Skip to content

No Evidence ===> Evidence

July 6, 2017

William Shakspere of Stratford was an actor in London. The company he was a part of put on Shakespeare plays.

That’s it. That’s the evidence.

Shakspere’s life is pretty well documented. He lived from 1564 to 1616 and was known as a businessman-actor. No evidence from his lifetime beyond the association with the acting company connects him to Shakespeare. He died mostly unknown.

What happened next gives the expression “Never say die” new meaning.

Seven years after Shakspere died, thirty-six Shakespeare plays, the majority of which hadn’t been published before, showed up in a monumental publication called the First Folio. Shakspere was gone but not forgotten. His tombstone read in part, “Blessed be ye man that spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones.” Now this doggerel would be canceled out by the beauty of the First Folio.

Shakspere was suddenly a great writer. Indeed, the preface to the First Folio referenced him, personally. There’s no doubt about the meaning of the reference.

A monument was also built sometime between 1616 and 1623 in the church at Shakspere’s burial site. The monument changed Shakspere’s name to Shakspeare and likened him to Socrates, Virgil, and Nestor all rolled into one.

Congratulations were clearly in order. It’s just a shame Shakspere wasn’t around to revel in all the attention.

Some people such as Shakespearean actor Sir Derek Jacobi and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the scholars at the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center are suspicious about what we might call the Great Shakspere Apotheosis.

No Evidence

Shakespeare plays were published and sold for many years, sometimes in corrupted versions, and Shakspere never sued for the rights to “his” plays and poems. No one, not Shakspere and not the company he was a part of, complained when Shakespeare plays were published, regardless of how badly butchered the publication was.

Shakspere did occasionally sue his neighbors for small sums, however. Those records survived just fine.

No one regarded Shakspere as a writer while he lived. There were plenty of personal references to him, just none that mention writing. To his friends and neighbors, Shakspere was a businessman and an actor, nothing more. Shoenbaum, the classic Shakespeare biographer, marveled at this little fact without considering its implications.

If you were an Elizabethan author, your friends said you were. In fact, they wrote it down. These personal references survive today in large numbers, whether you are Ben Jonson or Francis Beaumont or Thomas Nashe or any one of two dozen authors analyzed by Diana Price.

The best the mainstream can do for Shakspere along these lines is a comment from Leonard Digges, who lived near Shakspere and might (theoretically) have met him at some point. Digges wrote briefly that the Spanish have their Lope de Vega and we [English] have our Shakespeare. This is supposed to be a personal reference!

This kind of reasoning indicates desperation. It goes nicely with the equally powerful claim that the published Shakespeare plays are evidence that Shakspere wrote them.

Shakspere had a big house full of possessions that he disbursed in a three-page will which mentioned no books, no letters, no bookshelves, no writing desks, no inkwells, no quills, no manuscripts, no paper.

Shakspere had two children who reached adulthood. They weren’t literate. Obviously, literacy in the case of children is not inherited genetically, but it is nevertheless inherited. If your father is the greatest writer in England, you can read his works.

That’s the end of the Shakspere story. He and Francis Beaumont died in 1616, Beaumont in March, Shakspere in April. Beaumont was buried in Westminster Abbey with Chaucer and Spenser. Shakspere wasn’t.

Except for Shakspere’s association with an acting company that put on various plays including Shakespeare plays, no evidence from his life has been found by anyone indicating he was the author. And it’s not for lack of trying. People have been searching for centuries for any tiny reference that might connect Shakspere to Shakespeare.

Unless you are willing to believe that a person can suddenly become a writer seven years after his death, the sixty or seventy documents (it depends how you count them) that have been uncovered make it clear he was a semi-literate actor with a name similar to a pseudonym being used by someone else.

In some ways, it’s a very easy discussion to have. No one ever claimed to have met Shakespeare the great writer. There are no documents suggesting that Shakspere of Stratford was a writer of any kind much less Shakespeare and that’s it, we’re done. Unless you say acting is the same thing as writing or published work under a similar name is evidence of authorship or someone who lives near you saying “our Shakespeare” is a personal reference, there is nothing to even create a basis for discussion much less certainty that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare!

Evidence

Seven years after Shakspere died, everything changed. Shakspere transmogrified into Shakespeare. A couple of earls got their hands on 24 plays that had not been published in decent versions during the author’s lifetime, added the 12 accurately published plays, left out the sonnets and epic poems, made some cryptic comments about Shakespeare being from Stratford, complained about stolen and surreptitious copies having been published all these years, and built a monument to Shakspere in Stratford in which his name was changed to Shakespeare. Shakespeare was thus immortalized in what is known as the First Folio.

And that was that.

The reason for the deception is obvious. Shakespeare dedicated his two epic poems to the Earl of Southampton and wrote a series of sonnets about Southampton’s life. Southampton had been convicted of high treason in 1601 and sentenced to death for trying to control the succession when Elizabeth was dying. His co-conspirators were all executed, but Southampton was released when King James ascended the throne. Southampton was even rewarded: he was made a Knight of the Garter and captain of the Isle of Wights.

No one knows what was going on. Southampton obviously had a claim to the throne or some other ace up his sleeve. Whatever the truth is, the earl was white-hot. He was lucky to survive. There is more than enough intrigue here to explain why epic poems dedicated to him and sonnets discussing his life were left out of the First Folio.

Southampton’s politics are also sufficient to motivate a cover-up of the true author of the plays and poems, especially if Southampton really had a claim to the throne as seems likely given his extraordinary treatment.

For whatever reason, a semi-literate actor was turned into Shakespeare and we all fell for it, including yours truly. But really, it’s quite weak as hoaxes go. The people building the monument and writing the preface to the First Folio could not alter the documentary record.

As Mark Twain noted, it is surprising anyone fell for it.

P.S. Technically, we don’t know who built the monument in Stratford. I claim it is obvious that it was the same people who put together the First Folio, but if you want Shakspere to have written Shakespeare, you might reject that claim and say it was built by his family or others close to him who wanted to commemorate the man they knew as a great writer. Sure.

 

 

Advertisements

From → Shakespeare

2 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Re Paragraph 7: The monument in Trinity Church refers to the subject as ‘SHAKSPEARE’, not ‘SHAKESPEARE’.

  2. Quite right. Thanks for catching that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: