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.


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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.


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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.


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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

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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.

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From Jonson’s description, the identity of Poet-Ape will clearly be a name with which scholars of early modern drama will be familiar, since this person has ‘grown to a little wealth, and credit in the scene.’   It is a writer, for his works are ‘the frippery of wit’.  It has been suggested that this poem arose out of the so-called War of the Theatres, and is directed at either Thomas Dekker or John Marston.  The War of the Theatres is the name given to the satirical feud that developed between Jonson on one side, and Dekker and Marston on the other, between 1599 and 1602. Jonson’s Poetaster, in which he first used the term ‘poet-ape’, was part of this feud.  If Jonson is calling either Dekker or Marston ‘Poet-Ape’, he is presumably accusing them of being bad poets who recycle other people’s words.

It was common enough for writers to echo and in some cases even plagiarise parts of other people’s works, or even to write thinly-veiled copies of other people’s plays; there were no copyright laws, and theatres required a constant supply of new material.  As Anna Bayman puts it in her study of Dekker’s prose pamphlets, ‘the habit of plagiarism and reuse of material was so commonplace that it could be considered orthodox literary practice’.[1]  Though Dekker railed against derivative poets in his pamphlet The Wonderful Year (1603), calling upon the Muses to ‘banish these Word-pirates… into the gulf of Barbarism’ he was distinctly derivative himself.  Jonson accused Dekker of plagiarism after the latter’s Satiromastix used one of Jonson’s characters (Tucca) from Poetaster.

Yet there is one word in Jonson’s epigram which means we must rule out Dekker’s being Jonson’s Poet-Ape, and that is the word ‘wealth’.   According to the Dictionary of National Biography Dekker was ‘constantly shadowed by debt’ and occasionally overwhelmed by it. He was imprisoned for debt in 1598 and 1599, and then again in 1612, spending seven years behind bars after failing to repay £40 which he had borrowed from the playwright John Webster’s father.

So is John Marston Jonson’s target?  He appears to have been a little wealthier, and Jonson had accused Marston (in the guise of the character Crispinus) of stealing his poetry in Poetaster, saying ‘hang him Plagiary’ (4.3.96).  There is no evidence that Marston was a broker of any kind, but the accusation of ‘brokage’ need not mean that the target was a play-broker. John Marston twice used the word ‘broker’ in situations similar to Jonson’s epigram, and in those passages the term just means to recycle the ideas of others, or to pass them down second-hand.  In Certain Satires I Marston writes of someone who ‘scornes the viol and the scraping stick, / And yet’s but Broker of another’s wit’.  In The Scourge of Villainy we find someone ‘Who ne’er did ope[n] his Apish gurning mouth / But to retail and broke another’s wit.’   In other words, ‘brokage’ may refer to a lesser form of plagiarism, where ‘theft’ refers to the larger form.  There is also nothing in the poem that suggests printed plays.  Though the ‘sluggish gaping auditor’ who ‘marks not whose ’twas first’ could conceivably be an official of the stationer’s company who registered plays, ‘auditor’ also means ‘listener’.

There is an interesting echo in Jonson’s epigram of a scene in an anonymous play of the period, The First Part of the Return to Parnassus, which was performed at Cambridge university around 1601.  In this play, a foolish young man named ‘Gullio’ ‘apes’ poets by quoting, according to a character called Ingenioso, ‘pure Shakespeare and shreds of poetry that he hath gathered at the theatres’, generally misquoting them.  The final line of Jonson’s ‘Poet-Ape’ uses the same word, ‘shreds’, in the final line of his epigram: ‘shreds from the whole piece’.  Ingenioso, like Jonson, refers to this practice as ’theft’: ‘O monstrous theft! I think he will run through a whole book of Samuel Daniel’s.’  He says this in response to a quote from Romeo and Juliet, interestingly associating Shakespeare’s play with misattribution.


So Jonson’s Poet-Ape could be someone who, like Gullio, quotes shreds of other people’s poetry and is (wrongly) thought by his listeners to be have originated those lines himself.   This person is a figure on the theatre scene, whose works are witty. We are likely to have heard of him.  Because he is wealthy, he cannot be Dekker, but could be Marston, whom Jonson had already accused of plagiarism and recycling (‘brokage’)  There is just one sticking place; ‘Poet-Ape’ has bought plays.  Jonson explicitly says that this is how he began: he would ‘buy the reversion of old plays’.  Now you could argue that any aspiring playwright might buy plays in order to study how successful ones were constructed, but there is something about Jonson’s phrasing—buying ‘the reversion’ of a play—that suggests a different kind of buying; something more like a business transaction.   A ‘reversion’ is a term from property law and is a future interest retained by the grantor when the lease expires.  A reversion explains how a play might sometimes be performed by another company than the one that owned it.  And to buy a ‘reversion’ of a play would mean that when that agreement expired, the play would belong to the new owner.   We have no evidence that Marston bought old plays.  His name does not appear on old plays that weren’t his.  Shakespeare’s does.

Just because a piece of evidence doesn’t exist now, it doesn’t mean that it never did. But we can only argue from the evidence we have. Of course one can speculate that Marston bought the rights to old plays, but it is most unlikely. He was not a share-holder in an acting company. Indeed, very few writers held that particular position, and no-one considered a writer of note, except for Shakespeare.  Perhaps there is another writer of ‘wealth and credit in the scene’ whose works were ‘the frippery of wit’, who ‘would [like to?] be thought our chief’ and who bought ‘the reversion of old plays’ but the only one for whom all the evidence exists is Shakespeare.   He is documented as a theatre company shareholder, his grain-related and marriage negotiation activities suggest he involved himself in brokerage outside the theatre, Buck’s seeking his comment on the attribution of George A Greene (and the parallel comment from Juby) suggests he did so within the theatre, and — most critically — his name appeared on plays and poems that were not his.

Which Elizabethan or Jacobean writers of note, active in the period 1590-1616, had works published under their names while they were alive which we know to be written by others?  As far as I can ascertain, the only certain answer to that question is William Shakespeare.  There is no other writer of the period who fits Jonson’s description so perfectly.  Given the prominent role of Shakespeare’s father in the wool trade, Jonson’s final fleece metaphor could even be another identification mark.  There is no better match for Jonson’s description, or indeed any notable writer of the period, besides Shakespeare, whose name was appended, as author, to works he didn’t write.



[1] Anna Bayman, Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London, p.57

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Ambiguity and Interpretation

Literary texts are notoriously slippery, and evade straight-forward interpretation; indeed, the entire academic discipline of English Literature depends upon that being so.

second-best bed willEven legal texts, deliberately written to be unambiguous, are open to interpretation: consider, for example, the line in Shakespeare’s will which bequeaths to his wife Anne his ‘second-best bed’. Even where it is clear what the writer intended (to will Shakespeare’s second-best bed to his wife), scholars argue about the underlying motivation. Was it because it was the marital bed, and had sentimental value (the best bed being saved for visitors)? Or was Shakespeare deliberately snubbing the wife he no longer loved by bequeathing her something shoddy? This bequest to his wife is also an interlineation: Anne was not mentioned in the original text of the will, and this line was squeezed in as if it was an afterthought. Scholars argue about the meaning of that, too. Is this because Shakespeare wanted to make sure she received this important romantic item? Or as a legal ruse to prevent her challenging the will — which passes the bulk of his estate to their eldest daughter Susanna — on the grounds that her husband had not remembered her?

Jonson’s epigram is far more slippery than Shakespeare’s will. As we shall see, it was a dangerous age for writers to speak their minds, and those who wrote satirical epigrams never named their targets, always using language in such a way as to leave their exits open. Some authorship sceptics will tell you that ‘Poet-Ape’ is Jonson’s word for actor, and that this narrows the field towards identifying William Shakespeare as his target. Actors are ‘poet-apes’ in the sense that the writer Robert Greene, addressing three poet-playwrights in 1592, described them as ‘those puppets… that spake from our mouths’. But the term was first coined by Sir Philip Sidney, who in his Apology for Poetry, said that bad poetry was not the fault of poets but of poet-apes: those who thought they could write good poetry but couldn’t. Ben Jonson himself actually distinguished them from actors when he wrote in the prologue of his play Poetaster (1601) ‘Are there no Players here? no Poet-Apes…?’, since he continues ‘Either of these would help me’. So his epigram isn’t necessarily fingering an actor.


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Jonson’s Poet-Ape

In 1616, the year of William Shakespeare’s death, the playwright and satirist Ben Jonson published his Works of Benjamin Jonson. In addition to his plays it contained his epigrams, including this one:

On Poet-Ape

Poor POET-APE, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robb’d, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own:
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose ’twas first: and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece?

This poem, written during the time when William Shakespeare was active, tells a story. Let me share one interpretation of that story. Someone whom Jonson refers to as Poet-Ape has transitioned from being a play-broker to openly putting his name on other people’s plays. He began by buying ‘the reversion of old plays’ but now ‘makes each man’s wit his own’. This man, says Jonson, ‘would be thought our chief’. Chief what? Since Jonson was a poet and playwright, then presumably, chief writer of the period. It is not clear whether Jonson means that Poet-Ape ‘will be thought our chief’, which points towards Shakespeare, or that he has be pretensions to be thought of this way i.e. ‘would like to be thought our chief’, which might apply to anyone. But the person he is mocking is certainly involved in the theatre business, and has made a success of it and money out of it, according to Jonson.

A poet-ape is simply someone who apes a poet — mimics one, or pretends be one — but isn’t one. Many readers will, quite understandably, balk at the idea that the person he is calling Poet-Ape could possibly be William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is England’s national poet. How could someone like Ben Jonson, who referred to Shakespeare in the First Folio as ‘star of poets’, also refer to him as Poet-Ape? We are venturing here into the territory of the Shakespeare authorship question, and indeed this poem — never mentioned in conventional Shakespeare biographies — is a key exhibit for non-Stratfordians, those who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote the works attributed to him.

For Jonson to be referring to the same man as both ‘star of poets’ and ‘Poet-Ape’ is a contradiction too significant for many people to swallow. But Jonson’s conflicting opinions of Shakespeare, though frequently underplayed, are well known. In conversation with William Drummond, for example, he apparently said that ‘Shakespeare wanted art’. A number of orthodox scholars have accepted that Jonson lampooned Shakespeare in one of his plays, and in his private diaries, he appears to criticise him. We will return to the complexities of Jonson, but in the meantime, we should investigate whether Shakespeare is really the best fit for his ‘Poet-Ape’.


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