Greene Was Dying in Poverty

Context matters. Careful scholars, rather than unquestioningly adopting ‘facts’ established by men in powdered wigs, should consider the exact context in which Robert Greene wrote Groatsworth in 1592.


We have no evidence of William Shakespeare’s involvement in the London theatre scene at this time (the first evidence is dated two years later).  He was not, like Edward Alleyn, a leading tragedian of the scene-shaking variety. If he was acting before 1594, it must have been in very minor roles, since there are no reports of him. Nor is there any evidence he was known, even among playwrights, as a writer of plays. Two plays now thought to be his (the fore-runners of Henry VI Parts 1 and 3) were first mentioned in 1592, but as we’ve seen, their authorship has been disputed by orthodox scholars.  In 1594, two years after Groatsworth, the first plays of the Shakespeare canon were published, but not with his name on.

The earliest evidence of William Shakespeare’s involvement in theatre: a payment from December 1594 to shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain’s men.

No-one had mentioned Shakespeare before Robert Greene, and let’s not forget that Greene doesn’t mention Shakespeare either.  This is a possible allusion, not a factual reference. In the rest of Groatsworth, Green’s complaint against a certain actor (The Player) seems to be directed at Edward Alleyn.  In his earlier work Francesco’s Fortunes his complaint against actors is also directed at Alleyn, and compares him to the crow beautified with other’s feathers.  Is it really likely that the complaint against an actor comparing him to that same crow in the Groatsworth letter is about anyone other than Alleyn?


Greene has no documented link to Shakespeare, but has a documented relationship with Alleyn.  When he wrote Groatsworth, he knew he was dying, and dying in poverty.  By contrast, Edward Alleyn was wealthy and successful, thanks to the wit and words of Greene and his fellow playwrights.  The orthodox reading is that Greene, with his dying words, takes a jealous swipe at an up-and-coming playwright no-one has heard of, but this would hardly be a dying man’s concern.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, chief concern, which he could hardly make more obvious, is the disparity of wealth between successful actors (‘those puppets that spake from our mouths’) and the poverty-stricken gentleman scholars (chiefly himself) who ‘spend their wits making plays’, supplying the actors with the source of their riches and fame.  From its title (A Groatsworth of Wit, Bought With A Million of Repentance), through its main text, to its accompanying letters, the focus of Groatsworth is on money, and specifically on the comparatively low monetary value placed on the ‘wit’ of Greene and his fellow writers, despite the fact that it provides actors with their entire living.[1]

The fact that the most successful of these actors has begun to believe he can do without them, plagiarising ‘the best of [them]’ with a blank verse play of his own, is little more than an irritated footnote in Greene’s furious diatribe against injustice.


[1] The ‘groat’ of the title was a small coin worth four pence.

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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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