An Accusation of Plagiarism

The fable of the crow in borrowed feathers was well known to Elizabethans, who believed it to be by Aesop[1] and associated it with plagiarism; putting one’s name on something that is not your own work.  Greene had referred to it in this context in an earlier pamphlet, Mirror of Modesty (1584):

Your honor may think I play like Aesop’s Crow, which decked his self with others’ feathers, or like the proud poet Batillus, which subscribed his name to Virgil’s verses, and yet presented them to Augustus.

Here we see Batillus, again, as someone whose name is on the poetry of others. And he is linked to the Crow, ‘beautified with [others’] feathers’.

Green’s upstart Crow, this actor who has has the temerity to believe he’s ‘as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ is believed to be Shakespeare on two specific grounds.  Firstly, Greene tells us that the Crow thinks himself ‘the only Shake-scene in a country’; a neat nickname for a man whose name was frequently represented as ‘Shake-speare’.  Secondly, with his ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide’, Greene adapts a line from the play that would become Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 3.  For most people, this is case closed.

An accusation of plagiarism fits neatly with Shakespeare’s early publication record, including the apocrypha. At this point, nothing with the name William Shakespeare upon it, nor any of the plays we would later know as his, had been published, but this is not to say he hadn’t begun adopting and adapting.  So you might wonder why I question the identification of the upstart Crow as Shakespeare when not only orthodox scholars, but also most non-Stratfordians, have taken it up with great relish.  The reason why I and some others question it is because there was someone for whom Greene had worked who is a much better fit.

A Plagiarising Actor

Edward Alleyn as Tamberlaine TamerlaneShakespeare wasn’t the only plagiarist in town. As we have seen, accusations of plagiarism were rife, because the practice of copying from better writers was inculcated into every Elizabethan schoolboy as a mainstay of their Humanist education.  Nor is William Shakespeare the only candidate for an actor of Greene’s acquaintance who believed, like a ‘Johannes fac totum’ (Jack of all trades), that he could bang out a play or two himself.  From April to June 1592, as Greene was falling ill, Lord Strange’s Men—for whom Greene had recently been writing—were playing a two part play called Tambercam.   Though the title sounds similar, this was not Marlowe’s hugely successful Tamberlaine, whose title role Edward Alleyn had made his own as leading actor of the Lord Admiral’s men some years earlier.  But its thrust was similar: it is thought to have been about another ruthless Asian warlord, Gheghis Khan. Its style was similar, too: Ben Jonson lumped these plays together when he complained about

‘the Tamerlames and Tamerchams of the late age, which had nothing in them but the scenical strutting and furious vociferation to warrant them’.

A decade after Groatsworth was published, Edward Alleyn began selling playbooks to his company, the Lord Admiral’s Men.  In October 1602, his father-in-law Philip Henslowe, who acted as a kind of banker for the company, noted in his account book that he paid 40 shillings (£2) ‘unto my son E Alleyn at the appointment of the company for his Book of Tambercam.’  The entry is repeated (with the same date) eleven pages later.[2]  In both cases, Henslowe uses the possessive pronoun relative to his son-in-law: Tambercam is ‘his book’.  Elsewhere he pays Alleyn for ‘a book’ or ‘the book’.  Only in the case of Tambercam is the book referred to as ‘his’.

Different rules for Shakespeare scholarship?

In every other instance where Henslowe uses the possessive pronoun in his account book, scholars accept that he is paying a playwright for their own creation.  Just above the second entry paying Alleyn 40 shillings for ‘his Book of Tambercam’, the company made a part-payment of the same amount for ‘a tragedy called the Two Brothers’, and ten days later there is a second entry of 40 shillings ‘unto Mr Smith’ for ‘his Book called the 2 Brothers Tragedy’.  The Two Brothers (sometimes know as The Three Brothers) is an acknowledged work of Wentworth Smith on this evidence.  In July of 1602, Thomas Dekker received a part-payment of 40 shillings for ‘his comedy called Medicine for a Curst Wife’; Thomas Middleton, John Day and Henry Chettle all receive payments for ‘his play’,  or ‘his book’ or ‘his tragedy’ and all cases, scholars have accordingly accepted their authorship of the items named.

Why should an exception be made in the case of Edward Alleyn?  Other actors turned their hand to writing with greater or lesser degrees of success, including Ben Jonson, Robert Armin and Edward Juby.  Is it not possible that Tambercam was Edward Alleyn’s attempt to create for himself, this time from his own pen, another role as powerful as Tamberlaine?  Could Edward Alleyn, rather than William Shakespeare, be the target of Greene’s complaint?[3]


[1] It was in fact, from Horace’s third Epistle, where he warns his friend Celsus ‘not to pilfer from other writers any longer, lest those he has robbed should return one day to claim their feathers, when like the crow stripped of its stolen splendour, he would become a laughing stock.’  J.Dover Wilson traced the source of Greene’s reference, and many other examples of Elizabethans using ‘Aesop’s’ crow to indicate plagiarism, in his article ‘Malone and the Upstart Crow’, Shakespeare Survey Vol 4 (1951), pp 56-68.

[2] Whether the duplicate entry was a mistake, a genuine double payment, or an act of ‘creative accounting’ is unclear.

[3] That the subject of Greene’s rant might not be Shakespeare was first advanced by A.D.Wraight (1993) and recently developed by Daryl Pinksen (2009).

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Could Shakespeare Have Been a Front?

In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, it was stated without equivocation that ‘early modern authors did not ever pretend to be other people’.[1]  Perhaps in the exact form it is expressed, that statement is true: neither of the best-known forms of attributional deception — employing a front, or agreeing to be a ghostwriter — could be described as ‘pretending to be other people’, exactly. But contrary to this confident assertion, we have evidence from the period that such arrangements did indeed take place. Writers in Shakespeare’s day sometimes wrote under false names and there is evidence some even used a ‘front’: a real person prepared to ‘play’ the author.


Putting one’s name on the work of another can take several forms. One form that this takes is plagiarism. Most Shakespearean scholars seem comfortable with the idea that Shakespeare began his career by adapting the work of others, and will even argue that he was accused of plagiarism by his contemporary, Robert Greene. They are not envisaging wholesale plagiarism of the type undertaken by the spy novelist Q.R. Markham. Rather they are imagining an adaptation process of the kind that might lead Shakespeare to turn The Troublesome Reign of King John into The Life and Death of King John, The Taming of A Shrew into The Taming of The Shrew. One might argue that exactly this kind of process might lead title pages to transition from ‘newly corrected and amended by W.S.’ to ‘written by W.S.’ but there, the dishonesty begins, and there most scholars prefer to jump off the train of thought and return to safety, agreeing that the works we know as Shakespeare’s are of unparalleled genius and therefore Shakespeare the man is morally unassailable. But there is evidence from the era that in some cases a writer might deliberately engage someone to represent their work under his name.


Robert Greene, in Farewell to Folly (1591), wrote of the practice of certain writers concealing their identities by what he called ‘underhand brokery’ or what we might understand nowadays as employing somebody to act as a ‘front’. He wrote that

Others….if they come to write or publish any thing in print, it is either distilled out of ballads or borrowed of Theological poets, which for their calling and gravity, being loth to have any profane pamphlets pass under their hand, get some other Batillus to set his name to their verses. [My emphasis.] Thus is the ass made proud by this underhand brokery. And he that cannot write true English without the aid of clerks of parish churches will need make himself the father of interludes.

‘Interludes’ is a 16th century term for stage plays. ‘Batillus’ was a mediocre poet who tried to claim some verses by Virgil as his own. Greene’s use of the name is a clear reference to misattribution, but in contrast to his Roman example, where ‘Batillus’ claimed a better writer’s verses without his consent, Greene says that certain writers of his time actually invite the modern Batillus ‘to set his name to their verses’. Why might anyone do such a thing, especially when the person in question is an ‘ass’ who ‘cannot write true English without the aid’ of parish clerks?

Greene says it is because they do not want to have their reputation—their ‘calling and gravity’— sullied by the ‘profane’ nature of what they have written. His testimony shows that an Elizabethan writer concealing their identity through the agency of another real person is not the ridiculous proposition that orthodox scholars suggest; to Greene it is a known practice. He refers to this practice as ‘underhand brokery’; a necessarily discreet business transaction aimed at protecting the identity of the author. There is, however, no ‘conspiracy’ required for this to occur; simply a handshake, and an exchange of a text and (most likely) some money.


200px-Shakespeare_sigs_collectedThough the comment about not being able to write without the help of clerks will remind non-Stratfordians of Shakespeare’s six shaky signatures, it is very unlikely that the ‘Batillus’ he writes about is Shakespeare. It would be another two years before ‘William Shakespeare’ appeared on any publication, and seven years before it appeared on a play. What this evidence supports is not the idea of Shakespeare as a front, but rather the general principle of identity concealment, even to the point of using, as your cover, someone of limited literacy skills. Though he may not respect the arrangement, Greene (like Jonson in his epigram) does not reveal anyone’s identity. It has been suggested that Anthony Munday was his target, because elsewhere in the same publication, he criticises the play Fair Em, but that attack is not related to this passage. From the playwright’s manuscript of John a Kent and John a Cumber, Munday could clearly ‘write true English without the aid of clerks of parish churches’. And in any case, nobody, not even a Batillus, ever set their name to Fair Em. We’re unlikely to be able to work out Greene’s target, and it is not too much of a leap to say that this was his intention. He and other writers of the age routinely concealed the identities of those they criticised, and the reason was very simple.


[1] Andrew Hadfield in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, edited by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, CUP 2013, 72.

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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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