How do text and context interact?

How does knowledge of context affect interpretation of text?

How does close analysis of text affect knowledge of context?

Shakespeare Quartos Project
The first time the name appeared on a printed play script – and look how it’s spelt.

I have no training as a historian, and have undertaken this research as an experiment, to see what’s involved in producing some historical writing and thinking through a historical question. What mistakes do I find myself making? My inexperience is what makes the experiment interesting, since I have to keep revising my ideas as I find new information, and can observe the process in myself.

This area of research is interdisciplinary. It depends on both historical and literary methods. The researcher has understand the methods of historical research; and to be capable of close textual analysis and re-analysis in the light of new contextual knowledge. Most writers are better at one than the other. I come from the literary side. What difference does it make to my interpretation when I acquire new historical context? Let’s take a text both rich and concise, a text consisting of a single word: the name ‘Shakespeare’.

I’ll try to demonstrate how new knowledge of context might affect our interpretation of this ‘text’.

The ‘death’ of Marlowe and the immediate appearance of ‘Shakespeare’

These two events take place within three weeks of each other. Marlowe is either murdered or disappears on May 30th and on 18th April, Venus and Adonis is registered. The poem is printed in Quarto two months later (by a Stratford printer, Richard Field, by the way), and this is the first appearance in print of name William Shakespeare, the writer who will replace Marlowe as the most powerful voice on the Elizabethan stage.

What is the relationship between these two events? Casual or causal? It might be coincidence – it may be that Shakespeare could just as well have appeared before Marlowe vanished as after, and the sequence means nothing. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, as we all know, is a fallacy. 

It seems unlikely, however. Even in the orthodox narrative, the two events are connected. There are countless textual parallels between the two writers, a very close literary relationship, which conventional scholarship defines as master and disciple, or something along those lines. William Shakespeare is stepping up to fill his dead hero’s shoes. 

In the ‘Marlovian’ narrative, William Shakespeare is no writer, but Marlowe’s front man and pseudonym. Marlowe faked his death to save his life, helped by his powerful friends.

I have long been open to this narrative, though not wedded to it, based on my received belief that Marlowe had been recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network by his nephew and Marlowe’s friend and patron Sir Thomas Walsingham. I reasoned that if someone needed to disappear, the Walsinghams could make it happen, if anyone could. The three men with him were all connected with Walsingham. The alleged killer, Ingram Frizer, was pardoned, and jurisdiction reserved to the Queen’s own Court. While not necessarily accepting that Marlowe was Shakespeare, I could accept that he might well have escaped, and that Walsingham’s agents helped him.

It turns out this narrative is flawed. In my amateurish, not very academic interest in history I hadn’t realized that Francis Walsingham died in 1590. And who was now in charge of his extensive security apparatus?

Robert Cecil.


Hit rethink.

It now becomes much more questionable that the men with Marlowe on May 30th 1593 were there to save him. It becomes just as likely that they were there to assassinate him.

We know that Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, who proved more Machiavellian even that his father Lord Burghley, wanted to destroy the theatre, culminating in the Privy Council’s 1597 order to have the theatres ‘plucked down’ (Nothing happened). If Marlowe was assassinated, and we know that Kyd was tortured to death by the Star Chamber and Lord Strange was poisoned a year or so later, we have to see the possibility that what we’re looking at here is a dirty war on the theatre.

In which case, we have to re-assess the sudden appearance of the writer with the war-like name, William Shakespeare.

Let’s try an experiment in textual analysis by taking such a short text that we are forced to rely on context in interpreting it. In this case the text is a single word (or is it two?):

Shakespeare. How is our understanding of this ‘text’ affected by the application of historical and linguistic context. 

First, historical context. The name first appears in print after the death of Marlowe, and multiple times from 1597 onwards, in a hyphenated form, on the Richard plays. Richard II was played on the eve of the Essex rebellion in 1601. Richard III is an excoriating attack on Robert Cecil, the first minister.

Robert Cecil. Son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful politician of the era. Suffers from scoliotis. Tiny, twisted. Growing up at Court among all those tall, charismatic courtiers that Elizabeth loved to surround herself with. Always dressed in Protestant black. Succeeded his father in office and immediately started to outdo him in Machiavellian power-plays. A spider, laying traps. This family represents real power, growing power, the power of Reformation Protestantism which will in time take on the aristocracy on open warfare, execute a king, and establish its own dictatorship. In the meantime, Cecil wages a covert war against the Catholic-tinged aristocracy, and everything they love – colour, spectacle, style, poetry, theatre. 

The London stage, in all its anarchy and meritocratic genius, is powered and protected by members of the aristocracy. It’s a Crown project, a government project, but it’s a propaganda instrument which has now run out of control, been taken over by free-thinkers, and become dangerous. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine has become a rallying cry for rebellion. Time to put the genie back in the bottle. Some people are going to have to go, as an example to others. Kyd, tortured to death. Marlowe, murdered or forced to flee. Lord Strange? Poisoned. And the University Wits, wisely, just melt away, leaving the stage empty. One way or another, Cecil is getting what he wanted.

And now here comes ‘William Shake-speare’, his Richard III a furious satirical attack on a morally and physically deformed Cecil, causing a sensation when it hits the stage, and selling fast in print. Soon the name for the first time appears on a published play, Richard II and Richard III (the 1598 reprint).

We have to understand that Venus and Adonis (1593) is not the first thing Shakespeare wrote. It’s when the name first appears, but not the writer. He had already written for the theatre, but anonymously, as was pretty much the norm. One shouldn’t assume that writers advertised themselves at that time as they do now. A great deal of publication at that time was done anonymously or pseudonymously. Anonymity was now possible, in the age of print and for a writer who could hide behind theatre curtains. All Quarto publications of Shakespeare’s plays had been anonymous up until now. This makes the appearance of the name William Shake-speare (sic) on the 1598 Quarto all the more significant. This writer suddenly forsakes anonymity and takes centre-stage – why? 

Given the timing and the text, we can only interpret the play of Richard III as a furious lambasting of Cecil, as everybody at the time did. It’s Shakespeare’s angriest play. So what had happened to provoke this fury? Did Shakespeare think that Cecil had something to do with Marlowe’s death, and Lord Strange’s demise? We know who killed Kyd – the Star Chamber, with Cecil and Archbishop Whitgift at the centre of it. We begin to piece together a narrative here – it’s not proven, but without a hypothesis to work with nothing ever is. Cecil’s stunted, twisted figure is a matter of record. It has been established that the real Richard III suffered from no such deformity. This hypothesis has the virtues of coherence and explanatory power. We sense things knitting together and making sense… 

What difference does this sharper contextual narrative make to our reading of text? For now just read the description of the play on the title page:

The Tragedie of King Richard the Third. Containing his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence; the pitiful murder of his Nephews; his Tyrannicall Usurpation; with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death.

As it hath been lately acted by the Right Honourable The Lord Chamberlaine his servants.

By William Shake-speare.

Imagine that as a message to Cecil, as you should, and see how it sounds.


Anthony Sher plays Richard III like some vile spider-king in 1984.

by William Shake-speare. 

With the hyphen.


Shake-speare. Let’s apply context to this one word. Or is it two words?

The name is derived from the Norman-French Jacques-Pierre (1), common in some parts of England, which may give us some clue as to contemporary pronunciation, as hinted at by phonetic spellings such as Shacksper, Shagsper, and Shaxberd, where the first vowel is clearly short. Etymologically the name has nothing to do with shaking or with spears.

In documents relating to William of Stratford, the name is spelt all kinds of ways. But when he wrote it himself (there are six extant signatures), it is clear that he spelt his name Shakspere. That’s how it is when he writes it in full. Even when he abbreviates it, it’s always Shaks… There’s never an e. This is also how it appears on the Parish Registry. He was christened Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere. 

As an author’s name, on the other hand, it is only ever printed with the medial e, as far as I’ve been able to find out: Shakespeare. Frequently it was hyphenated: Shake-speare. [Correction – on the 44 publications bearing the name up to and including the First Folio (there are also 20 anonymously published quartos of Shakespeare plays), there is one occurrence of the name without the e, on the First Quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost, where it’s Shak-speare. The rest of the time, it’s Shakespeare. On fifteen occasions, it’s Shake-speare.]

The hyphen is significant. Yes, Elizabethans loved to hyphenate names, often for no reason. But sometimes the reason for doing it was to create a pun. The hyphen in Shake-speare does exactly that – it brings out the pun, and changes the word from a name to an action. 

The hyphen doesn’t prove that the name was a pseudonym – but it certainly does make it resemble one. It turns the name into heraldry, a badge, a statement of intent – doesn’t it? No longer Jacques-Pierre in its phonetic derivatives, but someone shaking a spear. Given that Richard III was an act of startling defiance, the vicious lampooning of a very powerful enemy, and Shakespeare’s own addiction to wordplay, it is quite impossible to argue that the pun highlighted by both the spelling and the hyphenation is not conscious. 

Now, this could of course be someone playing with their own name to make a brand out of it. Depends how suicidal you think this writer was! 

I can only see it like this – Shake-speare: a symbolic shaking of the spear, a declaration of culture-war. A nom de plume and a nom de guerre.


There’s always the danger of romanticising. But the phrase does have currency at the time.

Vultus tela vibrat (your countenance shakes spears)”

said Gabriel Harvey in his address to the young Lord Oxford in 1572, encouraging him to put down the pen and take up the sword.

He seemes to shake a Lance,

As brandish’t at the eyes of Ignorance”

writes Jonson in his eulogy to Shakespeare in 1623.

There is, I’m aware, a mythological allusion which may form a subtext in this motif. Shaking a spear has a symbolic resonance which suggests a connection with the Bacon/Dee milieu. As does the fact that in the Northumberland Manuscript we find Bacon listing (among sundry other items) the titles Richard II and Richard III and apparently practising writing the name William Shakespeare, several times. 

The idea of shaking a spear (of light) at the the dragon of ignorance is central to Bacon’s cult of Athena and Apollo (his double AA motif appears all over the First Folio and Sonnets) and his Rosicrucian secret society / scriptorium, the Knights of the Helmet. In Bacon’s context, it is a rallying cry for the forces of Renaissance, locked in a complex and dialectical struggle with the Protestant Reformation. 

What’s in a name?

In this case, maybe everything.

I’ve read the caveats about basing too much on Elizabethan spelling and hyphenation, but even taking them into account, there is a clear distinction between the way William Shakspere thought his name was spelled and the authorial brand, Shakespeare. It doesn’t prove they were different people, but it certainly opens up that possibility. 

Nothing is provable here, so what do we do? Reason’s poised gavel can’t come down quite yet. In the mean time, I find myself more and more drawn to the intuition that this was a chosen name, a pun name, a symbol consciously created at a particular time and place to represent illumination, intellectual freedom, and defiance of repressive authority.

(1) I am indebted for many of the ideas contained in this piece to Stephanie Hopkins Hughes at Politic Worm. If you are getting interested in the authorship issue, I suggest you forget this blog and go to hers! Unlike me, a deep scholar and terrific writer. In particular I refer you to her for a more detailed exposition of this etymology. My aim in this post was to focus on the name by itself, rather than the author’s identity.


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.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s