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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The Original Labeo

A Lawyer?

Baconians argue that the model for Hall’s ‘Labeo’ was Marcus Antistius Labeo, a celebrated Roman lawyer who lost favour with the Emperor Augustine for opposing his views.  This Labeo fits nicely with their candidate because Bacon was a lawyer who lost favour with the Queen.

A Bad Poet?

But a more obvious referent was the Roman poet Attius Labeo, whose Latin translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were so dreadful that his name became a by-word for bad verse.  Hall, after all, urges his Labeo to ‘write better… or write none’.

A Front?

Alexander Waugh has proposed Quintus Fabius Labeo, a Consul of the Roman Republic, who was linked to the African-slave-turned-Roman-playwright Publius Terence.  Terence was regarded, even in his lifetime, as having help from another writer or writers, or even being their ‘front’.  Terence did not deny it.  The prologue to The Adelphi says

… For this,
Which malice tells that certain noble persons
Assist the bard, and write in concert with him,
That which they deem a heavy slander, he
Esteems his greatest praise: that he can please
Those who in war, in peace, as counsellors,
Have rendered you the dearest services,
And ever borne their faculties so meekly.

Though it is often considered that Terence’s plays may have originated with Scipio or Laelius, ancient biographer Santra proposed Quintus Fabius Labeo as one of three more likely sources of Terence’s plays.  The name Labeo therefore potentially references another case of author concealment not unlike Hall’s ‘crafty cuttle’.

Which is it?

The lawyer Labeo can be reasonably discarded, as there is nothing within the text to support it (given we have established that ‘mediocria firma‘ is not a reference to the Bacon family motto). But either of the others (the bad poet, or the concealed author) fit with Hall’s attack on Labeo, and he may have known of both Labeos.  From a sample of currently digitised texts on EEBO, it seems the first (the archetypal bad poet) was better known than the second (proposed by Santra and quoted in Suetonius’s Life of Terence).  I have also seen it argued that the name Labeo is taken from the word ‘Labeon’ which means ‘argumentative’ and ‘blubber-lipped’.  But given the amount of space and energy that Hall expends on attacking Labeo’s works, my money is still with ‘bad poet’.


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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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His Name is On the Plays

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

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

The Apocryphal Plays

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

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

The Apocryphal Poems

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

‘Rogue Publisher’ Theory

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

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

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

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

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

“Careless about literary fame”

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

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

Plays for Reading

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

Plays Corrected

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


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

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

The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Erne, p.86.

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

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Absence of Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

‘The dog did nothing in the night time!’

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

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

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

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Evidence vs Story

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

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

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

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

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

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron:        That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron:       Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron:        Villain, I have done thy mother.

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

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

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

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