the scene’ whose works were ‘the frippery of wit’, who ‘would [like to?] be thought our chief’ and who bought ‘the reversion of old plays’ but the only one for whom all the evidence exists is Shakespeare.   He is documented as a theatre company shareholder, his grain-related and marriage negotiation activities suggest he involved himself in brokerage outside the theatre, Buck’s seeking his comment on the attribution of George A Greene (and the parallel comment from Juby) suggests he did so within the theatre, and — most critically — his name appeared on plays and poems that were not his.

Which Elizabethan or Jacobean writers of note, active in the period 1590-1616, had works published under their names while they were alive which we know to be written by others?  As far as I can ascertain, the only certain answer to that question is William Shakespeare.  There is no other writer of the period who fits Jonson’s description so perfectly.  Given the prominent role of Shakespeare’s father in the wool trade, Jonson’s final fleece metaphor could even be another identification mark.  There is no better match for Jonson’s description, or indeed any notable writer of the period, besides Shakespeare, whose name was appended, as author, to works he didn’t write.



[1] Anna Bayman, Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, p.57

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