The man who Shakespeare was not (and who he was)

Orthodox scholars and critics tell us flatly that Shakespeare was a Stratford man of humble beginnings. But the accumulated evidence seems to bear out Henry James's suspicion that this notion is "the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."

by Charlton Ogburn

Harvard Magazine
November 1974

Who wrote the plays and poems we know as William Shakespeare's? Who, that is to say, was William Shakespeare? Was he the man christened at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 as Gulielmus Shaksper (or Shakspere) and married eighteen years later as Shaxper on one document and Shagspere on the other? Or was he someone quite different, more the kind of man we should have pictured from what he wrote; a man who took the pseudonym "William Shakespeare," just as Samuel Clemens called himself Mark Twain, as Marian Evans called herself George Eliot, as Francois Marie Arouet called himself Voltaire?

An imposing array of professors and critics tell us flatly that he was the former, Shaksper of Stratford. To dispute them would seem to require no little nerve. One who does so, however, will find himself in good company. The heretics include Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Lord Palmerston, Otto von Bismarck, Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, John Galsworthy, William McFee, Charles Chaplin, ex-Senator (formerly Professor) Paul Douglas, Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, and, it would seem, Benjamin Disraeli and Charles de Gaulle, along with a remarkable number of lawyers (including the late editor of the American Bar Association Journal), and the authors of publications requiring hundreds of pages to list. All have been skeptical about the conventional attribution of Shakespeare's works, or total disbelievers in it. Henry James said, "I am 'sort of' haunted by the conviction that the divine William" -the Stratford man- "is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."

But does it matter who William Shakespeare was?

It matters a great deal to those who consider his works to be Western man's highest achievement in literature. It seems to us a matter of elementary justice that the man responsible for this tremendous achievement should receive the credit for it. We also have a great interest in knowing about the kind of man who could have written as Shakespeare did.

Knowing about an author's life, moreover, can be expected to bring out much we might otherwise overlook in his writing and help us understand what he is saying-and one of the weaknesses of the conventional theory is that nothing in the Stratford man's life illuminates the poems and plays of Shakespeare; there is simply no correspondence between them.

Finally, the identity of Shakespeare has a close bearing on the nature of the creative process. Is there any creative writer whose works are not a product of his character and experiences, expressions of what he is and has lived through? If we accept Shaksper of Stratford-Stratford records show the name to have been pronounced with a short "a"-as the poet-dramatist, we should have to conceive that the most moving, intensely real human situations, the most convincing portrayals of human beings in the settings that made them what they are, can be spun out of thin air. We should have to conceive that a writer of 37 dramas would choose to lay them in a world foreclosed to him-the world of the nobility-of which his knowledge would have been second-hand at best.

Literature affords no parallel for what we are asked to believe of Shaksper. That three successive monarchs are delighted in his plays merely tends to confirm, surely, what we recognize for ourselves, that the world of which Shakespeare wrote was the world he knew. So also, I think, does Charles Chaplin, from the other side, when he writes: "I dislike Shakespearean themes involving kings, queens, august people and their honor. Perhaps it is something psychological within me, possibly my peculiar solipsism. In my pursuit of bread and cheese, honor was seldom trafficked in. I cannot identify myself with a prince's problems." And that, we may well believe, would have been the feeling of Shaksper.

Recalling his visit to the dramatist's alleged birthplace, Chaplin declares: "That such a mind ever dwelt or had its beginnings there seems incredible...In the work of the greatest of geniuses humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere-but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare."

The professors and critics-most of them-would have us believe that Shaksper of Stratford was fully accepted by his contemporaries as the author, that he remained accepted as such until recent times, and that no grounds exist on which to question his authorship. The truth is quite otherwise.

No one we know of ever suggested during Shaksper's life that he was the author Shakespeare, or an author of any kind. Shakespeare's contemporaries made it quite plain that they did not consider the Stratford man the author. So far as we can tell, Shaksper did not come to be generally accepted as the author until two generations or more after his death. The turning point seems to have been the publication in 1680 of a page or so written by John Aubrey. Aubrey wrote that Mr. William Shakespeare was born at Stratford-upon-Avon, that his father was a butcher, that he followed his father's trade, that at about eighteen he went to London and did "exceedingly well" there as an actor, that he had been in his younger days a schoolmaster in the country, and so on. And what kind of person was John Aubrey, who may fairly be said to have launched the Stratford legend? "A roving, magotty-pated man," his employer wrote of him, who "thought little, believed much and confused everything."

In 1964, in England, the question of the Shakespeare authorship came before a court of law for the first and so far only time. The presiding judge, Mr. Justice Wilberforce, found that the evidence in favor of the Stratford man "is quantitatively slight" and that "there is a number of difficulties in the way of the traditional ascription." He added: "Moreover, as Professor Trevor-Roper of Oxford points out, the intensive search of the nineteenth century has widened the evidentiary gulf between William Shakespeare the man (i.e. Shaksper of Stratford) and the author of the plays."

In fact, the case for the Stratford man as Shakespeare breaks down on every count.

One writer after another has told us that what writers write about is themselves-failing which, as Anatole France observed, "we can only hold our tongues." Every man's work whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else is always a portrait of himself," Samuel Butler declared, "and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear." A man's "work is autobiographical I spit of every subterfuge," the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, adding, "it cannot be otherwise." Said Havelock Ellis: "Every artist writes his own autobiography." And the playwright Edward Albee: "Your source material is the people you know, not those you don't know." Ultimately, however, "every character is an extension of the author's own personality." The first writer to comment on the problem of Shakespearean biography-the author of Wit's Recreation of 1640-stated that Shakespeare's plays would establish his history. But what Shakespeare tells us of himself in his plays and sonnets, of his background, interests, and character, is altogether different from Shaksper as he appears on the record.

The evidence is against Will Shaksper's ever having attended school. By the time he was thirteen his father could not appear in public because of the creditors pursuing him. There was no leisure then or later for him to acquire a fragment of Shakespeare's attainments. With the burden of a wife at eighteen, he had a child six months after the wedding, three children by the age of 21. There is no evidence that he left the rude village in which he grew up until his late twenties. In any case, it must be supposed that he would have arrived in London speaking a broad dialect unintelligible there. No line of poetry ascribed to Shakespeare dates before Shaksper's 26th year. If he were Shakespeare he would have been the most retarded poet of consequence we know of. (He would also have been the least educated, even conceding his defenders' claims respecting his schooling.) Of his surviving children, both girls, one was not taught to write at all. The other, so far as we know, could do no better than sign her name and could not recognize her husband's writing. On his record, Shaksper himself was a near illiterate. All we know that he wrote are six signatures, three incomplete and three on his will-executed, it would appear, with painful difficulty, and the final one with help; the "by me William" in this is done in a different and far more proficient hand than the scrawled "Shakspeare" that follows. Anyone can see this for himself.

The Stratford man's abiding preoccupation was evidently with money. The traces he left of himself show him buying real estate and a portion of the tithes of Stratford and neighboring villages, having a bailiff arrest a debtor, asking recompense of the town for two quarts of wine he served a preacher, hoarding grain in time of famine when his neighbors wished to have the hoarders hanged at their doors, joining with some others to enclose part of the village common land. No word of commendation of him has come down to us. He is surely the most unattractive man ever assigned as important place in literature. The only recorded mention of him in his lifetime by anyone in the world of letters was by Ben Jonson, who mocked him as one "so enamoured of the name of a gentleman, that he will have it though he buys it."

Shaksper's partisans base their case for him on his having been an actor. But was he one? He was, it would appear, a shareholder in the Globe and later in Blackfriars. Perhaps on the strength of this, he was twice included in a listing of actors, one of whom left a bequest to "my Fellowe William Shakespeare." On the other hand, he had been dead for 64 years before there is any report of his having been considered an actor in Stratford. Neither in Philip Henslowe's comprehensive records nor in Edward Alleyn's memoirs, which refer to all the well known actors of the day, is his or any similar name mentioned. There is no record of a part ever assigned to such a one. The records of municipalities all over England in which companies of actors performed, including Stratford, have been examined and no reference to his appearance has been discovered. The often-cited record of a payment made to Shakespeare, Burbage and Kempe for comedies played before the Queen on December 26 and 28, 1594, is clearly fraudulent. It was entered in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber after his death by his widow to make up for a shortage in the accounts, and is contradicted by other, valid records of performance at the time.

There was a Shakespeare who acted in plays, but of him we learn from John Davies's poem of 1610, To Our English Terence, M[aste]r, Will, Shake-speare, that, according to some, had he "not played some kingly parts in sport," he would have "been a companion for a king." Such was the dramatist, but it would be very difficult indeed to maintain that Davies was speaking of the busy professional actor from the provinces whom Stratfordian biographers conjure up.

What do Shakespeare's plays tell us of the author? They present a picture of royal courts that in every part proclaims his habituation to the customs, modes, and manners he portrays. This was unmistakably the world in which he felt at home. The characters he considers worthy of his genius are almost without exception of the nobility. His plays make clear his preoccupation with honor (which Charles Chaplin found so extraneous to the world he grew up in) and low regard for money. They exhibit qualities that led Walt Whitman to speak of the historical dramas as "conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of feudalism" by "one of the wolfish earls or a born descendant and knower." As professor Trevor-Roper writes, "In his outlook, Shakespeare was an unquestioning aristocrat...Popular leaders...are to him quite unfit for public affairs. The independent, sub-noble world of artisans and craftsmen, if it exists for Shakespeare, exists only as his butt. Bottom, Quince, Snug, Dogberry and Verges, Dull-these poor imbeciles are used to amuse the nobility by their clumsiness. Even the middle classes are scarcely better treated." Even Professor A.L. Rowse, arch promoter of the Stratford man, concedes that he looked with "contempt" on the people and urged on them the "absolute necessity of social order, authority and obedience, of people knowing their places." He wrote of horsemanship and falconry-those pursuits of the nobility-with the vigor, color, and authority of an eager devotee. His characteristic lyrical evocations of nature and early romanticizing of the life close to nature, in which he anticipated the attitudes of our own day, betray the man reared in comfort to advantages, as opposed to the offspring of a primitive countryside, to whom nature would be primarily a harsh taskmaster and "no enemy but winter and rough weather" enemy enough.

In the whole history of literature no writer ever wrote more consistently from the point of view of a nobleman that Shakespeare. And none, I think it safe to say, ever so far surpassed his contemporaries in the breadth of his frame of reference

He was a man of enormous erudition. He was widely read in Greek and Latin classics not yet translated when he was writing. Competent specialists have told us that he was a sportsman "among the best of the 16th century," acquainted with French names and politics, the customs of the Danish court, the towns of northern Italy and with the Italian language and culture, and well informed on land warfare and in naval and nautical matters. He was so steeped in the law that it "slips from him unawares." He was able to use a hundred musical terms. He had at his command the names of almost two hundred plants, over sixty birds and over 85 other animals. An article in the Journal of the District of Columbia Medical Society states that Shakespeare had enough knowledge of medicine to justify hanging out his shingle as an Elizabethan M.D., and that in some aspects of human physiology he was years and centuries ahead of his times. He referred to the circulation of the blood before Harvey had described it. Shakespeare was a polymath on the order of Leonardo da Vinci, and would be universally recognized as such but for the determined effort to reduce his dimensions to the Stratford man's.

Add to this that the estimates of the size of Shakespeare's vocabulary run to as high as 25,000 words. Even Alfred Hart's recent conservative count of 17,677 gives Shakespeare a vocabulary twice the size of Milton's. No one before or since has so enriched the English language with new words, or with so many of Latin and Greek root. The number of words he used once and never used again comes to fifty-percent more than are used in the entire Old Testament in the King James translation.

That the name William Shakespeare is a pseudonym is evident. We have it, in fact, on the author's authority. In one of his sonnets he writes that "every word doth almost tell my name." That would make no sense if his name were already known. His first two published works, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece-the only two he had published himself-both appeared with the dedication signed "William Shakespeare," but with no author's name on the title page or elsewhere-surely a dead giveaway. In the dedication of the former the author referred to it as the "first heir of my invention," which could mean only "of my invented name." Venus and Adonis, a long and polished poem, was certainly not Shakespeare's first writing. The Stratfordians themselves insist that Henry Chettle was referring to the man we know as Shakespeare when, the year before, he spoke of a playwright known to persons of high degree for his "grace in writing."

Shakespeare's first six published plays-all pirated-appeared with no author named. None was named for the plays of Shakespeare entered before 1600 in the Stationers' Register, in which rights to a manuscript were recorded. To the best of our knowledge, the name Shakespeare was never heard publicly as that of a playwright until Francis Meres came out in 1598 with the statement that Shakespeare was the best of the English for both tragedy and comedy, and listed eleven plays of his authorship. One would think even orthodox professors would find all this rather strange. When Shakespeare's intimately revealing sonnets were published in 1609, evidently without the author's having any part in it, the dedication was written by the printer, from which we should deduce that the author was not available to provide one. And indeed the dedication indicates that he was dead in referring to him as "ever-living"-a term never applied to a person before his death. But in 1609 Shaksper had seven more years to live.

That Shakespeare's fellows recognized his name as a pseudonym is shown by the frequency with which they hyphenated it. As a family name, Shakespeare and similar names were never hyphenated. When we come upon a regularly hyphenated English name compounding two words not in themselves names and also descriptive of an action, we may be sure that the name is fictitious and intended to be understood as of allegorical significance. "He seems to shake a Lance," Ben Jonson wrote.

Shakespeare's contemporaries paid him a tribute they accorded no other of their number in publishing his collected plays. His admirers included both Queen Elizabeth and King James. He was an intimate of the Earl of Southampton. Ben Jonson "lov'd" him "on this side idolatry" and hailed him as "Soule of the Age," in the sharpest contrast to the contempt he expressed for Shaksper. Yet during the years when he must have been alive, no writer called Shakespeare makes even one appearance that we know of. There is no record of any occasion on which, or any circumstances in which anyone ever said he had met, seen, or had any converse with a man he identified as Shakespeare the writer-even Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated a "love...without end"; you would suppose they had never met. And Jonson, after extolling him as few other writers have been extolled by a contemporary, did not include him in a list of notable men he had known. "Shakespeare, we must be silent in our praise," the author of Wit's Recreation wrote. Can it be doubted that there was something very mysterious indeed about the great dramatist?

The report in John Davies's poem that "Mr. Will. Shake-speare" would have been a companion for a king but for his association with the theater is one of only four contemporary references to Shakespeare the dramatist that suggest an actual man behind the name. Three are fatal to the Stratford case. Two of them make fun of the notion that Shakespeare was an unlettered man like Shaksper. There is space to quote only from the second of these, a poetical letter written to Ben Jonson and signed F.B., presumably the playwright Francis Beaumont. Here, first, is how the orthodox professors would have it read:

Here I would let slip
(If I had any in me) scholarship,
And from all learning keep these lines as clear
As Shakespeare's are, which to our heirs will
How far sometimes a mortal man may go
By the dim light of Nature.

The Stratfordians cite this verse as supporting their man's authorship, as indeed it would if it were as I have quoted it. But here is the actual text:

And from all learning keep these lines as clear As Shakespeare's best are-

which Beaumont would certainly not have written without reason, the only possible reason being that he meant to imply, tongue in cheek, that Shakespeare's other lines are far from clear of all learning.

As Shakespeare's best are, which our heirs
shall hear Preachers apt to their auditors to show
How far sometimes a mortal man may go
By the dim light of Nature.

In other words, it is not the fact that Shakespeare shows how far an uneducated man may go by the dim light of Nature-Beaumont would have had no reason to insert the line italicized above if it were-but something posterity is going to hear from preachers suited to their audiences. And that is exactly what has happened.

If Beaumont and others were mocking a fiction about the authorship, there must have been a fiction to mock. Why?

If the pseudonym of the poet-dramatist were to be protected, there had to be a stand-in for him, an actual person who could be pointed to as "Shakespeare." Shaksper of Stratford seems to have been picked because of the similarity of names and because, a hanger-on of the theater, he had evidently not been above allowing the credulous to believe he actually was the great but mysterious playwright. Ben Jonson indicates as much. It would appear that the Earl of Southampton bought Shaksper's cooperation with a bribe of 1,000 pounds-equivalent to $70,000 today-and that, in 1598, Shaksper was bundled back to Stratford so that his towering disqualifications for the role of the dramatist would not queer the game. And there, except for perhaps an occasional visit to London and a brief sojourn in the city in 1604, he appears to have remained in affluent but total obscurity until his death in 1616, which passed completely unnoticed by the world. (An orthodox scholar finds it "most remarkable" that "his death...did not call forth in that copiously elegiac age a single extant line of elegy.")

The wild notion that Shaksper was Shakespeare cannot possibly have been entertained by the sophisticated of the day. And posterity would surely never have heard of Shaksper but for two artifacts that appeared half a dozen years after his death. One was a monument to "Shakespeare" installed in Trinity Church, Stratford, the other the collected plays of Shakespeare known as the First Folio. Both the inscription on the monument and the introductory material in the First Folio were obviously designed to give support to the fiction of the authorship, no doubt on the direction of the authorities. Both, however, are artfully contrived to do just the opposite for anyone with his wits about him. They are, for that reason, fascinating-but too much to go into here. Suffice it to note a few points in passing.

In the inscription on the monument there is no suggestion that the man commemorated was a dramatist and none even that he was a poet, except in the obscure reference to arte Maronem. The inscription anticipates that the visitor will pass unheeding by and challenges him to read if he can (!) who is within the monument-which no one is.

It is in the First Folio that Ben Jonson sprang the line "And though thou hadst small Latine and less Greeke..." Many have taken this to say that Shakespeare had small Latin and less Greek. But to anyone who will note the construction of the passage, it is evident that Jonson was saying, rather cunningly, "And even if thou hadst had," et cetera. Jonson then goes on to speak very explicitly of the impression being given of the authorship. This, he suggests, is one on which foolish ignorance or blind emotion might alight, and one through which "crafty Malice, might...thinke to ruine" the author. It is a great pity that the orthodox scholars cannot or will not read the highly illuminating texts that bear most closely on the Shakespeare authorship. Instead, they meet objections to the Stratford theory arising from those texts by excoriating and misrepresenting their critics, and refusing to debate the issues.

Here, though the matter is productive of more obfuscation than clarification, we must consider an episode of 1592 because it is regularly (for lack of a better) made a cornerstone of Stratfordian biography. In that year was published a pamphlet entitled Greenes Groatsworth of Wit. This purported to be the deathbed testament of the playwright Robert Greene in which he warned his fellow playwrights against actors, specifically a certain "upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde [a paraphrase of a line first heard on an early version of Henry VI, Part 3], supposes he is as well able to bombast [stuff] out a blanke verse as the best of you; in his owne conceit the onely Shakescene in a countrey." The public debut of the name Shakespeare, so far as we know, was still some months off, we may note, while its first appearance on the record as that of a playwright was almost six years off.

Following the publication of the Groats-worth, the man who had prepared it for the printer, Henry Chettle, came out with a statement that it had been "offensively...taken" by "one or two" of the "divers play-makers" addressed by Greene. In the case of one of these, he said he was sorry he had not spared him because he himself had seen his civil misdemeanor and "divers of worship"-persons of high degree-had "reported his uprightness...and grace in writing."

The Stratfordians habitually state as a matter of course that the upstart Crow was Shakespeare, though this is inferential, while the question of who the Shakespeare was, if a Shakespeare was referred to, is entirely a matter of conjecture. One would suppose that partisans of the Stratford man would be reluctant to believe his behavior to have been such as to lead a dying man, facing eternity, to attribute to him a tiger's heart and a self-esteem so monstrous he could boast himself-a newcomer to the stage-the only actor of power in the country! However, they identify as Shakespeare not only the upstart Crow but also the playwright whom Chettle said he was sorry he had not spared. The latter may indeed well have been the man we know as Shakespeare, whose protege the upstart Crow was. But if anything is clear from the proceedings, it is that the two were, and had to have been, different men. It is quite plain that Chettle was not apologizing to the victim of the attack-who, curiously, must not have protested-but expressing regret on account of one of two playwrights offended by it. Moreover, when a person has been excoriated as the upstart Crow was in Groats-worth, one does not refer to him as one of those who took offense, as if he had no more cause to do so than others and as if his doing so were not necessarily to have been expected.

Finally, and above all, Chettle stated explicitly that the playwright about whom he was sorry was one of those addressed by Greene. That means that if the playwright and the actor attacked in Greenes Groats-worth were the same and were Shakespeare, then Greene in warning the playwrights about the actor would have been warning Shakespeare about himself! Such is the basis on which the Stratfordians have it that their man was both a London actor and a respected and established playwright in 1592.

The significance of Groats-worth has always been problematical. It certainly did not become less so in 1969 with the announcement by Professor Warren B. Austin that an exhaustive, two-year, computer-aided study of the styles of the principles in the case, carried out under a federal grant, had shown that Greenes Groats-worth was written by Chettle! Even at the time its purported authorship must have been suspect, for Chettle had to "protest that it was all Greenes," while the playwright Thomas Nashe wrote, "God never have care of my soul, but utterly renounce me, if the least word or syllable of it proceeded from my pen." The extremity of Nashe's fear lest he be thought implicated is sufficient indication, incidentally, that someone a great deal more important that a Johnny-come-lately from the provinces could have been expected to be antagonized by Groats-worth.

Well, then, who was the man we know as Shakespeare?

In 1920, an English schoolmaster published the results of the first inquiry into the subject by a scientific method. John Galsworthy called Shakespeare Identified by J. Thomas Looney (pronounced Loney) the greatest detective story of all time, and Hamilton Basso, reviewing an American edition of 1948 with a foreword by William McFee, wrote: "If the case were brought to the court, it would be hard to see how Mr. Looney could lose." The committed Stratfordians have made it their object to deny the book the hearing it deserves.

What Looney did was to identify the characteristics we should expect in the man who was Shakespeare, then comb the records of the period to see who met the requirements. He found one and only one who did. Subsequent research has only confirmed how thoroughly that one fits the role of Shakespeare. With him in the part, everything falls into place. Stratfordians, seeking some grounds on which to disqualify h