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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5. ‘The Crafty Cuttle’ – Early Doubts

cuttlefish-squareLong 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.

Joseph Hall

Authorship doubt began in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Orthodox scholars will tell you that there was no doubt about Shakespeare’s authorship until the 1850s, as the depressingly prosaic nature of the historical record connected to Shakespeare became apparent and fell short of the notion of the lone genius author developed by the Romantic poets.  Non-Stratfordians, however, will tell you that doubt began in the sixteenth century, connected to the very first publications to appear under the name ‘William Shakespeare’.

Venus and AdonisThe first of these was the long poem Venus and Adonis, registered anonymously in April 1593 and on the bookstalls by June.  Though there was no name on the title page, it contained an authorial dedication to the Earl of Southampton signed ‘William Shakespeare’.  Orthodox biographies will tell you that William Shakespeare was well established as an author by this time, but the historical record says otherwise.  As far as we can tell, the name was unknown to the general public before it appeared on Venus and Adonis.  Though we have evidence that Titus Andronicus and early versions of Henry VI Parts 2 and 3 had already been staged (they would be published the following year), and scholars believe a number of other canonical plays were already in existence, the audiences would have had less idea of the playwright’s name than we have of the screenwriter’s name when we go to see a movie (which we at least have a chance of noticing, since a movie has credits).  There is no evidence that the name William Shakespeare had appeared in any literary or theatrical context before it appeared on this dedication in 1593.

John Whitgift Archbishop of Canterbury Bishops Ban 1599Venus and Adonis was a sensation, and became the most widely printed work in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  It went through seventeen editions before 1641, and provoked much admiration from other writers.  The next year it was followed by a similar long poem, The Rape of Lucrece.  Doubts about these poems’ authorship were raised, according to non-Stratfordians, in Joseph Hall’s Vergidemiarum (1597-8) and John Marston’s The Metamorphosis of Pygmalion’s Image (1598), both satires.  We are fortunate to possess copies of these texts, since within two years of their publication, they became the first two items listed in the Bishops’ Ban of 1599.   Nine books were specifically singled out for destruction. Scholars disagree about what properties these nine books have in common to cause official offence, but the first two listed share an interest in an author they call ‘Labeo’.

There is evidence that ‘Labeo’ was their name for the author of Venus and Adonis, and that Joseph Hall was the first person to publicly question Shakespeare’s authorship. So what is this evidence, and does it withstand scrutiny?

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

  • Who is the ‘Crafty Cuttle’? Marston and Hall appear to believe that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written under a pseudonym: Labeo.
  • Shakespeare’s But, O, and Hyphenated Adjectives Shakespeare’s first two poems use the hyphenated adjectives that Hall criticises, and also ‘big But Ohs’, assisting his identification as Labeo. But there’s more.
  • Shakespeare, Phoebus and Petrarch Shakespeare’s identification as Hall’s ‘Labeo’ is strengthened by his stealing from Petrarch in Rape of Lucrece, and appealing to Apollo in Venus and Adonis.
  • Shakespeare as Poggies Ghost Hall’s Labeo is referred to as a ‘bawdy Poggies ghost’. What does Hall mean by this, and how does it link to Shakespeare?
  • Lynceus the Boar-Hunter John Marston appears to refer to Joseph Hall as Lynceus, the mythical boar-hunter. How does this help us identify Hall and Marston’s target?
  • Bacon and Mediocria Firma When John Marston used the phrase ‘medocria firma’ – the Bacon family motto – was he suggesting that ‘Labeo’ was Francis Bacon?
  • The Original Labeo Why the nickname Labeo? A look at three possible derivations of Hall’s nickname for the author we know as Shakespeare.
  • The Case for Sixteenth Century Doubt of Shakespeare’s Authorship A summary of the argument that Marston and Hall doubted Shakespeare’s authorship. This powerful combination of evidential points has not been successfully refuted.

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