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Need Another Seven Astronauts

July 3, 2021

The space shuttle blew up and now NASA stands for “Need Another Seven Astronauts.” Get it?

It’s not funny.

Christa McAuliffe died for no reason. What happened was, for me, a touchstone, something to keep coming back to, something terrible to avoid. It’s way worse than most people realize.

It was January 1986. Florida had historic cold weather. Morton Thiokol (aka MT) engineers told their bosses no fucking way (technical language, not profanity). The launch was cancelled.

Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis boarding the space shuttle in January 1986.

The engineers at MT knew their shit (another technical term) and their bosses knew they knew their shit. Specifically, they knew the o-rings had never worked the way they were supposed to and they knew all about the danger this presented to the billion-dollar shuttle and to the astronauts aboard. The previous year, a launch at 53 degrees — the coldest launch ever — almost became the fires of Hell on takeoff. The primary o-ring failed, the secondary o-ring held, and disaster was averted — that time. No one knew how close the shuttle crew had come to the abyss until the solid rocket boosters were recovered: the engineers, looking at the soot on the wrong side of the primary o-ring, felt death’s dateless night settling into their bones.

And they didn’t forget.  

From the beginning of the o-ring story — they never worked the way they were supposed to — the engineers and their bosses considered redesigning the whole o-ring system but instead upgraded the secondary o-ring to “critical” status which recognized the fact that a failure of this one component would be catastrophic: the original idea that the o-rings would back each other up had to be scrapped because of the design flaw.

A redesign would (and eventually did) fix the problem but that was a year or two of work and NASA had a schedule to keep. 

On that terrible day in Florida in January 1986, the historic cold was historic as in 23 degrees historic. Given the failure the previous year at 53 degrees and given the fact that rubber gets stiff in the cold and given the fact that stiff o-rings don’t seal as well and given the fact that if both o-rings leak simulateously everyone dies, the engineers said “no fucking way” as in “no FUCKING way.” And that was that. Except that it wasn’t.

NASA, which at that time stood for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, pushed back on the launch cancellation (yes, really). On the phone call with an annoyed NASA administrator who had probably been president of his debating team in college, the MT engineers admitted they couldn’t PROVE temperature was the reason one of the o-rings had failed during the 53-degree launch. The NASA guy pointed out that the primary o-ring hadn’t worked perfectly at 75 degrees but had worked at 65 degrees: the engineers didn’t have perfect data and the thermometer was innocent until proven guilty. 

Since they couldn’t PROVE temperature was a factor, the NASA administrator suggested the MT engineers reconsider their it’s-too-cold cancellation.

Off the phone, speaking with their four bosses, the MT engineers said, again, that even though they couldn’t PROVE the o-rings were affected by temperature, they had very good reason to be concerned and strongly recommended keeping the launch fucking cancelled you morons are you batshit crazy why are we even having this conversation? They were more polite than that but they pointed out that “no fucking way” really does mean “no FUCKING way” and this instance was no exception.

They didn’t really talk that way but, on the edge of tears, two of them approached the boss’s table and drew impromptu diagrams to better explain what could happen if the two o-rings failed simultaneously. They got nowhere possibly because the safety process had always been absurdly rigorous with everyone expressing all kinds of concern about little imperfections in nozzle edges and other things that didn’t impact safety. So they had been, quite reasonably overdoing it a bit.

Now the four bosses, who, having been trained as engineers before moving into management positions should have known better, had become complacent. They thought the engineers were being overly cautious and they wanted to please NASA because NASA decides where the money flows. 

One way or another, ALL of the engineers saying, effectively in unison, “we think the shuttle might explode” didn’t make an impression on four human beings who had become four brick walls. They were smart, experienced, knowledgeable, good, kind, and honest. They were consummate professionals. But irrationality had got the better of them. 

He was told to take off his engineering hat.

THOUGHT 1: You can’t prove it is unsafe; therefore, it is safe.

THOUGHT 2: The evidence indicates it may not be safe; but evidence can be wrong.

QUOTE 1: “Am I the only one who wants to fly?”

QUOTE 2: “It’s time to take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.”

Quote 1 was spoken by the senior management guy to everyone in the room. Quote 2 was spoken by the senior management guy to the newest member of the management team. Thought 1 and Thought 2, irrationality distilled, came out and were admitted to during the hearings. The late Sally Ride, having her “What were you thinking?” questions answered so starkly, staring into the cold depths of irrational behavior, was left momentarily speechless. 

I often imagine Christa McAuliffe and the other six occupants of the shuttle’s cockpit listening to the back-and-forth first between Morton Thiokol and NASA and then between the managers and engineers at Morton Thiokol. If McAuliffe and her fellow astronauts been privvy to the discussions, there would have been no launch.

All seven astronauts survived the explosion, by the way, but died when the intact cockpit arced into the Atlantic ocean at 200 mph as Christa McAuliffe’s students watched on live TV. 

After the funerals, the formal inquiry began. Sally Ride spent a week drowning in insanity and we humans learned a lot about ourselves.

But it gets worse. The space shuttle was by no means an isolated occurrence. This sort of thing not only happens all the time, it is happening right now. That’s what we are going to explore in this essay. I don’t know what to call it. How about this: Wherefore art thou Irrational?

The intact cockpit arced to the right. McAuliffe and the other astronauts were alive but doomed.

My great uncle was dying. It was the early 1980’s. He had stomach ulcers and there was no cure. Drastic surgeries (he had part of his stomach removed) did not guarantee success. Ulcers were caused by excess stomach acid — the bacteria theory had been thrown out. My great uncle died at about the same time as Christa McAuliffe. (As far as I know: my family history has a few gaps.) 

Right around this time, a medical researcher, inspired by a colleague who doubted the stomach acid theory, found evidence indicating that ulcers were actually caused by bacteria. He got busy curing ulcers.

He was eventually able to publish his findings but it was an uphill battle convincing other researchers. The ulcer thing was old news — doctors had treated thousands of patients for “too much stomach acid” based on the 1954 study that had supposedly ruled out bacteria but that no one had bothered to check. 

The heretical researcher, desperate to convince people, cultured bacteria from an ulcer patient’s stomach, turned it into a delicious cocktail, and then had his own stomach checked for ulcers. His boss told him he (the boss) didn’t want to know why he (the researcher) was checking himself for ulcers. The researcher, without informing his boss OR his wife, drank the delicious cocktail. It was NOT happy hour.

Kneeling on his bathroom floor after making his fateful decision, and busily throwing up, he looked up and found himself staring into the eyes of his not-happy wife. His only regret is not recording her reaction. Suffice to say the mother of four children was not happy about her partner-in-life purposely making himself sick with a potentially contagious illness that often turned into deadly stomach cancer. 

The researcher checked himself again and found ulcers. He had infected himself with bacteria. He had no ulcers prior to the self-infection. After the self-infection, he had ulcers. Ergo, bacteria (Helicobacter Pylori) caused ulcers. Now it was a matter of creating a treatment regimen that would work on most patients. 

He didn’t end up treating himself because his immune system cleared the infection without help. He got to work but his colleagues made it clear they were not going to believe him no matter how many “stunts” he pulled. It took another ten years to convcince them. Meanwhile, my great uncle died. 

The mainstream of any field is like a jackhammer. You can’t sculpt David with it but it sure is useful for the right job. One person, even a committed scientist willing to risk his life (in more ways than one), can’t make the final decision no matter how great a guy he is. The stubborn mainstream must have the the final word.

Here’s what the mainstream finally said: “Oh my God, we’ve been wrong all this time.”

Our hero, Barry Marshall, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005 along with his mentor Robin Warren whose research had paved the way to Marshall’s doubts about the old theory. 

Barry Marshall accepting the Nobel Prize.

The wine at the Nobel dinner is said to be exceptional and I like to imagine the researcher’s wife, with the contents of a couple of glasses of wine resting in her belly and twenty years’ distance between her and the events in the bathroom, staring into her husband’s Nobel laureate eyes. I figure he looks good in a tuxedo and his eyes are probably gleaming what with the pretty medallion you get and all. I imagine this is the moment when she finally forgives him for putting his research ahead of his own life. 

That year, 2005, was a banner year for rationality. In addition to ulcers being officially curable, the terrifying and deadly human irrationality phenomenon called “arson investigation” was finally discredited. This nonsense would no longer be admissible in U.S. courts and people convicted on the basis of drivel would be released from prison. 

It was too late for Todd Willingham. He had been executed the year before for supposedly setting fire to his house and murdering his three children with no discernible motive. Now, one year later, with the worms crawling in and crawling out of Willingham’s rotting corpse, the pseudo-scientific arson investigation that had condemned an innocent man to death was finally taken out with the trash.

This thing called “arson investigation” was a bizarre form of pseudoscience involving a coterie of people who credentialed one another so that they could provide “expert” testimony in court. This process was akin to hiring a whole team of foxes to guard your hen-house. I don’t want to repeat myself but I am saying that “arson investigation” was allowed in U.S. courts into the early years of the twenty-first century: witch trials happened in my lifetime.

Today, “arson investigation” is known to be the equivalent of tea-leaf reading not quite up to the standards of Madame Trelawney.

After being fingered by people who were basically clowns, and not the entertaining kind, Todd Willingham was convicted on the basis of “pour patterns” and “crazed glass” and other fantasies. The judge allowed it while Willingham’s lawyer, the free kind, went through the motions, punched the clock, assumed his client was guilty, and did not insist that the scientific tests using modern equipment be considered in the case. These tests, with the results available during the trial, ruled out gasoline or any other type of accelerant being used to start the fire but didn’t save Willingham.

In 2004, with his last words, Willingham professed his innocence. The New Yorker had a heartbreaking piece about it some years back. The fire that killed Todd Willingham’s three children was an ordinary electrical fire. He died for being too poor to not have space heaters in his house and for being too poor to afford Alan Dershowitz as his lawyer.

Unless the New Yorker article is a tissue of lies, there would seem to be no doubt the state of Texas killed an innocent man.

Todd Willingham did not purposely burn down his house to murder his three children.

In 2007, Rudy Guede murdered Meredith Kercher in Italy, left his DNA inside her body, and fled to Germany where he was quickly caught. But Amanda Knox was just too pretty for police to ignore. Before Guede was identified as the murderer, they bullied her into “confessing” that she had seen her boss kill her housemate. In fact, they told her they knew she was present when Meredith died and told her that she must have blocked what happened out of her mind and at 2 am had her convinced that if she didn’t “remember” she would go to jail for life as an accomplice to her housemate’s murder.

A smack to the back of Knox’s head was enough to “convince” her to “remember” the absurd story concocted by police about her (totally innocent) boss. Knox’s boss had an alibi with half a dozen witnesses. Knox had an alibi too: her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. The police took care of that by nailing Sollecito with their little confession game and the two naive kids ended up in prison for four years before the judge in the second trial sent them home.

When in Italy to not underestimate the ability of the police to manipulate their system: if you’ve been arrested, say voglio un avvocato and NOTHING else; if offered a pen with which to sign your name on ANY document, touch neither pen nor document. 

The strange little farce that followed Knox and Sollecito’s display of naiveté might be called a “trial.” But calling it “Monty Python’s Burn the Witch skit brought to life” would be more descriptive. Knox and Sollecito didn’t need a defense: the prosecution’s case was their defense. The tabloids didn’t exactly embrace rationality, however, nor did the general public.  

The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, the actual murderer (Guede) entered a guilty plea and was quietly imprisoned.

It didn’t matter how obvious the whole thing was. Amanda Knox has nice breasts and millions of people decided to believe the prosecution’s theory which was literally that she had seduced Sollecito and Guede into killing for her. The story was too good to not be true.

Even the victim’s family fell for it. To this day, Meredith Kercher’s parents and siblings believe their beloved was murdered by an irresistible woman who controlled her sweetie-pie boyfriend and a drug dealer who had been horribly abused as a child and who was suffering from what we call “mental illness” that resulted from his childhood trauma. Guede wrote of the horror of being awash in Meredith Kercher’s blood and how it reminded him of the blood that poured out of his own head when he was five years old, hit over head and locked out of his house. Guede wrote that he would never hurt a woman — who were all beautiful mothers as far as he was concerned — and said he had tried to save Meredith but could not. 

After the verdict, with Knox and Sollecito facing much of the rest of their lives in prison, the first judge explained everything in the report he produced per Italian law. This report stands as one of history’s most eloquent celebrations of circular reasoning. The judge carefully explains that all evidence is uncertain and that once you have an idea of what will be proven, you can always create a self-reinforcing scenario and a fortress of certainty that cannot be breached even by scientific data which can, the judge reminds us, be wrong. It was and is breathtaking in its overt rejection of the most basic logic.  

Knox and Sollecito and their lawyers appealed and there was another trial. The second judge knew (and said) it was all nonsense; for him, freeing the two innocent people was just a matter of dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. He contracted a couple of scientists at Italy’s top university to evaluate the “evidence” presented in the case. The two scientists predictably wrote a careful, detailed report full of careful, detailed scientific commentary. But the report of the scientists can be boiled down to three words: That’s. Not. Funny.

The second judge put an end to the real-life Monty Python skit and sent the two kids home. On the plane ride home, Knox repeatedly forgot that she no longer had to speak Italian. Sollecito, at his home Italy, just stood in front of his open refrigerator staring at what was inside and marveling that he was allowed to eat it. The actual murderer, Guede, remained in prison and was released in 2021. 

For Knox, being pretty was a crime.

Sollecito was offered a deal by police: if he testified against Knox, he could go home. He told them to go to Hell. 

The speed of light is constant. It couldn’t have been faster in the early universe because we know the speed of light is a constant. That’s what we call things like the speed of light: physical constants. As in constant. As in unchanging. We don’t need evidence. It is constant because it is constant.  

Except for one thing. Physicists have no knowledge about how or why or when the physical “constants” were set to their present values. There is no guarantee at all that any physical constant is truly constant over astronomical time. In fact, anyone wondering about the big bang and the current uniformity of the observable universe might wonder if a faster speed of light at the moment of creation might have smoothed things out enough for the universe to look the way it does today. 

I had this idea myself as an undergraduate when I first learned about the big bang. It would be really interesting, I thought, if the physical constants weren’t constant and it might explain some things. A lot of people had this idea. A few of them pursued it seriously and created detailed theories incorporating the fairly obvious idea.

They found the door to the journals locked by physicists who, having been raised on relativity and quantum mechanics, were nevertheless so unwilling to think outside the box that they could not accept even the possibility that the speed of light might vary in astronomical time. This is more like just opening the box a tiny crack than actually thinking outside it but apparently it was still too much for mainstream scientists. 

The theory might still be languishing in the minds of a handful of people if it hadn’t been for a particularly strong-willed physicist who basically took a battering ram to the locked door. It took ten or twenty years but today variable speed of light (VSL) theories make up a thriving sub-field in physics and may have already sown the seeds of the next big breakthrough.

Joao Magueijo, the physicist who wouldn’t stay in the box.

A person sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle listening to the NASA-MT conversations would abort the launch and the same goes for a child listening to the conversation. It was that bad. 

Anyone who is not a professional making his or her livelihood by treating ulcer patients for excess acid would pay attention when a researcher is so sure of himself that he drinks a bacteria cocktail and gives himself ulcers.

A panel of independent scientists tasked with evaluating “pour patterns” for the courts would send the “arson investigators” home to try their hand at writing fiction.

Only people whipped up with patriotic fervor or, like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, seeking attention, would look at a prosecution’s nonsensical “case” and believe two people removed their own DNA from the crime scene but left a burglar’s DNA untouched. 

Only a professional physicist consumed by worries about peers and fashion and status to the point where he or she has lost the ability to think creatively would declare upon first hearing about the theory from a colleague that VSL stands for “very silly” because “everyone knows the physical constants can’t change” when in fact we don’t know any such thing and all physicists know we don’t know any such thing. 

In all of these cases we find that people, including professional scholars, jurists, and scientists, are capable of puting aside “evidence-based reasoning” in favor of “social reasoning.”

Evidence-based reasoning means simply following the evidence where-ever it leads which usually means creating a set of probabilities for what might be true. The number of people who believe something is irrelevant to evidence-based reasoning; how something sounds (even if it sounds “very silly”) is irrelevant; how pretty a young woman is has nothing to do with whether she murdered her housemate; politics doesn’t matter; even expertise doesn’t matter; money is irrelevant; fashion and status don’t count; your personal bias will impact your judgment of probabilities and must be acknowledged and set aside as much as possible; certainty or near-certainty must be regarded as extremely rare things, not as the goal of your investigation. Evidence-based reasoning boils down to honesty. 

I like to conceptualize social reasoning as coming in three flavors: trust-based, faith-based, and premise-based. Trust (type 1) and faith (type 2) are part of what we do as humans: we can’t get along without believing in each other at least some of the time and we have to have a set of beliefs and values that define us and that we don’t have to prove. There’s nothing wrong with trust and faith. 

But premise-based reasoning is a different beast. In premise-based reasoning, we decide what must be true and then pretend to do evidence-based reasoning in order to defend it. We don’t follow the evidence where-ever it may lead; we decide where we are going and then we stretch and twist and flip and suppress the evidence as needed to make sure we get there. In the end, reality is buried and, if we are launching a space shuttle or engaged in another life-and-death decision-making process, people may be buried too. 

Most of what I know is type 1 social reasoning: trust. I haven’t been to the Moon personally but I’m certain humans have walked on the Moon.

On the other hand, my faith in common ground and the power of common ground and the value of common ground isn’t something I can prove — I just like common ground and believe in common ground. That’s type 2 social reasoning.

I try not to do type 3 social reasoning, ever. When I found out that I had been fooled by the coverage of the Amanda Knox case I didn’t try to twist the evidence to fit my previous belief, I admitted I hadn’t looked into it properly: I had assumed that the “double DNA knife” was a real thing. It wasn’t, I was mistaken, and that happens sometimes: trust carries with it the risk of being misled. 

It’s easy enough to identify type 3 social reasoning: look for zingers. The weaker a premise-based argument is the more likely the practitioner of type 3 social reasoning is to resort to zingers, gotchas, and clever phrasing.

Legal reasoning (which was NOT done in the Knox or Willingham cases) is a variant of type 3 social reasoning. We could call it type 3* social reasoning where the asterisk alerts us to the fact that the idea of legal reasoning is NOT to find the truth but to determine if the accused can be proven guilty after being presumed innocent. The presumption of innocence is meant to prevent type 3* social reasoning from turning into ordinary type 3 social reasoning in which the accused can be assumed guilty as a premise and then that premise can be supported by zingers and other tricks of the trade (which we will discuss in a moment). This sometimes leads to an innocent person being “proven” guilty. 

On the other hand, type 3* social reasoning sometimes allows criminals to be found “not guilty” in courtrooms or in political settings. Type 3* social reasoning allows for something that modern parlance has amusingly labeled “plausible deniability.” This is a lovely construction but it is of course contradiction in terms since the denial is actually implausible but cannot be get over the legal bar of presumed innocence and is therefore not so much plausible as it is “good enough.” 

A murderer who clearly “did it” might go free because of “plausible deniability.” A perpetrator of sexual assault might achieve an exalted status even if he makes us wish we had an award for the worst liar in history. Even a president who engages in illegal weapons transfers can retain a positive legacy in many people’s minds as long as he might possibly not have “done it.” The fact is, “deny, deny, deny” works because “deniability,” even if it is only barely “plausible” is enough to protect the person (or idea) that is presumed innocent.   

The typical type 3 social reasoner is a scholar or scientist heavily invested in a long-standing paradigm like “ulcers are caused by stomach acid.” It may also be a judge heavily invested in a legal outcome such as “Amanda Knox is guilty.” For type 3 social reasoners, evidence is a tool used to defend a premise. Following the evidence where-ever it leads is not the point; the premise is the point. The tactics/techniques/methods used to defend a premise I like to group into five catagories. 

The first tactic is the most obvious: select only the evidence that supports the desired outcome and spend a lot of time talking about it. Contradictory evidence is sometimes consciously ignored by scientists and scholars and sometimes not even seen at all almost as if it is invisible to them. This tactic is dangerous for practitioners because it can damage their credibility but is commonly employed nevertheless. Marshall’s ulcers-are-caused-by-bacteria evidence was simply ignored in the United States for the better part of a decade.

If contradictory evidence cannot be ignored, it has to be “explained” by a made-up scenario: this is the second technique and makes up the bulk of paradigm-saving arguments when a paradigm is drowning as it were in contradictory evidence. It is relatively safe inasmuch as creating a plausible scenario is something we all do to fill in gaps in our knowledge though it can sometimes spin out of control and into comedy again damaging the credibility of practitioners. Meredith Kercher’s family was taken in by made-up scenarios many of which were comical. 

The third technique is to make a legal (type 3*) argument: if the other “side” can’t prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, you can claim “plausible deniability” and ignore the other side’s case. This is how the crew of the space shuttle died. What’s ironic is that legal reasoning actually is appropriate for something like a space shuttle: however, as a horrified Sally Ride noted, it is the people who want to launch who have to prove their case, NOT the other way around. In general, paradigms that have become entrenched ban be defended by a demand that any challenge be accompanied by absolute proof. Magueijo’s Variable Speed of Light (VSL) theory ran into this obstacle. 

The fourth technique is to introduce faux-complexity. After a skeletal version of an idea or event is agreed upon, careful analysis of tiny details can improve understanding. When there is a lot of uncertainty (or outright fraud) and when the goal of of the type 3 social reasoner is to deflect attention from the uncertainty (or fraud), complexity is useful tactic. Meredith Kercher was murdered by a mentally ill drifter with no visible means of support in the middle of crime spree who left his DNA inside her body and on her purse and left his handprint in her blood on a pillow and who then fled to Germany. Type 3 social reasoners used the claim that case was “complex” as part of a cover-up of their own criminal behavior.  

The fifth and final technique is to simply resort to nonsense — either nonsensical “facts” or nonsensical “reasoning.” Arguing with factually incorrect information is dangerous for someone trying to defend a paradigm because, again, they can lose credibility. Faulty reasoning is dangerous for the same reason but is much more common. The most common type of faulty reasoning is circular reasoning. Todd Willingham was first presumed guilty in violation of his civil rights and then the premise that he was guilty was supported by “arson investigators” who claimed to be “experts” because their closed community had annointed its members as “experts” because whenever they learned to recognize the same “pour patterns” as the other “experts.”

(Yes, it really was that bad. Willingham was executed (legally murdered would more accurate) in the 21st century because evidence no more valid than tea-leaf reading was permitted in a U.S. court until 2005.) 

Thomas Kuhn’s famous book about paradigm shifts, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, makes the fascinating point that circular reasoning actually has its place in a comparison of two paradigms: consciously assuming a premise and following out the results of that assumption while keeping in mind that you are engaging in circular reasoning is one way of confirming or denying the value and even the probable correctness of the premise.

However, circular reasoning does NOT prove the premise and even quite erudite practioners can exhibit overconfidence in their premise when they carelessly use circular reasoning and then claim that they have proof. At most, assuming that your paradigm is correct can demonstrate its explanatory power which then allows you to compare it to other paradigms and see which one is more effective and having “everything fall into place.” So circular reasoning is a valid part of the debate. In such a debate, both paradigms are considered as premises that might or might not be true and their value is compared. 

However, a paradigm cannot prove itself true by circular reasoning: it can only be claimed to be superior to another proposed paradigm that must also be assumed true in order to make the comparison. Smart people frequently use circular reasoning to try to prove their paradigm: the trick is to skip the step where assume the truth of the competing paradigm. 

Before we examine the main topic of this essay, I want to relate what is a pretty much perfect, very real and very recent, “textbook example” of type 3 social reasoning combined with a technique #2, made-up scenarios, used to defend a long-standing paradigm that may very well be wrong. 

This example is also hugely consequential for all of humanity, maybe.

First, let’s go back a few decades. As a kid (I think I was about twelve), I learned that our solar system formed four billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust. I expected that of course scientists would next say it was just a matter of time before we discovered planets around other stars in the galaxy. I looked carefully in the book I was reading but didn’t even find speculation about other star systems.

I don’t know if other books written over the last several decades were willing to make this obvious point: probably the galaxy is full of planets. It might be an interesting study to see how many professional astronomers were on record as stating the obvious. Fast forward a few decades and exoplanets are being discovered every day.

I’m shocked, shocked to see that the galaxy is full of planets. 

So it is now safe to talk about extra-solar planets (called exoplanets by professional astronomers). But what about life on those other planets? Hmm. Let’s see. Life on earth appeared billions of years ago almost as soon as the planet was formed out of gas and dust. Hmm. Might there be possibly be life that evolved on any of the billions of non-earth planets in the galaxy over the past few billion years? We don’t know. 

Or do we?

The first visual exoplanet. The twelve-year-old boy was right!

An object tracked in 2017 entered our solar system most definitely from the outside. It was the first extra-solar object ever seen and there it was just ambling through our living room as if we had an open-door policy. It didn’t knock though it did wink.

At first astonomers thought, quite reasonably, that this extra-solar visitor they were tracking was an asteroid. It might have been a comet of course but comets have tails and there was no tail hence the asteroid designation.

So it was an asteroid ejected from another solar system now wandering between solar systems. There are undoubtedly many such objects in the galaxy so it wasn’t really that big of a deal. All of the new equipment we’ve built was working well and astronomers celebrated our new ability to detect extra-solar vistors to go along with our new ability to detect extra-solar planets. All was well.

But then the visitor went off course. Way off course. Astronomers really know their gravity and they are very good at tracking things and predicting trajectories. They knew absolutely where this thing was going to go. But it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. 

Normally, an astronomical object going off course is no big deal. Comets outgas when they are close to the sun and the gas is a jet and the jet sends the comet randomly off course in a totally irregular and unpredictable manner. So it should have been nothing. Except comets have tails.

Well, maybe the tail was invisible for some reason. Our equipment is pretty good at detecting cometary tails, but a comet with an invisible tail was still the best guess. But there were problems. Its acceleration off the gravitational trajectory was awfully smooth. Even a comet with an invisible tail would not deviate smoothly. Where was the randomness? Odd

And then it got far from the sun. The outgassing and acceleration should have abruptly stopped — that’s how comets behave. But it kept right on accelerating smooth as silk. Quite odd.

And it was rotating. Every 8 hours and a few minutes it would complete one rotation. It was like clockwork. Outgassing — even with invisible gas — should have changed its rotation rate. It didn’t. Crazy odd.

Oh, and there’s one more thing. Comets are more or less round. This thing wasn’t even close to round. It was shaped like nothing anyone had ever seen. There wasn’t enough data to create a clear picture (if you saw a picture, it was an “artist’s conception”) but scientists knew it was either long and narrow like a crazy interstellar cigar or wide and thin like a wild interstellar pancake.

What do we say now? We’ve done “odd” and “quite odd” and “crazy odd.” It’s a something with a never-changing rotation and a never-seen-before shape going smoothly off course no matter how far from the sun it gets and all that’s according to the some of the most conservative scientists on Earth. So what do we say? Odd, quite odd, crazy odd, super odd?

Or maybe just “Oh my fucking God.” 

Whether the scientists did or did not use the lord’s name in this not-so-respectful but hopefully not-too-offensive manner (I’m only human for god’s sake), the scientists were, let us say, nonplussed. It’s a wonderful word nonplussed; it goes back to Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know who made it up, but it came to mean “bewildered and shocked” though it is sometimes these days used to convey “unfazed and nonchalant” which I find confusing but then words are pliable things over time and we must be flexible. But I digress.

Getting back to the story, the nonplussed astronomers called the object “Oumuamua” which is Hawaiian for “messenger from afar.” The astonomers tracked it until it left the solar system. Today, it is too far away to track; it’s gone. No one knows what it was. 

Had you listed Oumuamua’s observed characteristics hypothetically for any astronomer in 2016, they would have laughed and complimented you on your understanding of their instruments and on your creativity. Before you even finished describing your hypothetical off-trajectory-with-no-tail-and-smooth-as-silk-deviation object, you’d be interrupted: “Yes, yes, a spaceship. We aren’t going to see that. But you sure do know your stuff.”  

When presented with the real thing, astronomers went right to type 3 social reasoning: Oumuamua couldn’t possibly be what it looked like so they had to make up other possible explanations (any one of which could be true we must note). 

Oumuamua was a “hydrogen iceberg” never before seen or imagined.

Oumuamua was a “tenuous gravitationally bound gas” never before seen or imagined.

As long as their theories, however unlikely, didn’t “sound funny” the scientists would be safe from ridicule.

Avi Loeb, the chairman of the astronomy department at Harvard, doesn’t believe in type 3 social reasoning, so he stated the obvious. Loeb and post-doc Shmuel Bialy said Oumuamua might be exactly what it looked like: a derelict spacecraft built by a non-human civilization.

Based on its shape and trajectory, Loeb and the post-doc guessed it might be a “lightsail.” The concept of a lightsail has long been known to scientists: an interstellar spaceship could be built that would use the sun’s photons to accelerate with no need of fuel; very high speeds can theoretically be achieved this way. A human-produced lightsail would be an ideal way to remotely explore our nearest stellar neighbor : we may well build one in the forseeable future.

Loeb regards the scenarios his colleagues presented to avoid talking about extrasolar civilizations as unlikely in the extreme. On the other hand, he would be the first to admit that without a photograph, we can’t identify it definitively. If you were betting and you had the option of betting on “spacecraft” or betting on “anything else,” you would be perfectly justified in choosing the latter. 

From an epistemological standpoint, the Oumuamua story is a thing of beauty: I couldn’t have created a a better example of type 3 social reasoning if I were making it up. Had you presented Oumuamua’s characteristics to any professional astronomer in 2016 that astronomer would have said, “You are describing a spacecraft.” But then the real thing came through in 2017 and they couldn’t bring themselves to say it. Only Loeb and Bialy (and maybe a few others I don’t know about) could. 

Most, and probably all, of the claims that UFO’s are flying around in earth’s atmosphere or landing in our backyards or abducting our spouses are utter nonsense and can be sensibly ignored. Unfortunately, this “overhang of nonsense” has done its part to prevent nervous astronomers from admitting what Loeb notes is nothing more or less than a simple fact:

The only thing we know of that would behave like Oumuamua is a spacecraft.

A second visitor from outside the solar system was tracked recently. No imaginations were stretched: it was a comet. There will undoubtedly be more extra-solar objects to talk about in the coming years. Maybe we’ll see another Oumuamua-like thing and get a better look at it. Maybe it will turn out to be a natural object never before seen or imagined. Or maybe it will be the most momentous discovery in human history.

From an epistemological perspective, it doesn’t matter whether or not Loeb’s guess about Oumuamua is right or the mainstream’s pronouncements are right. What matters is the question, “What is science?” Here’s one answer: “I’m terrified of being lumped in with the alien abduction crowd so I have to define science as that which refuses to accept momentuous discoveries if they sound funny and therefore even though Oumuamua looks exactly like a spacecraft, I’m going to insist that it MUST be a natural object even though I have no idea what sort of natural object would behave as Oumuamua does.”

That’s not evidence-based reasoning. If you are doing evidence-based reasoning you follow the evidence where-ever it leads and you estimate probabilities without worrying about fashion or status.

What are the chances Oumuamua was a spacecraft? Our estimate isn’t based on much data because we’ve only seen two extra-solar visitors. If you assume there are three types of extra-solar object — comets, asteroids, and spacecraft — then Oumuamua was a spacecraft unless something went wrong with the astonomers’ instrumentation. With only three types of extra-solar object under consideration, the probability that Oumuamua was a spacecraft would be above 99%.

But there could possibly be many, many types of extra-solar object that we are unaware of and unless the galaxy is filled with spacecraft produced by civilizations that have come and gone over the past few billion years (a possibility!), it would seem unlikely that the first extra-solar object we see should be one of those spacecraft. Surely natural objects of all types ejected from solar systems hugely outnumber spacecraft. On the other hand, maybe once a civilization gets going technologically it becomes natural to send out thousands of spacecraft a year.

We’ve sent half a dozen or so exploratory vehicles out of our own solar system already and we’re just getting started. Remote exploration with small spacecraft can easily get cranked up to huge numbers. Maybe, over the next thousand years of so, we’ll send out millions of small craft of ever-increasing sophistication. It is a certainty that most of all of the spacecraft we’ve sent out will eventually pass through other solar systems. Who knows what the residents, if any, of those other solar systems will think?

We don’t know enough to come up with a good estimate of probability for what Oumuamua might be. It looks, from the data, exactly like a spacecraft — that’s a simple fact that has, unaccountably, caused most scientists to run away screaming nonsense about how Oumuamua MUST BE some kind of exotic object. We’ll know a lot more in ten years when we’ve seen more extra-solar objects.  

And yet we’ve learned a lot from Oumuamua — about ourselves. The scientists’ reaction to Oumuamua is indicative of the “resistance” to all momentous discovery that Thomas Kuhn talked about in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Eventually, humanity will encounter other technological civilizations or their remains. It’s just a matter of time. And that time may have been 2017. Yes, you can ignore alien abduction stories. But you can’t ignore Oumuamua. 

Harvard professor Avi Loeb says the only thing we know of that would act like Oumuamua is a spacecraft. Lucky for him he has tenure.

All of the previous cases are done deals in one way or another: the shuttle exploded; ulcers are curable; Willingham is dead; Knox and Sollecito are free; VSL is a going concern; Oumuamua is gone but not forgotten. There are other cases, showcases for epistomology, that are still in process that have a great deal to say about the nature of knowledge, reality, and what we call “truth.”

Type 3 social reasoning rears its head as always and we get to see the squid ink, demands that non-mainstream theories be perfect and proven beyond doubt, scenarios galore to “explain” any problems with the “official” premise, and a shocking stream of nonsense emitted from the pens of experts who are absolutely certain when there is no certainty to be had and are therefore driven to employ the tools of professional propagandists.

This final example carries with it the usual high intellectual cost of premise-based reasoning but we can rejoice in one thing: no lives are at stake. 

Still, I worry. If, in the long run, humanity doesn’t survive, our end may be traceable to our inability or unwillingness to make use of the great gift of rationality. There’s nothing wrong with trust (type 1) and nothing wrong with faith (type 2), but premise-based (type 3) reasoning can be downright dangerous. It killed Christa McAuliffe and the other astronauts, almost destroyed Knox and Sollecito (because the judge wasn’t impartial), sacrificed my great uncle, almost squashed some interesting physics, and ran scared from a fascinating visitation in 2017.

The Todd Willingham case was a little different as there was a strong component of type 1 social reasoning in which the judge and jury trusted the “arson investigators” who were actually tea-leaf readers. In all of the cases where people have been hurt, they’ve been hurt by an excess of certitude.  

The following exposition I dedicate to all people who have died when certainty infected their fellow humans who did not actually know anything.  

In the 1990’s, a doctoral student at UMass Amherst told his professors he wanted to write his Ph.D. thesis on a forbidden topic: “Shakespeare,” according to this otherwise completely normal student, was a pseudonym. Mainstream research, the student claimed, had uncovered this a long time ago.

The faculty members listened patiently. The student, Roger Stritmatter, said that it was actually pretty obvious from the historical record that the leading court playwright in Elizabethan England — a man known as a great playwright even though no plays were attributed to him — had been using the “Shakespeare” pseudonym as his mask.

According to Stritmatter, the main thing the traditional attribution had going for it was just that — tradition.

Stritmatter proposed to the UMass Amherst Comparative Literature faculty that he be allowed to accept what he regarded as obvious, move forward in his study of Shakespeare, and take on an interesting project for his graduate work. 

The man who Stritmatter said was Shakespeare had left behind a bible and in that bible were markings and underlinings. One thing was clear: if this man was NOT Shakespeare, his bible identified him as a big fan of Shakespearean biblical allusions!

Stritmatter proposed to study this bible and its centuries-old markings along with Shakespeare’s favorite biblical allusions and the biblical allusions of other Elizabethan authors. He would write up the results of a multi-year study as a dissertation.  

At the beginning of the 20th century physicists were doing what Stritmatter was proposing: they knew matter was mostly empty space between tiny atoms and they were studying the atoms while the mainstream complained that matter couldn’t be mostly empty space because that “sounded funny.”  Stritmatter proposed to assume the traditional authorship attribution was wrong and move on with his study of Shakespeare even if his work “sounded funny.” 

You would think the professors at a reputable university would say no to this crazy project. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. We know he did without a doubt. If the Comparative Literature program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is going to grant a Ph.D. to someone writing about the so-called “Shakespeare authorship question,” then maybe the Department of Geology will need to start granting doctorates to people who believe the Earth is flat.

No, no, no, a thousand times NO!

But the professors said YES and Stritmatter did his research, wrote his dissertation, and got his Ph.D. 

UMass Amherst: headquarters of the rebellion.

Today (circa 2020) the heretic of Amherst is a tenured professor at a small college in Maryland. He recently published a scholarly book in which he and Canadian author Lynne Kositsky examined the evidence for the date of composition of Shakespeare’s probable last play, The Tempest and concluded it was written within a few years of 1600, much earlier than previously thought. If their analysis is correct, the timing is huge problem: it’s too early for the businessman named Shakespeare long thought to be the author. William Shakespeare of Stratford had just got to London circa 1600; he couldn’t be wrapping up his career so soon.

So the stakes of the Stritmatter-Kositsky study, as far as history is concerned, are quite high. 

Oxford University Press is as mainstream as mainstream gets. They actually took the time to review the little bomb dropped by the heretic and his colleague. The review said the work was “informative and well-written” and would “spark renewed debate and discussion of this topic.”

Everyone at Oxford University Press knows exactly why Stritmatter is so interested in the dating of The Tempest. The review, in toto, could be described as glowing. Stritmatter’s book itself wasn’t published by Oxford University Press and it’s not as if mainstreamers are abandoning the traditional authorship attribution. Nevertheless, a positive review on this topic carrying the imprimatur of such a venerable institution may be regarded on the future as the crucial  breakthrough. 

After UMass Amherst broke ranks but before Oxford University Press joined them in supporting heresy, professor James Shapiro wrote a (popular) book of his own to address what he saw as a disturbing lack of reason spreading through the public and even amongst some of his colleagues. He couldn’t understand how the UMass Amherst faculty could have granted a Ph.D. to someone writing about such an unreasonable idea. He found it “vexing” that many “thoughtful and well-informed” people regarded Shakespeare as a possible pseudonym.

So Shapiro wrote Contested Will  in 2010 to study this “disturbing” phenomenon.  

Even one of Shapiro’s colleagues at Columbia, the late Professor Kristin Linklater, had questioned the usual premise. Shapiro is painfully aware that it wasn’t just her. Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), U.S. Supreme Court Justices Powell and Blackmun, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Nobel laureates John Galsworthy and Roger Penrose, Professor Don Rubin of York University, Professor Ros Barber at the University of London, and a “disturbingly” long list of other professionals and amateurs (there’s a list at doubtaboutwill.org) have been drawn in by the siren call of what Shapiro regards as a silly conspiracy theory.  

Fortunately, Shapiro said in 2010, the journals of his profession were “walled off” from any and all of his colleagues who would question the conventional wisdom. Today, Shapiro’s wall is still standing strong except for the crack forming with UMass Amherst at one end and Oxford University Press at the other.

A personal note: I find Shapiro’s unwillingness to countenance his colleagues publishing in journals to be . . . bad, for lack of a better word. In fact, I hold it to be self evident that If some number “X” of experts want to question a premise, there exists a value of “X” of modest size such that the questioning becomes de facto legitimate. Any observer can set “X” to any value that seems reasonable to that observer: for Shakespeare, we are quite likely there. 

Continuing along the lines of my personal journey, I assumed for decades that the so-called Shakespeare authorship question was Flat Earth Society nonsense, not worth looking into. In other words, I did type 1 social reasoning, something I do rather often because I can’t research everything.

One day I was reading an author I trusted — Michael Hart, a physicist like me — who had looked into the question. Having made his initial judgment using type 1 social reasoning, Hart decided to look into the question: starting with the assumption that we don’t know who wrote the plays, he looked at the evidence ignoring the number of people who had any given opinion. In other words, he started from scratch. 

It’s easy enough to exchange type 1 social reasoning for type 3 social reasoning. You follow the usual five-step process: find evidence that supports the original premise, quote that evidence, develop scenarios to “explain” evidence that doesn’t fit, note that the “other side” has not proven its case, note how complicated it all is, throw in a little circular reasoning and Viola! you’ve saved the original theory. 

Har didn’t do that. He studied the question “from scratch” and found himself agreeing with Stritmatter. In the second edition of his great book The 100, he corrected what he regarded as a his mistake caused by type 1 social reasoning. 

Still skeptical, but now curious, I followed Hart’s example and started reading. I was surprised at what I found.   

Do scholarly journals really need walls to protect them from experts who would question a premise?

Why did the wall get built in the first place? Shapiro and the rest of the mainstream are knowledgeable and intelligent: surely their viewpoint has reason behind it.

Mainstream “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” people have some hard evidence to point to. On the other hand, the problems with the famous “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” tautology begin pretty much immediately.

A half-dozen or so people named William Shakespeare were living in and around London as the 16th century drew to a close — it was a common name. One of the William Shakespeares was a successful businessman from nearby Stratford who traveled for a few days and showed up in London in the mid-1590’s. He eventually became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. He had an investment portfolio in Stratford as well including shares in local agriculture, a wide range of real estate holdings (his most valuable assets), and plenty of cash.

Stratford agriculture and London theater benefitted from investors like Shakespeare who in turn benefitted from good crop yields and crowded theaters. Shakespeare, who was willing to loan money and not shy about going to court to collect his due but was able to avoid a tax bill in London and put his own creditors on the slow track, outdid his father who was also a Stratford wheeler-dealer (as we would say today) but couldn’t hold a candle to his son. Houses, barns, stables, orchards, and acreage in Shakespeare’s hands both appreciated in value while he owned them and produced income.

We don’t know how much money he made as an acting company shareholder but with thousands of people packing into the Globe theater to watch Shakespeare plays and other plays, it is reasonable to assume the man from Stratford with the famous name did quite well for himself. When he died, he was one of the richest men in Stratford.

Through the 1590’s, into the 1600’s, and beyond, Shakespeare plays lined the shelves of London bookstores making all other authors put together look like so many fourth place finishers. The plays were not merely brilliant, funny, and erudite — they were loaded with insider quips and commentary that seemed to come straight from the Queen’s court. The popularity and dominance of Shakespeare plays in Elizabethan England has no modern parallel.

If Meghan Markle and Prince Harry leaked photographs of themselves kissing passionately and touching and undressing one another, stealth publication in a magazine amidst coy denials from the royals might possibly create a phenomenon reminiscent of Elizabethan Shakespeare. So far though, the Shakespeare phenomeon is unique in history. 

The core of the controversy over who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works was elucidated by Professor Shapiro in Contested Will on page 243:

“. . . he showed little interest in when or even whether his plays were published.” 

This is not quite true: actually Shakespeare showed no (as opposed to “little”) interest in the publication of his plays. That is, all publications of plays took place with no help from the author at all.  

Perhaps the most respected mainstream biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, wrote this of Shakespeare’s unique attitude toward his works:

“Apparently he died neither knowing, nor caring, about the ultimate fate of works that posterity would value beyond all other accomplishments of the literary imagination. . . Towards the quartos [plays] printed while he lived he maintained a public aloofness . . . The man keeps his mask always firmly in place; apart from the works themselves there is only silence.”

The brilliant Harold Bloom did not dabble in Shakespeare biography (a wise move on his part) but did leave behind this characteristically pithy observation about the central mystery of his authorship:

“Shakespeare puzzles us in his apparent indifference to the posthumous destiny of King Lear; we have two rather different texts of the play, and pushing them together into the amalgam we generally read and see acted is not very satisfactory. The only works Shakespeare ever proofread and stood by were Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, neither of them worthy of the poet of the Sonnets, let alone of Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. How can there have been a writer for whom the final shape of King Lear was a careless or throwaway matter?”

“How can there have been a writer . . . ?” Even the mainstream wonders what was going on. Suppose yourself a London publisher in Shakespeare’s time. You want to publish a play. You stand on the rooftops shouting for Shakespeare. But answer came there none.

It was in the interests of Elizabethan publishers and Elizabethan authors to work together to produce quality copy and this they accomplished regularly and routinely. Even for anonymous work, Elizabethan authors and publishers normally collaborated to produce as high quality copy as the technology of the time would allow.

Londoners, forsaken by their favorite writer, were nevertheless treated to a massive array of printings of wildly varying quality and this was scarcely odd because every one was a bootleg. And yet those very same forsaken Londoners could be seen eating up the plays as if starved for words. Here’s Shapiro again on page 223:

“The sheer number of inexpensive copies of Shakespeare’s works that filled London’s bookshops after 1594 was staggering and unprecedented.” 

Four hundred years later, mainstream scholars, scratching their heads over this odd state of affairs, can’t answer Bloom’s question, “How can there have been a writer . . .?”

The usual assumption goes like this: the acting company shareholder William Shakespeare of Stratford worte the plays, handed them over to the acting company to be staged, and thought nothing more of them (except when he revised them). The acting company effectively owned the plays but had no interest in publishing them lest competitors have an easier time putting them on. Shakespeare didn’t have time to do publishing or didn’t care or had agreed not to publish. But they couldn’t stop the bootlegging. 

About half of the canon was published by basically any printer who could get his hands on a script or reconstruct dialogue from performances. They were all bootlegs. 

Starting in 1594, anonymous publications appeared. At that time, the title pages noted performances by minor acting companies, sometimes more than one. Eventually the name “William Shakespeare” started appearing on some of the publication while other Shakespeare plays were still published anonymously without rhyme or reason with the name Shakespeare kind of like a broken neon sign from future centuries flashing on and off at random. The title pages of the later publications either noted performances by London’s leading acting company or said nothing about performances.  

One fine day many years later, ALL the plays finally appeared in one grand volume. On that day, the publishers told what is today still the official story: the complete set of plays had been in the hands of Shakespeare’s fellow shareholders who were acting as the “guardians” of the dead writer’s “orphans,” meaning his orphaned plays that were no longer his because he was dead. Thus, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, case closed.  

The mainstream regards the statement of the publishers of the grand volume as solid gold. Rebels think it is describing a situation that could not have existed.

Authors known as such, including authors associated with acting companies (like Robert Armin) and authors who sold plays to acting companies (like Ben Jonson), were routinely involved in the publication of their own work. Bootlegging happened, to be sure. It happened to Greene, Beaumont, Fletcher, Marlowe, Peele, Lodge, Daniel, Chapman, and Heywood. But here’s the rub: these authors often complained about the bootlegging or put out corrected printings in response to the bootlegging or went out of their way to publish for the express purpose of preempting bootlegging.

Even if they couldn’t always stop it, no Elizabethan author was bootlegged more than twice and no Elizabethan author walked away from publication altogether. For Shakespeare, alone among Elizabethan authors, including authors associated with acting companies, bootlegging was standard operating procedure. This is what bothered Schoenbaum and Bloom though not enough to make them question the Shakespeare paradigm. 

Rebels like to ask travelers these questions three: (1) Do you show “no interest” in publishing? (2) Do you keep your “mask firmly in place” at all times? (3) Is the final shape of your art as a printed work not part of your life?

If you answer YES to all three questions, you are a hidden author. 

Rebels regard the claim by the publishers of the whole canon that the author was a well-known shareholder in London’s leading acting company whose name was appearing on some of the plays as a transparent attempt to keep a long-hidden author hidden. The publishers took advantage of what rebels regard as a happy accident: after the name “William Shakespeare” got famous, a rich guy with the same name showed up in London and stuck his nose and his money in the theater business but never wrote a single word.   

The mainstream regards the “happy accident” that supposedly allowed the “hidden author” to be completely hidden behind a front-man as a little too “happy” and a little too “accidental.” The very success of the alleged ruse is a strong argument against it according to the mainstream.

Rebels admit the whole story is pretty amazing but say once one digs into it a little more, the “alleged ruse” doesn’t look so alleged. 

Whatever happened, it started in 1594 when the first anonymous bootleg of a “Shakespeare” play was finally printed after the plays had been popular for years. Titus Andronicus, after being played by three different minor companies, had the honor of becoming the first printed Shakespeare play. The publisher evidently had a halfway decent script to work from. 

Without authorial oversight, subsequent editions of the tragedy, two of them, degraded from edition to edition like a game of “telephone.” However, the version published almost three decades later in the famous “First Folio” was restored to the quality of the original publication and contained one additional scene in which a fly is killed and mourned. There are also four new lines at the end of the First Folio version which some modern editors remove in favor of the original ending though this is, not surprisingly, a controversial move.

And so it went with bootlegged plays and a missing author and so it still goes. One of the Hamlet bootlegs had the line “To be or not to be, Aye there’s the point.” The other problem with this version of Hamlet was that half the play was missing.

The first Shakespeare play every published was a bootlegged version of Titus Andronicus with an anonymous author.

The only exceptions to the story of unpublished manuscripts and bootlegged printings are, as Bloom said, Shakespeare’s two epic poems published in 1593 and 1594, both of which contained flowery epistles dedicating the work to the young Earl of Southampton. The epistles were printed over the name “William Shakespeare.” The well-edited publications together with the dedications implies a (quiet) author-publisher collaboration for just these two poems.

The seal on “William Shakespeare” had been broken though the name would not appear on plays for another four years. The epic poems, it is reasonable to assume, were written and published in close temporal proximity. 

But no play can be dated reliably. A bootlegged play might have been in production for decades and plays listed as in production might have been written and performed years before any records appear. Elizabethans also played fast and loose with titles: Love’s Labors Won was mentioned by a contemporary observer but no one knows if it’s a lost play or if it was retitled. 

The Sonnets, yet another example of bootlegging when they were finally published in 1609, can be dated pretty well because they refer to events in the life of a “lovely boy” widely regarded as the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare’s one and only dedicatee; Shakespeare didn’t dedicated to anyone else and no one ever dedicated any work to Shakespeare).

In the early 1590’s, Southampton was under pressure to marry Lord Burghley’s (the Queen’s closest advisor) grand-daughter. The marriage, if it happened, would have huge political consequences, allying two powerful families. A writer called “Shakespeare” got involved: the first seventeen Sonnets are called the “marriage sonnets” by modern scholars because they tell a young nobleman to take his vows. 

Seventeen passionate verses tell a “self-willed” young nobleman to honor his family and country by marrying. The boy is by turns admonished and cajoled, called a “tender churl” and praised for his “proud livery.” Assuming the “lovely boy” was Southampton and the “marriage sonnets” were focused on the Burghley alliance, we can say Shakespeare attempt to convince was a spectacular failure.

Southampton walked away from the powerful lord and his young grand-daughter. Seven years later, the rash earl tried to control the royal succession and found himself in conflict with Burghley’s family. Marrying into the family would have been a whole lot safer. Southampton and his co-conspirators wound up in the Tower under death sentences. It wasn’t pretty. Everyone died except Southampton. 

A couple of years later, the Queen died and King James ascended. Southampton was released and Shakespeare was ebullient and wrote about how happy he was in Sonnet 107 which can be dated to the spring of 1603. 

Whoever Shakespeare really was, he certainly felt close to his “lovely boy.” When he wasn’t terrified Southampton was going to be executed, he wrote a lot about another fear: aging.

Sonnet 22: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date . . .” 

Sonnet 126:  “O thou my lovely boy . . . Her [nature’s] audit though delayed answered must be . . .” 

One Elizabethan observer, a guy called Meres, published a little comment in 1598 about Shakespeare’s “sugared Sonnets among his private friends.” We don’t know who these “private friends” were and, unfortunately, none of them ever said a word in a letter or a diary entry or anywhere about their great good fortune of reading in manuscript the private poetry penned by the greatest writer in England. Until 1609, the Sonnets were well-kept secret. 

In 1609, Thomas Thorpe got his hands on the complete set of Sonnets and published them with the title “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS” and no byline. The publisher wrote his own dedication referring to the author as “our ever-living poet.” The Sonnets had just the one edition and disappeared for more than a century and a half. Thirteen copies of that first edition survive today. 

In 1616, the businessman named Shakespeare died. At that time, seventeen plays had not been published in any form. 

Macbeth, Othello, The Tempest, All’s Well That Ends Well, Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Cymbeline, The Two Gentleman of Verona, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, 1 Henry VI, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Winter’s Tale were sitting somewhere in manuscript.

Two plays — The Taming of the Shrew and King John — had been bootlegged as first drafts. The (much better) rewritten versions had not been published as of 1616.

So a total of nineteen unpublished plays were in someone’s hands in manuscript. Most of them had been performed, in some cases many times — only four plays lack any performance records though that doesn’t mean they were not regularly performed. Even popular plays frequently staged were not guaranteed publication especially with no author available. These nineteen plays, some of them masterpieces, some of them popular, and some of them popular masterpieces, could easily have been lost forever.  

In 1623 two earls came to the rescue. The First Folio — a massive compilation of Shakespeare’s plays — was published. It was popular as expected and more editions followed. Two hundred plus copies of the first printing of the First Folio survived the centuries.

The two earls saved for us the nineteen unpublished plays noted above as well as seventeen previously bootlegged plays: Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Romeo and JulietMuch Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labors Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II, Richard III, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Henry V, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, King Lear, and Troilus and Cressida were published again with better editing, altered lines, and other changes sometimes big and sometimes small. 

The bulk of the First Folio is of course the text of the plays. But there is prefatory material which discusses the provenance of the plays and which eulogizes the playwright. The First Folio preface identifies, for the first time, a businessman from Stratford named William Shakespeare who was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company as the author of the Shakespeare’s works. 

Two epistles (open letters to prospective readers) in the First Folio preface bear the printed signatures of two of the Stratford businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders — men he certainly knew. The epistles clearly state that the two shareholders have “collected” the plays in their role as the “guardians” of Shakespeare’s “orphans.” They describe Shakespeare as their “friend and fellow.” It would have been better, the two shareholders tell us, if the author had “overseen” the publication of his work as he had a “right” to do but, with the author dead, publication was necessarily left to others.

The First Folio was put together under the auspices of two earls and identifies Shakespeare as a businessman from Stratford. 

The mainstream admits the publication history is hard to wrap one’s mind around. Bloom’s “How can there have been a writer . . .? commentary speaks for much of the mainstream. However, mainstream scholars are unwilling to claim the epistles in the First Folio preface are lying to us. It’s a strange situation but there is no smoking gun and an enormous amount of scholarship has assumed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  

Looking at precisely the same evidence, rebels regard the bootlegging as virtually a smoking gun. They see an author nowhere near the plays. The last person a rebel would expect as the 100% bootlegged author of red-hot plays full of courtly dirt is a man named Shakespeare involved with the London theater.

There is irony here: for rebels, the six or so Elizabethans Schoenbaum noted named William Shakespeare are the first people they would cross off the list of possible writers. Rebels admit of course that if they are right, the Shakespeare hoax is the greatest ever perpetrated.   

Of course, there’s more to the story than the publication history. Here’s what rebels say to the mainstream: “The publication history doesn’t convince you. You speak of “masks” and “puzzles” but then you let go of your own cogent analysis because you think yourselves wedded to the First Folio preface. Okay fine, we accept your opinion. But what about the inside information from the Queen’s court that constantly appears in the plays?”

“No problem,” says the mainstream.

Scott McCrea, a mainstreamer at SUNY Purchase, says of Love’s Labors Lost in particular, “the Author seems to have an insider’s knowledge.” But, to McCrea, this inside information doesn’t mean Shakespeare himself was an insider. Of course he might have been but if we see him as a businessman from Stratford we can come up with a plausible scenario to explain the inside information: “one possible answer derives from a source play now lost . . .” McCrea suggests.

McCrea postulates someone with inside knowledge of the Queen’s court writing a play that was never published — there were many such plays in Elizabethan times so it isn’t so far-fetched to assume such a thing — a lost play which Shakespeare saw performed or read in manuscript, a lost play which contained inside information. Shakespeare could then have used the inside information revealed by this other author as source material for a new play called Love’s Labors Lost which, unlike the source play, was eventually published.

In fact, McCrea argues, for the inside information in any play, some combination of good contacts, gossip, and lost source material will always suffice to provide a plausible scenario. Rebels, on the other hand, regard a courtly insider as the author as a much simpler explanation for the inside information which has the added benefit of also explaining the bootlegging since a courtly insider would not have been able to admit to being the author lest the general public realize all the courtly dirt had an authoritative source: a leak is one thing but the leaker can’t go strutting around.  

Again, rebels and mainstream look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions because they make different assumptions about what is more or less likely.

But there is still more to the story than publication history and inside information.

“If you don’t mind,” rebels say, “we would like to talk about the idea that a businessman from Stratford not known to have ever met the Earl of Southampton wrote the Sonnets. We would like to assume he did write them and show how silly this is.”  

“Go right ahead,” says the mainstream. 

In Sonnet 1 the shareholder from Stratford begins his series of pleas to the young Earl of Southampton who is facing heavy pressure from the great Lord Burghley to marry into the great lord’s family: “From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” (No one knows why Rose is capitalized and italicized; it may mean nothing.)

In Sonnet 2, the twenty-something businessman-author warns the boy that when “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” your “lusty days” will be sorely missed. You’ll be old but with your own child growing strong, you’ll “see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.” 

The Stratford real estate tycoon/poet then waxes poetic about the lovely boy’s mother in Sonnet 3: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.” 

In Sonnet 10, our amazingly well-connected commoner comes right out and tells the Earl of Southampton just exactly what he wants the lovely boy to do: “Make thee another self for love of me.” 

The man from Stratford darkly warns the so-far childless young earl, the “self-willed” youth, the “tender churl,” in Sonnet 14: “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.” 

And yet the gifted businessman dearly loved Southampton will go on loving him even if he doesn’t have children. In fact, even without children, the earl will be immortal: “And all in war with Time for love of you, as he takes from you I engraft you new.” (Sonnet 15) Beautiful poetry lives forever.

In Sonnet 16, the Stratford man returns to the “make babies” theme and perhaps uses his own experience here. We know the Stratford businessman was born “Shakspere” to use the local spelling preferred on Stratford documents. As a teenager, Shakspere had productive sex with the sixteenth century Anne Hathaway. She was pregnant and the pair married before she was showing perhaps by choice and perhaps out of a sense of doing what was required.

A fun result of the Elizabethan flexibility with spelling is that the marriage bond was made out to “Shagspere,” a choice that seems to anticipate twentieth century slang. In Sonnet 16, Shagspere pushes hard for Southampton to do exactly what he did. 

To “make war on this bloody tyrant Time,” Shagspere/Shakespeare says, you must plant “flowers” in a “maiden garden yet unset.” It’s a beautiful sentiment really.  

Finally, in Sonnet 17, Shagspere/Shakspere/Shakespeare looks to the future when he and his beloved earl are dead and pushes one last time for Southampton to do what he needs to do: “But were some child of yours alive at that time, You would live twice, in it and in my rhyme.” 

So, the rebels challenge, a twenty-something businessman from Stratford tells a teenaged “self-willed” earl to get with the program, honor the family, and don’t even think of letting those maiden gardens go unset. Yes, it’s possible a Stratford businessman could know an earl (Ben Jonson had highborn friends, for example) but this particular scenario, with the Stratford businessman intervening in a potential marriage alliance between two powerful families, seems more or less impossible.

Really, say the rebels, “Make thee another self for love of me,” that’s the acting company shareholder from Stratford named Shakespeare writing to a young earl in the early 1590’s when he had just got to London? Are we supposed to believe the earl and the businessman were that close with no independent evidence that they ever even met?

“Of course not,” says mainstreamer Professor Peter Levi, late of St. Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford.

Levi agrees with rebels that the Sonnets were NOT written in the businessman’s voice. Nevertheless, Levi believed the Sonnets were written by the businessman as implied in the First Folio preface and he had a simple answer that makes everything, including the maiden gardens, copacetic. 

Levi thought the Sonnets must have been commissioned:

“Shakespeare is attempting on behalf of his [Southampton’s] family and friends to persuade Southampton to take a wife . . . Shakespeare wrote . . . probably on behalf of the young man’s mother.”

Rebels actually appreciate Levi’s theory because it is consistent with the entire mainstream viewpoint: someone else owned Shakespeare’s plays; someone else provided Shakespeare with inside information; and, last but not least, someone else wanted Southampton to get married. 

By the time the mainstream is done with its analysis, say the rebels, Shakespeare-the-person has effectively vanished; a human being has been replaced by a theoretical construct based on the assumption that a single document (the First Folio preface) is providing an accurate provenance of the nineteen missing manuscripts.

A slight adjustment to the “someone else” theory is all that is needed to make the Shapiro-McCrea-Levi theory solid and sensible: yes indeed, someone else owned the plays and had inside information and wanted the earl married and that same someone else also wrote the plays and the Sonnets. 

Voila! Mainstream and rebels can finally agree.  

The mainstream begs to differ. The clear testimony in the First Folio preface cannot be pushed aside so easily. Early in his book, McCrea decries the refusal of “heretics” (aka rebels) to use “one document — in this case the Folio — to understand another.” McCrea has put his finger on what we have seen as the main point of contention.

Mainstreamers believe in and really are in bed with the First Folio preface and seek to understand the rest of the evidence in the light provided by the First Folio preface. Rebels, on the other hand, first look at the publication history, the inside information, and the Sonnets and draw the conclusion that a hidden aristocrat wrote the plays. Thus, when rebels look at the First Folio preface, they do not find its testimony convincing partly because they already regard “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym. 

Since it’s such an important document, let’s have a closer look at the words that appear above the names of the businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders. I’ve added emphasis to (what are to me) key words and phrases.

“We have but collected them [the plays], and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans. Guardians [we are], without ambition either of self-profit or fame: only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his plays, to your [the two earls] most noble patronage.” 
. . . 

“To the great variety of readers from the most able to him that can but spell. There you are numbered. We had rather you were weighed. Especially when the fate of all books depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone but of your purses. Well! It is now public and you will stand for your privileges, we know, to read and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a book, the stationer says. Then, how odd soever your brains be or your wisdoms, make your license the same and spare not. Judge your six-pence-worth, your shillings-worth, your five-shillings-worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you do, Buy.” 
. . . 

“It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the Author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings: But since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his friends the office of their care and pain to have collected and published them; and so to have published them as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious impostors, that exposed them: even those, are now offered to your view cured and perfect of their limbs; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.” 

The abstruse tongue-in-cheek style of the epistles is recognizable as Ben Jonson’s. Jonson was involved with the First Folio project and obviously (according to rebels and mainstream alike) ghostwrote the epistles. The great mainstream scholar E. K. Chambers noted the Jonsonian stylistic fingerprints, but saw no reason to assume the content was fraudulent. 

Rebels, looking at the missing author, the inside information, the Sonnets, and the ghostwritten epistles see the virtuous claim of a lack of interest in profit and the cajoling “Whatever you do, Buy” line along with the melodrama of the “stolen and surreptious copies” phrase as plain old marketing copy as vapid in Elizabethan times as it is today. Rebels don’t regard it as a lie exactly — they don’t think it was meant to be taken seriously. The ghostwritten epistles are, for many rebels, more joke than lie. 

According to the rebels, the “incomparable pair of brethren” of the First Folio dedication, the Earl of Montgomery and the Earl of Pembroke, the earls to whom the shareholders were supposedly “humbly offering” the plays, were not in need of humble offerings at all: the earls already had the plays because they were connected with the deceased author’s family. 

Mainstreamers, having furrowed their brows over the anonymous bootlegs of poor quality, having creatively explained the inside information in the plays, and having not worried overmuch about the young earl’s mother in the lovely April of her prime, read the epistles as straightforward if somewhat flowery testimony. Saying it wasn’t “meant” to be taken seriously seems subjective to the mainstream: give us a solid reason and we’ll drop the First Folio preface, but we’re not going to drop it just because Jonson apparently ghostwrote it; a little marketing copy doesn’t make us think pseudonym and and we’re just not that worried about the publication history, the inside information, or the Sonnets. 

If you assume “lost” plays you can explain anyone’s access to inside information.

Despite the (sometimes bitter) disagreement about whether or not to trust the First Folio preface, there’s actually plenty of common ground between rebels and mainstreamers. Mainstream researchers like Schoenbaum, Honigmann, and Honan have always been well aware of the uniqueness of the Shakespeare story though it doesn’t tend to get emphasized because they don’t want to be the recipients of a barrage of inane theorizing about who the real author might be. 

There is an “overhang of nonsense” to which everyone, including rebels, are sensitive. No one wants to be grouped with the alien abduction crowd. So mainstreamers tend to play down the mystery of Shakespeare while rebels try to talk about it without opening themselves up to scorn. Some rebels even refuse to come up with an alternative candidate on the theory that everyone needs to get on board with doubting the businessman before raucous arguments about alternative candidates can begin. 

But, as I said, there really is a lot of common ground. No one looks at Shakespeare’s biography without a head scratch, not even the most conservative mainstreamer imaginable. 

Schoenbaum remarked on the odd fact that people in Stratford knew the shareholder only as a businessman:

“What did fellow townsmen think of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company and the admired poet of love’s languishment who sojourned each year in their midst? They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs and approachable (if need be) for a substantial loan on good security.”

Actually, with all due respect to Schoenbaum, no one in London knew the businessman as the “admired poet of love’s languishment” or as the “distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain’s company” or if they did they said nothing about it. They liked Shakespeare’s works to be sure, but they usually talked about Shakespeare the way you and I do — the works are wonderful but we’ve never met the writer. 

It was different for Ben Jonson. People who knew Jonson personally plainly also knew him as a writer while he lived and explicitly described him that way: for example, his friend, the scholar John Selden, thanked the “singular poet” in print for loaning him a book from his “well-furnished” library. Such evidence, commonplace for Jonson, does not exist for Shakespeare. 

Again, there’s acres of common ground here. Schoenbaum knew all about it the problem with the Shakespeare who didn’t get talked about:

“Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [beautiful writing] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record [business and more business]. What would we not give for a single personal letter, one page of diary!”

But it’s not like Shakespeare of Stratford didn’t leave behind a huge trail: he did. It’s just not the trail we wanted. Mainstreamer Honigmann studied Shakespeare of Stratford’s extensive record of business activity and came to a startling conclusion given that he was solidly in the mainstream camp: 

If one lists all of these various activities in chronological order, one wonders how the dramatist found time to go on writing plays.”

Mainstreamer Park Honan offers an interesting take on the businessman who seemed to be writing in his spare time: 

“Shakespeare seems to have fluorished with a certain annihilation of the sense of himself.”

Even the great Harold Bloom, who was sure Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, stared at his favorite author and goggled at what he could not see.

“. . . it is as though the creator of scores of major characters and hundreds of frequently vivid minor figures wasted no imaginative energy in inventing a persona for himself. At the very center of the [Western] Canon is the least self-conscious and least aggressive of all the major writers we have known.

There is an inverse ratio, a little beyond our analytical skills, between Shakespeare’s virtual colorlessness and his preternatural dramatic powers.” 

But Shakespeare was far from colorless. He lampooned the powerful in ways other writers could only dream about. Jonson was a brave man and also often spoke his mind but was repeatedly jailed for his impudence. At one point, Jonson was being threatened with mutilation and his mother mixed him a cup of poison just in case. Meanwhile, someone who seemed to have what Schoenbaum called a “mask,” was able to pillory courtiers with impunity: no one was ever jailed or theatened or even questioned about Shakespeare’s works.

So there’s a certain amount of common ground upon which Bloom, Schoenbaum, Honan, Honigmann, and the rebels stand though the rebels at this point are unable to see why the mainstream won’t take them seriously when it is the mainstream’s own misgivings that motivate the rebel theories of a hidden aristocrat using a pseudonym. The problem of course is that being flexible about the First Folio preface means being flexible about an entire corpus of literary criticism which would all have to be rewritten if the businessman were dropped as the author.  

So they may be congregating on common ground but they don’t talk to each other. And once we start looking backward a bit into the 1580’s all hope of agreement evaporates. Here’s the rub.

Like the Cheshire Cat, Shakespeare could annihilate himself.

As the 1580’s began with England facing multiple threats from abroad, history plays featuring divine monarchs and heroic soldiers were coming out. Henry V, King Lear, King John, and Richard III all date back to the 1580’s, but these early plays are not in the First Folio — it is the more sophisticated final versions that we know as Shakespeare. But, for these four plays, the early versions were eventually published as the usual Shakespeare bootlegs even as the mature versions were being bootlegged alongside them. We don’t even know with certainty who wrote these “early versions.” 

Of these four early plays, three were published anonymously and one had the Shakespeare byline (which is not a guarantee that Shakespeare wrote it). The early plays were clunky but brilliant too with innovative plot structures and engaging characters that were carried over into the rewritten versions we know and love. They stressed patriotism, loyalty, the divinity of the monarch, and the honor of dying for one’s country. They were pure gold for any leader. 

Queen Elizabeth, aided by her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, was as shrewd and as successful a monarch as there ever was: she knew a good (and useful) thing when she saw it and she was more right than she could ever have imagined. To this day, Henry V, is revered for the same patriotic rhetoric that turned the heads of the Queen and her advisor.

Star Trek, set in a time seven hundred years after Shakespeare, features the brave captain quoting from Henry V as he and his crew bravely face a well-armed and aggressive enemy. During the very real Blitz of World War II, with Londoners facing threats from the air as their ancestors had faced threats from the sea, humans little changed though living in a different world stiffened their sinews yet again as explosions shook their city and Shakespeare’s timeless classic played on the big screen.

For the Queen, cognizant of Spain’s armada, going all in on Shakespeare was presumably an easy decision. She had a skin thick enough to withstand the gentle teasing of her august majesty and she certainly didn’t care if a few of her courtiers squirmed as she regularly played them one against the other anyway — it was all good if it would make the plays popular. And, one can argue, every monarch needs someone empowered to tell the truth.  

Whatever Elizabeth’s true motivations were, history tells us Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s top national security man, was directed to create the largest acting company ever seen in England. He poached the top actors from London’s leading companies, making them offers they literally could not refuse. The Queen’s Men was thus born full-grown in 1583.

Walsingham also tapped London’s leading court playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.

England’s literary earl would be paid the unheard-of sum of one thousand pounds a year, more than anyone in the Queen’s government was ever paid even when the circle is widened to include Burghley himself (note, however, that Burghley had other sources of income besides his official salary). Only King James of Scotland, handed four thousand pounds a year to stabilize his realm, merited a larger sum. James eventually became the next King of England — that prospect and the money may have bought his continued cooperation with Elizabeth and Burghley even after they entrapped and legally murdered his mother. 

The literary earl received the gigantic stipend for the rest of his life, first from Queen Elizabeth and then from King James. 

The Queen’s 1580’s maneuver was called by one contemporary observer the “Policy of Plays” and it arguably changed history: London became, and still is, a city of the theater and the media became, and still is, a powerful way to wield influence. This is not to claim that Elizabeth invented the idea of state-sponsored media, but, by nurturing what one might call the “Shakespeare phenomenon,” she clearly took the Policy of Plays to a new level.

In this crucial decade, much of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale appeared in the form of a novel called Pandosto written by the notorious hack writer and plagiarist Robert Greene. He took the plot and characters for his novel including verbatim lines either from a performance of The Winter’s Tale or from a manuscript that passed beneath his gaze — the play was among those that appeared in print only decades in later in the First Folio.

John Lyly, also active in the 1580’s, wasn’t a plagiarist though he was Shakespearean. Lyly’s biographer (Bond) regarded Lyly and Shakespeare as the co-creators of Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare’s work and Lyly’s work share so much there is no way to determine who was influencing who — probably the influence flowed in both directions. They may or may not have known each other but they certainly knew each other’s works. 

Anthony Munday was also busy with Shakespeare as the 1580’s gave way to the 1590’s and, even more so than Lyly, seems to have been in the great author’s physical presence. Munday’s play, Sir Thomas More, extant in manuscript in Munday’s handwriting, contains a scene so Shakespearean in character that scholars, rebel and mainstream alike, regard that particular scene as having been written end-to-end by Shakespeare.

The Munday-Shakespeare play appeared in the early 1590’s and is the closest thing we have today to an authentic Shakespeare manuscript. 

Hamlet, too was apparently part of 1580’s Shakespeare: there’s no performance record or printing from the 1580’s but Thomas Nashe in 1589 threw off a (published) quip about being barraged by “whole Hamlets of tragical speeches.” No other Hamlet complete with “tragical speeches” is known from the period so Nashe presumably had seen some version of Shakespeare’s play either in performance or manuscript. 

The relationship between the four early Shakespeare plays we are lucky enough to have printed versions of and the later, more polished plays in the First Folio, is masterfully elucidated by Ramon Jiménez in his book Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship. It is fascinating to study the evolution of forgettable lines like A horse! A horse! A fresh horse! into classics like A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse! 

Jiménez has reviewed all of the scholarship pertaining to early Shakespeare and has added his own analysis of Shakespeare’s development as a writer. The early plays, for example, though they do not possess the sophisticated character development of the mature playwright, do show off his penchant for neologisms. Shakespeare is the undisputed master of made-up words, having added at least 2000 words to the English language and this tendency is illustrated clearly even in his imperfect but still groundbreaking early work.

Despite all this, 1580’s Shakespeare is not something mainstream biographers accept at all. It doesn’t fit with the First Folio and 1580’s Shakespeare including Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, Henry V, King Lear, King John, and Richard III have to be relegated to someone else.

Stritmatter is hacking away at the mainstream chronology from one end by redating The Tempest and Jiménez is creating even more trouble with his claim that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare. It’s a squeeze play: Shakespeare arrived in London in the 1590’s. Even writing his last play in 1603 is too early. Likewise, anything in the 1580’s is also too early.  

So A Horse! A Horse! A Fresh Horse! from the early version of Richard III was written by someone else from whom Shakespeare plagiarized for his improved version of Richard III

The Winter’s Tale was NOT stolen by Greene but was written by Greene and later plagiarized by Shakespeare.

Hamlet complete with tragical speeches — Schoenbaum calls it “the mysterious lost play of Hamlet” (S. Sch. Life p. 136) — was written by someone else and Shakespeare borrowed the title for his play with tragical speeches but Nashe was quipping about the other Hamlet. 

The early version of King John, played in the 1580’s and later published with the Shakespeare byline was, according to the mainstream, not really Shakespeare — the publisher was lying or mistaken (both of which commonly happened though not, so far as is known, with this particular publisher). 

Early versions of Henry V and King Leir (with that spelling), published anonymously and very similar to the rewritten versions published as Shakepeare plays, were also written by some other author in the 1580’s and then rewritten ten or more years later by Shakespeare after he got to London in the 1590’s.

So the early versions of King John, Henry VRichard III, and King Lear, including the one attributed to Shakespeare by the publisher, were actually written by some unknown other person with many stylistic innovations that we’ve come to recognize as Shakespeare and these four works were plagiarized by Shakespeare in the 1590’s — any thought that Shakespeare might have written these early works is, according to Schoenbaum, “preposterous.” The term “plagiarist” is only rarely applied to Shakespeare though would certainly be appropriate if the mainstream is correct in its assumption that 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else: Honan, for example, calls Shakespeare “an accomplished parasite” but doesn’t use the other “p-word.” 

Let’s review the mainstream theory (I apologize for the repetition here but it’s hard to get one’s mind around this part of the story because it is just a little bizarre). So 1580’s Hamlet is explained by a mysterious “lost” play, the four early plays that were eventually printed and that look just like first drafts of Shakespeare plays are also explained by a mysterious lost author plagiarized by the Shakespeare who finally showed up in the 1590’s. The Winter’s Tale, a play first published in 1623 long after whoever wrote it was dead, is an unusual case of the greatest writer in a country’s history plagiarizing a notorious plagiarist who published a novel called Pandosto in the 1588.

Finally, sometime after the mid-1590’s, Shakespeare brazenly stole the plot of Pandosto including many lines which he stole “almost verbatim” according to one mainstream analysis. Pandosto is the cherry atop the Shakespeare-as-plagiarist-because-1580’s-Shakespeare-is-too-early theory.

For me, at this point in the analysis, a mainstream that expresses absolute certainty that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare but then speaks of masks kept firmly in place and makes comments beginning with “How can there have been a writer . . .” and questions how the businessman could have found the time to write the plays and marvels at the fact that his “townsmen” didn’t know him as a writer and throws in the image of the vertiginous expanse and even Shakespeare’s annihilation of the sense of himself and that throws hands in the air to declare the whole thing beyond our analytical ability . . . well, it doesn’t fill me confidence that they really are absolutely certain and then 1580’s Shakespeare comes along and now the guy with the mask is also plagiarizing like crazy.  

Still, the mainstream theory could be true. Shakespeare did use many sources for his plays and did use plotlines created by classical and foreign authors and could have crossed the line into out and out plagiarism and could have used material from London authors as well. In general one can never be sure which way influence flows when composition dates are uncertain and authors at any point in history are bound to influence one another. And there’s another way to account for the evidence that some mainstreamers embrace. One can assume Shakespeare of Stratford began his visits to London and his writing career early than previously supposed. Most mainstreamers simply regard the 1580’s as too early for someone who turned twenty in 1584 to already be a heavy hitter in the London literary scene but if it is ever proven that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare, the early-arrival theory might become more popular.    

We can sum up the whole discussion up to now with McCrea’s idea that someone else provided inside information; the general mainstream belief echoed by Shapiro that someone else took ownership of the plays; Levi’s contention that someone else was close to Southampton; and a strong consensus noted by Schoenbaum that someone else wrote 1580’s Shakespeare. Again, the mainstream theory, though it has the advantage of taking the First Folio preface at its word, is not something I would want to stake my life (or any substantial amount of money) on. And yet Schoenbaum and the others sound so sure of themselves despite their own stated misgivings. It’s a strange business, n’est ces pas

In one of his books, Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, Schoenbaum seemed to consider actually discussing the issue but then seemed to leap off the deep end as it were. Schoenbaum, in discussing the early version of Henry V, notes that the printer left the publication anonymous even though he could have put Shakespeare’s name on the title page. This means to Schoenbaum that Shakespeare didn’t write it because what would be the motivation for NOT putting “Shakespeare” on a title page when the name was famous?

And it is true that the printer of the early version of Henry V did print Shakespeare plays and did include the “Shakespeare” byline on some of those plays. So, at first, one can follow Schoenbaum’s reasoning. But there’s a problem. This particular printer, like all printers and publishers of Shakespeare plays, included the byline when he felt like it, while other times, when he didn’t feel like it, he didn’t. As noted above, the “Shakespeare” byline flicked on and off like a broken neon sign without rhyme or reason.

When the same printer who left the “Shakespeare” byline off the early version of Henry V, got around to printing two editions of the mature version of Henry V, he left the byline off both times, hitting a perfect three for three blank bylines on one version of the early Henry V and two versions of the mature Henry V. 

Schoenbaum notes how strange it is for a printer to leave the byline blank when “Shakespeare” was so popular. Schoenbaum uses the blank byline on the early version of Henry V to support his claim that it was not written by the businessman named Shakespeare who was in London and involved with the theater. Ironically, rebels agree that the bylines which were left blank roughly half the time tell us a lot about authorship. 

Plays known to have been performed in the 1580’s were published in the 1590’s and beyond often with blank bylines. More mature versions of these plays and a whole series of other plays were also published often with blank bylines. According to Schoenbaum, the 1580’s plays weren’t Shakespeare but the other plays, despite the frequent blank bylines, were Shakespeare. According to rebels, none of the plays were Shakespeare or rather they all were but “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym which explains why printers and publishers were careless about the bylines — from a marketing perspective, if the author is unknown anyway, there’s not much difference between an anonymous play and a pseudonymous play. 

It’s ironic that Schoenbaum would use a blank byline to argue for another author and it’s even more ironic that the mainstream in general say their own “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” theory depends upon “Shakespeare didn’t write 1580’s Shakespeare.” 

For rebels, Jiménez’s analysis offers a compelling model for the pseudonymous Shakespeare: 1580’s Shakespeare influenced pretty much every famous Elizabethan author from Marlowe to Munday. The author using the pseudonym paid homage to classical plotlines and brilliantly versified and re-imagined plotlines from ancient and foreign works originally published in English, Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, and Italian. Far from being a plagiarist, Shakespeare was the leader of the revolution in staged drama that lead to the plays-as-literature world we live in today.

Jiménez says this is not just wishful thinking — the Shakespeare fingerprints on 1580’s Shakespeare are easy to see, numerous, and undeniable. 

I have relegated further discussion of 1580’s Shakespeare to an appendix. While we wait for the mainstream to offer serious commentary on Jiménez’s work, we must move forward. For some people, the bootlegging, the inside information, the Sonnets, and 1580’s Shakespeare offer sufficient cause to doubt the veracity of the First Folio preface. So you might be a rebel already. However, all those professors who are so certain of their theory naturally gives one pause before one jumps onto the rebel bandwagon.

Therefore, we now naturally ask about the details of the documentary record of the life of Shakespeare of Stratford (1564 – 1616). Perhaps there is a reason the mainstream is so set on retaining the Stratford businessman as the author of the plays and poems. If there is a good reason, we’ll find it because the Stratford businessman is very well documented. We note here that the mainstream does NOT claim it is possible the attribution in the First Folio preface is accurate — they say it is certain.  

This is a scholarly and heavily researched book but the mainstream won’t talk about the issue at this level.

Shakespeare of Stratford was a rich man who, along with a few other people, basically owned the town. If you grew a bit of grain in Stratford, you would pay something to Shakespeare and that was a good thing: farmers need capital to operate. Investors like Shakespeare were part of the system. Shakespeare outdid his investor father and, in the end, owned houses, land, pastures, orchards, barns, and stables — the works, so to speak.

Shakespeare stored grain, sold stone, loaned money, and repeatedly went to court to collect what he was owed. In the mid-1590’s he began to make regular visits to London where he avoided paying taxes and caused a number of documents to be produced listing him as owing taxes.  He also became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. He died quietly in Stratford in 1616. His will mentions his cash and his land and his houses and includes a list of business associates who were to receive modest bequests at his death. The list of people, obviously, is of interest.  

Mentioned in the will is daughter Judith (known to be illiterate), daughter Susanna (known to be illiterate), neice Elizabeth, sister Joan, nephews William and Michael, the poor of Stratford, business associates Combe, Russell, Nashe (not the writer), Robinson, Collins, Heminges (acting company shareholder), Condell (acting company shareholder), and Burbage (acting company shareholder), neighbors Sadler and Reynolds, godson William, son-in-law John and of course Shakespeare’s wife who received a perfectly good bed even if it was “second-best.”

Lyly and Munday are, as you can see, not mentioned. Unfortunately, no writer is mentioned. No manuscripts, books, inkwells, art, music, maps, or anything intellectual is mentioned. Shakespeare’s two illiterate daughters and the future “issue of their bodies” got his cash and real estate and that was that. Thus were the high hopes when the will was discovered dashed on the rocks of either bad luck or illiteracy depending on who you ask. 

Shakespeare’s will does not identify him as a writer and no one in 1616 or in 1617 or even in 1618, 1619, or 1620 commemorated the loss of England’s greatest writer. If Shakespeare of Stratford really was the great writer and not just a businessman, then the literary world waited until 1623 when, in the same document that first identifies him as a writer, he was finally eulogized as the immortal great writer we all know.

Ben Jonson is also well documented. Like Shakespeare, he left behind dozens of documents. The comparison is crucial as most Elizabethan writers did not leave behind dozens of documents. However, Jonson did. And a businessman from Stratford who may also been a writer also did. Hence the following comparison.  

It’s quite a bit of fun actually to flip through a Jonson biography at random and of course it is also worth reading such biographies in their entirety as one gets a real appreciation for the life of a self-taught genius commoner writer in Elizabethan times: it wasn’t easy. I recommend the Jonson biography by Rosalind Miles though they’re pretty much all worthwhile if you are interested in Jonson.

For my random-flip-through-the-biographies experiment, I wanted a set of effectively random numbers that would be easy to remember and that would have nothing to do with the book or its contents. There are 52 cards in a deck, 88 keys on a piano, the numbers 111 and 222 has symmetry, the number 123 has a pattern, 256 is a power of two, and there are 270 degrees in a three-quarters of a circle, so I used those numbers to do my random look through of RM’s biography. I wasn’t sure what I would find. I would have used the nice round number 300 but RM’s book isn’t that long. 

Flipping to page 52-cards-in-a-deck, we find that Jonson gave to a countess friend and patron of his a poem as a gift and told a poet friend (who recorded Jonson’s thoughts) that the countess was herself a pretty darn good poet which is a meaningful compliment coming from Jonson who assiduously avoided obsequiousness in his effort to lead a life of authentic bravery. This attitude, we note, almost cost him his life on at least one, and probably more than one, occasion. 

On page 88-piano-keys, we find that Jonson lived for a time in the home of a patron and wrote poems for the patron’s children. RM mentions other patrons on this page and vaguely refers to Jonson’s “varied contacts” with them, but we can forgive her for not providing all the details of these “contacts” because she has an eleven-volume set of Ben Jonson documentation to refer to and doesn’t have room in her book for every single tiny detail. And speaking of details, on this same page, page 88, a little lower down, Jonson is writing to another writer friend about a conflict he is having with a yet another female patron. A few lines of the still-extant letter are quoted by RM. 

Any of this, the gift, the letters, the personal poems, the multiple contacts with patrons — any tiny part of it — would be explosive front-page news if found for Shakespeare calling for champagne, feasting, and general worldwide celebrations complete with fireworks and fancy speeches in every city anywhere in the world where people like Shakespeare. I exaggerate but little.  

Let’s try page 111 in RM’s biography. Here Jonson gives another gift of a book with a handwritten inscription to a scholar friend (the one who was in Jonson’s library and described it as “well-furnished”). Then, on the same page, we find that Jonson is commissioned to write an entertainment for King James in 1607 which was presented on May 22nd and eventually published in Jonson’s complete works which Jonson himself supervised through to publication. 

On page 123, Jonson is again commissioned by an earl to write an entertainment presented on 11 April 1609 and Jonson is paid a little over thirteen pounds for the elaborate work. RM quotes the exact amount of the payment.

On page 222, Jonson is recorded as testifying in court on behalf of the widow of one his patrons (the widow is involved in a lawsuit over some jewelry). What’s interesting to RM is that the deposition lists Jonson’s address as at a college which means he was probably teaching there as a deputy instructor and receiving lodging in return as was the custom. So now we have evidence that Jonson did some teaching. 

Moving on to page 256 which is two to the eighth power, a young woman Jonson knows dies in childbirth and an aging Jonson writes a sad poem mourning her and honoring her memory.

Finally, on page 270, Jonson has died and a man named Wilford writes a sneering “anti-eulogy” that same year in which he nastily calls Jonson a man who spent his days writing comic plays for which no tasteful readers would ever find praise. Jonson, who killed two people between his own birth and death, evidently had no problem making enemies. But a couple of pages later we find the book entitled “Immortal Jonson” (RM translation from the Latin Jonsonus Virbius) containing forty-six eulogies celebrating Jonson and his brilliant writing published six months after his death. 

Now let’s do Shakespeare. This is going to be fun. We’re going to learn all about Shakespeare, the greatest and most popular writer in all England. Samuel Schoenbaum (SS) was a brilliant scholar. We could not be in better hands. 

On page 52, the state of catholicism in protestant Elizabethan England is discussed. SS speculates about whether the young Stratford Shakespeare grew up in a secretly catholic or truly protestant household. He either did or did not, SS can’t be sure, but knowing the great writer’s religion is surely important so, assuming the Stratford Shakespeare was a writer, this is an important question. 

On page 88, the teenaged Stratford Shakespeare has taken out the famous “Shagspere” marriage bond and is marrying his pregnant bride. SS offers us scenes from Shakespeare plays:  Romeo and Juliet had just one night together but to it they brought “a pair of stainless maidenhoods” as told in the play. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream we hear that, “Such separation as may well be said, Becomes a virtuous bachelor and a maid . . .” from one of the characters as she notes the importance of waiting. In The Tempest we find Prospero warning of dire consequences if “thou dost break her virgin-knot” before marriage. SS doesn’t try to guess how Shagspere’s shotgun wedding may have impacted these dramatic moments. 

On page 111 we find that a discussion of William Shakespeare as a soldier was bought to a halt by the fact that the soldier named William Shakespeare was one of the other William Shakespeares living in and around London at the time which then led to the question on our current page about whether or not the Stratford William Shakespeare was ever a schoolmaster — a question SS says cannot be answered but from which SS segues into a discussion of the fact that acting companies traveled which, we find out, means that the young Shakespeare, along with everyone else in and around London, would have been able to see plays in their hometowns. If the not-soldier maybe-schoolmaster was indeed the writer Shakespeare, it is true that it might indeed have inspired him to see plays performed in his childhood. 

Moving on to page 123, we get a tour of London almost as good as actually visiting. We learn about London architecture including the famous Tower of London which Shakespeare would have seen for the first time sometime in the 1590’s when he came to London and which SS describes in brick-by-brick detail. We find that “The mortar of the Tower walls, according to FitzStephen, the twelth-century monk of Canterbury, was tempered with blood of beasts.” SS doesn’t tell us whether or not Shakespeare of Stratford knew about the blood of beast thing or whether he used in any of his works but he does point out that “No other edifice figures so importantly in Shakespeare’s plays” and so the Stratford businessman must therefore have been impressed the first time he saw the Tower or at least this is a reasonable assumption. 

On page 256, Schoenbaum has found a variety of speculations about what Shakespeare was like personally and physically. SS quotes people who never saw Shakespeare but who did interact with someone who may have known him and who can therefore report anecdotes. A couple of pages later, with our eyes full of these anecdotes, SS responsibly informs us that the afforementioned anecdotes are “dubious” relative to other types of historical records which unfortunately don’t exist for Shakespeare and whose substitution with the dubious anecdotes we should therefore forgive which of course we do because SS is doing the best he can under the circumstances.

We finally arrive at page 270 where the Sonnets are discussed or not so much the Sonnets themselves but the publisher’s dedication in the Sonnets. SS notes that we don’t know who is the “Mr. W. H.” in the dedication and, in fact, we can’t solve any of the mysteries of the Sonnets themselves which SS calls “riddles.” No matter how much one guesses, SS explain, “the problem persists” and who wants their guess to be called “not the most idiotic guess ever made” by a future pundit? No one. Thus, Schoenbaums makes a cogent argument for not looking too carefully at the Sonnets. The good professor, seemingly distressed by the subject, exits from any detailed discussion of the Sonnets as if (one might say) he was being pursued by a bear. 

Schoenbaum’s book is longer than RM’s book so we have the opportunity to reach page 300 where SS goes through the businessman’s will in loving detail. SS lists each and every person mentioned in the will, a listing which, as we know, contains zero writers. SS does seem just a little bit miffed at the lack of any corroboration in the will for the businessman’s dual life as a wheeler-dealer and England’s foremost writer as he curtly informs us that “Shakespeare neglects to mention Southampton . . . or for that matter any peer of the realm.” Schoenbaum, of course, is far from the only person to express disappointment with Stratford Shakespeare’s will and its list of not-so-important personages who would receive Shakespeare’s final gifts. 

So there you have it. I tried this random thumbing experiment exactly once. For Jonson I got the following:

  • Jonson gave books with handwritten inscriptions as gifts;
  • Jonson wrote letters written to friends;
  • Jonson received commissions for writing;
  • Jonson was paid for writing;
  • Jonson was sometimes housed by his aristocratic patrons;
  • Jonson had a residence at a college;
  • Jonson composed poems for friends;
  • Jonson’s death was honored (and dishonored) by other writers. 

The Shakespeare biography with one extra page thrown in nets us the following:

  • practicing catholicism in England was fraught with peril;
  • virginity at marriage finds its way into Shakespeare plays;
  • a Stratford boy might have seen a play while growing up;
  • the Tower of London has a fascinating history;
  • “dubious” anecdotes about Shakespeare’s physical appearance and personality exist;
  • the Sonnets are unsolvable riddles;
  • the businesslike will mentions no peer of the realm.

Lest you think SS didn’t read his own work, think again: the great Schoenbaum knew exactly what was going on. He had done the best he could and, obviously, had failed to write a literary biography of William Shakespeare. He candidly let us know in another of his books:

A certain kind of literary biography, rich in detal about (in Yeats’s phrase) the momentary self, is clearly impossible. 

One page from Jonson manuscript with his signature.

Poem handwritten by Jonson celebrating an earl’s wedding.

So literary biography is “impossible” for Shakespeare but not for Jonson. Of course, one has to consider the possibility that Jonson’s records are the exception. Yes, Jonson and Shakespeare were the two leading writers of Elizabethan times and we have dozens of documents for both men and Jonson’s say he was a writer and Shakespeare’s say he was a businessman. But what about other writers who weren’t as famous as Jonson or as rich as the businessman from Stratford? They left behind fewer documents. If they could be identified as writers even given a smaller number of documents, that says something. If, on the other hand, other writers typically left behind documents that did not link to their profession, then we could say that Jonson with his plethora of linkages might have been an exception. So the comparative biography question is important here.  Could they be identified as writers even with fewer documents? 

Diana Price, aka the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question, was just an ordinary person as opposed to a rebel super hero. Until, that is, Price read Schoenbaum. After reading SS Price stepped into a phone booth and exited with Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, a carefully researched rebel classic published by Greenwood Press, a respected academic publishing house since purchased by Houghton Mifflin.

Prices book offers a Shakespeare attribution study that might have been produced by an open-minded mainstream scholar. Price argues that what has been discovered and analyzed and commented on (!) by mainstream scholars about the publication history, the inside information, the Sonnets, 1580’s Shakespeare, and the businessman’s life story as compared to the life stories of other Elizabethan authors disqualifies the Stratford businessman from serious consideration as the author of the great works or at least demonstrates that there is a serious problem with the traditional attribution. The present work would have been impossible with Price’s groundbreaking book. 

Price notes that ALL Elizabethan writers produced documents identifying them as writers while they lived even if the number of documents found for these writers is dwarfed by the number found for the Stratford businessman or Ben Jonson or others who have been intensely studied or who were prominent enough to leave a significant paper trail. At the end of her chapter called Literary Paper Trails she concludes as follows:

“Scholars have retrieved literary fragments for those lesser contemporaries with far fewer man-hours and fewer research grants behind them. Still, in every case, the personal documents reveal writing as a vocation for the individuals in question. If we had the sort of evidence for [Shakespeare of Stratford] that we have for his colleagues — that is, straightforward, contemporaneous, and personal literary records for the man who allegedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays — there would be no authorship debate.”  

If you’re looking for books, manuscripts, or letters you can find them for the following Elizabethan writers: Jonson, Nashe, Daniel, Spenser, Massinger, Peele, Harvey, Drayton, Chapman, Drummund, Marston, Munday, Lyly, Heywood, Lodge, Middleton, Dekker, and Kyd.

There are exceptions and these are interesting to look at. Francis Beaumont and Robert Greene didn’t leave many documents behind of any kind but their deaths were both noted: Beaumont was buried at Westminster Abbey and Greene’s death caused a huge fuss in the literary community. Marlowe didn’t leave us much, but we know he shared a room with Kyd where they wrote together because Kyd described it in a letter. Peele mourned Marlowe’s — “the Muses’ darling” — famously dramatic death in yet another letter that has survived the centuries.

One thing virtually every writer did is write or receive what Honigmann calls “complimentary verses addressed to them by their friends.” Shakespeare’s works show evidence of collaboration with many other writers — Lyly and Munday are really just the tip of the iceberg. And yet the Elizabethan mutual admiration society didn’t seem to include Shakespeare. People knew his works but they didn’t write him letters or any letters they did write have not survived. No author claimed to know Shakespeare in print either: the “complimentary verses” so common in printed works don’t exist for Shakespeare either written by him or written to him. Here’s how Honigmann, a committed mainstreamer put it:

“What I find astonishing is that, in an age when writers so frequently [virtually always] adorned their books with complimentary verses addressed to them by their friends, not a single such poem survives from [Shakespeare’s] pen.” 

Rebels say there’s nothing “astonishing” about it — no one knew Shakespeare-the-great-writer because there was no Shakespeare-the-great-writer. The mainstream continues to be shocked, shocked that Shakespeare would not exchange dedications with his fellow writers even though analysis of his plays indicates frequent collaboration with other writers such as Lyly and Munday. 

Arguably, even more “astonishing” than the missing complimenary verses is the fact that none of the seventy documents produced by Shakespeare of Stratford are letters, books, manuscripts, legal documents pertaining to writing, records of payments for this or that piece of writing, third-party letters about Shakespeare-the-writer, or even mentions by anyone at all circa 1616 that the most famous writer in England recently died. 

The lack of documentation in general is more than astonishing because for non-Shakespeare Elizabethan writers about half of their documentation are letters, books, manuscripts, etc. Thus, for Shakespeare of Stratford we expect thirty or forty such documents and get zero.

That is there are zero writing documents for Shakespeare unless you count the First Folio preface as a “writing document.” It is the case that a group of people who suddenly doubled the size of an author’s complete works did claim in a document called the First Folio preface that a businessman never recognized as a writer in his lifetime was actually the author. Thus, one could say that the First Folio preface is a “writing document” and that there aren’t seventy non-writing documents.  

But I’m looking for some kind of corroboration for the claims made in the First Folio preface and so I don’t count it as corroborating itself. Since I’m asking whether or not the “Shakespeare” on the title pages is a pseudonym, the title pages don’t count either as documents confirming that the “Shakespeare” on the title pages is a real person. Mainstreamers don’t like any suggestion that the First Folio preface “doesn’t count” as a document. Of course it does count. However if cannot corroborate itself. And you can’t use title pages to claim that a name on those title pages is not a pseudonym. 

So the question asked by Price and other rebels, carefully phrased, is this: “Is the claim in the First Folio preface that the “Shakespeare” found on the title pages refers to a businessman from Stratford corroborated by the documentary record from his life and if it isn’t what are the chances that a documentary record containing zero documents identifying a great writer as a great writer can be chalked up to the vicissitudes of historical accident?”

Put more simply, Can we estimate the odds that Schoenbaum’s “vertiginous expanse” and Bloom’s “colorlessness” and Honigmann’s “astonishing” missing verses would happen because of bad luck? Bloom says explaining it is “a little beyond our analytical ability.” Maybe it is, but we can construct a simple model.

Flip a coin seventy times. If you get seventy tails in a row, that’s a little bit like an Elizabethan writer producing seventy documents none of which are letters he wrote or received, books he owned or gifted, manuscripts he penned and retained, etc. while actually being the great writer Shakespeare whose name appears on the title pages and who is identified in the First Folio preface as the great writer. 

You can try this at home. You just need seventy coins and you can throw them in the air and see if they all land tails. You might do it on the first try. Or you might try for a hundred trillion years and not succeed which you can’t really do because the universe won’t last nearly that long since all the stars will have gone out by then. On average, it would take forty trillion years to succeed. My calculation is a bit rough but the point wouldn’t change with a full computation: the universe is “only” 13.7 billion years old; even if you started at the beginning of the universe and flipped seventy coins once per second, chances are you would still be waiting to see seventy tails; to take a word from Schoenbaum, what you are attempting is “impossible.” 

This doesn’t prove anything of course: special circumstances could have caused the businessman’s name to appear on title pages and could prevented any identification of him as writer until 1623 when all of this businessman’s works were gathered and finally published and when he was finally acknowledged as the greatest of the greats. Maybe just the fact that he was commuting from Stratford to London caused the record to be missing a few telling details.  

Or not. Rebels say the “special circumstances” that caused the businessman to not look like a writer are “someone else writing the plays and poems.” Many rebels regard the likelihood of the businessman living and dying and leaving nothing as about the same as flipping seventy tails in a row: so unlikely it isn’t worth considering. 

But the mainstream looks at the First Folio preface and the title pages and says, “No one at the time openly stated that the First Folio preface wasn’t true. Also, there are documents produced at the time that may be ambiguous but that can be interpreted as supporting the attribution in the First Folio preface, namely that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” 

We’ll get to the ambiguous documents produced by Londoner who were part of the Elizabethan literary scene and who made some interesting-though-hard-to-interpret comments.

For now we note what is perhaps Price’s stickiest point, which I’ve tried to illlustrate with my coin-flipping model: the difference between the records for Shakespeare and the records of every other Elizabethan writer is, as noted frequently by Bloom and other mainstream scholars, a stark one, one that has long been recognized by everyone and one whose implications are shied away from NOT for any scholarly reason but simply out of habit. 

Price asks why the mainstream is ignoring its own discovery.

Price has challenged a paradigm held to rather tightly by most scholars to the point where most people regard any challenge to it as equivalent to saying human have not walked on the Moon. This level of cetainty is, one can see by now, unwarranted. And yet paradigms are notoriously hard to move. 

Arguments supporting paradigms, Kuhn tells us, tend to be circular. One assumes the paradigm is true, draws a series of conclusions and then declares, “See! The paradigm makes perfect sense.”

The “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm tells us that there must be some explanation for the bootlegging, the inside information, and the Sonnets: the acting company owned the plays, the businessman had his sources, and the earl’s family offered a commission. The paradigm explains the First Folio preface and the title pages and, with a few assumptions, holds together perfectly well and therefore the paradigm must be true. 

The “hidden aristocratic author” paradigm automatically explains the bootlegging and the inside information and, if the hidden aristocrat had some interest in Southampton’s marriage, also explains the Sonnets. It holds together as long one assumes the First Folio preface is a hoax. 

So we start with two reasonable paradigms each of which has certain advantages to recommend it.

But then we reach 1580’s Shakespeare and we have hard evidence to ponder — four published early Shakespeare works from the 1580’s. The first paradigm turns Shakespeare into a plagiarist. The second paradigm has Shakespeare leading the Elizabethan theatrical revolution rather than following in others’ footsteps. The second paradigm is attractive but has Jiménez really proven that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare? Without a full scholarly back-and-forth refereed by journal editors, we don’t know.

Even without being able to make definitive statements we non-experts can pass the inflection point of 1580’s Shakespeare and allow Price to take us to the top of the curve as it were where we find that the businessman was well documented as a businessman but was not documented as a writer. The circumstantial evidence of seventy non-writing documents is powerful despite being circumstantial and is predicted by the “hidden aristocratic author” paradigm but seems anomalous under the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm.

For the mainstream, even though the lack of documentation is reasonably described as “anomalous,” the idea of an author hiding behind the name of a real person — the front-man theory — is also anomalous as in intrinsically unlikely, unprecedented, and bizarre and thereby requires smoking-gun evidence to be considered.  

Here at the top of our logical curve, we worry about having left out information as we of course have done since it is not possible to cover all the information at once. In fact, any “battle of paradigms” is best examined with two readings so that on the second reading one can have all the relevant information in the back of one’s mind.

Some interesting-but-ambiguous information — two stone monuments at the gravesite of the Stratford church and four pieces of comtemporary commentary about Shakespeare-the-man by Londoners who knew whether or not “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym — is certainly worth a look but, given the what is really insurmountable ambiguity, this information is best looked at after the unambiguous information is laid out. (But a second reading allows the reader to keep all the information in mind simultaneously including the information I regard as ambiguous and this might make a big difference in your final opinion.)

In this context, “unambiguous” does NOT mean only explainable in one way; it means only that there is an obvious straightforward interpretation upon which everyone can agree. For example, the First Folio preface is unambiguous — the First Folio preface says Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. However, the First Folio preface can be explained as EITHER straightforward testimony OR as misleading marketing copy. Yes, there are multiple interpretations, but no, since a straightforward interpretation exists, I would not call the First Folio preface “ambiguous.”

On the other side of the coin, the lack of writing documents is also unambiguous — no surviving books, letters, or manuscripts left behind by a well-documented businessman implies that the businessman was not a writer. However, the lack of writing documents can be explained EITHER as straightforward testimony OR as bad luck. The businessman appears, from the documentary record produced during his lifetime, to be only a businessman and not a writer. However, if the First Folio preface is considered accurate then there “must be an explanation” for the lack of writing documents. 

With ambiguous evidence like the gravesite and the London commentary, multiple interpretations are of course possible but none of these interpretations could be called “straightforward.”  Ambiguous evidence often generates as many theories as there are observers and this is one way of identifying it as truly ambiguous — when even observers on the same side of a debate disagree amongst themselves and generate theory after theory after theory. 

Thus, I hope the reader will forgive me for putting off the examination of evidence I regard as ambiguous where “ambiguous” is defined as “admitting of a variety of theories all of which are on an equal footing.” Of course, determining which evidence is ambiguous involves some judgment and may therefore be regarded as subjective. Thus, some readers may ultimately decide that evidence I regard as ambiguous actually is not. In fact, if I am providing the information in a fair and reasonably balanced way, this disagreement should happen at least for some readers. If so, I beg forgiveness.  

All that said, there is one last piece of (in my opinion) unambiguous evidence to look at — the signatures of the businessman William Shakespeare on legal documents. With it we begin our well-earned slide down the logical curve.  

Schoenbaum quotes an expert who wants nothing to do with the authorship question but is simply doing her job at the London Office of Public Records. The expert, Jane Cox, states (1) it is “obvious at a glance” Shakespeare’s signatures are written by different people and (2) it is “inconceivable” that a literate Elizabethan would not have a consistent signature. Strong words from Jane Cox. 

Schoenbaum agrees with the expert since there’s nothing to argue about and the expert is merely stating the obvious. However, Schoenbaum must, somehow, salvage the First Folio preface since that seems to be his job as a mainstream biographer. Schoenbaum therefore makes two preface-saving suggestions: (1) Shakespeare of Stratford must not have been present in London when the real estate deal was signed with two completely different Shakespeare signatures and (2) Shakespeare of Stratford must not have been healthy enough to write as he usually would when he tried to sign his will. 

Schoenbaum praises the expert from London for being willing to “milk a sacred cow” and exits with some alacrity as if pursued by a bear. 

Professor McCrea studied the signatures also and offers a characteristically honest discussion. Here’s an excerpt on from page 49 of his book:

“The autographs are curious and it’s easy to see how one might question them. But they don’t prove the man who signed them wasn’t a writer. Their oddness might just as easily reveal their maker’s teeming imagination.”

I am happy to have the three (altogether) suggestions of Schoenbaum and McCrea. At least they are discussing the issue — some book-length treatments don’t even mention the signatures.  If one does deign to discuss the signatures, an infinite number of possible explanations may be created to “explain” them and save the First Folio preface.

Though I could be convinced to defer to Scott McCrea’s expertise in this matter, I thought with my amateur’s mind that perhaps a quick look at the signatures of other Elizabethan writers might be interesting. Chapman, Daniel, Dekker, Drayton, Drummond, Fletcher, Greene, Harvey, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Lyly, Munday, Marlowe, Massinger, Middleton, Nashe, Peele, Spenser, Watson, and Webster all left behind signatures that looked the part. I could find no precedent for a variation in signatures that Jane Cox noted for any literate Elizabethan: if the great writer William Shakespeare signed his name five different ways or had clerks sign for him, he is the only literate Elizabethan known to have done so though I must admit my knowledge of the field is imperfect so I should say I have personally been unable to find any precedent for Shakespeare’s teeming imagination as represented by signatures and this continues to be the case no matter how many mainstream books I read.

Shakespeare’s signatures that Jane Cox says were obviously written by different people are shown below. The first four signatures are completely different from one another. However, the last name in the fifth signature seems to match the fourth signature though the first name in the fifth signature is in a different handwriting.

For comparison, I have included the signatures of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Edmund Spenser. To save space, I have provided single examples; however, other extant examples either of signatures or prose from these men confirm their status as provably literate Elizabethans. 

Especially interesting are four additional signatures — that is, two pairs of signatures — from two of Shakespeare’s business associates, Joseph Jackson and William Johnson. Jackson and Johnson signed the same two real estate documents as the Stratford businessman on the same day. The same documents that contain Shakespeare’s two non-matching “signatures” also have two pairs of matching signatures. That is, Shakespeare’s business partners (at least for this deal) Joseph Jackson and William Johnson could evidently write their names when it came time to sign the documents.   

Court document. Shakespeare had to testify in someone else’s domestic dispute. This signature matches none of the others.

Real estate deal in London involving three people (Shakespeare, Joseph Jackson, and William Johnson). This signature is also unique.

A second document from the same London real estate deal. We now have three distinct signatures without even a hint of consistency.

Second page of Shakespeare’s will. He may have written this himself.

Last page of Shakespeare’s will. The first three words are obviously written by a scribe. He may have written his last name himself.

Ben Jonson. His signature never changed.

Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans didn’t care about spelling even of names. The handwriting is distinctive.

Francis Bacon. Also distinctive and consistent with other examples.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the greatest of the court playwrights.

Edmund Spenser’s signature was smooth and distinctive though not easily readable.

William Johnson signed his own name twice on the real estate deal in which Shakespeare of Stratford was a participant.

Joseph Jackson also signed his own name twice on the London real estate deal with William Shakespeare and William Johnson. Mr. Jackson seemed to have a little trouble with the ink flow but still wrote two smooth reasonably consistent signatures as one would expect of a literate Elizabethan.

“At the least, shaky penmanship is an odd characteristic to find in a professional writer,” says Price with remarkable understatement on page 128 of her book.

Price’s book covers what I call LISSE. It’s not a town in Holland, at least not in this context. She examined a vast swath of mainstream research and found that mainstream scholars have noted Shakespeare’s familiarity with abstruse Legal language and concepts, tiny details of Italian geography, the Signatures that aren’t really signatures, the clear connection between Shakespeare and Southampton evidenced in the Sonnets (that’s three S’s but I’m only using one), and finally the fact that the Epistles in the First Folio preface were ghostwritten by Ben Jonson. 

So we need an author trained in the law, who visited Itlay, and who knew Southampton. And you need to explain why the epistles were ghostwritten and you need to explain why the greatest writer in England couldn’t write his name. If you don’t like LISSE, because it causes you to doubt the traditional attribution, you have to jetison essentially all mainstream scholarship because LISSE is decidedly mainstream. 

As noted above, we are on our way down the logical curve. “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” is a Kuhnian paradigm and is circular by its nature and often by the arguments offered on its behalf. It certainly successfully explains the name on the title pages and it explains the statements in the First Folio preface in which two acting company shareholders refer to themselves as “guardians.”

However it does not explain the fact that Shakespeare of Stratford, the acting company shareholder, was apparently unable to write his name.

The signatures explode the certainty of the Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare paradigm because they qualify as unambiguous noncircumstantial testimony: signatures are hard evidence. That no other literate Elizabethan left us with five different signatures strengthens this straightforward interpretation of this evidence.

Non-straightforward interpretations of the signature evidence include ascribing them to Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination,” his lack of time, his poor health at the end of his life, or (with thanks to a friend) an injury which required him to dictate all of his work. An infinite number of interpretations are possible including (if one is good at keeping a straight face) “the signatures are perfectly consistent” and “there is no need to discuss the signatures.” The old paradigm lives because their “must be an explanation” for anything that challenges it. 

Though paradigms are hard to kill where they stand, paradigms can grow old and die as Max Planck suggested in the famous quote in Kuhn’s book. For some rebels, the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm is as dated as the idea that solid objects are truly solid. For many rebels, a nobleman was Shakespeare and yes it sounds strange but that’s just the way it is. The mainstreamers, waiting for a smoking gun, may eventually die off while rebels move forward with the rewriting of every bit of analysis of every bit of Shakespeare. 

Thus, we see that the heart of a paradigm beats in the eyes of its beholders. Is the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” paradigm really as mortal as its most vocal adherents. For now, we non-experts must await a rapprochement between the rebels and the mainstream that would lead to a full discussion in refereed journals that do not block research based on its conclusion but do demand solid scholarly work — something experts on both sides are fully capable of doing.

Or, short of an actual discussion, eventually one or the other group might dwindle in number unter the intervention of Planck’s ultimate referee — mortality.

All of the discussion above is subject to critiques and correction of this or that aspect of my presentation of the agreed-upon facts. However, even given such critiques and corrections, I claim that any view of the agreed-upon facts makes it abundantly clear that a mainstreamer who claims certainty or even near-certainty is launching a two-billion-dollar space shuttle with six professional astronauts and one teacher-astronaut on board when all of engineers recommend against launch and lay out their reasoning in careful — but not perfect! — detail.

Again, we are at this point most certainly NOT certain that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Neither are we nearly certain.

In a certain sense, being uncertain about a paradigm is a contradiction in terms. As Kuhn explained, widespread acceptance of a paradigm allows scholarship and science to move forward and is extremely practical as constant questioning of the paradigm(s) would be a distraction from the task of what Kuhn calls “normal science” which is an endeavor whose success and efficiency is predicated on having a majority of scientists and scholars agreeing on the validity of a paradigm or set of paradigms.

And yet I claim here as my central thesis that certainty about a paradigm has a nuanced subtlety typically ignored by the practitioners of the given paradigm. I propose here that one can act as if one is certain of the truth (or approximate correctness or usefulness as a model) of a paradigm without actually being certain of the truth of that paradigm. In particular, I propose here that researchers can carry on their work assuming a given paradigm is valid but need not block their colleagues from questioning that paradigm whenever some crucial number (I called it “X” above) of credentialed professionals wish to question it. 

The determination of the optimal value of “X” is a subjective process that is up to journal editors: I claim here merely that a value of “X” exists and that journal editors need not defer to Planck’s ultimate referee but may decide for themselves when “X” is large enough to warrant tolerance of paradigm-questioning activities by a minority of experts even if all journal editors disagree with that minority of experts

Put another way, a paradigm is a paradigm — only this and nothing more — and its perceived resemblance to a young child requiring vigilant protection is an illusion born of insecurity. Being wrong is a good thing for we cannot move forward if we are never wrong. That prescription (being wrong) applies equally to those who regard a paradigm as extremely likely and those who question the paradigm. One expects it to be the case in fact that the questioners of a paradigm will be wrong more often than not. But again, that’s a good thing, for the questioning process, once completed and having failed to dislodge the paradigm, will, in such cases, strengthen the original paradigm. 

Einstein, when he published his theory of special relativity, was, in the eminently reasonable view of the journal editor, probably wrong. The theory was published anyway. 

In the Shakespeare case, I hope I have demonstrated that the mainstream is arguing an indefensible point: they claim to be certain of an increasingly uncertain paradigm. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. We are 100% sure. We don’t care if he couldn’t write his name. We just won’t mention it or we’ll use our teeming imaginations to come up with an explanation. And so it goes. One is reminded of a Monty Python skit as we will see below (I told you, this is the fun part of the discussion). 

Even with hypothetical beautiful, perfect signatures, Price has demonstrated that the identification of the businessman as the great writer Shakespeare in the First Folio preface is NOT supported by the documentary record of the life of the investor, landowner, creditor, grain dealer, and acting company shareholder. 

Shapiro, contra-Price, says, “Yes, it IS.” Shapiro says the businessman’s life story shows three important characteristics of a writer: connection with a patron (Southampton); eulogies at death; and payments for writing.

Price readily agrees with Shapiro that if we could find a connection between the Stratford businessman and Shakespeare’s dedicatee (Southampton), that connection might well establish the businessman as the great writer even without books, letters, manuscripts, court appearances, signatures, etc. 

Price likewise agrees completely that if any event or letter or diary entry or publication beyond the reading of the businessman’s will could be found to have attended the death of the Stratford Shakespeare, that would also qualify as proof of authorship if he were commemorated as a great writer or as any kind of writer.

Finally, Price absolutely agrees that a record of payment for any play or poem as is commonplace for Elizabethan writers like Jonson would, if found for Shakespeare, be proof that he was a writer. 

Scholars, with these issues in mind, have spent centuries looking for a connection between the Earl of Southampton and the great Stratford businessman/shareholder and for any documents produced near the time of the Stratford man’s death that would indicate that the greatest writer in England had just died and for any records or contracts or receipts that would indicate that Shakespeare’s investment in the acting company was different from his investments in real estate and agriculture, that he was not only an investor in the company named William Shakespeare but also their chief writer. Any documentation of any one of these things would make a strong case for the businessman.  

But scholars have found no connection between the businessman and Southampton: the earl and the businessman appear never to have met. Shakespeare’s will created a lot of excitement when it was discovered but proved disappointing to say the least: nothing about the transfer of cash and land to two illiterate children indicated a writer. And, though he was definitely named William Shakespeare, he was not treated any differently than any of the other shareholders until the First Folio preface identified him as the great writer in 1623. 

Nevertheless, Shapiro has no worries: he says there is proof that the businessman knew Southampton and, he says, there is proof that the businsessman was eulogized, and, he says, there is proof the businessman was paid to write. The following is taken from Contested Will beginning on page 243:

“Price and her followers define authorship in such a way that Shakespeare is always excluded, if need be on semantic grounds. According to [Price], there’s no evidence of [the businessman] having had a direct relationship with a patron, though he wore the livery of the Lord Chamberlain [as a shareholder in the acting company], served King James both as a King’s Man and as a Groom of the Chamber [as a shareholder in the acting company] and directly addressed a patron, the Earl of Southampton, in the . . . [dedications in the published epic poems] Venus and Adonis and Lucrece.” 

Shapiro goes on to counter Price’s point that there was no known reaction to the businessman’s death in 1616. Shapiro explains that the First Folio eulogies should not be discounted by Price’s claim that “time had apparently expired” but should themselves be regarded as eulogies to the businessman as a great writer thereby proving that the First Folio identification of the businessman as a great writer is accurate.

Finally, Shapiro points out that the businessman, as an investor in agriculture, real estate, and the London theater, was “paid to write.” Even though, as a shareholder in the London acting company, he was “not paid directly for each play by [the] playing company,” his status as a shareholder named Shakespeare constitutes proof he was “paid to write.”

Here’s the full quote:

“[Price] also insists that Shakespeare had no ‘Notice at death as a writer.’ I’m not sure how those who wrote memorial tributes to him or paid for or carved his monument or labored to create the . . . First Folio, might feel about that. But according to [Price], time had apparently expired before all these memorial efforts were realized. And though Price knows that Shakespeare was a shareholder and therefore not paid directly for each play by [the] playing company [Price] assures us that there is no evidence of his ‘having been paid to write.'”

“Readers are invited to make up their own minds.”

For some reason, Shapiro mentioned in the quote above money the acting company received for producing a decorative item called an “imprese” as part of his argument that Shakespeare was paid for writing plays. I replaced this with ellipsis in the quote above. I also gave Shapiro’s zinger its very own paragraph because I appreciate it so much.

Shapiro does make one valid point here: there are two monuments at Shakespeare’s gravesite that we have not yet examined and that could be regarded as “notice at death as a writer” and we will look at both monuments below — one is a gravestone with doggerel and one is an enigmatic epitaph that could be taken as an indication that the businessman was also a writer.   

I said earlier that when I looked into the question I was surprised by what I found. And, reading Shapiro, knowing Shapiro is knowledgeable, careful, experienced, talented, focused, ethical, and brilliant, surprise was indeed the first feeling I had. But it’s also scary to see this kind of argument from an ivy league professor. After all, I could be on a space shuttle or some kind of similar vehicle someday and maybe intelligent people will declare the o-rings safe because they just are and no one can prove otherwise. Of maybe I’ll be charged with murder and people will believe I selectively removed DNA from a crime scene. Or a judge might allow a tea-leaf reader to testify against me if my house burns down. 

Shapiro says the fact that the name “William Shakespeare” appears beneath a dedication to Southampton proves the businessman knew Southampton and he says Shakespeare’s status as a shareholder means he had patrons because he wore livery and he says Shakespeare was paid to write because he was a shareholder in an acting company. None of these arguments would get a passing grade at a state college but maybe are okay if a student is wealthy enough to be attending an ivy league school. I’m sorry to be so mean about it, but Shapiro’s arguments here are insulting and, as I said, a little frightening. At least he’s not launching space shuttles.  

Again, obviously, at any college outside of the ivy league, the eulogies in the First Folio preface cannot corroborate the epistles in the First Folio preface. However, Shapiro also mentions the people who “paid for or carved his [monuments]” at the gravesite one of which may offer some support for the First Folio preface. So, with great relief that we have a real argument from Shapiro (the only one in his whole book) to discuss, we will, after reviewing the road we have thus far traversed, visit the gravesite. 

Here’s what we have so far: the businessman, investor, and theater shareholder, born with the common name “William Shakspere” in Stratford in 1564, did not leave us books or manuscripts or letters. Both daughters were illiterate; he was not, as far as we know, known to his friends as a writer and did not list writers or publishers in his will. His court appearances did not involve writing and there is no record of receipt of cash for writing. There is no record of him meeting Southampton nor is there any known connection between the businessman and the earl. If the businessman could read and write, he would be the one and only literate Elizabethan who left behind a series of inconsistent signatures and no books or letters. 

However, in 1623, everything changed. Thirty-six plays appeared in a compilation called the First Folio. The First Folio combined seventeen previously bootlegged plays with nineteen unpublished plays. Regardless of who actually wrote the plays, the First Folio marks the first time an Elizabethan playwright needed to be dead before plays could be published in anything like an authorized edition. In the First Folio, two ghostwritten epistles said two shareholders of London’s leading acting company had been acting as the “guardians” of the “orphans” of the great writer who was too dead to exercise his “right” to publish. But there would be no more “frauds” and their “friend and fellow” Shakespeare would be remembered.

Oh, and by the way, we have no interest in profit. 

If the First Folio is fraudulent (or a joke) every analysis of every Shakespeare play will have to be rewritten or much of the analysis will at least have to be revised in some way. It’s hard to say how big a blow it would be to someone like Shapiro. The professor has to decide how certain he is because, like all of us, his time on earth is limited. If he is going to do a lot of revising, he would need to start soon. Shapiro claims to be absolutely certain Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare though I suspect he has never actually considered the possibility that someone else may have written the plays.

Shapiro and others have repeated to themselves the phrase “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” so many times that the words have lost their meaning. Of course Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, but was Shakespeare an apparently illiterate businessman or was he a nobleman hiding behind a pseudonym? That is the question for those few (if any) mainstreamers who are willing to ask it.  

We must ask here, What is certainty? I propose the following working definition: you can say you are “certain” if you are willing to stake your life that you are correct.

There was no certainty before the space shuttle launch and it (predictably) blew up. I am “certain” humans have physically stepped on the Moon. I am “certain” Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito did not help Rudy Guede murder Meredith Kercher. I am “certain” most stomach ulcers can be cured with antibiotics.

No one is “certain” that a businessman born William Shakspere in 1564 was the great author we know as “Shakespeare,” not even Shapiro if he ever takes even one second to stop and think about it. But the situation is, in my opinion, far worse than a mere lack of certainty. Even a 1% chance of being wrong would be definable as uncertain for all but the most risk-tolerant people. In the case of the space shuttle, I don’t think the odds of it blowing up were nearly that low. It is unprovable speculation of course since we can’t try an experiment with a thousand space shuttles launching in the cold with faulty o-rings, but I think it is reasonable in hindsight to regard the space shuttle launch as essentially a coin toss.

So a coin toss may have been taken for certainty in the space shuttle incident. What of Shakespeare? Of course it is possible the First Folio preface is telling it like it is: the businessman somehow wrote the plays and the bootlegging, the inside information, the intervention in Southampton’s life, 1580’s Shakespeare, the missing books, letters, and manuscripts and the five varying signatures all have an explanation. But is the mainstream’s businessman-author theory even as good as a coin toss? Can an apparently illiterate businessman named William Shakespeare who came to London in the 1590’s after the name Shakespeare was already famous and who invested in an acting company possibly actually be the writer Shakespeare just as the First Folio says? What are the odds?

Don’t answer yet. 

I haven’t mentioned the gravesite and many mainstream people follow Shapiro in pointing to the monuments in the Stratford church as crucial external evidence that supports the First Folio preface. One can argue that the probability that the First Folio preface was falsified AND the gravesite was falsified is low enough to justify saying that without solid evidence to the contrary, it is a waste of time to pursue the “authorship question” and therefore building walls to exclude credentialed professionals from publishing their authorship resesarch in journals makes sense.

Rebels readily admit that any theory that assumes evidence has been falsified runs into inherent limitations when it looks at multiple pieces of evidence all of which must have been falsified according to the theory. Everyone agrees that any theory that assumes omnipotent ability to create any amount of falsified evidence is not worth considering. So, if the gravesite is a second piece of evidence supporting the businessman-author theory, rebels have to posit two pieces of falsified evidence with no rock-solid proof.

Of course, two pieces of falsified evidence is a far cry from claims of an omnipotent conspiracy, though it does have to factor into any analysis. Thus, a good summary of the mainstream argument is as follows: First Folio preface + gravesite + no smoking gun. Shakespeare’s status as a shareholder in an acting company is important to mainstreamers but does not actually support their theory. The fact that he was in London and involved with the theater does not comport with the apparent distance the actual author kept from the works as mainstreamers Schoenbaum, Bloom, Honan, and Honigmann have all repeatedly and eloquently noted so his status as a shareholder does not help the mainstream.

He may have been a shareholder-writer with a special arrangement with his fellow shareholders and unfathomable motivations regarding his literary legacy, but (and this is important) there is no evidence of this. All we know is that he was a shareholder and that after he died his fellow shareholders said they had the plays and their fellow shareholder was the writer. If shareholder-writers leaving their entire canon with their acting company had any sort of precedent or even if it made any sense at all to do this, then the businessman’s status as a shareholder would be evidence in favor of his alleged status as a writer. But, because the “guardianship” claimed in the First Folio preface is unprecedented, the mainstream doesn’t get to claim the businessman’s status as a shareholder as an indication that he was also a writer. Just the opposite is the case: the alleged writer’s presence in London and his involvement in the theater is suspicious given the bootlegging that went on and this actually damages the mainstream’s theory.

Robert Armin is an example of a writer-shareholder in this very same acting company: Armin was involved in the publication of his work.   

Nevertheless, we do have First Folio preface + gravesite + no smoking gun and so there is a real mainstream theory backed up with evidence which, in the case of the gravesite, is literally rock-solid. So let’s have look. 

Once you’ve seen the gravesite, you’ll be able to estimate the odds that the businessman was Shakespeare. It might have been more fair to the mainstream to have discussed the gravesite earlier so I hope you are prepared to find the gravesite evidence compelling. I think one can make a strong argument that the gravesite is so ambiguous as to be almost useless: I tend to ignore it in my own thought process for that reason. But you may well disagree with me when you see the evidence and, as Shapiro might say (except I really mean it), the final decision about the gravesite is yours to make.  

One of the monuments at the gravesite is a nameless stone identified as Shakespeare’s gravestone by contemporary observers who were physically in the church centuries ago looking at the original versions of the monuments. The nameless gravestone contained an epitaph (it’s still there) consisting of four lines of ridiculous doggerel:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

That’s about as un-Shakespearean as one can imagine. Mark Twain asked us to compare what he thinks of as Shakespeare’s real epitaph. It’s from The Tempest and contains these four lines:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve . . . 

The full Shakespeare verse is reproduced below along with images of the monuments. Suffice to say the doggerel was not written by Shakespeare unless one believes PIcasso would draw a stick figure for his epitaph (which I suppose he might do depending on his mood).

There is another monument, a bust, with Shakespeare’s last name and date of death on it though not his first name. This other monument has an epitaph that is cryptic and bizarre compared to other Elizabethan gravesites. And yet the words on this second monument aren’t doggerel though some regard them as gibberish.  

We first get a comparison in Latin between the deceased and three figures of antiquity: King Nestor of Pylos; Socrates; and either Virgil or Maro the Grammarian. Scholars have no way of knowing which “Maro” the epitaph refers to.

Scholars do know that these comparisons are not at all appropriate for Shakespeare. Socrates wasn’t known to have written a single word. Shakespeare was known as an Ovidian poet not as anything like either Maro. Nestor is just nonsensical. On the other hand, a businessman being compared with figures of antiquity can be an argument that he was more than a businessman if one wants to examine many epitaphs and see if there is any precedent for ordinary people being lauded as having the intellect of Socrates and so forth. This might be an interesting project; no one’s done it to my knowledge. 

The rest of the inscription rambles unintelligibly but the last one-and-a-half lines are quite interesting indeed: all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit. This either confirms that the businessman was a great writer or is worthless gibberish or is purposeful obfuscation or is something else I haven’t thought of — take your pick.

The full inscription is reproduced below. No one understands it: even experts in Elizabethan prose have made no headway in the last four hundred years. 

Diana Price quips, “If this epitaph commemorated a cryptographer, it could not be more baffling.” She cites a number of examples of straightforward literary epitaphs but does not perform a systematic study of Elizabethan epitaphs or refer to any such study. 

Here are the two earliest engravings of the bust. The first, from 1634, does not have pen and paper. The second, from a hundred years later, does have pen and paper. No one has any idea why the engravings disagree. Mainstreamers assume the first engraving is inaccurate. Rebels say the pen and paper may have been added later when the businessman-writer mythology had created expectations for a pen. Today, the bust has pen and paper. 

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1630.

Engraving of Shakespeare bust circa 1730.

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones and cursed by he that moves by bones. 

In judgment a Pylian, in intellect a Socrates, in art a Maro. The earth covers, the people mourn, Olympus holds. Stay passenger . . . all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit. “Sieh” is the German for “look there” which I read as “see how.”

Judicio Pylium, genio Socratem, arte Maronem
Terra tegit, populus maeret, Olympus habet

Stay Passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath placed,
With in this monument Shakspeare: with whom,
Quick nature died: whose name doth deck this Tomb,
Far more than cost: see how all that he hath writ,
Leaves living art, but page, to serve his wit.

Here’s a rebellious translation (read: guess) of the English:

Hold it right there “passenger” (says a man known to have initials BJ).
There’s obviously no way anyone is actually buried in the wall,

So you are forewarned about that which follows. 
It cost us not much to put a name on this not-tomb: 
See how what Shakespeare wrought leaves an artful jest
For the living
 with just these words to serve the ruse.

Here’s a mainstream translation (read: focus on the good part) of the English:

He’s buried in the wall? Is that what they are saying?
We don’t know here what is the meaning,
But all that he hath writ must mean he wrote things.
And his art will live on; of the rest we know nothing.

The mainstream interpretation has the virtue of simplicity. As for the “rebellious translation,” it is my own and I make no claims about its value. I regard the gravesite as offering no relevant information because of the doggerel and the obscure epitaph.

Here are a couple of elegies to the dead written by our friend BJ (Ben Jonson) that you may find interesting. Compare this to Stay Passenger . . . Read if thou canst . . . 

If Passenger, thou canst but read,
Stay, drop a tear for him that’s dead:
. . . 
What could their care do against the spite
Of a disease that loved no light
. . .
[Nothing] could stop the mallice of this ill
That spread his body over to kill
And only his great soul envied
Because it durst have noblier died. 

Here’s another BJ elegy which uses “record” and “page” and “book” to refer to the elegy itself. We also get the customary “crown of immortality” bestowed on the dead. 

‘Tis a record in heaven. You, that were
Her children, and grand-children, read it here!
. . . 
                                                          Do but look
With pause upon it; make this page your book;
Your book? Your volume! Nay, the state, and story!
Code, digests, pandects of all female glory!

. . . 

For this did Katherine, Lady Ogle, die
To gain the crown of immortality,
Eternity’s great charter; which became
Her right, by gift, and purchase of the lamb:
Sealed, and delivered to her, in the sight
Of angels, and all witnesses of light,
Both saints, and martyrs, by her loved lord.
And this a copy is of the record.

Asking someone to “read this if you can” is a surreal request reasonably called Jonsonian. So he seems to have ghostwritten the epistles in the First Folio preface (even mainstreamers agree) and, if he also wrote the cryptic epitaph for the businessman, the mainstream theory starts to crumble. Thus, rebels often claim that the First Folio preface and the inscription on the bust in the church were part of the same attempt to mis-identify the author as the businessman Shakespeare. They point to Jonsonian fingerprints as evidence. 

The mainstream counters with the “omnipotent conspiracy” charge which is somewhat exaggerated given that rebels are claiming just the two fraudulent items. Still, without a smoking gun, rebels are vulnerable to the charge that the greatest hoax in history resulting from a falsified First Folio preface AND a falsified gravesite inscription is an inherently unlikely claim.

The First Folio says straightforwardly that the two acting company shareholders were the “guardians” of their “friend and fellow” Shakespeare’s “orphans” and the inscription on the bust says not-so-straightforwardly that “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit.” The mainstream begins and ends the discussion with the First Folio preface and “all that he hath writ . . .”

Mark Twain regarded the doggerel on the gravestone as probative and wittily exaggerated its importance while ignoring the inscription on the bust. He had already decided for other reasons that the businessman wasn’t the author. Mr. Clemens’s suggestion for a better epitaph follows. I appreciate it because it reminds us who we are talking about: 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

. . . 

and my name far more than cost doth deck this page of my wit as living art

The living descendent of Lord Burghley, Michael William Cecil, along with Mark Twain, Roger Penrose, and other famous rebels, often laugh in the general direction of the traditional attribution. A lot of people think it’s obvious who wrote the plays. Kuhn tells us that paradigms rarely fall without a viable replacement — Twain didn’t have one but the modern Lord Burghley does.

Diana Price told me she thinks it is better to squash the old paradigm before looking for a replacement. She has a point: since there are so many other possible authors, rebels risk losing focus if they look under every possible rock for the “real Shakespeare.” Mainstream scholars often use the profusion of candidates as a way to make rebels look unhinged though this “argument” is more of a zinger than a reasoned position: of course there are going to be a large number of alternative candidates when the claimed author turns out to be illiterate. 

With apologies to Diana Price, I will follow Kuhn’s prescription and lay out the case for the alternative candidate that has attracted the most interest. There is a playwright from Elizabethan times who was heavily praised for his literary talents and who was even sometimes listed with the great Elizabethan writers without Shakespeare’s name even mentioned as if that particular observer either didn’t think much of Shakespeare or knew the name to be a pseudonym (needless to say this particular reference leads to no end of inconclusive debate between rebels and mainstreamers). What’s interesting in my opinion about this particular playwright is not so much that he appeared on a list that left Shakespeare out but that he was known as a playwright but no one ever named a play that he wrote.

That is, there is exactly one Elizabethan playwright with no plays attributed to him. There is also exactly one set of Elizabethan plays published without help from an author. If the playwright with no titles and the titles with no playwright are the same person and the same plays, then Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.  

Michael William Cecil, descendant of Lord Burghley himself (the Queen’s right hand man) is the 18th Baron Burghley. He believes the businessman was not the author.

When the Queen was setting up the largest acting company ever assembled we know she added a crucial element: a courtly writer.

When Edward de Vere was a teenager, he was already outgrowing some of the finest tutors in England. As an adult, he was known to be wild, irresponsible, and brilliant. He was also known as a great playwright.

Other authors dedicated dozens of works to him and praised his literary skills to the skies. This level of praise continued long after his death. Edward de Vere was “matchless” and “the best” and “more polished than Castiglione” and “sacred to the muses” and so forth.

In 1586, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, became the highest paid person in Elizabeth’s government. Here’s what (may have) transpired between de Vere (aka Oxford) and the national security man, Sir Francis Walsingham, who was in charge of putting together the Queen’s Men and setting de Vere up with his money.

OXFORD (glaring at Walsingham): You took the top actors from my company you mouldy rogue! I know the Queen ordered it but what kind of flesh-monger would take all my best actors?

WALSINGHAM: I’m afraid I had no choice. Orders are orders. But that was three years ago and today there is a happy ending for you. 

OXFORD: Yes, I have a nice troup of players to write for. But I had that before. 

WALSINGHAM: Ah, but there is more in heaven and earth than even you have dreamt of.

OXFORD: You butchered the line. Don’t quit your day job!

WALSINGHAM: Well, here’s another line for you, one that might soothe your tiger’s heart. You are going to get a thousand pounds a year for life. 

OXFORD: Ha! Mirth cannot move my soul! Away with your poorly timed jests!

WASLINGHAM: I must stay for I have not yet discharged my duty.

OXFORD: Then do so. You know I need money. And yet you torment me with unearthly exaggeration. Please tell me how much it will be and in truth this time, I beg you. Dare I hope for two hundred pounds a year? 

WALSINGHAM: It is a thousand my lord just as I said in my first speech. Can you not believe?

OXFORD (smiling): I am that I am and though I live on a stage of fools I am yet no fool. Of course I don’t believe you. 

WALSINGHAM (smiling more broadly and handing him two hundred and fifty pounds): This is your first installment. The Queen orders that you’re to be paid four times a year. Or shall I take it back to her majesty with your regrets?

OXFORD (reeling): Uh, well, I, now, how, uh, where, it’s uh, hmm, I think . . . I just . . . uh, really?

WALSINGHAM (shaking his head and bowing slightly): The most eloquent man in England speaks! I am in the presence of greatness and I am sure her majesty will not regret her choice (exit stage left as OXFORD drops to his knees and gazes at the firmament).

The Queen indeed had no regrets and Oxford received the unprecedented stipend throughout his life; it continued even after King James ascended the throne. 

Becoming the Queen’s paid playwright in 1586 (unless he was being paid for his pretty eyes) is pretty good but we would like to see if there are other reasons for believing Oxford was Shakespeare. The 1000 pounds a year and the businessman’s five different “signatures” are a good start but we want more.

A line in Shakespeare says “I know a man who sold a goodly manor for a song.” The leading composer of the day, William Byrd, did have a large property gifted to him by a nobleman. Shakespeare may or may not have been writing about that particular transaction but the nobleman who signed over the property to Bryd just happened to be Edward de Vere.

In the early 1580’s, Edward de Vere slept with one the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The high-born young woman was striking physically, brilliant socially, and exceptionally elegant. She got pregnant and had the baby and it was a huge scandal. The Queen tossed mother, baby, and her wayward earl in the Tower. (Don’t worry, the baby was fine.)

When her highness cooled off and released the now ex-lovers, members of the young woman’s family and parts of de Vere’s retinue met on the streets of London. Swords were drawn; blood was spilled. 

Modern protrayal of the famous sword-fight scene in Romeo and Juliet.

That’s nice but is there anything stronger than possibly coincidental connections between the plays and de Vere’s life that really only sound convincing if you already think de Vere wrote the plays? There’s something a bit circular about guessing that de Vere wrote the plays and then looking for connections to his life in plays that are about life in general and that may have connections to any random person’s life.

After all, what rich person with a lot of property wouldn’t hand some of it over to a musician he appreciated and how many of us have not seen our family and our lover’s family fighting in the streets? We need yet more.  

What about Lyly and Munday, the two Shakespeare collaborators conspicuously absent (along with all other writers) from the businessman’s will — did de Vere know them? If he did, that would be start.

Edward de Vere did hire two literary secretaries in the 1580’s. If one of them was Lyly or Munday and the other was someone with whom Shakespeare may have collaborated, that would be helpful. Actually, one secretary was indeed John Lyly. The other was Anthony Munday. Of course de Vere, as England’s literary earl, had documented contact with much of the Elizabethan literary world. Still, we’ve got both Lyly and Munday rather close to Oxford.  

What about the First Folio itself? Is there any connection. Did de Vere know the Earl of Montgomery and the Earl of Pembroke, the “incomparable pair of brethren” who made the First Folio happen? Of course, they were both earls and so the Earl of Oxford would have known them both. But how close were then.

The lady Bridgit Vere was to marry the Earl of Pembroke but the marriage fell through. However, de Vere’s youngest daughter Susay, did marry the Earl of Montgomery. So the “incomparable pair of brethren” were part of de Vere’s family.   

The rebel case begins with some disparagement of the man named Shakespeare, a fact which causes the mainstream to label them “anti-Shakespearians.” For rebels, the businessman is, compared to Shakespeare-the-great-writer an illiterate poseur who may have strolled into London with a handful of cash the moment he heard that “William Shakespeare” was famous but nowhere to be found and who then bought his way into the acting company and started strutting around for real like an upstart crow.

But now rebels can say there was brilliant literary earl, the highly privileged Edward de Vere, who was perfectly placed to be Shakespeare. Yes, say the rebels, there was a brilliant self-taught Elizabethan writer with an enviable knowledge of the classics, genius, insight, and superb lyrical talent — his name was Ben Jonson.

For rebels, privilege positively drips from the works of Shakespeare and it is silly to pretend that privilege doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And, say the rebels, unless history itself is conspiring to deceive us, Edward de Vere was Shakespeare and we are not “anti-Shakespearian,” you are.

The mainstream says the rebels are “reasonable people with unreasonable opinions.”  

Susan de Vere Montgomery. The manuscripts apparently pass from her to the Earl of Montgomery to the First Folio.

One nice thing about jumping on the de Vere bandwagon (should you choose to do so) is that it partially solves the mystery of Southampton, the only dedicatee of Shakespeare’s works and, even according to many mainstream scholars, the most likely subject of the Sonnets.

In the early 1590’s, as you know, Lord Burghley proposed a hugely consequential marriage alliance when he ordered Southampton, who was a royal ward at the time, to marry his grand-daughter. Shakespeare’s first seventeen Sonnets coax the “lovely boy” to marry and produce an heir. The Sonnets do not make mention of any specific young woman the boy is suppoed to marry.

History tells us that the young woman Southampton was supposed to marry was Lady Elizabeth Vere, the eldest daughter of England’s literary earl, Edward de Vere.

With the 1000 pound stipend, the connection to Lyly, the connection to Munday, the connection to Montgomery, this connection, to Southampton, completes the picture for rebels: de Vere was Shakespeare. Many rebels feel there is little point even considering any other possible author, including the man named Shakespeare identified as Shakespeare in the First Folio preface. Rebels understand that there is no hard proof as might be needed in a legal case but, they say, legal proof is not needed: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and Shakespeare was Edward de Vere.

Mainstreamers point out that we don’t actually know that the Sonnets’ subject is Southampton; we don’t even technically know that the Sonnets refer to real events; they might all be fictional. Rebels regard this as nonsensical. Here, in the land of the Sonnets, there is little common ground unless one considers Levi’s guess that the Sonnets were commissioned by Southampton’s family. I have relegated further discussion of the possibility that the Sonnets are fictional to an appendix.  

Anyway, as you know, Southampton said No to the marriage alliance, but “Shakespeare” kept writing Sonnets to him. Eventually the grievously stupid Southampton attempted, with the Earl of Essex, to control the royal succession. Essex and a number of other conspirators lost their heads if they were lucky. Unlucky conspirators were tortured to death in public.

Meanwhile, Southampton languished in the Tower under a death sentence.   

There was obviously something special about Southampton, something that saved him from Essex’s fate. The Queen, without explanation, commuted his sentence to indefinite imprisonment. When James ascended, the stupid earl got back his earldom and was made a knight of the garter, a singular honor to this day.

The Sonnets hint about Southampton’s specialness — “your worth, wide as the ocean is” (Sonnet 80) — but don’t resolve the mystery of this “worth” which Southampton apparently didn’t know about at one point — “thy own worth then not knowing” (Sonnet 87). Whatever his “worth” was, it seem to have saved his life to say nothing of his earldom.  

Shakespeare’s “lovely boy” of the Sonnets and an earl of extreme controversy.

The ebullient Sonnet 107 marks the death of the Queen aka the mortal moon, the peaceful transfer of power to King James despite concerns of civil war, Southampton’s miraculous (or not so miraculous) release from the Tower, and Shakespeare’s own triumph over death by virtue of his brilliant verse. The Queen, by the way, was always the Moon, so this Sonnet is easy for experts and non-experts alike to place in context. It was presumably written in the spring of 1603 when these momentous events unfolded.  

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The other key poem is Sonnet 81. It is an explicit recognition of the situation “Shakespeare” found himself in. He is the greatest writer in England and his works will be immortal as will be the subject of his Sonnets. The name “Shakespeare” is known to everyone, wildly famous because of the popularity of the plays and epic poems. Editions of the plays and poems dominate London’s bookstores. There’s never been anything like it. Nevertheless, the great author, the most valued of all English authors even during his lifetime, will be “forgotten.” 

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
   You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
   Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Sonnet 81 is not difficult to interpret. Shakespeare says, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die” and says his writing will make Southampton immortal. 

After circulating amongst Shakespeare’s “private friends” for a decade or more, the Sonnets were finally published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 complete with not only a eulogy, but a Shakespearean eulogy which, in 1609, is a trifle early for the businessman who didn’t die until 1616 and whose daughter was definitely not betrothed to Southampton. 

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI part one, the previous Henry, Henry V, lies dead and is extolled by Henry VI as “that ever-living man of memory.” Thorpe, echoing Shakespeare, calls the great author “our ever-living poet” in 1609 when he, Thorpe, publishes “Shake-speare’s” private, first-person Sonnets, some of the most heartfelt poetry in the English language written from an older nobleman to a “lovely boy” and containing sage advice, unconditional love, and unwavering support despite the occasional admonishment.  

Only thirteen first editions survived. The manuscripts are gone.

If the businessman wrote Shakespeare, the “our ever-living poet” reference was a bit premature. Edward de Vere died in 1604.

Fourteen years later, in the First Folio preface, with de Vere and the businessman Shakespeare both dead, the author, whoever he was, would likewise be immortal four more times.  

Thou art a moniment without a tomb, 
And art alive still, while thy Book doth live. 

For though his line of life went soon about,
The life yet of his lines shall never out. 

Be sure, our Shake-speare, thou canst never die,
But crowned with laurel live eternally. 

We thought thee dead, but this thy printed worth,
Tells thy spectators that thou wen’st but forth
To enter with applause. 

And so we have the Second Great Irony of the Shakespeare Authorship Question: the First Folio preface itself tells us that referring to Shakespeare as immortal is a eulogy.

For the mainstream, the quadruple-immortal Shakespeare in 1623 was being eulogized while “our ever-living poet” in 1609 was not being eulogized. Diana Price was unable to find any instance of “ever-living” being used to refer to a living person. Price says the problem is “generally ignored” by biographers and sums up her view on page 153 of the paperback version of her book: “An ever-living poet is a dead poet.”

Even people arguing that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare usually ignore the “our ever-living poet” apparent eulogy (e.g., Shapiro). It could be because there is no good way to pretend Thorpe wasn’t eulogizing an author he knew to be dead in 1609. No one wants to be made fun of for saying that the poet in 1609 was not dead but was merely tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk. But, despite such dire risks, we do need a counter-argument here.   

Scott McCrea, our hero, a man of surpassing bravery and integrity, the man who gave us Shakespeare’s “teeming imagination,” the man who squarely faces nearly all rebel arguments, comes to the rescue yet again. On page 185 of his book, after guessing that “Mr. W. H.” should have been “Mr. W. Sh.” and would have been but for a misprint, McCrea explains that “our ever-living” poet must therefore be NOT a reference to a Shakespearean eulogy from Henry VI part one at all but actually a reference to God and a commonly used one at that.

As my Monty Python zinger above indicates, I’m biased on this point especially at this point in the discussion. However, McCrea may be right and should be taken seriously. Here is his argument:

The “ever-living poet,” then, must be someone other than the Author — someone dead but immortal. In fact, Foster notes, “ever-living” was a conventional ephithet for God. Sidney addresses God as “ever-living thee”; Marlowe refers to “ever-living Jove”; Breton calls God “the Ever-Living.” Jesus was conventionally “the only and ever-living savior.” In addition, God was sometimes styled an author or poet. For example, the first verson of Psalm 19 was translated, “the firmament proclaims the poetry of HIs Hands.” . . . The promised eternity of the fourth line [of Thorpe’s dedication], therefore, is nothing less than heaven. As in other dedications of the time, the publisher is wishing happiness and heaven to the Author of the Poems.

So maybe an ever-living poet isn’t a dead poet after all. 

To begin wrapping up, there are the four comments by Londoners that constitute ambiguous evidence (no straightforward interpretation). Rebels and mainstreamers agree that the London commentary appears to be directed at the acting company shareholder Shakespeare of Stratford. However, rebels say the commentary makes it abundantly clear that the shareholder was acting as a front-man for the real writer, was not himself a writer of any kind, and, in fact, was a thief and phony who had a lot of money and bragged about his coincidental name. 

Mainstreamers interpret the references as saying the shareholder was indeed a writer just as the First Folio says though his fellow shareholders were not as brilliant as he and though his fellow writers were sometimes jealous and angry at him for beating them at their own game and for plagiarism. Some members of the mainstream believe these references corroborate the First Folio preface and should be counted as “writing documents” in analyses such as the one conducted by Diana Price. 

One can pick one’s favorite interpretation, but the mainstream’s attitude toward these four pieces of ambiguous and possibly even damning evidence and the mainstream’s repeated use of this at-best weak evidence in a desperate attempt strengthen its position reminds me of a famous story from the world of chess.    

Some years back, a little girl named Judit Polgar whom one might choose to describe as “adorable” nevertheless developed devastating attacks with her knights and bishops and regularly crushed adult male chess masters on her way to becoming the youngest grandmaster in history. Kasparov called her “a monster with a ponytail” and adult male chess masters not able to believe they were losing, sometimes refused to resign until they were practically checkmated, an act unheard-of in the world of high-level chess.

At age 10 she won a game against an international master. At age 11 she defeated a grandmaster. At age 15 she became a grandmaster, the youngest in history at the time though the record is now 12! Judit’s two sisters are also world-class chess players. The three girls were homeschooled in Hungary with chess a major focus. Judit Polgar was born in 1976; in 2004 she ranked 8th amongst ~1500 GM’s worldwide.

It is 2002. Kasparov is the best in the world but he’s being ka-rushed by the adult Judit Polgar in a speed-chess tournament spectacle — Russia vs The Rest of the World. You must move in ten seconds. Polgar destroyed him; the game was never close. The team representing “the rest of the world” beat the powerhouse Russian team by one point.

It is a lovely coincidence that Stritmatter was, the last time I checked, sporting a long gray ponytail. The moral here seems plain enough: watch out for people with ponytails. But seriously, is the mainstream, sensing a weak position, battling on even when the game is all but over? Let’s have a look.

John Davies openly called Shakespeare a “Terence.” We know Terence as a writer. Elizabethans did not. To Elizabethans, Terence was a front-man for two Roman aristocrats, Scipio and Laelius. Montaigne told the Terence story via Cicero (Montaigne was not the only contemporary of Davies to tell this story):

And if the perfection of well speaking might bring any glory suitable unto a great personage, Scipio and Laelius would never have resigned the honor of their Comedies and the elegancies and smooth sportful conceits of the Latin tongue unto an African servant [Terence]. For, to prove this labor to be theirs, the exquisite eloquence and excellent invention thereof doth sufficiently declare it: and Terence himself doth avouch it. 

Davies and every other educated Elizabethan knew all about Terence through Cicero, Montaigne, Florio, Ascham, and others. 

Beset by knights and bishops, the mainstream might claim Davies was thinking about Terence’s writing and not his reputation as a front-man. This is a bit like someone calling you the “English Benedict Arnold” and then, to quell your anger, saying that he meant your mustache was similar to Arnold’s. But maybe Terence wasn’t really a synonym for “front-man.” Maybe the little girl isn’t crushing us. Maybe

But let us see the next move. Davies followed with two related, but still cryptic, epigrams.  

Yet I am some-body with much adoo. “Some-body” appears to have written Much Ado About Nothing. Davies isn’t saying who. 

McCrea cites Epigram 159 in his book as important confirmation of his paradigm: the acting company shareholder Shakespeare is a writer, the English Terence, because Terence was a Roman writer. McCrea doesn’t mention Cicero, Montaigne, Scipio, Laelius, No-body, Some-body, or Much Ado About Nothing.

Polgar would have something to say about this I believe if it were a chess game. In English that is charmingly imperfect to my ear, Polgar described a game she won against a top male adult player: “He blundered and I ka-rushed him.” To continue with the Polgar-inspired chess analogy, ignoring “Some-body” in Davies’s epigrams is like ignoring the fact that your opponent’s knight is one move from attacking your queen and king simultaneously.

Let’s move on to the next mainstream move which either is or is not a blunder. A second contemporary reference to the businessman was made by a group of Elizabethan students putting on a madcap skit. The skit features one of the businessman’s fellow acting company shareholders, a man named Kempe, speaking idiotically about his associate Shakespeare. 

Here’s what “Kempe” says:

Few of the university men pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis . . . Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down . . . 

The audience of Cambridge students knew Shakespeare as an Ovidian poet and knew The Metamorphoses as a poem by Ovid. Now they knew Kempe as a fool who regarded his fellow shareholder Shakespeare of Stratford as a writer superior to “that writer Metamorphosis.” 

McCrea, on page 7 of his book, cites the students’ skit as proof that the students regarded Kempe’s fellow acting company shareholder, the businessman named Shakespeare, as a writer. What would Judit say?

Two other references may be to the acting company shareholder Shakespeare though these don’t name him explicitly. Ben Jonson wrote a Shakespearean sonnet (ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme) called On Poet-Ape in which he calls someone a fraud, a thief, and a phony writer. 

Poor poet ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery [thrift-store clothing] of wit
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, 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 t’was 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.

Rebels say Jonson knew the Stratford businessman as a play broker who went around claiming to be Shakespeare (“our chief”) and taking credit for other people’s work (“after times may judge it to his as well as ours . . .”). The mainstream says Shakespeare was a plagiarist and exits hastily.   

Finally, Robert Greene famously referred in 1592 in a posthumous publication to an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers” (like the crow in Aesop’s fable) who has a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide” (from 3 Henry VI) and who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you” and who thinks he’s the “only Shake-scene in a country” and who is an “Ape” who will “imitate your past excellence” and a “Usurer” and a “rude groom” who will rob you blind. Rebels say Greene was talking about a rich guy who bought and sold plays and took the credit. The mainstream says Shakespeare was a plagiarist. 

So here are the mainstream’s opening moves (McCrea started on page 7 and the mainstream generally has a great deal of faith in these references to support the First Folio preface): the businessman named Shakespeare was a writer just like the writer/front-man Terence and he was a writer just like “that writer Metamorphosis” and he was a writer who “buys the reversion of old plays” and he was a writer-usurer who stole the work of lesser writers.

I’m not sure we need Judit Polgar to counter the mainstream’s moves here. In fact, I’m not sure these “moves” need to be countered at all. Your guess as to what these references mean is as good as anyone’s: I’ve never seen a analysis that removes the ambiguity from these references though I admit I have a difficult time understanding the mainstream view of the Davies epigrams which seem rather clear to me.

Anyway, now you’ve seen it all from the First Folio’s “guardians” of Shakespeare’s “orphans” to Thomas Thorpe’s “our ever-living poet” to the London literati’s “our English Terence” and “that writer Metamorphosis” and “poor poet-ape” and, last but not least, the “only Shake-scene in a country.” If Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, the proof is right there.  

Sir Derek Jacobi, a renowned Shakespearean actor, promises that if we ignore a bunch of professors who seem to be protesting a bit too much and if we learn about the life of Edward de Vere, we will understand Shakespeare’s plays infinitely better. It worked for him, he says.

Jacobi wrote the foreward to Mark Anderson’s biography of de Vere. Anderson’s work is among the first books that elucidate the world under the new paradigm: de Vere was Shakespeare.

Anderson’s biography is a fascinating read though I don’t see it as a way to convince someone that de Vere was the author: Anderson is more interesting if one already accepts de Vere as the author. Using the match-up between de Vere’s life and the plays to prove that he was the author seems unnecessary to me and is a little bit circular if that’s how you’re thinking about it. There are many, many compelling connections between de Vere’s life and the plays but I prefer to view them more as a benefit of the realization that de Vere is the likely author as opposed to proof that he was. 

Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is still a wonderful read as well and is, in fact, enhanced to a surprising degree by knowledge of de Vere’s life. Where Bloom scratches his head about strange scenes inserted into the plays and lines that seem out of context, he seems almost prescient. Anderson and the other rebels can read Bloom and smile knowingly and so can you and I if we are willing to imagine de Vere as the author.

Edward de Vere was probably Shakespeare . . .

. . . and if that’s true, Anderson’s book gives you the full inside scoop on the Queen’s court.

Let’s review.

The rebel theory boils down to this:

  • The plays were anonymous until 1598 and even then were often anonymous. 
  • One and only one Elizabethan author wrote plays but did not collaborate with publishers: Shakespeare. 
  • Shakespeare plays are loaded with inside information and lampoon powerful people.
  • The alleged author of Shakespeare’s plays had the right name but owned five houses and zero books.
  • The alleged author was a businessman through and through and was also called a front-man and a fraud.
  • No one named Shakespeare was in London to write 1580’s Shakespeare.  
  • The Sonnets are intimate, private first-person writings telling an earl who to marry and how to live.
  • The gravesite of the alleged writer offers insipid doggerel, Jonsonian gibberish, and no mention of Shakespeare’s work. 
  • One and only one Elizabethan was well known as a playwright but had zero plays attributed to him: Oxford.
  • Oxford was lavishly paid by the Queen, hired Lyly AND Munday, wanted Southampton as a son-in-law, and got Montgomery as a son-in-law. 

The mainstream argument is usually given as follows: 

  • The First Folio preface says Shakespeare of Stratford was the writer.
  • The inscription on one of the memorials to Shakespeare of Stratford reads in part “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page.”  
  • The title pages of half of the bootlegged plays say “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” (yes, really). 
  • Shakespeare of Stratford was involved with the theater as a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. 
  • 1580’s Shakespeare was written by an unknown author with a similar style and later plagiarized by Shakespeare of Stratford (yes, really). 
  • The Sonnets are fictional creations that do NOT refer to real events or real people (yes, really).
  • References to “our English Terence,” to “that writer Metamorphosis,” to a “poet-ape,” and to an “upstart crow” are references to a writer. 
  • The First Folio preface says the shareholders were “guardians” of the plays which explains the absence of the author from the publication history. 
  • There was sufficient leakage of courtly information and other information to commoners to explain the content of the plays.
  • The 1000 pounds a year paid to Oxford was his reward for being a rascal (yes, really).  

There’s nothing really wrong with most of the mainstream theory. After all, his name was Shakespeare, he was involved with the London theater, his fellow acting company shareholders claimed they were “guardians” of his plays, his monument says “all that he hath writ,” he was called “our English Terence” which may or may not have been meant as a reference to Terence’s reputation as a front-man, and as far as the businessman not having the knowledge necessary to write the plays — well, it’s hard to prove a negative. 

However, there is some desperation in the mainstream’s argument indicated by the “yes, really” notation. The arguments make the mainstream look bad and I wanted to show their viewpoint in its best light. So I have discussed the (rather interesting from a Kuhnian perspective) “yes, really” arguments in appendices. 

Despite the weakness and desperation of mainstream arguments that they are certain who wrote the plays, it is still possible they are correct. Maybe we’ll find a Shakespeare manuscript traceable to the businessman or a receipt for delivery of a play or maybe we’ll find a book Shakespeare of Stratford gifted to a friend a la Ben Jonson or there could be a diary entry written by one of Shakespeare’s literate Stratford friends commenting on the businessman’s dual life as an investor-author or perhaps a letter the businessman wrote home to a literate friend in Stratford while he, Shakespeare, was in London researching one of the history plays will turn up or . . . well, anything is possible. 

It may be the case that almost anyone who reads Shapiro, McCrea, Schoenbaum, Price, Jimémez, and the current work would conclude that de Vere probably wrote the plays. Of course, this hypothetical person might be wrong. However, it doesn’t matter. The business about being wrong is a matter of philosophy and, as I learned from a brilliant young woman while we were climbing a New Hampshire mountain many years ago, “All good conversations end in philosophy” and so it shall be today.

Suppose the space shuttle had launched successfully in January 1986 and suppose Christa McAuliffe were alive today. Had it gone that way, had we been lucky, does that mean it is suddenly okay to ignore engineers when they say “no fucking way”?

Of course not.  

If an apparently illiterate businessman was actually the most erudite man in all England, does that mean we should drop rational thought and embrace wall-building over honest inquiry?

No.

If we find out de Vere was paid a thousand pounds a year because he had pretty eyes, does that mean hallowed tradition should always Trump evidence-based reasoning?

No. 

If someone making wild guesses turns out to be right about something important, should we start trusting wild guesses whenever they are made?

No.  

Pretend there is proof about who wrote Shakespeare that everyone will agree to and pretend this proof is in a locked box. The box is about to be opened. You must bet a thousand pounds on the outcome. Who would you bet on?

I’m going to guess that you would bet on Edward de Vere. I will guess further that, if you’ve read this far, you could read Schoenbaum, Shapiro, and McCrea and still bet on de Vere.  

But suppose you are offered odds. What odds would you need to bet on the businessman who appears to have been unable to write his name over the Queen’s playwright who appears to have been paid 1000 pounds a year to write Shakespeare? 

Would you take ten to one? How about a hundred to one? A thousand to one?

There are some very smart people with solid credentials who wouldn’t even take ten thousand to one in this situation. And yet the mainstream builds walls. How about we tear them down?

— Thor Klamet 

APPENDIX A: The Earl of Oxford was paid 1000 pounds a year for being a rascal. 

Yes, really.

When I read what mainstreamers say about the stipend the Queen handed her top playwright, I can’t help regarding it as the strongest possible argument that he really did write the plays. Mainstreamers are smart and knowledgeable and they apparently feel they have to go to extremes to defend the “turf” of Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. 

Here’s Scott McCrea, a SUNY Purchase professor: 

“By 1586, Oxford was ruined politically and financially. He had been selling off estates to pay his bills for years, dramatically reducing the value of his earldom. If there was to be an Earl of Oxford in generations to come, Elizabeth would have to provide [italics added] funds to support him. Which she did. She granted Oxford a pension of a thousand pounds a year.”

Here’s Alan Nelson, a UC Berkeley (!) professor:

“Then, beginning in 1586, in exchange for his good behavior [italics added], Oxford accepted an annuity of 1000 pounds carefully disbursed in quarterly increments.” 

Queen Elizabeth I was a brilliant and successful monarch, ruthless when she needed to be and forgiving when she needed to be. If you displeased her, you would find yourself in the Tower. She did NOT draw the line at murder. Elizabeth’s ability to “forgive” in  16th century context means she might not kill you if you apologize and behave yourself thereafter.

To say the Queen handed over a gigantic sum as some sort of bribe for “good behavior” or because an earl had lowered the “value of his earldom” is an argument that makes questioning the Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare paradigm seem absolutely necessary. I’m sure McCrea and Nelson are great professors but neither would have lasted five minutes as a 16th century monarch and, given their expertise, it is bizarre that they would make these suggestions about the Queen’s motivations.

This is a common enough mistake (though this example is particularly egregious). Motivations are difficult to ascertain from historical evidence. Why did the Queen fund a new acting company in 1583? Why did she hand de Vere 1000 pounds a year for life? It seems obvious that she regarded the theater as a politically potent force as any monarch would. But her specific motivation for this or that act cannot be known with any kind of assurance. And this is where the mistakes come in. Since a person’s motivation could be almost anything, it is hard to resist just making something up as McCrea and Nelson have done.   

Here’s what we know. The only thing anyone ever said Oxford was good for besides spending money and telling stories was writing plays and poetry. The Queen, notoriously tight-fisted with money, never handed out cash unless she was getting something in return. She granted Oxford 1000 pounds a year in 1586 and King James continued the stipend when he took the throne.

The money doesn’t make de Vere Shakespeare. He was apparently being paid for his literary talents but, even if that could be proven, it still doesn’t make him Shakespeare. He could have been doing any number of things whether it was writing plays all of which have been lost or even editing the work of a Stratford businessman who was a literary genius. McCrea and Nelson can easily argue that the money doesn’t make de Vere Shakespeare. Instead they have embarrassed themselves.

The paradigm that McCrea and Nelson are defending is NOT a small child in need of parental sacrifice; it is a paradigm and paradigms are supposed to be abandoned now and then. Of course we must not lightly abandon paradigms, but when a paradigm must be abandoned we do not mourn, we celebrate. McCrea and Nelson seem not to understand that. 

In The Double Helix, Watson, who had to ignore most of the scientists around him in order to discover DNA, offers a famous and rather nasty commentary on scientists that all scholars should pay attention to:

One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.

I don’t mean to imply that McCrea and Nelson are stupid. But they have both said something stupid. I agree that it — saying something stupid — could happen to anyone including the present author. However, professors and scholars have been entrusted with what I regard as a sacred chalice of knowledge and understanding, so they should be careful about saying whatever they want and if they do say something ridiculous, it is incumbent upon them to correct the record.

In general, ad hominem attacks are not useful and I don’t like having to stoop so low. However, the two comments above, made by professors who know better, are, in my opinion, reasons to reach for the Watson quote.

Appendix B: Someone else wrote 1580’s Shakespeare.

Yes, really. 

This one is even more stunning than the 1000 pounds a year for being a bad boy; it goes all the way to stupid and few steps beyond, but I suppose it is understandable because the First Folio preface says a businessman who showed up in London in the 1590’s wrote Shakespeare and so 1580’s Shakespeare has to be “explained” no matter what the cost.

The “explanation” is simple: 1580’s Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. 

Considering that the mainstream loves to bludgeon rebels and rebel sympathizers with the “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare” tautology despite the fact that it is meaningless, it is ironic that when faced with 1580’s Shakespeare, the mainstream effortlessly does a 180 and says, without even cracking a smile, “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.”

Well, he did. Someone wrote Henry V, King LearRichard III, King John, The Winter’s Tale, and Hamlet in the 1580’s and it was the same person who wrote the rest of Shakespeare. It might have been a man who eventually became the acting company shareholder: he could possibly have slipped into London as early as 1585 or maybe even earlier. 

But mainstreamers have a real problem with the 1580’s, so they usually say the Hamlet mentioned by Nashe in 1589 couldn’t have been Shakespeare’s Hamlet and must have been someone else’s play with the same title complete with tragical speeches. 

The mainstream can get away (just barely) with the Hamlet gambit because there’s no text to look at because Hamlet was not published until many years later. So maybe there was an “ur-Hamlet” (those erudite mainstreamers use “ur” to mean “original) that Nashe quipped about. Anything is possible.

But The Winter’s Tale was stolen in the 1580’s, in some places verbatim, by the notorious plagiarist Robert Greene for his novel Pandosto. The mainstream, desperate to keep Shakespeare out of the 1580’s, must claim that the greatest writer in England plagiarized a lesser writer who was a known plagiarist

Okay, maybe. How does the saying go? Oh, yes. Anything is possible.

But the other four plays were published as plays with the Shakespearean characters and the Shakespearean plots and Shakespeare’s unmistakeable style including Shakespeare’s trademark neologisms all intact and on full display. These plays are early Shakespeare through and through. Three of the four were published anonymously, one had the “Shakespeare” byline, all are clearly Shakespeare. 

But Schoenbaum says that the idea (proposed by a mainstream scholar) that Shakespeare wrote the early version of Henry V is “preposterous” and he explains why the idea that Shakespeare wrote 1580’s Shakespeare is preposterous: when the early version of Henry V was printed by a guy Schoenbaum identifies as Thomas Creed on page 167 of Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, the printer left it anonymous when he could easily have put Shakespeare’s name on it as he did with four Shakespeare plays that he also printed.

Schoenbaum, in explaining why it’s “preposterous” to have Shakespeare author his own early play, points to Creed’s “strange failure to advertise the name of an extraordinarily popular dramatist whose authorship of the play he would be in a position to know.”

This is a stunning argument given that Schoenbaum is the best we have — a truly superlative scholar. And yet he makes this statement.

Schoenbaum was well aware that publications of Shakespeare plays at the time haphazardly used the “Shakespeare” byline or no byline as they saw fit at the time of printing. Schoenbaum knew Creed himself printed eight other Shakespeare plays besides the early version of Henry V including two later versions of Henry V. In four of the eight cases, including the two later versions of Henry V, Creed’s printing contained no byline and Schoenbaum knew this too. He was a world-class expert; there is no way he didn’t know the printing history of Shakespeare’s bootlegged plays.  

Shakespeare plays sold well whether they were anonymous are not. Printers knew this four hundred years ago and all modern scholars are aware of this. Schoenbaum’s shocking lapse in judgment here is telling: he calls an idea of one of his colleagues “preposterous” and then makes an argument that doesn’t even reach the level of “preposterous.”

Now we can understand how the Morton Thiokol experts could fool themselves in the face of clear evidence. The shuttle was going to blow up. They knew it was going to blow up. The engineers explained to them (but couldn’t prove it beyond any doubt) why it was going to blow up. The Morton Thiokol managers over-ruled their own engineers, launched the shuttle, and killed seven people with wishful thinking. 

Schoenbaum couldn’t bring himself to accept Shakespeare’s own play from the 1580’s because he is completely stuck on the traditional authorship attribution. I can think of no other reason someone as smart and knowledgeable as Schoenbaum would claim that it is “preposterous” that Shakespeare wrote his own play because it was published along with half of all of Shakespeare’s bootlegged plays without a byline. 

You can’t launch a space shuttle when all of your engineers say it’s going to explode. You can’t even consider it. You can’t do it even once. It’s just not an acceptable mistake.

Schoenbaum gives himself some cover by noting that the anonymous byline argument is just one reason Shakespeare’s early version of Henry V can’t possibly be Shakespeare. Maybe Schoenbaum did have other arguments in mind, but it doesn’t matter. The argument he made makes it clear what is going on: the paradigm is right because the paradigm is right. 

You can find ways to have the Stratford businessman in London in the 1580’s unbeknownst to history. But you can’t make up some fantasy about a mysterious unknown author who wrote 1580’s Shakespeare and then claim any other idea is “preposterous.” 

If mainstreamers, even mainstreamers of the caliber of Schoenbaum, are going to spout nonsense just to see if they can get away with it or out of desperation because they are terrified that 1580’s Shakespeare conflicts with the First Folio paradigm, I’m going to reach for my Watson quote.

Appendix C: He WAS literate: his name is on the title pages. 

Yes, really. 

This one is so bad it’s hard to write.

Dr. Roger Stritmatter (Ph.D. UMass Amherst; dissertation on Oxford’s bible and its possible connection to the Shakespeare canon) believes “William Shakespeare” may have been a pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and points out that the documentary record of William Shakespeare of Stratford produced during his lifetime is insufficient to prove or even suggest literacy much less a life as the greatest writer in England. 

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Might Dr. Stritmatter be right? Might Shakespeare of Stratford have been illiterate and might “Shakespeare” have been a pseudonym?  

PROFESSOR: We know Shakespeare was literate even though he apparently didn’t own books or write letters or leave behind manuscripts and even though none of his friends or neighbors described him as a writer in any surviving document and even though he doesn’t seem to have been able to manage a consistent signature.

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Wow. Please professor, tell us, how you are able to see past all of this and conclude that he did, after all, write the plays with “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” on the title pages?

PROFESSOR (adjusting his tweed jacket): His name appears on title pages. That’s what we in the ivy league call “overwhelming evidence.”

PROSPECTIVE STUDENT: Wow. Please professor, how do I apply to your fine institution . . .?

I know, you don’t believe me. You don’t believe truth is stranger than fiction. But I couldn’t have made this up.

Anyway, I don’t blame you for doubting. You might need to get his book and see it for yourself, but here it is:

The Ivy League Professor speaks:

“Those who question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays never get around to explaining how this alleged conspiracy worked. There’s little agreement and even less detail about this conspiracy, despite how much depends on it, so it’s not an easy argument to challenge. Some suppose that only Shakespeare and the real author were in the know. At the other extreme are those who believe that it was an open secret, so widely shared that it wasn’t worth mentioning. Most doubters also brush off the overwhelming evidence of the title pages of these dozens of publications by claiming that “Shakespeare” — or as some would have it, “Shake-speare” — was simply the pseudonym of another writer — that hypen a dead giveaway.” 

The Ivy League Professor continues with an impossibility claim:

“But such arguments are impossible to reconcile with what we now know about how publishing worked at the time. This was not a world in which a dramatist could secretly arrange with a publisher to bring out a play under an assumed name . . .” 

I’m not sure how to respond to this level of nonsense. 

Pseudonyms were common in Elizabethan England and Shapiro knows it. Martin Mar-prelate is perhaps the most famous. There was also Cuthbert Curry-Knave and Pierce Penniless. Typically, authors wrote anonymously or used pseudonyms when the work was controversial. Most Elizabethan authors either published anonymously or used a pseudonym at some point in their careers. It was standard procedure.  

Of course, if “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym, it is the king of Elizabethan pseudonyms. Other authors used their real names at some point in their lives. Maybe this is what Shapiro was trying to get at — just the fact that an entire body of pseudonymous work is unique to Shakespeare.

But “impossible” is a strong word, strong to the point of being misleading. Shapiro knows the period was called “the golden age of pseudonyms” and he can probably give you the reference and the page number off the top of his head. 

Now about that hyphen. 

On occasion literate people hyphenated their names. This was rare but easy to identify because the hyphen would then appear on legal documents. Otherwise, hyphens commonly showed up in pseudonyms, another fact Shapiro is well aware of.

The Stratford businessman did not use a hyphen, ever. When people signed or printed his name on legal documents, there was no hyphen, not even once. But the hyphen appears on about half of the title pages that have bylines. It is “Shake-speare” as often as it is “Shakespeare.” 

And John Davies used hyphens in Shake-speare, No-body, and Some-body to slap us in the face. 

Shapiro, impervious to being slapped around by Davies and even impervious to his own knowledge, blithely fires off his zinger: “that hyphen a dead giveaway.”

This is not a search for truth. This is gamemanship. In a debate, you want Shapiro on your side. But truth, unfortunately, is an innocent bystander in any debate. 

Appendix D: The Sonnets are “fictional creations.” 

Yes, really. 

“Make thee another self for love of me.” 

Well, that could be fictional. 

“My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date.” 

A young author can pretend to be old in a poem. 

“Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.” 

In theory . . . well  . . . anything is possible. 

“From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” 

Hey, Southampton wasn’t specifically named in the Sonnets. The fair creature could be just some hypothetical person who needs to do some increasing so that his garden doesn’t whither away or something like that. It might not have been about Southampton’s betrothal to Elizabeth Vere. 

“Not mine own fears nor the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come can yet the lease of my true love control, supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.” 

Lots of people get released from the Tower of London on any given day and anyone can be “forfeit to a confined doom” and it might just be fiction. 

Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. FICTION. 

“Your name for hence immortal life shall have, though I (once gone) to all the world must die.”

This can’t mean what it says. If it did that would be bad. Shapiro is a professor. He says once a name is on a title page, it can’t be pseudonym. What part of “overwhelming evidence,” he says, don’t you understand?

Then again, despite the somewhat shrill nature of the mainstream’s insistence that the Sonnets be fictional, it is the case that one cannot prove in a legal sense that Shakespeare wrote Sonnets to Southampton because he wasn’t explicitly named in the Sonnets.

But legal proof is a high bar — too high sometimes.

In the Knox case for example, the police said they had forgotten to record their interrogation of the terrified young woman. Now the Italian police are the Olympians of recording conversations. Every room in the police station in Perugia for example is bugged and the police listen to every conversation including the ones you have with your lawyer even though this is illegal.

They listened to every call made by every member of Sollecito’s family for four years — tens of thousands of calls and texts.

The Italian police not recording the interrogation of the crime of the century would be like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Ariarne Titmus, Caleb Dressel, Emma McKeon, and Bobby Finke all showing up to the Olympics without their goggles and without their swimsuits and the swimmers and the coaches and the families of the swimmers all saying “we forgot.” 

But it was impossible to PROVE that the Perugia police had recorded their brutal interrogation of Knox (they also “forgot” to record Sollecito’s interrogation). The police said “oopsie whoopsie” and the court had to accept it even though it was outrageous nonsense. The police had “plausible deniability” even when it wasn’t plausible. 

This is the case with the Sonnets. Are they written to Southampton? Yes. Are they about real events? Yes. Can we prove it in court? No. 

We don’t have the context we would need to connect every Sonnet unmistakeably to real events. Some of the Sonnets are mysterious. When the Sonnets talk about a love triangle, we don’t know exactly what was going on. We might be tempted to speculate.

Should we be so incautious, Shapiro will be waiting in the shadows with one of his zingers.

UNWITTING SPECULATOR: In one of the Sonnets the author alludes to a love triangle involving his subject and . . . 

SHAPIRO: Who could resist such voyeuristic pleasures?

Gotcha! Shapiro’s zingers really are things of beauty: this one was perfectly delivered on page 53 of his book. 

Shapiro says on page 267 that the Sonnets are “fictional creations” and treats them that way at all times. Of course, he doesn’t believe his own claim. Right there on that same page, 267, in the “fictional creations” phrase itself, there is a beautiful extra word that acts like a fig-leaf.  

The Sonnets are “primarily fictional creations,” says the professor weaving in and out, zigging and zagging brilliantly. “Primarily” is a fine word and saves Shapiro like a life preserver after a shipwreck. 

The “Sonnets might be fictional” piece of driftwood is regularly grasped by mainstreamers who find themselves floating in the scary ocean of the Sonnets. McCrea bravely admits some concern about the Sonnets which, as Levi noted are written in the voice of an older peer of Southampton.

McCrea, after admitting his concern, points out that a poet can put on a persona that isn’t his own in a poem or two. For example, a young T. S. Eliot wrote, according to McCrea, “I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” And so on. Needless to say, McCrea doesn’t treat the issue of an author putting on a persona for dozens of poems in a privately circulated sequence.

McCrea tries out a couple of weak examples of authors writing a voice that isn’t their own and exits pursued by a bear. At least McCrea doesn’t play word games and for that we may be thankful.   

Schoenbaum notes that while a “majority” of scholars seem to favor Southampton as the subject he, Schoenbaum, is “haunted” by the possibility that the Sonnets could possibly be fictional. Here’s the full quote with emphasis added:

“And what of the role of the speaker himself, the naked ‘I’ which we here encounter for the first and only time in the entire Shakespeare corpus? ‘With this key,’ Wordsworth said of the cycle, ‘Shakespeare unlocked his heart.’ But the doubt haunts us that the speaker may be at least in part, another dramatic characterization. If the persona of the Sonnets addresses us with the resonance of authenticity, so do Shylock and Hamlet. Here, as elsewhere, the biographer, in his eagerness for answers to the unanswerable, runs the risk of confusing the dancer with the dance.” 

It’s so well written one can almost forget that the Sonnets read exactly like a cohesive series of letters offering a young man guidance, support, admonishment, and love. We don’t know the precise nature of the relationship between elder author and younger earl, but we know enough: the Sonnets were kept private for more than ten years; the Sonnets were written in the first person; the Sonnets describe identifiable events.

Is the fact that we lack sufficient context to fully explicate all of the events described in the Sonnets justification for treating the entire sequence as fictional? No. 

Do the Sonnets play nice with the First Folio preface? No. 

After telling us about how “we” are “haunted” by doubts about the reality of the Sonnets, the dean of Shakespeare biography abruptly switches gears and spends a number of pages talking about an obscure poem by an unknown author that may or may not refer to the Sonnets. Then, having made his escape from that which “haunts” him, Schoenbaum gloriously immerses himself in the soothing bath of Shakespeare’s business relationship with the acting company and all is well in the mainstream world.

Before you can say “make thee another self for love of me” the great Shakespeare biographer has spoken of hauntings and can be seen running away screaming as if pursued by a bear.

Schoenbaum is “haunted” all right but NOT by the concern that the Sonnets aren’t real. Just the opposite: if the Sonnets are real, mainstream biographers have a problem as in “Houston, we have a problem.”

If the Sonnets are real, then the First Folio preface is probably nonsense. That really is scary for someone like Schoenbaum and that fear runs through his entire biography, a biography of William Shakespeare that must talk about his only first-person writing (!) only in the most superficial possible manner for fear the entire tapestry will unravel. 

Diana Price tells a priceless and somewhat predictable story about reading Schoenbaum. Price, like every other reasonable person, assumed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and never gave it a second thought. Why would she? Why would anyone? Silly theories are a dime a dozen.

So how did Diana Price come to write one of the most important works questioning the attribution in the First Folio preface? How did she become the Elaine Morgan of the authorship question? Yes. That’s exactly right. You guessed it. 

Price read Schoenbaum. 

If you believe the Sonnets must be fictional because the First Folio says they were written by a businessman who was not involved in Southampton’s marriage negotiations, then so be it. But bear with me for another minute before you run off with Schoenbaum. 

“Make thee another self for love of me,” says the author to his subject. Is this fictional? Southampton really was being pressured by Burghley to marry. Burghley threatened to fine Southampton 5000 pounds.

Yes, the “marriage sonnets” could be fiction. Or they could be what they seem to be: Elizabethan power politics.

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

No wonder Shapiro treats the Sonnets as “fictional creations” and no wonder McCrea speaks of created personas and no wonder Schoenbaum runs away as fast as his legs can carry him.

I’m sure these mainstreamers know about Levi’s theory that the Sonnets were commissioned. But I guess after you claim the inside information comes from some magic source and 1580’s Shakespeare was written by someone else and Shakespeare didn’t own his own plays, it’s hard to then add “Shakespeare spent ten years writing Sonnets in someone else’s voice” to the littany of “someone else” theories. 

So they say the Sonnets are fictional and then exit pursued by a bear. 

Shakespeare loved a boy whose youthful face he regarded as his own.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date

The modern mainstream needs this line to be about a relationship that didn’t really exist four centuries ago.

Appendix E: What really happened?

This, obviously, is a best guess based on the evidence we have. What follows is somewhat strongly stated as is typical when one wraps oneself in the mantle of a paradigm. The strong statements says we “know” de Vere wrote the plays; we are going to take this “knowledge” out for a spin and see where it goes. But we will always keep in the back of our mind that strong statements aren’t right just because the speaker displays confidence and perhaps even has charisma or credentials or clever phrasing. In the end, the evidence must have the final word and even then, even when we bow before the God of Evidence, reality may nevertheless be elusive. 

The old paradigm, as strongly stated as it often is, is probably wrong. Shakespeare was, most likely, NOT a Stratford businessman who owned many houses but couldn’t write his name. Probably, Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the Queen’s highly paid and highly placed playwright. Probably the only playwright who never got involved in publishing a play and the only playwright to have no plays attributed to him were the same person — Edward de Vere, the highly privileged 17th Earl of Oxford. 

There is no guarantee but if my life was to depend on either coin toss or Oxford being Shakespeare, I would go with Oxford and worry a bit but not overmuch for “The coward dies a thousand times before his death; the valiant taste of death but once.” So let us be unafraid to make a rebellious assumption: de Vere was Shakespeare. 

Edward de Vere was born in 1550. By the time England’s future Ovidian poet was a teenager, he was helping his uncle Arthur Golding translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses and impressing his uncle and his tutors with his knowledge of history and his command of languages. He started writing plays in the early 1660’s; the Queen’s intellectually stimulating and entertainment-hungry court where he was living as a royal ward was a perfect outlet for a young creative genius. 

By the early 1570’s the literary earl was married to Lord Burghley’s daughter and was cutting a dashing swath through court, even sleeping with the Queen and provoking this daring commentary from one who could observe de Vere and the Queen’s “delight” with him but who obviously had to be careful what he said in polite company: in his diary he daringly wrote of the Queen and de Vere, “my Lord Burghley [de Vere’s father-in-law] winketh at these love matters.”

Royal favor waxed and waned throughout the life of an earl who was very good at living in the moment. Our intrepid diarist predicted de Vere’s “fickle head” would prevent him from climbing the ladder of royal favor and remaining perched at a lofty height looking down upon other would-be influencers. 

By 1575, the fickle and brilliant earl was, by permission of the Queen, traveling in Italy, depleting his ancestral wealth, and discovering firsthand the microscopic details of Italian art, literature, customs, and geography that appear in those many Shakespeare’s plays with exquisitely rendered Italian settings — settings that no one, not even Shakespeare, could have gotten from a book. Even today, with the all-powerful internet and the great teams of researchers and the libraries Elizabethans didn’t even dream of, those who wish to verify the details of Shakespeare’s Italian settings (as opposed to engaging in useless debate) must often physically go to Italy.

Modern mainstreamers for whom de Vere is little more than a bad dream marvel at how a commoner-businessman who had never been to Italy could possess such accurate knowledge. Sometimes, even the smartest mainstreamers beset the Italian question find themselves grasping at straws and declaring in brief, bizarre, forgettable statements that the great author’s (essentially perfect) grasp of Italian geography wasn’t, to quote Schoenbaum himself, “all that secure.” Exit, pursued by a bear. 

Post-Schoenbaum, we now witness the spectacle of active professors saying things like Shapiro’s, “A curious Shakespeare could have learned everything he needed to know about the Italian settings of his plays from a few choice conversations” or implying that an activity part and parcel of trade between Italian city-states in the 16th century (intercity water travel on rivers and canals) was “absurd” (McCrea). Shapiro’s statement is the equivalent of “Einstein could have learned everything he needed to know about physics by attending a few lectures” and McCrea’s statement, we learn from Alexander Waugh, can be negated by a few minutes of research in an amazing place called a “library” where one can easily verify that Shakespeare’s description of Italian life is, yet again, accurate down to the fine details.   

It might be waterways connecting city-states or any one of a thousand other details, it doesn’t matter: Shakespeare knew things about Italy that were not in books. When you are physically there, it is hard to be wrong: always it is the modern mainstream scholar who is mistaken. Alexander Waugh’s stinging rebuke, alluded to above, of what passes for mainstream “scholarship” re Italy in an essay called “Keeping Shakespeare out of Italy” is my favorite single article on the authorship question. It starts on page 72 of the collection of essays called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?.

Richard Roe’s book on the subject called Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy is a stunning, easy-to-read overview of the Italy that bustled on crowded 16th century streets, the Italy that was captured by Shakespeare’s steel-trap mind and that flowed by way of his pen onto now-lost handwritten manuscripts before finally making its way to the actor’s script and the stage and to the printing press and, nowadays, to those ever-present screens. 

A small town in Vermont that begins with a “V” and is a French word mispronounced by the inhabitants has many banks but one in particular is adjacent to a short set of gently winding concrete steps that will take you below street level to a redolent shop where the proprietor will flow from the big open “creation area” to the smallish “sales area” and explain to you the difference between a “chocolatier” and a “chocolate maker” and sell to you the same chocolate — in the form of discs — that she stirs melted into great and spotless metal pots and that she uses in her creations for not very much per pound while the creations themselves with their cherries and cocoanuts and caramels come somewhat dearer but make almost as good an impression as the proprietor and her yoga-instructor friend who sometimes runs the shop when she is away.

Try verifying the above paragraph without going to Vermont. You might be successful. However, whoever wrote Shakespeare’s Italy didn’t have the internet — whoever it was who knew all about Saint Gregory’s Well and knew that it was not really a well either traveled to Italy or had magic powers. The businessman may indeed have been to Italy unbeknownst to history and this would safe the traditional story, but “keeping Shakespeare out of Italy” is a fool’s errand that some mainstreamers (this means you James and Scott) continue to fall for.  

Waugh’s contribution is a priceless, ungentle, well deserved takedown of mainstream Italy denial.

In Italy, Roe discovered that Shakespeare’s Duke’s Oak capitalized was a real place. The reason for the capitalization had long eluded scholars. Roe dug into all the details of Shakespeare’s Italy by visiting archives and personally visiting the settings for the plays much of which has remained intact through the centuries.

By the late 1570’s, de Vere’s anonymous A History of Error (also called Errors) was a popular courtly diversion. It later became The Comedy of Errors (also abbreviated Errors) published in the First Folio. By 1577 de Vere had already become Shakespeare, the great courtly playwright. By the time a businessman named Shakespeare arrived in London, more than half the canon had already been written and performed as 1580’s Shakespeare, a fact which has caused mainstream scholars to declare Shakespeare a plagiarist whether or not they actually can bring themselves to use the “p-word” to describe the great author. 

In fact, the actual author set up shop at one of his properties with fellow writers Munday, Lyly, and others. They partied, wrote, and spent the wealth accumulated by the sixteen previous Earls of Oxford. Yes, de Vere was on the way to bankrupting himself but he and his crew of writers revolutionized Elizabethan theater with dramatic and original innovations. They re-imagined many classic plotlines; they were not, by any stretch of the imaginations, plagiarists. 

For the Queen, surrounded by threats foreign and domestic, her life frequently on the line, the celebrations of divine monarchs whom it was an honor to die for combined with the titillating courtly exposés and de Vere’s brilliance was as irresistible as a dashing young earl’s body had been early in the previous decade. She not only responded, she went all in. She set up the Queen’s Men to act the plays and, while she was at it, she set de Vere up for life.

By the way, there was, at this time, a self-taught genius of humble origins (his father was a bricklayer) who became a great playwright even with the odds heavily stacked against him. But that isn’t Shakespeare’s story, it’s Ben Jonson’s story. Yes, Jonson beat the odds. But only de Vere could have been the courtly playwright who lampooned the Queen’s court at will.

Who created the “Corambis” character in Hamlet? This was the monarch’s counselor, an officious, spying, meddling, powerful boor who bore a striking resemblance to the real Lord Burghley whose family motto was “cor unum son una” (one heart one way). Shakespeare liked to identify his characters with reference to their family mottos — Corambis of course is the Latin for “two-hearted” and is a rather nasty twisting of Burghley’s actual motto. In fact, if the publication history is any indication, “Corambis” was too nasty. After the first version of Hamlet was published, the character’s name was changed to Polonius in the next version and in the First Folio version.  

No one, not Ben Jonson, not a businessman from Stratford, no one without many, many protective layers including anonymity and high birth and the Queen’s support could have written the Corambis character. An earl yes, a commoner no. If the Earl of Oxford wrote plays loaded with detailed knowledge of not just the Queen and her court but of Italy, falconry, law, botany, medicine, languages, and music, the plays make sense. Otherwise, everything is another one of Schoenbaum’s “riddles.” 

Since the businessman is such an unlikely Shakespeare, many people have been put forward as possible Shakespeares and for all we know one of them is the real Shakespeare as opposed to Oxford. But whether it was Oxford or someone else who became the most erudite person in England, they needed the tutors, the fabulous libraries, money, time, space, travel opportunities, collaborators, the support of the Queen, and a thousand other things. Genius is great but it isn’t enough.

Ben Jonson was erudite too and read and owned many, many books. But he wasn’t Shakespeare and he could not be Shakespeare no matter how hard he worked and no matter how much genius he had. Privilege matters. Mainstream scholars, most of them highly privileged, say the businessman from Stratford could have written the plays without privilege. Anything is possible, but the scholars don’t explain how he could have done it. Then they brazenly accuse rebels of “snobbery.”

Does talent really will out? Do all geniuses end up in the ivy league? It is really “snobbery” to recognize Shakespeare’s privilege?

I’m not sure what to make of privileged scholars waxing poetic about the possibility of fantastic poetic talent rising in a boy from an illiterate household surrounded by the dust of Stratford village where he had no access any of the things he would have needed to accomplish what Shakespeare accomplished. Is this story told by the privileged a little self-serving or is that my imagination?   

In the 1590’s, with much of the canon already written and the manuscripts unavailable to publishers, the Sonnets began to scandalously follow Southampton’s travails as the young earl refused Burghley’s marriage offer, threw his hat in the ring with the Earl of Essex, and, seven years later, watched as Essex was fortunate enough to lose his head with one clean stroke while co-conspirators were tortured to death.

Essex and Southampton had tried to control the royal succession. Since much of the staff at Southampton’s and Essex’s estates were Burghley spies, their conspiracy was doomed from the start; the powerful Burghley family had already decided James would be King. In retrospect, marrying Elizabeth Vere as the Sonnets seemed to advise might have been a wiser course. 

Only select people got to see the Sonnets back then, but the two epic poems were for everyone’s viewing. Some thought the heavy-breathing vixen in Venus and Adonis was the Queen herself. The next poem, The Rape of Lucrece, was titillating too for Elizabethans but darker, obviously. The fact that de Vere had slept with the Queen couldn’t have hurt the popularity of the epic poems. 

Both epic poems, dedicated to Southampton as he pondered Burghley’s kind offer, could not possibly have de Vere’s name on them. A pseudonym, perhaps already whispered about in years past, was created for the poems. That’s where Shakespeare came from, not from some random guy named Shakspere. 

The illiterate Shakspere, whose name was easily close enough to “William Shakespeare” for the spelling-flexible Elizabethans, showed up in London as the written, performed, and revised de Vere plays were coming out as anonymous bootlegs sometimes with a byline and sometimes without: it didn’t matter because Elizabethans knew the plays by reputation and they knew “Shakespeare” was just a label not a person. 

In 1598, Lord Burghley died and was replaced by his son. Also that year (and this may or may not be a coincidence) de Vere’s plays could now be published with the “William Shakespeare” pseudonym — when the publisher felt like it — making the source just a tiny bit more obvious than the blank bylines of years past, blank bylines that continued to be common for the plays even after the “Shakespeare” ice was broken on the plays in 1598.

Mainstreamers say the title pages support their premise. The title pages actually indicate a pseudonym. The byline might say “Shake-speare.” The byline might say “Shakespeare.” There might be no byline. The printings were extremely popular regardless and printers just didn’t care just like the author “didn’t care” about publication. And the “Shake-speare” byline is, in fact, as Shapiro sarcastically noted, “a dead giveaway.” Some real people did hyphenate their names and when they did, they signed their names that way and their names appeared on legal documents with hyphens. The businessman’s name never had a hyphen. But Cuthbert Curry-knave’s name did have a hyphen. It was a pseudonym. So was Shake-speare hyphenated or Shakespeare not hyphenated or Shakespeare not printed at all. The goddess of the theater, Athena, was the spear-shaker so it was a good nom de plume for a playwright. And yes, there was a rich guy in Stratford actually called William Shakspere with that spelling. Lucky him. 

The writer of the Sonnets, the author of the epic poems, and the writer of the plays was, post 1598, clearly the same person though not many people had yet seen the Sonnets and no one dared to publicly comment on the hidden author except to call his front-man “our English Terence” and to associate him with “that writer Metamorphosis.”

Sometime between 1598 and 1604, de Vere finished his last play, The Tempest. It was copied by a German producer and put on in that country soon after it was written, but there’s no recorded performance in England until much later, a fact which caused people who like weak theories to guess the wrong date for the play’s composition until Stritmatter and Kositsky set the record straight. 

In 1603, the Queen died, James ascended, and Southampton walked free, treated with kid gloves, rewarded, feted, coddled, and carefully watched by a wary King James. There was something about Southampton, something that had saved him from death, something that had allowed a convicted traitor to retain his earldom (to say nothing of his head). To this day, no one knows what was so special about Southampton.

“From fairest creatures we desire increase that thereby beauty’s Rose might never die” is how de Vere started his series and already we are lost. We think the “fairest creature” is very likely Southampton, but we don’t technically know even that. If it is Southampton, we don’t know what is so “fair” about him except that he is an earl and de Vere thinks he is special. 

The Sonnets dwell on “worth” — the word appears dozens of times.

In Sonnet 80, de Vere speaks of “your worth, wide as the ocean is” but doesn’t tell us what he is talking about.

In Sonnet 87, de Vere says “The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing” and then in the same Sonnet compounds the mystery with “thy own worth then not knowing.”

Shapiro would say the businessman wrote the Sonnets and the businessman merely meant that a fictional character didn’t have high self-esteem and therefore didn’t know his own worth. According to Shapiro, any interpretation of the “primarily fictional creations” is acceptable except of course for the obvious one.  

We who read the Sonnets as written don’t know what Southampton’s “worth” was except that it apparently saved his life. We also don’t know why de Vere capitalized and italicized Rose in the second line of the first Sonnet. If you can understand “worth” and “Rose” you might know everything. You would be guessing and Shapiro wouldn’t like it. He thinks you should look up the words in a dictionary, forget about context, and move right along, nothing to see here.

The Sonnets had to be private. Even after they were published, the first-person writings of the most famous writer in England only went through one edition while the epic poems continued to go through edition after edition after edition with no end in sight. The Sonnets were published that one time in 1609, the author was referred to as “our ever-living poet,” and that was that. We almost lost them altogether. It is possible they were suppressed but this is a conspiracy theory and we all know conspiracies didn’t happen in Elizabethan England. It must be that the first-person private writings of the most famous writer in history weren’t popular and that’s the ticket, that’s why the Sonnets only went through one edition and weren’t included in the First Folio. It can’t possibly have anything to do with Southampton and Southampton’s eventful life and his brush with death and his magical clemency.  

We know de Vere was deeply unhappy about the secrecy. In fact, he was bitter (unless of course the bitterness in Sonnet 66 is fictional). 

Tired with all these for restful death I cry . . . [lists many bad things] . . . And art made tongue-tied by authority.

Sonnet 66 in full would depress a groom on his wedding day, but that was the (real) life de Vere was stuck with. He had to watch his step. He knew the Sonnets were immortalizing Southampton even though his art had to be “tongue-tied.” He wrote in the Sonnets, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have” and then told us exactly what was going on when he said, “Though I (once gone) to all the world must die.

And so he did in 1604.

Before 1920, no one knew who wrote Shakespeare. It was already obvious by then that the businessman was a very unlikely author. No one had researched Edward de Vere. But then someone discovered that England had a literary earl who fit perfectly and a hundred years of research followed. Now rebels, including credentialed professionals, have mostly proved their case for de Vere as the author. The only reason it is “mostly” proved is that the mainstream refuses to have a serious discussion.

Once discussion begins in earnest in mainstream journals, de Vere will quickly become the accepted author. This is a guess of course. But we may see the answer to this in within another generation or so.

The First Folio preface will be regarded as hilarious. Scholars will roll up their sleeves and do what Waugh calls some “real work. Edward de Vere’s fascinating biography will make Shakespeare come alive for all fans of the plays and ivy leaguers like Shapiro will be able to stop their campaign to disassociate the works of an author from the life of that author. Yes, of course you have to be careful not to view everything an author does as autobiography but ignoring the life is to misunderstand the works and campaigns to save premises can degenerate in propaganda. 

We want to understand the Sonnets NOT as fictional creations but as expressions of desire that could not be made public. We don’t know what was going on but the idiotic tendency of modern editors to change the format of the word Rose in Shakespeare’s original first Sonnet has got to stop. The lines read, “From fairest creatures we desire increase, That thereby beauties Rose might never die . . . ” And we don’t know what it means but we do know it’s not fiction. 

If you can figure out the Rose mystery and understand why Southampton was such a fair creature that he couldn’t be executed even after being convicted of treason, you’ll be famous especially if you can prove it.

Appendix F: What of the First Folio preface?

The single most important sentence in the annals of authorship attribution.

Schoenbaum called the First Folio preface “the single most important document in the annals of authorship attribution.”

Of course he was right. William Shakspere (that was the name he was born with) of Stratford might be one of the most important writers in history — he might be the “William Shakespeare” named on the dedications of poems published in 1593 and 1594, on some of the title pages of plays published after 1598, and in the title of “SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS Never before Imprinted” published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609.

If the “Shakespeare” of these publications is Shakspere of Stratford the well-documented businessman, he is the one and only Elizabethan writer and maybe the only writer in history whose identifcation depends on a single document. So, as Schoenbaum notes, the First Folio preface is pretty important.

We can’t do the experiment so I cannot even imagine proving the following claim, but it is arguably the case that without the First Folio preface, no one would have ever even considered the businessman as a possible author even though his name was Shakspere and even though he was a shareholder in London’s leading acting company. However, Scott McCrea (bless his heart) explicitly disagrees with the idea that the First Folio preface is necessary for the identification of Shakspere as Shakespeare.

“But even if the First Folio never existed, we would still have enough evidence to establish [Shakspere’s] authorship.”

McCrea cites three pieces of evidence that he claims would prove Shakspere was Shakespeare without the First Folio preface: (1) the title pages that say “Shakespeare”; (2) the fact that Shakespeare was compared with “that writer Metamorphosis; (3) the monument that says “all that he hath writ . . .”;

McCrea also cites a fourth item: a poem published ten years after the First Folio in book of Donne’s poetry that complains that Shakespeare should have been buried in Westminster Abbey when he died. The printed poem says nothing about who wrote the plays. However, in the First Folio, Ben Jonson comments about where Shakespeare is buried and his comments indicate that he had already read Donne’s poem even though it wouldn’t find its way into print for another ten years (poems often circulated in manuscript prior to printing). This still means nothing but a few dozen handwritten copies of Donne’s poem written by a number of different people have turned up over the years and some of these handwritten copies say the poem was actually written by Basse which still means nothing but, don’t worry, we’re almost at the relevant part of this story. Some of the handwritten copies have a title that is slightly different from the Donne-or-Basse poem printed in 1633 — some of the handwritten copies have a little appendage added to the title and the appendages note that the date of Shakespeare’s death was 1616.

So if Ben Jonson saw the Donne-or-Basse poem before 1623 and if the poem he saw was one of the ones that say Shakespeare died in 1616, then this would be an independent piece of evidence that the great author Shakespeare had died in 1616 which is when the businessman Shakspere died which would therefore indicate that Shakespeare and Shakspere are the same person. Obviously a printed poem appearing ten years after the First Folio that doesn’t say anything about Shakespeare’s date of death doesn’t mean much but if a handwritten manuscript with the 1616 death date was circulating prior to 1623, that would constitute evidence that Shakspere was not only literate but was the greatest writer in England.

There are a few too many if’s in this fourth item to convince me that there’s more to Shakspere’s identfication as the author than the First Folio preface but the point is arguable. We’ll leave it there and move on to McCrea’s first three reasons that the First Folio is not necessary to identify the author. 

McCrea is admirably explicit and this helps us to paraphrase his three main points: (1) title pages can’t have pseudonyms on them; (2) a favorable comparison to “that writer Metamorphosis” is favorable to the idea that the man being so compared is a writer; and (3) “all that he hath writ leaves living art but page to serve his wit” cancels out the doggerel and commemorates a writer.    

Let’s go in reverse order. For (3) we have William “good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear. . . ” Shakspere without a signature and with no books or letters is dying and identified by a strange and uninterpretable “Stay, passenger . . . read if thou canst . . . all that he hath writ leaves living art but page” epitaph carved on a stone bust. There is no reference to anything Shakespeare wrote and the Jonsonian bit at the beginning isn’t great for the mainstream. But the epitaph does say “all that he hath writ” and if Jonson didn’t ghostwrite it as he did the epistles in the First Folio preface then McCrea may have a point. 

For (2) we have a character representing Kempe saying his fellow shareholder, Shakespeare, is better than “that writer Metamorphosis.” This is guaranteed to be true no matter who you are talking about since any human is a superior writer to a poem which can neither lift a pen nor write with it. If we regard the reference to “that writer Metamorphosis” as indicating that Kempe’s fellow shareholder was a writer then we can indeed eschew the First Folio preface as McCrea suggests. 

Trying to understand McCrea’s first idea that (1) “Shakespeare” can’t be pseudonym because it appears on title pages is harder to fathom. The title pages sometimes said “Shakespeare,” sometimes said “Shake-speare” and sometimes were left blank. The businessman’s name was never hyphenated on legal documents though pseudonyms were often hyphenated. It is the case that none of the title pages said “No-body” or “Some-body” a la Davies but that is cold comfort here. The title pages with their persistent blank bylines are suspect.

It is, however, arguable that, with the exception of the Roman Terence acting as a front-man for Scipio and Laelius, front-men for authors are not a common part of history (unless you include the McCarthyism era in the United States). So maybe McCrea meant to say that a pseudonym/front-man theory is hard to believe since it is such a rare thing. Fair enough. Unfortunately, the “front-men are unlikely” theory is undermined by Davies’s reference to Shake-speare as “our English Terence.” Thus, I am unable to make head or tail of McCrea’s listing of title pages beginning on the bottom of page 6 of his book after he informs the reader that “even if the First Folio never existed, we would still have enough evidence . . .”

Although I appreciate McCrea’s honest attempt to make his book “The End of the Authorship Question” (that’s the subtitle), I think the first ten pages tell the reader quite clearly, “Without the First Folio preface, we have nothing at all.” 

But does the First Folio preface even say the businessman was Shakespeare? In a sense, it does. The epistles Jonson ghostwrote in the First Folio preface clearly state that a man who was in London and involved with the theater and who was the greatest writer in England and who routinely resorted to legal action to collect modest amounts of money he was owed allowed an acting company to be the “guardians” of ALL of his plays and also allowed “stolen and surreptitious copies” that were “maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters” to be brazenly bootlegged in printings of wildly varying quality for decades.

We have to wonder whether or not these two epistles were ever meant to be taken seriously. 

Whoever the author was, he was involved enough to make sure the epic poems were properly published: Venus and Adonis was no bootleg; Lucrece wasn’t a bootleg either. But then he just didn’t bother to do the same with the plays even though he was in London and involved with the theater and became the only Elizabethan writer to hand every play over to an acting company forever. 

Robert Armin was part of the same acting company. He knew publishers and had his work published; he didn’t “orphan” his works. Why did the businessman disappear like a Cheshire Cat when it came to publication? It is unprecedented and doesn’t make sense to anyone and that includes mainstreamers.  

Bloom couldn’t understand how such a thing could be and said so.

Of course, Bloom accepted the First Folio preface. He meant only that it was surprising not that it couldn’t happen. But the First Folio preface does not seem like very strong evidence when one has in the back of one’s mind that it might have been meant as a joke.

Maybe there is a weak link in the chain of reasoning. Maybe, somehow, the theater investor Shakespeare, in London with his name eventually appearing on some of the plays, was the actual author and really did turn over the “guardianship” of his entire canon because he was too busy with his business activities to attend to his art or for some other reason. Perhaps a business arrangement related to the value of putting the plays on in theaters and the concern about competition. So maybe the acting company owned the plays as the mainstream assume (but that is NOT claimed in the First Folio preface or any other document).

But then we see that one of the two earls in the “incomparable paire of brethren” who undoubtedly controlled every aspect of the expensive First Folio project was the Earl of Montgomery, the son-in-law of Edward de Vere who just happens to be the leading court playwright paid by the Queen but with no plays attributed to him and who just happens to be the employer of two important Shakespeare collaborators Lyly and Munday AND the father of the young woman betrothed to Shakespeare’s dedicatee.

Let us assume you are an objective observer. Do you regard the First Folio preface as stronger evidence for the businessman or for de Vere?  

To me, the First Folio preface as a document is clear and convincing: the Earl of Montgomery, Philip Herbert and his wife the Countess of Montgomery, formerly Lady Elizabeth Vere, present to you, dear reader, “Shakespeare’s” plays written by their dear departed father-in-law and father, the best-paid writer in Elizabethan history, the man whose biography tells us that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were real people, and if you would like to believe instead that the businessman Shakspere wrote the plays then we’ll make it easy for you and four hundred years later experts in Elizabethan history will probably say with straight faces that Ben Jonson would NEVER mislead you and we will roll in our graves laughing.

Of course I’m biased. However, if the First Folio preface really is stronger evidence for de Vere than it is for the businessman from Stratford, then the mainstream’s entire argument evaporates spectacularly. And the mainstream seems to understand how weak their argument is. 

Professor Stanley Wells, an erudite, famous, and committed mainstreamer, lays it out so beautifully and honestly that I am overjoyed to forgive him for calling me a “bugger” — I am bugging him so it is appropriate and I take it to be light-hearted ribbing. Anyway, here is professor Wells: 

“I would love to find a contemporary document that said William Shakespeare was the dramatist of Stratford-upon-Avon written during his lifetime. There’s lots and lots of unexamined legal records rotting away in the national archives; it is just possible something will one day turn up. That would shut the buggers up!”

Professor Scott McCrea, the mainstream author of The Case for [Shakspere], made a similar and similarly inarguable statement for which I am likewise grateful:  

“One private letter, one diary entry that mentions a rumor that the earl [of Oxford] was the real playwright of Romeo and Juliet and [Shakspere’s] authorship would come crashing down.” 

Wells wishes for ONE document; McCrea fears ONE document. Together they speak of an authorship case so fragile that it almost collapses under its own weight. The “case” for Shakspere is rests upon a document that may have been a ghostwritten joke. 

It actually comes down not so much to one document but to one WORD, one word that must stand in the middle of stadium before a rapt audience with its right arm holding aloft Shakspere’s five signatures. In the left hand of this magic word we see the gigantic sum of money paid to de Vere likewise held aloft, and in this pose, with this burden, the word “guardians” must also carry John Davies’s whole self on its strong back.

Davies is chanting epigrams about Shake-speare and Some-body and No-body. And it’s not just Davies. E. K. Chambers himself has piled on top of Davies’s back with his admission that the First Folio epistles were probably ghostwritten by Jonson. Yes, the word “guardians” was Jonson’s word. And oh how Jonson’s progeny groans. Stitmatter’s dissertation sits upon Chambers’s head. Edward de Vere’s son-in-law and Lyly and Munday stand on Stritmatter’s dissertation.

Teetering on top of the whole improbable pile is a bookless house, the biggest house in town with Shakspere’s two daughters sitting on the front porch. Scipio and Laelius are on that same porch reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the two illiterate Shakspere girls. Aesop’s “upstart” crow sits on the roof of the house fluffing its feathers as the whole assemblage shifts back and forth, left and right even though there is no wind. 

The crowd, impressed with the ability of a single word, “guardians,” to stand up under all this weight, begins to murmur “Whatever you do, Buy.”  

The word, so impressive and yet so put-upon, now speaks. The crowd goes silent.

We hear the word loud and clear as if its voice were projected by a modern speaker system: “Houston . . . we have a problem . . . Houston? Houston? Do you read?”

Now the word “guardians” drops to its knees and finally, almost gratefully, falls backward to be buried under the whole impossible structure.

Sitting lightly atop the heap, Aesop’s “upstart” crow is screeching about “vertiginous expanses.” The crowd, thinking the word “guardians” has died, is likewise screaming about the “frauds and stealths of injurious imposters.”

But the great and powerful word, strong, almost invincible is, even after its collapse, is still, somehow, conscious. The word isn’t speaking and cannot be seen but it is making a sound and the sound is rising and seems as if it might fill the stadium. The crowd goes quiet again. Even the crow shuts up.

Peals of hilarity boom out from the buried word, on and on and unstoppable almost raising the roof of the stadium: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

That’s the end of the Shakespeare story and the beginning of our story, yours and mine for I have a deal to offer you.

Let’s assume the “contemporary document” imagined by Wells or the “diary entry” imagined by McCrea does turn up one day and let’s suppose that all scholars, mainstream and rebel, agree that this document proves beyond a doubt who wrote the plays.

And suppose it’s a big secret and it’s going to be revealed at a press conference attended by eight experts: Professor Alan “paid for good behavior” Nelson, McCrea, Shapiro, and Wells are joined by Stritmatter, Jacobi, Price, and Ramon “1580’s Shakespeare was Shakespeare” Jiménez.

All eight are are friends now (it was never personal, after all) and all of them are smiling and celebrating the end of the controversy. They will be happy to answer questions.  

They have told us that either Shakspere or Oxford wrote the plays and that they are all in complete agreement. Four of the eight have received an enormous blow that obviates much of the work they’ve done but their demeanor gives nothing away.

The Big Reveal is coming. We are on tenterhooks about it. The secrecy has been remarkable. Only these eight people know the truth: they haven’t even told their spouses.  

I’m taking bets. I’m offering 100 to 1 if you bet on Shakspere (I’m not taking any Oxford action, sorry). 

How do you feel about betting one hundred dollars on Shakspere?

You get ten thousand dollars if the man who never went to Italy, never met Southampton, never met Lyly, never met Munday, never heard of Rosenkrantz until he saw Hamlet, never heard of Guildenstern until he saw Hamlet, was still alive in 1609, and never wrote a letter and couldn’t write his name somehow wrote Shakespeare anyway. (All of the letters could have been lost and it might have been his teeming imagination that gave us the signatures and Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were common Danish names and “our ever-living poet” could mean anything and he could have learned about Italy from travelers and the Sonnets might have been commissioned and he might have run into Lyly and Munday at some point . . . c’mon take the bet.)

Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. A hundred to one is good odds is it not?

Actually, I feel a little guilty for proposing such an unfair wager, but I can’t back a bet with the true odds of a demonstrably illiterate man writing Shakespeare because I’m not Jeff Bezos. 

No, not really.

Appendix G: Coda

Is the Shakespeare story full of complexity, nuance, and controversy or is it straighforward, easy-to-understand, and obvious?

Courtly plays, brilliant and popular, began coming out in the 1580’s. They lampooned courtiers and peddled patriotism; it was a perfect storm. The Queen was all about it. She created an acting company and paid the leading court playwright, Edward de Vere, an ungodly sum. 

For ten years, plays brimming with legal terms, Italian details, and inside jokes were performed at court and in public while not a word was published. Then, finally, poems were published with a name on them: Shakespeare. They were instantly popular and obviously printed with the cooperation of the hidden author. After that, plays started to come off the presses — anonymous bootlegs of wildly varying quality: the author was nowhere in sight. The bootleggers eventually put the name “Shakespeare” on about half of their cobbled-together publications and half the time didn’t bother with any byline. Many plays, such as Macbeth, were not published at all. “Some-body with much adoo” had the manuscripts according to John Davies who clearly knew who “some-body” was but who just as clearly wasn’t spilling the beans. 

In the 1590’s, when the plays and poems had been outrageously popular for ten years or more, an apparently illiterate businessman from Stratford named, more or less, Shakespeare appeared on the scene. The businessman was born “Shakspere,” married “Shagspere,” died “Shackspeare,” and, posthumously, was remembered in his grandson’s first name as the same “Shakspere” that the grandfather was born with. However, legal documents in London clearly referring to the Stratford businessman sometimes had the “Shakespeare” spelling and some people may have actually thought this guy was the great writer.

Shakspere/Shagspere/Shackspeare/Shakespeare of Stratford became a shareholder in London’s leading acting company adding further interest to the story. To his neighbors, the businessman continued to be a businessman. To in-the-know Londoners like Davies, he was a “Terence” just like the Roman writer who fronted for aristocrats. In 1623, de Vere’s family published all the plays at once, including Macbeth, and identified the Stratford businessman as the author. Modern scholars take this identification at face value even though it was made by de Vere’s family.

The modern scholars might be right. Anything is possible. Books and letters can be lost. There could be some explanation for the fact that the Stratford businessman did not have a consistent signature. All of the plays written in the 1580’s could have been plagiarized by a businessman who was too busy to teach his daughters to read and he could have slipped over to Italy without anyone knowing and maybe he had courtly connections who hooked him up with Southampton’s family and taught him about falconry and gave him inside information about the Queen’s court. Just because de Vere was being paid by the Queen, was the only playwright to have no plays attributed to him, hired Lyly and Munday, traveled in Italy, trained in the law, had his daughter betrothed to Southampton, and had his family involved in the publication of the plays doesn’t make him the author. 

Anything is possible.  

If you don’t find “anything is possible” to be a good argument then you can note that Edward de Vere was dead when the author of “SHAKE-SPEARE’S SONNETS” was referred to as “our ever-living poet.” If de Vere was hiding behind the Shakespeare pseudonym, the lines he wrote to Southampton — “Your name from hence immortal life shall have, Though I (once gone) to all the world must die” — are nothing even close to a “riddle” but instead make perfect sense.  

Here is where the simplicity comes in. You get to weigh the evidence: EITHER the businessman only appears to have been illiterate and the 1623 identification is correct OR Ben Jonson was telling a tall tale when he wrote on behalf of two acting company shareholders that they were the “guardians” of the great writer’s “orphans” and were offering the plays with no thought of “self-profit or fame.”

One and only one Elizabethan playwright didn’t work with publishers who wanted to publish the plays: Shakespeare. Choose your solution to this mystery. 

  1. The businessman-author went to London and got involved with the theater, but didn’t bother with publication and didn’t care about bootlegging OR
  2. “Shakespeare,” whose plays were printed without an author, and de Vere, the playwright with no plays, were the same person.

In the past hundred years since a lunatic named Looney (pronounced Lowney) identified de Vere, Schoenbaum’s “vertiginous expanse” has shrunk and Bloom’s concern about an “inverse ratio a little beyond our analytical ability” has, one might say, come to be less “inverse.”

If you suspect the lunatic was right, there’s fun game you can play with any literature professor anywhere in the country. Here’s a little dialog to show how the game works. 

YOU: I love the falconry metaphors in Shakespeare.

PROF: Understandably so. Shakespeare is famous for his falconry metaphors. 

YOU: I especially like the one in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet says, “Hist! Romeo, hist! O for a falconer’s voice, To lure this tassel-gentle back again!”

PROF: Very good. Even just that little bit of verse is jammed with falconry terms, expertly and seemingly casually used. He makes it look easy n’est ces pas?

YOU: Yes. And there’s also the one in Othello where the tortured husband says, “If I do prove her haggard, Though her jesses were my dear heartstrings, I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind, To prey at fortune.” 

PROF: Another beautiful one. You may have noticed that the “haggard hawk” metaphor for a love-interest that needs to be lured or tamed appears in a number of other plays as well, in Taming of the Shrew for example. 

YOU: I have indeed noticed. But I have a question if you don’t mind.

PROF: By all means. Fire away.

YOU: Did other poets use these kinds of falconry metaphors?

PROF: None that I know of at least not in just this way of luring or taming a lover.

YOU: Do you know this poem?

If women could be fair and yet not fond
Or that their love were firm, not fickle still
. . .
Unsettled still, like haggards wild they range
These gentle birds that fly from man to man
. . . 
Yet for disport we fawn and flatter both
. . . 
And train them to our lure with subtle oath. 

PROF: Excellent! I don’t know that particular poem. It seems you’ve found someone who either influenced Shakespeare or who was influenced by Shakespeare. This poem has that same parallel between wooing and falconry that Shakespeare loved so much. Nice work. 

YOU: How about this one?

Resign thy voice to her that caused thy woe
. . .
For she thou lovest is sure thy mortal foe
. . . 
The stricken Deer hath help to heal his wound,
The haggard hawk with toil is made full tame
. . . 
And shall I I live on earth to be her thrall?
. . . 
And shall I kiss the steps that she lets fall?

PROF: Another good one with “haggard” as a difficult lover yet again! It must be a fairly obscure poet you are quoting because none of what we can call the “canonical Elizabethan poets” use that metaphor with the exception of course of Shakespeare himself.

YOU: Really, I guess I thought it might be a common metaphor.

PROF: Not at all. And what you may also find interesting is something you may not have realized reading this poem. That phrase, “stricken deer,” also happens to appear in Hamlet in Act 3 if memory serves. I wouldn’t expect you to make the connection but I’ve practically memorized that particular play you know because I once directed a performance in New York City though it was many years ago . . . anyway, you’ve got a great Shakespeare connection here. Congratulations. You might have something to write up for one of the journals.   

YOU: Actually, your memory is quite good. The phrase “stricken deer” does appear in Act 3 of Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 2, line 287 to be precise. I even did a database search for “stricken deer” and found that it is only in Hamlet and the poem I just read.

PROF: My goodness, you’ve certainly done your research. Superb, just superb. Now who is the only other author to use the haggard/lover metaphor and the “stricken deer” phrase? I must know. 

YOU: Edward de Vere.

PROF: Oh.

YOU: What’s the matter?

PROF: You tricked me.

YOU: I didn’t mean to. It’s just that you get the Shakespearean haggard-hawk-as-lover metaphor twice in his youthful poetry and I kind of like the “stricken deer” connection too. I realize of course it doesn’t prove anything.

PROF: Indeed, and there’s no reason to think Shakespeare couldn’t have seen de Vere’s poems which, as I’m sure you know, aren’t up to the Shakespearean standard and can even be described as a bit clunky. And I’m sure you know also that Shakespeare was “an accomplished parasite” to use Honan’s phrase, often borrowing and improving on others’ work. 

YOU: Oh yes, of course. I don’t really think de Vere was Shakespeare. After all, if he were, it would mean a huge number of really smart people have been horribly mistaken for a long time and that does seem unlikely.     

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