On Makagutu’s post there is a fun question: who is William Shakespeare? The question doesn’t seem interesting until you note it is an allusion to the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, born 1564 and died 1616, is not William Shakespeare, author if The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet. The idea is not unfounded, but I’m not buying it.
Why would people claim this idea?
Of what is known about the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, not a lot of it explains how he could have written the intricate stories attributed to him. The Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon was born to parents for whom we only have one sample of their handwriting each: a mark to show a signature. This suggests they were illiterate. On top of that, it doesn’t appear the children of the supposed greatest historical British author, ever taught his daughters to write either; their signatures consist of a mark and a ‘drawing’ (Schoenbaum, 1987). The generation both above and below Shakespeare was illiterate and lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, a place that even to this day is a quiet little backwater. In the midst of this, are we to suppose a highly culturally aware literary genius sprung up and didn’t even educate his own daughters?
Well, Ben Jonson (one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries) and Christopher Marlowe (who immediately predated Shakespeare) came from similar backgrounds. On top of the records of these two great playwrights rising from similar backgrounds in the same era, we have no record of a single contemporary questioning whether Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare the actor and Shakespeare the playwright were the same person.
Being from a working class background, as the Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was, one may question why Shakespeare the playwright was unsympathetic about working class people. His plays show them either as comical or as a mob. This can be written off as playing to your paying-audience (the upper classes), but the other assumed inheritance of a working class background in the 16th century would be an ignorance to the sports, interests and leisure activities of the upper classes: hunting, lawn bowls, politics and foreign affairs. Shakespeare the playwright clearly knows a lot about these things, where Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is unlikely to have known anything about these things until after he had written about them and became famous.
King’s New School exists about half a mile from Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon’s house. The principal and teachers were Oxford graduates. Although no register of the school exists, if Shakespeare did attend this school (which was free) that would have been an opportunity to learn about the upper classes he seemed to know so well. King’s New School would also have given him a basic grammar and literary education.
However, whether Shakespeare did attend that school is questionable. Wikipedia shares the only 6 copies of Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon’s signature (here) and they are easily dismissed as an illiterate scrawl. If Shakespeare’s signature is a barely legible illiterate scrawl, is it reasonable to suppose he authored plays where other people could memorise the lines?
In those pictures, you can also see that Shakespeare’s name is spelled inconsistently. Sometimes it includes a hyphen (Shak-spear; Shake-speare). People who doubt the playwright and the man from Stratford-upon-Avon are the same man construe this to be a type of parody, the same thing we see in other descriptive fictional names (Sir Woo-all, Master Shoe-Tie, Tom Tell-Truth). Others argue that the inconsistency in his name derives from many authors all operating under the pseudonym, like Homer of Homer’s Odyssey (or James Bond).
The paper-trail left by Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon suggests he was a successful business man. To my mind, that negates the claim he was illiterate. However, this means many believe Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon’s role in theatre was primarily a financial one. People who believe this believe someone falsified all documents which suggest otherwise, done to protect the identity of the true author (who may have had an inappropriate political agenda, been in a position that banned them from commercial playwriting or had already faked their death… all real hypotheses).
When Shakespeare died, he had written a will which made no reference to his unpublished works or to theatre at all (except in dubious reference to fellow actors). The argument from people who doubt the two Shakespeares are the same person believe the true author of ‘The Works Shakespeare’ added references to the fellow actors after the will was first completed, suggesting this too was a cover up (however, in 1616, the Prerogative court of the Archbishop of Canterbury confirmed the entire will to be that of William Shakespeare). On top of this, no contemporary eulogy or mourning was recorded. These three pictures depict the monument commemorating Shakespeare’s death. From right to left they are: as it was portrayed in 1656, as it appears today and as it was portrayed in 1748 before a restoration. The earliest two can easily be seen not as a wordsmith holding a pen, but as man grasping a bag. This, prior to the restoration, could be a commemoration of John Shakespeare (William’s father and a notable wool trader) (Vickers, 2006). Again, the modern day wordsmith is merely a cover up.
So, why don’t I buy it?
Let me first clarify that I believe Shakespeare existed. Both the man from Stratford-upon-Avon and the playwright. But I also believe they are the same person (as do most people, although most aren’t aware that such a debate even exists).
I am ready to change my mind on this. In fact, in researching for this post I have found information I did not find last time I really bothered to look up the information (when I was 15/16 years old and studying Shakespeare at school). I am less certain now than I was 40 minutes ago and wrote the introduction to this post. However, I still am not convinced that Shakespeare is a pseudonym for a third-party. Firstly, there is no robust reason for selecting any third-party. Some people believe it is Marlowe (who would have to use a pseudonym because he was already recorded as dead by the time Shakespeare’s name was attributed to something) or Francis Bacon (who would have used a pseudonym if he had authored Shakespeare’s plays because they are more right-wing than his professed position) or Derby or Oxford (both of whom were restricted by social etiquette to publish anything for commercial reasons). Although all these people had motives to use a pseudonym if they had authored the work it is much harder to demonstrate any of them had written anything.
Also, the identity of Shakespeare is established using the same methods as used to identify just about any historical figure from the 17th Century and earlier. To cast doubt on Shakespeare is to cast doubt on the very methods historians use, and all Shakespeare’s contemporaries and predecessors (imagine how little we could claim about Chaucer!). Francis Beaumont, a contemporary of Shakespeare, notes in a letter to his teacher, Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare has gone far without “schollershippe” (Milward, 1965. pg 85). That explicitly refers to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon and not Francis Bacon. Not only did Shakespeare have recognition from Beaumont, but he had recognition widely across the country. Francis Meres referred to him in Palladis Tamia. Official and literary references to Shakespeare included the title “Gentleman” (which Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon used because his father was award the Coat of Arms).
“Entred for their copies vnder the handes of the wardens. Twoo bookes. the one called: Muche a Doo about nothinge. Thother the second parte of the history of kinge henry the iiijth with the humors of Sr John ffalstaff: Wrytten by mr Shakespere” (my emphasis – also, that is how the title “gentleman” was denoted)
– Wise and Aspley, August 1600
“Entred for their copie under thandes of Sr George Buck knight & Thwardens A booke called. Mr William Shakespeare his historye of Kynge Lear as yt was played before the kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon St Stephans night at Christmas Last by his maiesties servantes playinge vsually at the globe on the Banksyde”
– Butter and Busby, November 1607
Many contemporaries refer not only to William Shakespeare (in some spelling or another) but also to the title and social status of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon. In eulogies immediately following Shakespeare’s death, many contemporaries explicitly refer to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon or the “gentleman”:
Ben Jonson explicitly identified William Shakespeare, gentleman, as the author in the title of his eulogy, “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us”, published in the First Folio (1623). Other poets identified Shakespeare the gentleman as the author in the titles of their eulogies, also published in the First Folio: “Upon the Lines and Life of the Famous Scenic Poet, Master William Shakespeare” by Hugh Holland and “To the Memory of the Deceased Author, Master W. Shakespeare” by Leonard Digges.
– Shakespeare authorship question, Wikipedia
Plays at the time were heavily censored. To hold people accountable for the content of the their plays, a legal body existed for the sole purpose of correctly attributed plays to authors. This body was the Revels Office. The Deputy Master of the Revels, Sir George Buc, not only consulted Mr Shakespeare for help (meaning Mr Shakespeare was known in theatre circles) but also licensed King Lear in 1607. Mr Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, had legal recognition as the author of that play.
Mr Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not very educated. He almost certainly had no training in the classics. However, the author and playwright rubbed shoulders with enough university educated playwrights to gain some level of familiarity with them. This fact alone explained the errors that betrays the author’s unawareness of classical literature. Other hypotheses, including ‘it was the Earl of Oxford’, can’t account for the fact the complete works of Shakespeare includes a certain ignorance of classical literature (and Makagutu assures me, ignorance of Italian geography, even if his knowledge of Italian culture is quite good).
In terms of vocabulary, Shakespeare’s word did not differ from his contemporaries. The difference is Shakespeare didn’t show off his understanding or knowledge of Latin (perhaps, because he didn’t know any). The allusions Shakespeare uses are confined to the curriculum of the time. His allusions are not his genius, his observations of people are.
Shakespeare had bad handwriting and he didn’t educate his daughters. However, all his contemporaries and even the law recognised him as the author of his plays at the time. The plays are consistent with a man who had an intermittent education, not of a man with a thorough university education (as all the proposed alternatives had).
Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon is the Shakespeare that bores students of secondary education even to this day.