THE SHAKESPEARE IDENTITY: Candidate 1

William Shakespeare

WILLIAM SHAKSPERE (sic) (1564-1616) of Stratford-upon-Avon, successful entrepreneur and money-lender, shareholder in the Globe Theatre and actor in Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men).

Born a Roman Catholic, married at 17, to a woman several years older than himself, whom he had got pregnant. He fathered three children (two of them twins, one of whom, a boy called Hamnet, died aged ten). Son of a glover, he became a successful broker, land-owner and money-lender in Stratford-upon-Avon, and extended his activities to London, where he rented a property in Blackfriars and worked initially as a stage-hand before becoming an actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In 1597 he bought the second-biggest house in his home town and procured a family coat-of-arms and the motto ‘Non Sanz Droit’ (Not Without Right). In 1612 he retired from writing; he died in 1616. In his will he famously left his wife his ‘second-best bed’.

The plays published under the name ‘William Shakespeare’ are posthumously ascribed to ‘this Star of Poets’, the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ by Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio (1923). In a second dedicatory poem, reference is made to his ‘monument at Stratford’. A bust of William Shakespeare stands in Holy Trinity church in Stratford-upon-Avon together with a commendatory verse to him as a writer. Taken together, and in view of his known connections with the London theatre, these hints are held to constitute proof that William Shakespeare was William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon. It should be noted that there is more than one river Avon in England (avon is simply the Celtic word for river), and more than one town then called Stratford, including one in the east of London. However, there is only one known monument to Shakespeare which existed in 1623, and it stands in Stratford-upon-Avon.

No example of the Stratford Shakespeare’s handwriting survives apart from the signatures on his will and other legal documents, and there are no manuscripts of poems or plays in his hand, not even a letter written by him or addressed to him by anyone. He signed his name on his will and other extant documents six times, spelling his name six different ways. Spelling at this time was highly variable, it has to be said: for example, Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s famous contemporary and fellow playwright, signed his name ‘Marley’ on more than one occasion. However, more than 70 contemporary documents relating to the Stratford man survive, in connection with investments, litigation, purchases and other business matters, money-lending, court cases (he sued people a lot for small debts), arrests for fighting and making threats, and on none of these documents is the name spelt with the medial ‘e’: normally ‘Shaksper’ or ‘Shakspere’. By contrast, on all published versions of the plays and poems, the name on the title page or the dedication is always spelt ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Shake-speare’ with a hyphen – with only one exception (Shak-speare).

Nowhere in the will or any other surviving document does William Shakspere refer to any literary properties or to himself as a writer. No William Shakespeare, regardless of spelling, is listed in the Stationer’s Register as receiving any payment for any literary work. The diary of the theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe, a pre-eminent source of information on the theatre world of the time, records performances of a number of plays in the Shakespeare canon (including Hamlet) but without ascribing them to any author. Payment for one Shakespeare play, Troilus and Cressida, is listed as being made to Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle. When William Shakspere of Stratford died in 1616, there was no commemoration of him by fellow writers, aristocratic patrons or players’ companies. Indeed, during his lifetime, no one ever referred to William Shakspere of Stratford as a writer in any written document that has been found. 

William Shakspere’s will refers to no literary properties or books, though it does bequeath (interlined in a different hand) money for mourning rings to three actors from Shakespeare’s company, including the two who seven years later assembled the first collected edition of the plays, known as the First Folio (1623). The Stratford man was a share-holder in the Globe Theatre in London, and was listed as taking acting roles. He may also have operated as a broker of play-scripts, and on one occasion he was officially questioned about the authorship of a particular play (not one of his own).

The late sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries saw the Italian Renaissance finally take root in England and explode into life, manifesting itself mainly in literature, science and social structure. These trends were powered by a monarchy that saw the survival of England at stake, and believed that the country’s future depended on the strength of its identity, its culture, its language and its literature, just as much as on its economy, its naval power and intelligence networks. There was a conscious attempt to unify, expand and promote the English language under Queen Elizabeth. Enlisted by the Crown, the aristocracy threw its weight and its money behind the creation of a new mass medium in the form of licensed secular theatre from 1576 onwards, achieved spectacular success in the teeth of opposition from the increasingly powerful Puritan element in English politics. 

English society in the Elizabethan era was copiously documented, with innumerable diaries, letters, and literary works of all kinds surviving from the period. There was a thriving new industry in the printing of satirical and opinionated pamphlets – the first beginnings of a commercial press in England. While the aristocracy could not get involved in commercial activities, the court was full of ‘concealed poets’, who distributed their works in manuscript form among their friends. Everybody who could write was writing, it seems: and censorship was correspondingly fierce. While there are hundreds of contemporary references to the writer William Shakespeare, none of them relates any personal information about him or connects him with Stratford. It seems that while the name was extremely well-known, the person was not. There is no record of him ever being presented at Court, for instance, despite being the house writer for the Crown’s own company of players and by far most lauded poet and playwright of his (or any other) generation.

The first formal biography of William Shakespeare appeared in 1709, as part of Nicholas Rowe’s edition of the works of Shakespeare. It was claimed that this biography was completed with the aid of actor Thomas Betterton, who had researched the life of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, and passed on a number of stories or legends about Shakespeare related to him by actors who had known him.

A bust stood over his grave in a Stratford Church, depicting him as a burly, heavily mustached man with his hands on a sack of grain. This was replaced (much) later with a bust showing a man of quite different appearance holding a quill and piece of paper.

Shakspere’s parents were illiterate and so – more significantly – were his children. There are no available records of William Shakspere’s education, though it is known that he did not attend either of the two universities in existence – records are extant for the relevant period. The writer of the plays was extremely well-read, deeply versed in classical literature, music, history, law, philosophy, military matters, medicine, falconry and other aristocratic pursuits. While around a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Northern Italy and reveal first-hand knowledge of that region, there is no record of William Shakspere ever leaving England. There is no evidence of Shakspere learning foreign languages (though he may have learned some Latin and Greek at school, if he went). The writer of the plays, according to scholars, knew French, Italian, Greek, Latin and possibly some Hebrew. The ostensibly autobiographical sonnets interweave several sensational stories of relationships which have no known counterpart in the Stratford Shakespeare’s life. For one thing, they (arguably) reveal the author to be bisexual.

It has been wittily said, in connection with another age-old question, the existence of God, that absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence. Of course, I’m not arguing about whether Shakespeare existed. The Stratford broker existed. The great writer existed. The question is whether they were the same person. And that question throws up plenty of others; these splash-back, secondary questions are questions about knowledge.

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Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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