Newly Augmented and Corrected

However, even putting The Troublesome Reign of King John aside, we must ask how so many plays came to be published under Shakespeare’s name that were not his own.  The ‘rogue publisher’ theory is appealing enough as a generality, but on interrogating the individual circumstances of each publisher and play, it begins to fall apart. The evidence suggests that Shakespeare acted as a broker in other areas of business, and George Buck’s approach to both him and Edward Juby on a matter of attribution suggests that he, like Juby, was fulfilling the broker’s role for his company. He is also, as we have seen, the best fit for Ben Jonson’s Poet-Ape: someone who transitioned from ‘buy[ing] the reversion of old plays’ to ‘mak[ing] each man’s wit his own’, and if Poet-Ape is Shakespeare, this is a viable explanation for the evidence pattern that we have.

loves labours lostNow the difficult question must be asked.  Many canonical plays had very similar title pages to the apocryphal plays.  Locrine was ‘Newly set forth, overseen and corrected, / By W.S.’.  Between 1598 and 1604, five different quartos were published with claims that the plays involved were edited (four of them explicitly by Shakespeare) for publication.  In 1598, Cuthbert Burby published Love’s Labour’s Lost, ‘Newly corrected and augmented by W. Shakespere’.  In 1599, Andrew Wise (who had already published Richard II and Richard III as ‘By William Shake-speare’) published 1 Henry IV as ‘Newly corrected by W. Shake-speare.’

romeo julietIn the same year, Thomas Creede (publisher of Locrine) printed the (still anonymous) Romeo and Juliet for Cuthbert Burby as ‘Newly corrected, augmented and amended’.  In 1602, Creede printed a new edition of Richard III for Andrew Wise as ‘Newly augmented, by William Shakespeare.’  Nicholas Ling’s 1604 Hamlet stated it was ‘By William Shakespeare. Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect Copy.’  Bearing in mind the possibility that Shakespeare was a play-broker who graduated from being the editor of works, to representing the works of others as his own, to what extent can we be sure that Shakespeare was the author of these plays?

This, of course, is the meat of the authorship question. But before addressing the evidence in detail, we must first establish the plausibility of the underlying premise, the hidden author.


Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

The Troublesome Reign of King John – ‘Written by W. Sh’

The Troublesome Reign of King John was first published in 1591 by Sampson Clarke, with no attribution of authorship.

troublesome reign of king johnThe title page stated it was played by Queen Elizabeth’s Men. But in 1611 a new edition was published by John Helme with the addition ‘Written by W. Sh’.  In 1622, Thomas Dewes published a further edition, expanding the attribution to ‘W. Shakespeare’.  A year later, the First Folio included a different King John, The Life and Death of King John, of which Troublesome Reign is acknowledged as a fore-runner and a source.  Writers attributed with the authorship of Troublesome Reign include Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge. Though it belonged to a rival company, it is possible that Troublesome Reign was bought by William Shakespeare and sold to John Helme as being his. Bearing in mind that this play dated from the early 1590s or even 1580s, we should recall that the ‘Poet-Ape’ of Jonson’s poem began his career in play-broking by buying ‘the reversion of old plays’ i.e. plays that were loaned out to another company.  Thus the association with a different company does not rule out Shakespeare’s involvement in this transaction.

The ‘W. Sh’ at least denotes that the attributed author is neither Wentworth Smith nor William Sly. It is possible that John Helme and Thomas Dewes were misled by the title ‘King John’ appearing in a list of plays that Francis Meres attributed to Shakespeare in his Palladis Tamia (1598), and came to believe that this was the same play. But then again, in some sense it was, being a forerunner of Shakespeare’s Life and Death of King John just as The Taming of A Shrew (author unknown) was a forerunner of Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew.


Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

The Puritan – ‘Written by W.S.’

Two further plays were published in Shakespeare’s lifetime under his initials.

puritan widow watling street shakespeare apocryphaIn 1607, George Eld — who would print Shake-speare’s Sonnets two years later — published The Puritan, or the Widow of Watling Street as ‘Written by W.S.’  There is no public link to The King’s Men and it is somewhat quieter in its approach, the initials again allowing for a certain deniability.  This might be reasonably explained by the fact that The Puritan is widely accepted as a play by Thomas Middleton, a playwright who would turn twenty-seven that year, and had not yet had a work published under his own name.

revengers tragedy middleton george eldThe publication of a Middleton play by George Eld under false initials presents a puzzle.  George Eld published other Middleton plays but apparently saw no particular need to publish them under someone else’s initials.  In the same year, 1607, Eld published Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy with no author’s name or initials on the title page.  On 7 October 1607, Eld registered Middleton’s A Trick To Catch the Old One, publishing it anonymously the following year. A second edition, printed by Eld for bookseller Thomas Rocket in 1609, bore a title page declaring it was ‘Composed by T.M.’.  Eld printed a third edition in 1616, ‘By T. Middleton’.  In 1608, Eld printed Middleton’s Your Five Gallants for Richard Bonian as ‘Written by T. Middleton’.  There seems to be no reason why George Eld would put false initials on one Middleton play and not on others, unless he was deliberately guided to do so by the person who provided him with the play.


Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

A Yorkshire Tragedy – ‘Written by William Shakespeare’

The next entry in the register relating to Shakespeare is dated 2 May 1608, and records Thomas Pavier’s registration of ‘A book called A Yorkshire Tragedy, written by Wylliam Shakespere’. The play’s title page again links an apocryphal play to both Shakespeare and his company: ‘Acted by his Majesties Players at the Globe. Written by W. Shakspeare’.

yorkshire tragedy shakespeare apocryphaKatherine Duncan-Jones is unusual among Shakespeare scholars in claiming that the play is indeed by Shakespeare.  She is particularly taken with the fact that the phrase ‘marble-hearted’ appears in both this and King Lear. However, though Duncan-Jones found Shakespeare the only writer to use this phrase according to a search of the Chadwyck Healey LION database, a search of the more comprehensive EEBO (Early English Books Online) database reveals it was used earlier by poet Francis Davison in 1602, appeared in the essays of Michel Montaigne (a recognised influence on Shakespeare), and was subsequently widely employed.  Though both Thomas Heywood and George Wilkins have been suggested as authors of the play, the current critical consensus is that the play was by Thomas Middleton.

Henry V Shakespeare 1602 Pavier CreedeThe publisher of A Yorkshire Tragedy, Thomas Pavier, has been much maligned over the last century for his involvement in the publication of what is known as as The False Folio.  Recent scholarship, however, suggests that his behaviour can easily be explained as an assertion of his existing publication rights, and was was not the act of piracy that has been portrayed.  In fact a detailed study of Pavier by Gerald Johnson demonstrates that he was a reputable publisher, who would not knowingly have risked his reputation by an act of piracy.[1]   Pavier had published a genuine Shakespeare play — the third edition of Henry V — in 1602.  This 1602 quarto was openly associated with Shakespeare’s company — ‘As it hath been sundry times played by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants’ — but had no author’s name attached.  If attaching the name ‘Shakespeare’ to A Yorkshire Tragedy had a profit motive, why would Pavier not have attached that name to Henry V?   And is it really likely that Pavier would deliberately offend the source of plays that were profitable to him by taking that person’s name in vain?   Is it not a more reasonable explanation that A Yorkshire Tragedy was sold to Pavier as being by William Shakespeare, and that the most reasonable source of his manuscript was the company itself?


[1] Gerald D. Johnson, ‘Thomas Pavier, Publisher 1600-1625’,  The Library, 6th Series, 14 (1992): 12-48

Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

The London Prodigal – ‘Written by William Shakespeare’

In 1605 The London Prodigal was published with a similar, but this time, full authoritative gloss: ‘As it was played by the Kings Majesties Servants.  Written by William Shakespeare’.  Again, the author is unknown and disputed.  The printer, Nathaniel Butter, published King Lear three years later with a similar title page attribution: ‘M. William Shake-speare: his true chronicle history of the life and death of King Lear… By his Majesties servants playing usually at the Globe on the Bank-side.’  There are marked differences between this King Lear and 1623 Folio version, but it is not among those books that scholars refer to as ‘bad quartos’; rather, there is evidence that the later version was revised from the earlier one, and aspects of both are used in most versions of Lear now published.

king lear 1608 butter titlepageButter’s quarto of Lear was badly set by its compositors who, it has been shown, were inept and unused to printing plays;[1] Butter did not use the printer, Nicholas Okes, to print any further publications until 1614.  But the compositors’ errors do not mean this first edition of King Lear was unauthorised.  Shakespeare could not be expected to be involved in overseeing the printing process, beyond handing over the manuscript and trusting the publisher to do their job. Madeleine Doran states ‘there is nothing suspicious in the publication…the entry in the Stationers’ Register would seem to prove that it was printed from an authentic manuscript’.[2]

This entry — in a register that rarely gave more than a book’s title — was unusually elaborate.  Dated 26 November 1607, it reads:

Entered for their copy under the hands of Sir George Buck, knight, and the wardens, a book called Mr. William Shakespeare his history of King Lear, as it was played before the Kings majesty at Whitehall upon St. Stephens night at Christmas last by his majesties servants playing usually at the globe on the Bankside.

london prodigalKing Lear was licensed for printing by the same man who had recorded a conversation with Shakespeare on his copy of George A Green.  The entry in the Stationers’ Register does not say that it was written ‘by William Shakespeare’ rather, it records ownership: the book is called Mr William Shakespeare his history of King Lear’.  How likely is it that Shakespeare was unaware of Butter’s printing of The London Prodigal, a property of his company, published openly as a King’s Men play and claiming to be ‘Written by William Shakespeare’?  If the attribution of The London Prodigal had not been authorised, what would possess him to hand over King Lear to the same man?  Does it not seem more reasonable that both The London Prodigal and King Lear were sold to their publisher by Shakespeare?  If King Lear can be accepted as ‘a play printed with the King’s Men’s blessing’, surely The London Prodigal could be regarded in the same light?


[1] Much of the information about the first quarto of King Lear, and the quote about the King’s Men’s blessing regarding its publication, were gleaned from King Lear: New Critical Essays, ed. Jeffrey Cahan (Routledge, 2008), p.176-7.

[2] The Text of King Lear by Madeleine Doran, p.123.

Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

Thomas Lord Cromwell – ‘Written by W.S.’

As we have seen, if Shakespeare was a play broker, his practice in this regard seems to have begun with a revised version of an old play (Locrine), just as Jonson describes with Poet-Ape.  The historical record is of course imperfect; we do not know what is missing, what destroyed. But from the plays that are extant, the next to be published under Shakespeare’s initials was not for another seven years. 1602 saw the publication of Thomas Lord Cromwell, whose author is unknown and disputed. There is a marked step forward in the claim of its title page, for where Locrine was ‘edited, corrected and overseen’, Thomas Lord Cromwell was ‘written by W.S.’ The initials still allow for a degree of deniability.  Had William Shakespeare been challenged on this claim of authorship, he could have denied that he was the ‘W.S.’ of the title page.

thomas lord cromwellAnd of course, it might not be him; again, Wentworth Smith has been forwarded as the possible culprit, and the actor William Sly.  But there are no records of William Sly ever authoring a play or even claiming to do so.  Wentworth Smith at this time was fully engaged in writing plays for rival company the Lord Admiral’s Men and there is no evidence he wrote plays for anyone else. For if we accept that these apocryphal plays were supplied to publishers by our ‘W.S.’, Thomas Lord Cromwell’s title page bears another small but significant escalation; it tells prospective readers that the play has been ‘sundry times publicly acted by the Right Honourable Lord Chamberlain his Servants’. This play, in other words, was owned by Shakespeare’s company.

By the time of its publication, the following eight editions of seven plays had been published linking the name ‘William Shakespeare’ to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men:

  • Richard II (1598): ‘As it hath been publicly acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants. By William Shake-speare.’
  • Richard III (1598): ‘As it hath been lately acted by the Right honourable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants. By William Shake-speare.’
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600): ‘As it hath been sundry times publicly acted, by the Right honourable, the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • 2 Henry IV (1600): ‘As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • Much Ado About Nothing (1600): ‘As it hath been sundry times publicly acted by the right honourable, the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • The Merchant of Venice (1600): ‘As it hath been diverse times acted by the Lord Chamberlain his Servants. Written by William Shakespeare.’
  • Richard III (1602): ‘As it hath been lately acted by the Right Honourable the Lord Chamberlain his servants. Newly augmented, by William Shakespeare.’
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602): ‘By William Shakespeare. As it hath been diverse times acted by the right Honourable my Lord Camberlaines servants. Both before her Majesty, and else-where.’

Given how strongly linked the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and the name ‘William Shakespeare’ had become, it seems reasonable that anyone picking up a copy of Thomas Lord Cromwell in 1602 would make the assumption that ‘W.S.’ was ‘William Shakespeare’.  Who was behind this attribution?

As leading scholar Jonathan Bate points out in his introduction to William Shakespeare & Others, the identification of a play’s original acting company was a mark of authenticity as important as the playwright’s name. Addressing the problem of the apocryphal plays that have Shakespeare’s name or initials, in addition to the name of his company, Bate says:

He might have commissioned them. He might have polished up the raw scripts. As a key member of the company, he explicitly or implicitly signed them off for performance. He did not, as far as we are aware, disassociate himself or his company from them.

The question is whether a man who might commission or buy plays for a company, and perhaps ‘polish’ or adapt them, might have such a proprietorial feeling towards the final text that he might, without any difficulty of conscience, sell it as his own?  That the authorship of this play has not been decided makes it likely it was a co-authored piece, with no single writer having dominance.  As we have seen, a single authorial attribution was becoming important, as publishers were trying to position plays as a form of readable literature.  It is clear from Henslowe’s diary that a play might be written by four of five different writers, working together.  But a publisher didn’t want five names.  They only wanted one.  And in these circumstances, would it not be reasonable for the man who might be termed the commissioning editor, to offer his own?

This is not a unique idea. In our own times, artists such as Damien Hirst – or in an age closer to Shakespeare’s, Leonardo da Vinci – have sold works as their own that were in fact made by a cohort of makers working to the their direction.  In academic publishing, a PhD supervisor (who has done no more than supervise) may get the chief writing credit despite not penning a word.  And as previously mentioned, Hollywood screenwriting credits can be given to the person who originated the idea, or polished the idea, with other writers (who did the donkey work) sometimes getting no credit at all.

Peter Blayney, in his study of the play publishing business, makes the point that plays were not sufficiently profitable for publishers to seek them out.  Plays would have been actively sold to a publisher.[1] The person best placed to do this in the case of a public play was not the author, but the owners of the script; the acting company whose stamp of authorisation is clearly printed on the title page of Thomas Lord Cromwell.


[1] Peter Blayney, ‘Publication of Playbooks’ in A New History of Early English Drama, eds. Cox and Kastan, p. 392.

Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.

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.

Click Here to Subscribe and we’ll notify you about new content.