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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Lynceus the Boar-Hunter

Whoever conjured up ‘this bawdy Poggies ghost’, Joseph Hall believed that works of ‘heroic poesy’ with sexual subject matter, full of hyphenated adjectives, where many lines begin with ‘But’ or ‘O’, fronted by a request for guidance from Phoebus/Apollo, and/or mirroring whole pages of Petrarch, were written by someone he calls Labeo, and published under another person’s name. If there are other works of the period that have all of these characteristics, no-one has yet named them.

But if orthodox scholars feel Hall leaves the identification open, John Marston, answering Hall in The Metamorphosis of Pigmalion’s Image and Certain Satires (1598), pinpoints Venus and Adonis as the target of Hall’s criticism, paraphrasing two lines of it in a reference to Labeo:

So Labeo did complain his love was stone,
Obdurate, flinty, so relentless none:
Yet Lynceus knows, that in the end of this,
He wrought as strange a metamorphosis.

The first two lines reference lines 200-1 of Venus and Adonis:

Art thou obdurate, flinty, hard as steel?
Nay more then flint, for stone at rain relenteth

It was common for writers of the period to near-plagiarise each other, as we have seen, so one could argue that this is all Marston is doing.  However, we should not forget Hall’s Labeo has seven points of correspondence with Shakespeare’s two published works, and Marston’s Labeo ‘did complaine his love was stone’ in exactly the same terms that Adonis does in Shakespeare’s poem.

The ‘Lynceus’ of Marston’s poem is commonly thought to be Hall. Lynceus means lynx-eyed.  The original Lynceus was an argonaut who participated in the hunt for the Caledonian boar.  Since the crests of both the Bacon family and the de Vere family contained a wild boar, supporters of the authorship of Sir Francis Bacon and the 17th Earl of Oxford suggest that the choice of the name Lynceus (boar-hunter) for Hall points towards their candidate.  But a wild boar may simply pinpoint the text under debate, since the animal is the source of the culminating tragedy of Venus and Adonis; it is a wild boar that gores Adonis to death.

Since there were other boar-hunting argonauts, why might Marston choose Lynceus in particular?  Lynceus, as well as being a boar-hunter, was the jealous murderer of Castor (twin of Pollux and the brother of Helen of Troy).  In the satirical poems in the same volume Marston says it is Hall’s ‘envious eye’ that leads to him attack other writers.  In other words, it is possible that Lynx-eyed Lynceus was selected not only for the boar-hunting which so usefully ties to the boar motif of Venus and Adonis, but for his murderous envy.


Commentators on Marston’s poem note that Marston is comparing the metamorphosis of Pygmalion to that of Adonis who, after his death, is transformed by Venus into an anemone, a flower whose beauty can be enjoyed only briefly.  I have seen suggestions that it is Labeo’s male lover (a biographical leap if ever there was one), or sharp-eyed observer Lynceus who ‘wrought as strange a metamorphosis’. However the most obvious subject of the sentence is the person first referenced, Labeo himself: it is Labeo who has metamorphosed into Shakespeare; the very thing that ‘Lynceus [Hall] knows’.

Does John Marston know who ‘Labeo’ is?


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Shakespeare as Poggies Ghost

Joseph Hall’s ‘Labeo’ is a better fit for Shakespeare than any other writer of the period. Labeo’s poems as we have seen, share strong stylistic qualities with Shakespeare’s two narrative poems (the only works published as Shakespeare’s at the time Hall was writing), and Labeo, like Shakespeare, appealed to Phoebus (Apollo) to help him write, and stole whole pages of text from Petrarch.

The final identifying mark is the sexual nature of these poems: the future bishop urges the author to ‘write cleanly Labeo, or write none’.  The erotic content of Venus and Adonis is considered a key reason why it became a best-seller, and was read to disintegration (only one copy of the first edition survives).  The Rape of Lucrece, though darker and more disturbing, nevertheless has a sexual act at its core. Hall asks:

But who coniur’d this bawdy Poggies ghost,
From out the stews of his lewd home-bred coast:
Or wicked Rablais dronken revellings,
To grace the mis-rule of our Tavernings?
For shame write cleanly Labeo, or write none.

This section begins with a question about authorship: ‘But who conjured this …’? We have already noted that Hall has accused the author of publishing ‘under another’s name‘; now he is prompting the reader to question who the author might be. ‘Rablais’ is a reference to François Rabelais, a major writer of the French renaissance known for the bawdiness of his tales.  But as far as I can ascertain, there has been little discussion of the phrase ‘Poggies ghost’ in the academic literature or elsewhere.

Zw-acb-MachiavelliThe reference is somewhat obscure.  ‘Poggi’ is Italian for ‘hillock’. There was a Cardinal Giovani Poggio or Poggi, who died in the mid-sixteenth century.  A note by Alexander Groshart in The Complete Poems of Joseph Hall (1879) suggests that ‘Poggi’  refers to The Facetiae  of Poggio Bracciolini, called ‘the most famous jokebook of the Renaissance’; Poggio’s writing style has been described as ‘mildly erotic wit’.[1]  Stylistically, this is another good fit for Venus and Adonis.

A search on Early English Books Online turns up no other references to ‘Poggie’ or ‘Poggy’ but does lead us to two works by Nicholai Machiavelli, an author much read and referenced by writers of the 16th century.  One refers to the whole family Poggi who rebelled against their ruler, Castruccio Castracani.  When Stephano Poggi persuaded them to settle their differences, Castracani at first promised them pardons, saying ‘that he thank’d his stars for giving him such an opportunity of signalizing his clemency’ and then (perhaps predictably) had the whole family (including Stephano Poggi) executed. The second refers to a Giacopo di Poggio: ‘a young man well learned, but ambitious, & delighting in change’ who was  persuaded to join a conspiracy and subsequently executed for his part in it.   Machiavelli’s two examples of rebellious and (unfairly?) executed Poggies seem the most likely Poggies to generate ghosts.

drunkardsBut Hall’s Poggie’s ghost is also bawdy, linked to drunkenness, taverns and stews (neighbourhoods occupied mostly by brothels). The reference to ‘his lewd home-bred coast’ needs unpacking.  Home-bred meant native or indigenous, but around this time, it also came to mean uncultured or unsophisticated, as when Robert Carew in 1602 said ‘Not only the home bred multitude… but even persons of the better calling.’  The original meaning of ‘coast’ was ‘side’, which might refer to the side of the body as much as to the side of the land (the only meaning we still give it). Might it be used here to mean the side of a person, as in ‘his lewd uncultured side’?

ChristopherMarlowe_1856Who might Hall mean by ‘Poggies ghost’?  If we were to select a candidate from any writer of the period, the best fit is surely Christopher Marlowe.  Marlowe was a learned, ambitious and rebellious young man, who was linked by his contemporaries with taverns and unsavoury neighbourhoods.  His contemporary Robert Greene, for example, accused him of frequenting brothels; saying of Marlowe and his friend that ‘too much frequenting the hot house (to use the German proverb) hath sweat out all the greatest part of their wits’.[2]  Two ‘Poggies’ would remind the well-read Elizabethan of Machiavelli, with whom Marlowe is associated: he made Machiavelli a character in The Jew of Malta, having him deliver the prologue.

The Marlovian case for the authorship of the Shakespeare canon centres on Marlowe faking his death in order to escape being (unfairly) executed by the state (as Machiavelli’s Poggies were).  As he was supposed to have been killed in a tavern brawl some four years before the publication of Halls’ Vergidemiarum, one would be hard pressed to find a better fit for ‘this bawdy Poggies ghost’.

faustuswoodcutlargeThe earlier phrase relating to Labeo’s complaining about ‘wronged faith or fame’ is also a good fit for Marlowe who was famously outspoken and was facing charges of atheism and heresy when he was supposedly stabbed in an argument over a bill for food and drink. Hall’s use of the word ‘conjure’ (‘who conjured up this bawdy Poggies ghost’) is also fitting for a man famous for his stage-rendering of the hell-bound magician, Dr Faustus.  Is Hall saying that the author of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece is writing like Marlowe?  If so, he is not alone, for numerous modern scholars have noted the same thing: the editors of the recent Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Poems, for example, describe ‘compelling links’ between Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander.[3]  Marlowe, who had also translated Ovid’s Amores, the source of the quote on Venus‘s title page, specialized in epic poetry of a sexual nature.


[1] Barbara C. Bowen (1988), One hundred Renaissance jokes: an anthology, p. 5.

[2] From the preface of Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1588), it is a reference to the Badestube, the German traditional bathhouse that, since the Middle Ages, was frequently combined with a brothel.  Greene’s jibe that Marlowe and his friend ‘hath sweat out all the greatest part of their wits’ suggests the mercury-vapour steam-baths used to treat syphilis.

[3] Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen (eds), Shakespeare’s Poems (Arden 2007), p21.

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Shakespeare, Phoebus and Petrarch

Establishing that Joseph Hall was the earliest Shakespeare authorship doubter is underway. The poems he is attacking are heroic in nature, use hyphenated adjectives, and begin many lines with ‘But’ and ‘O’. There are two other distinctive characteristics referred to by Hall which are rarely if ever mentioned by commentators in this debate.

The first is his observation:

Phoebus filled him with intelligence:
He can implore the heathen deities
To guide his bold and busy enterprise.

Shakespeare is by no means alone among Renaissance writers who regularly invoked the names of Greek and Roman deities in his work, having been influenced by the ancient poets at the centre of a humanist Renaissance education. But Venus and Adonis is prominently fronted by a quote from Ovid that very specifically invokes Apollo, also known as Phoebus, asking the ancient god of music, poetry, art, sun, light and knowledge very specifically to ‘guide… his enterprise’:

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.

which Marlowe translated as

Let base conceited wits admire vile things.
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

The second rarely quoted quality of works by ‘Labeo’ that Hall mentions is that they owe a debt to Petrarch.  Hall observes that the author can ask for Phoebus’s guidance (as Shakespeare does in Venus and Adonis)

Or filch whole pages at a clap for need,
From honest Petrarch, clad in English weed.

Lynne Enterline notes how the post-rape scenes in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece are essentially stolen from Petrarch’s canzone delle metamorphosi.[1]

  • After she is raped, ‘Lucrece shares with Petrarch a keen sense of her want of verbal skill.’  Both Shakespeare and Petrarch ‘represent such self-alienation in language by summoning Ovidian characters (Actaeon and Philomel)’.
  • Shakespeare mirrors Petrarch’s language exactly: where Petrarch expresses alienation from himself as ‘Non son mio, no’ — ‘I am not my own, no’, we are told of Lucrece that ‘She is not her own’.
  • A taboo against speaking provokes the poet of Petrarch’s narrative to call for pen and paper: ‘ond’io gridai con carta et con inconstro’— ‘whence I cried out for paper and ink’.  This sentiment, too, is mirrored exactly by Shakespeare: Lucrece, finding spoken language of no use to her, calls to her maid: ‘Go get me hither paper ink and pen’.

Thus Hall, in his declaration of the two alternative actions that Labeo can take to write verse that (as he admits) reaches the ‘true strains’ of heroic poetry, exactly pinpoints two actions that Shakespeare took in the only works published under that name when Hall was writing; invoking Apollo/Phoebus to guide the writing of Venus and Adonis, and ‘filch[ing] whole pages from Petrarch’ in The Rape of Lucrece.

And there is one more identifying mark from Hall.


[1] Lynne Enterline, The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare (CUP 2006), p.171-4.


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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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