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Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes (Part II)

The signature of "William Shakspere" from his will. None of the Stratfordian's surviving signatures are spelled "William Shakespeare."

The signature of “William Shakspere” from his will. None of the Stratfordian’s surviving signatures are spelled “William Shakespeare.”

Memes are units of culture — languages, religions, books, plays, and songs, to name just a few. These are ideas that “catch on” or “go viral” and get passed from one person to another.

That’s why Shakespeare is a meme. Having been replicated for more than four centuries, it’s still going strong.

A memeplex is a group of memes that help each other replicate. The Shakespeare memeplex thus includes the author’s name, the texts of his plays, particular characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff, particular lines such as “to be or not to be,” and everything else in the Shakespeare universe that people keep replicating.

Like genes, memes are not per se right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, in the memotic perspective, a meme is either successful, meaning it keeps getting replicated and passed onto others, or it’s unsuccessful, meaning it’s forgotten.

The Shakespeare memeplex is a particularly interesting because it has two main varieties. By far the most successful one is the Stratfordian memeplex, which assumes that William Shakspere of Stratford was William Shakespeare. The second most successful is the Oxfordian memeplex, which assumes that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.

My previous post gave two very different explanations for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. One explanation comes from the Stratfordian memeplex, the other from the Oxfordian memeplex. This post will use the same approach to explain why William of Stratford – who is William Shakespeare in the Stratfordian memeplex – signed his name “Shakspere” rather than “Shakespeare.”

If he were Shakespeare, why would William of Stratford sign his name differently?

We know with absolute certainty that Francois-Marie Arouet was Voltaire, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain, and Eric Blair was George Orwell. But we may never know beyond any reasonable doubt who was William Shakespeare. When it comes to proving the poet-playwright’s identity, the evidence is circumstantial, beginning with his name.

The idea that William Shakspere was William Shakespeare rests fundamentally on the circumstance that the two names are similar. As to why William of Stratford signed his name ‘Shakspere’ rather than ‘Shakespeare,’ the Stratfordian memeplex gives this explanation: Elizabethans didn’t care all that much about spelling. Let’s accept that as true. Other explanations, however, easily lead to the same result.

Imagine William of Stratford in 1593 gazing up after reading the dedication to Venus and Adonis, and telling the printer, “God’s blood, you spelt my name wrong! It’s Shakspere, not Shakespeare.”

“I thought it sounded better.”

“Wait, you are right. Do not alter it. Indeed, henceforth always print my name as Shakespeare.”

Or try this explanation: from the beginning of William’s meteoric rise to success, he first chose to go by Shakespeare, the Elizabethan equivalent of Joseph Conrad, whose real name was Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski. ‘Shakespeare’ has a better ring to it than ‘Shakspere.’

Or maybe William wanted the plausible deniability that came with signing his name Shakspere while his plays bore the name Shakespeare. One can see Lord Burghley, the Secretary to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England at the time, confronting William:

“As people do, they are talking about your play, Hamlet, and not just talking about it, but gossiping about it, which is worse than just talking about it, and they are not just gossiping about anything, but gossiping about me, as they see similarities between Polonious, one of the main characters in your play, and me, gossiping how both Polonious and I are windbags that never stop talking. How dare you mock me so in your play, Hamlet, and not just me as Polonious, but also Queen Elizabeth as Queen Gertrude, and you not only mock us, as I have said, but you kill us both to boot. Just who do you think you are?”

“You have the wrong man, Lord Burghley. I am not William Shakespeare the poet, I am William Shakspere the grain merchant. See for yourself – here’s the church record of my birth.”

In this scenario, William of Stratford is using “William Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, to protect himself as the writer of Hamlet, a play some scholars believe mocks both Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. This, too, explains why Shakspere did not sign his name Shakespeare.

The point here is that the Stratfordian explanation for why William of Stratford signed his name as Shakspere – no one really cared about spelling – is easy to vary. That makes it a bad explanation according to a test created by British physicist David Deutsch, which I described in my previous post. According to Deutsch, good explanations, unlike bad ones, are difficult to vary.

Step inside the Oxfordian memeplex and you’ll find a much simpler explanation as to why William of Stratford signed his name “Shakspere,” an explanation that’s difficult to vary which, applying Deutsch’s test, makes it a good explanation.

Here’s the Oxfordian explanation: William of Stratford signed his name as William Shakspere, and not as William Shakespeare, because he was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare. As do his surviving signatures, his name appears as Shakspere in birth, marriage, and funeral records.

Forgery laws existed in Elizabethan times. I would bet that the penalty for signing a name that was not yours, especially on a legal document, would cost you a finger or two, maybe your hand.

If, as in this case, the Oxfordian memeplex has a good explanation for something while the Stratfordian memeplex has a bad one, does that necessarily help Oxfordians in the battle of the Shakespeare memes? No. The ultimate winner is the memeplex that keeps getting replicated while the other fades away.

For any meme to survive, people must find it useful to replicate that meme. Though it provides a bad explanation for why gifts appear under Christmas trees, the myth of Santa Claus survives because people find it useful.

The battle of the Shakespeare memes, I believe, will come down to which Shakespeare memeplex people find most useful – Stratfordianism or Oxfordianism. And it may take a very long time for time to tell.

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