In the History of Pseudonyms, “Shakespeare” Fits Right In

Romaine Gary aka Emile Ajar

Imagine – a talented but aging author decides one day to publish under a pseudonym. Only his wife and a few associates know his secret. His pseudonymous works enjoy such great success, he realizes he needs a front man to be his public face. So he recruits a younger man to embody his alter-ego, coaching him carefully, even scripting lines about the author’s “real life.” Everyone’s fooled.

If you think this scenario sounds like one addressed by the Shakespeare authorship question – which can be best succinctly stated as, “Did Edward de Vere write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare using William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon as his front man?” – you’re right, it does. It also happens to be the true story of French novelist Romaine Gary, the only person to win the prestigious Goncourt Prize twice, first as Romaine Gary and then as Emile Ajar. Gary enlisted his cousin, Paul Pavlowitch, to play Ajar, preparing him for meetings with his publisher, who was completely convinced by Pavlowitch’s performance. The ruse eventually unraveled when Gary revealed the affair in a novel in which he made Pavlowitch the narrator, a madman in a psychiatric ward who confesses to being Ajar. At that point, the real-life Pavlowitch decided his cooperation with Gary was over.

Carmela Ciuraru recounts Gary’s curious tale in her recent book, Nom de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. She gives case studies of eighteen writers that used pseudonyms or heteronyms, including (I’m using their pseudonyms) George Sand, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Isak Dinesen, and Christian Brulls.

Reading Ciuraru’s book, I identified four categories of reasons why authors use pseudonyms. The most prevalent, shared by at least seven of the eighteen authors she describes (which includes Gary/Ajar and the five named above), is that the pseudonym activates an alter ego, allowing the author to become a different “self” unshackled by the baggage attached to the real name. The other three reasons, distributed roughly among the additional eleven authors profiled by Ciuraru are: a way to avoid publishers’ discrimination against female authors (e.g. the Bronte sisters, and Marian Evans who wrote as George Eliot); a way to deny being the writer of controversial content (e.g., Dominique Aury, who wrote “The Story of O” as Pauline Reage); and a way to hide perceived shameful behavior or avoid displeasure of parents or peers (e.g., Henry York writing as Henry Green, and Eric Blair writing as George Orwell).

Ciuraru shows that a writer can have more than one reason to write pseudonymously. It struck me that Edward de Vere, if he did write as William Shakespeare, fits this profile with three of the four types of reasons.

First, as a poet acknowledged in his time as the best writer of comedy and known to have written plays, de Vere was a nobleman, whose peers frowned upon those who were associated with the theater and its low-life riff-raff. Reading Ciuraru’s book, it surprised me how, during Green’s and Orwell’s day, aristocratic disapproval of writing as a vocation strongly persisted.

Second, as shown in biographies about de Vere, much of the content of Shakespeare’s plays would have been controversial at the time, since many characters appear to mirror people in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, including Elizabeth herself. For example, the character Polonius, who’s slaughtered in Hamlet, is now widely viewed as an unflattering caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s secretary and the most powerful man in England at the time. Burghley was de Vere’s father-in-law, and they detested each other. Many think Queen Gertrude in Hamlet represents Queen Elizabeth, with whom de Vere had a rumored affair.

Finally, if Charles Beauclerk got things right in Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, William Shakespeare expressed de Vere’s other self – a bohemian artist who loved the creative writing process which allowed him to vent feelings he otherwise would have kept locked up. Beauclerk also presents a compelling argument why Shakespeare’s plays should be seen as “politically inflammatory works” written by a court insider.

What Ciuraru adds – even without addressing whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym – is the plausibility of an author attaching his pen name to another person, who then takes on the role of playing the author. To anyone who reads Nom de Plume, the idea of William Shakspere of Stratford playing “William Shakespeare” as a stand-in for de Vere shouldn’t sound crazy.

There’s strong evidence that “William Shakespeare” was somebody’s pseudonym. As Mark Anderson explains in Shakespeare by Another Name, many of the plays were published under the name “Shake-speare.” In Elizabethan times, use of a hyphen signaled a pseudonym. The one time a play (King Lear) showed the author’s name as “Shak-speare,” the next edition changed it back to “Shake-speare.”

The enigmatic Sonnets also were published under the name “Shake-speare.”

William of Stratford never signed his name as “Shakespeare,” but rather as “Shakspere.” His birth, family and burial records show the name as “Shakspere” or some variation of the short ‘a’ spelling (e.g., Shagspere). His will makes no mention of “Shakespeare” or the plays, or books, or anything else to suggest a writing life.

In contrast, the connections between de Vere’s life and the Shakespeare plays are so numerous, they read like his autobiography. Written in the first person, the Sonnets, too, paint an accurate portrait of de Vere, not Shakspere.

De Vere had the motive, opportunity and ability to use a pseudonym and employ Shakspere as his front man. And as Ciuraru shows, it is not unheard of for an author to use the name of a real person, or a derivative thereof, as a pseudonym. “George Sand” in part came from the last name of her close friend and collaborator, Jules Sandeau. “Shakespeare,” a close variation of Shakspere, would make Stratford Will even more believable as de Vere’s front man, and a good choice for a nobleman who was three-time champion of the tilt.

In the history of pseudonyms, such a hoax is not only curious, but also very plausible.

2 thoughts on “In the History of Pseudonyms, “Shakespeare” Fits Right In

  1. Thanks for letting us know about this very relevant book. When I asked Ciuraru what she thinks about the authorship debate, she replied “I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, so I shouldn’t speculate–but I do find compelling the notion that he used a pen name, or that his works may have had multiple authors/collaborators (uncredited). The mystery endures!” (She gave me permission to quote her.)

    I hope people will also read John Mullan’s wonderful book on pseudonyms and anonymity, Anonymous: A Secret History of English Literature.

    • Richard, thanks. Ciuraru’s book was an enjoyable read, and it’s good to hear she’s open minded about the authorship question. Also, thanks for suggesting the Mullan book, which I’ll check out.

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