Well someone had to say it.
We can spend all day shooting down rival candidates like particular large fish in particular small barrels, but the question will always be asked – what is there that links Wild Bill Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon to the works. Come on, answer the question. We don’t have any diaries from him, any letters or any other definite proof that Shakespeare of Stratford is really Shakespeare the poet do we?
Of course one wonders what would happen if we really did turn up a letter that read;
Having wonderful time in London but missing you loads. Rehearsals for Henry IV Part II, which I writted, are going well, but wish Will Kemp would stop titting around making up lines for himself. See you soon, kisses to Susannah and the twins
PS. Keep the second best bed warm for me”
given that one of the many competing theories of Oxfordinism is that Shakespeare of Stratford was just a paid front for Oxford. Wouldn’t Oxfordians really retort that this was an obvious fake designed to shore up the conspiracy (similar claims have, after all, been made about the players’ bequests in Shakespeare’s will.).
However, this is probably as good a place as to discuss how we actually know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
1. The works were written by someone called ‘William Shakespeare’
As was common for most plays of the Elizabethan theatre; the early folios were published without an author attribution. Nevertheless, from the first, they were identified as being written by William Shakespeare. The earliest attribution is of course, ‘A Groatsworth of wit’ in which a play which is almost certainly Henry VI is attributed to an actor/writer who almost certainly has a surname beginning with ‘Shake’. ‘Venus and Adonis’ was published with a dedication written by one ‘William Shakespeare’. Francis Meres, in 1598, attributes a number of works to William Shakespeare including some that had only been previously published anonymously. He also mentions Shakespeare’s sonnets which, he claims, at that point had only circulated round his friends. Finally, the Revels Accounts attribute a number of plays to William Shakespeare (although for those who think that the spelling of the surname is important, ‘Mesur for Mesur’ was apparently written by ‘Shaxberd’). Significantly, no-one else has ever been credited with any of the Canon. So the very least we can say is that the plays were definitely written by someone either called William Shakespeare or calling himself William Shakespeare.
2. ‘William Shakespeare’ was also an actor in the company performing the plays.
From 1594; the plays were excusively performed by the acting company first known as the Lord Chamberlains men, before becoming Lord Hunsdon’s men and finally the King’s Men. We have a very good idea of who performed with them and they include such names as Richard Burbage, William Sly, William Kempe and, most importantly for our purposes ‘William Shakespeare’. We know this because there are records showing that William Shakespeare was paid for performances at the palace and the 1603 licence of ‘The King’s Men’ lists the main players, including ‘William Shakespeare.’ We also know that this company of players performed the works of Ben Jonson and, from cast lists, we know that William Shakespeare was one of the actors in Jonson’s plays. So we can now conclude either;
- That ‘William Shakespeare’ the actor was someone different from ‘William Shakespeare’ the writer…a massive coincidence along the lines of assuming that a 70s writer/director called Woody Allen hired a comedian called ‘Woody Allen’ to play the lead in his films or that five separate people, all called ‘Charles Chaplin’ worked on Limelight.
- That ‘William Shakespeare’ was indeed a writer and actor but was merely a pseudonym for someone else. In which case, if ‘Shakespeare’ was Oxford, it was surprising that no-one noticed or commented on his numerous stage appearances.
- That there was an actual living individual called ‘William Shakespeare’ who both wrote and acted in his own plays
- ‘William Shakespeare’ the actor/writer was also ‘William Shakespeare of Stratford’
In 1596, John Shakespeare of Stratford resumed his application for a Coat of Arms. This was granted sometime before 1599, much to the disapproval of one Peter Brooke who complained about base people being elevated to the nobility; including one ‘Shakespeare Ye Player’ and reproduces the Shakespeare of Stratford Coat of Arms. We also know that Shakespeare of Stratford was at least acquainted with the King’s Men as, in his will, he calls them his ‘fellows’ and leaves the gifts in his will. Finally, we know that William Shakespeare of Stratford brought the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse in 1613 – and fellow actor John Hemming acted as trustee. We also have someone (probably Richard Hunt) annotating their copy of ‘Britannia’ on the page which lists Stratford Upon Avon’s prominent sons with the name ‘Shakespeare – truly our Roscius [the Roman Actor]’.
So what can we conclude. Either that
- It is all a massive coincidence and three separate people called William Shakespeare were wandering around London at the same time.
- Someone worked very hard to cover up their authorship of the canon (but not hard enough to actually convince any authorship doubters)
- William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works of William Shakespeare.