From No Name to Shakespeare . . . or Not

Imagine you’re an author. Your first publication—a long poem—is a huge success. Within a year, you publish a second poem, another hit. You write plays, too, which have been staged and well-received. Since your published poems are doing well, you’re ready to see how the plays do in print. Readers will see your name on them, right?

Nope, not if you’re William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare plays, but no Shakespeare

William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet. His narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, was published in 1593 and went through seven printings in as many years. His other long poem, The Rape of Lucrece, appeared in 1594. It, too, had good success. Both poems had Shakespeare’s name on them.

His plays appeared in print beginning in 1594 with Titus Andronicus. However, that play didn’t name an author. For several more years, none of the first editions of Shakespeare’s plays showed he had written them.

In addition to Titus Andronicus, these anonymous plays were Henry the Sixth, Part 2 (1594); Henry the Sixth, Part 3 (1595); Richard the Second (1597); Richard the Third (1597); and Romeo and Juliet (1597).

It’s baffling why a publisher would leave off a best-selling author’s name from that author’s work. There are several explanations, but no definitive answer.

Shakespeare emerges as a playwright

Finally, in 1598, readers who frequented London bookstalls could purchase the first play attributed to Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Over the next five years, other plays bearing Shakespeare’s name followed: Henry the Fourth, Part 1; Much Ado About Nothing; Midsummer’s Night Dream; Merchant of Venice; Henry the Fourth, Part 2; Merry Wives of Windsor; and Hamlet.

Oddly, however, further editions of most of Shakespeare’s plays printed before 1598 remained unattributed, including Titus Andronicus, Henry the Sixth Parts 2 and 3, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry the Fifth.

Most of these anonymous plays (including the five listed above) were not attributed to Shakespeare in print until a collection of his plays was published in 1623.

Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first published play, had three editions over 17 years. None showed him as the author, though other plays did. Titus Andronicus wasn’t attributed to him in print until 1623.

Traditional Explanations

Why were some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays printed without attribution, even while others did name him as the author? Traditional explanations include:

  • Elizabethan plays weren’t thought of as literature until after 1600.
  • The title page of most plays during the 1590s didn’t name an author.
  • Some playwrights were never named on a title page while they were alive.
  • In the case of John Lyly, some of his plays were published over a dozen years until his name appeared on a title page in 1597.

When it comes to Shakespeare, however, these explanations are unsatisfactory. His name appeared on some of his plays after 1597. The question is, why not on all of them?

Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), each of which showed Shakespeare as the author, were back-to-back best-sellers. Publishers were profit-motivated. They should have been keen to attach the poet’s name to his plays.

To increase sales, why not attribute Titus Andronicus, Henry the Fifth, Henry the Sixth, and Romeo and Juliet to William Shakespeare?

By 1598, Love’s Labour’s Lost had been printed with attribution to Shakespeare, followed by Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, and other popular Shakespeare plays. Yet second editions of most of the anonymous Shakespeare plays remained unattributed, including the second edition of Romeo and Juliet (1599).

These facts distinguish Shakespeare from the case of John Lyly. It simply makes no sense that publishers didn’t attribute Shakespeare’s plays because they didn’t consider them “literature.”

After 1598, it would seem foolish for publishers not to attach the Shakespeare brand to his previously unattributed plays—unless they had other reasons not to do so.

A Different Theory

The content of the certain plays may explain why Shakespeare’s name wasn’t attached to them, even after 1598. The plays in this category are Titus Andronicus, Henry the Sixth Parts 1 and 2, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry the Fifth.

In each case, one can argue that the play contained material that offended the authorities—in particular, Queen Elizabeth I—such that Shakespeare or the publisher, or both, concluded it was best the play’s author remain anonymous.

Shakespeare and Elizabeth: No Love Lost?

Shakespeare mirrored real persons in his plays. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, even the characters’ names mimic the people they reflect.

Scholars have long associated the windbag Polonius in Hamlet with Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s closest adviser. In the same play, Elizabeth can be seen as Queen Gertrude, the incestuous adulteress, and Elizabeth’s long-time consort, the Earl of Leicester, as Claudius, the notorious poisoner.

It’s easy to understand why Hamlet wasn’t published until after the deaths of Burghley, Elizabeth, and Leicester. I have argued that the Crown banned Hamlet during Elizabeth’s lifetime.

Marc Shell has observed, “Shakespeare apparently was not a great admirer of Elizabeth. Unlike most English poets of the age, for example, he did not write a word of direct mourning on her death.”

In The End of Kinship, Shell speculates that the character Isabella in Measure for Measure is modeled on Elizabeth, though “[o]ne cannot make an airtight case . . . [W]ere that possible on the basis of what is said in [the play], Shakespeare might have been open to charges of treason.”

Mark Anderson, in Shakespeare By Another Name, calls Elizabeth “the leading candidate” for Lady Macbeth.

This may help explain why Measure for Measure and Macbeth, like Hamlet, didn’t appear in print until after Elizabeth’s death.

Elizabeth the Adulteress

Titus Andronicus (1594) is another play which appears to mirror Elizabeth and Leicester, in this instance in the characters of Tamora and Aaron the Moor. In the play, Tamora and Aaron engage in adultery, which produces a child.

Charles Beauclerk, in Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, says:

Tamora, a composite of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, is ruled by her passions, creating chaos in government and devouring her own children. Her affair with Aaron the Moor threatens to become a national scandal when she is delivered of a child by him. Bearing in mind that the Queen of England used to call the Earl of Leicester her “Moor,” we can conclude that the incident is clearly meant to reveal one of the darker secrets of the Elizabethan state.

Though Shakespeare may not have been a big fan of Elizabeth, he likely had a close connection with her court. Both of his poems published in 1593 and 1594 were dedicated to the highly popular Earl of Southampton. Many believe Southampton is the “lovely boy” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Southampton’s dealings with Elizabeth were rocky—she imprisoned him for treason—and he may have had a not-so-positive attitude towards her similar to Shakespeare’s.

Readers knowing that the court-connected Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus could have more easily seen the parallel between Elizabeth’s relationship with Leicester on the one hand and Tamora’s relationship with Aaron on the other. Leaving Shakespeare’s name off the play would have been the wise thing to do.

Elizabeth the Amazon

Elizabeth and Leicester show up again in Henry the Sixth, Part 2 in the characters of Margaret and Suffolk, illicit lovers who dominate affairs of state and mirror the real-life power duo of Elizabeth and Leicester. There are a number of markers that identify them as such, which I discuss in detail in another blog post.

In the play, Elizabeth once more is mirrored as an adulteress and Leicester as a poisoner—a good reason for Shakespeare not to have his name on the title page.

Likewise, in Henry the Sixth, Part 3, Shakespeare continues to mirror Elizabeth as Margaret in an unflattering way. As I’ve shown in a separate post, Margaret is a cruel Amazonian warrior who leads one of the armies in the War of the Roses.

This could have been reason enough not to attribute the play, but there may be an additional one. As I’ve also demonstrated, Shakespeare, in Henry the Sixth, Part 3, may have been commenting on Elizabeth’s succession which, like Measure for Measure, would have subjected him to accusations of treason.

Elizabeth the Envious

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo sees Juliet at a window above him and says:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief,

That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

Be not her maid, since she is envious;

Her vestal livery is but sick and green

And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

The moon was a familiar symbol for Elizabeth. Percy Allen, in his 1932 biography of Edward de Vere (whom many believe was Shakespeare), observed:

[t]he references [in Romeo and Juliet] are unmistakable for when it is remembered that the Tudor livery was green and white, the envious moon, or Diana as she was so frequently called, whose vestal livery is sick and green,” can be none other than Queen Elizabeth.

In subsequent decades other scholars, such as Charlton Ogburn and Charles Beauclerk, have agreed with Percy, noting parallels between the story in Romeo and Juliet and de Vere’s love relationship with Anne Vavasour, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor.

There’s strong evidence that de Vere and Elizabeth were also romantically involved. In this view, Shakespeare, through the character of Romeo, calls Elizabeth envious (not once, but twice) and in a rather vicious manner—“Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.”

With such an insult aimed at the Queen of England, it would be no surprise that an author with court connections and/or his publisher chose to publish the play anonymously. Indeed, none of the four separate editions of Romeo and Juliet bear the author’s name.

Elizabeth the Queen, but who’s next?

Henry the Fifth (1600) was published during a time when factions in Elizabeth’s court were jockeying for position in preparation of her succession. She had only a few years left to live.

One of those factions favored Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, a charismatic soldier who got in a lot of trouble with Elizabeth after the military campaign he led in Ireland failed. Ultimately, Essex was executed.

Around the same time, the historian John Hayward wrote a book about how King Richard the Second was deposed. The book contained a dedication praising Essex. The Crown feared Hayward intended Richard of Second to serve as a model for overthrowing Elizabeth. For years Hayward was jailed in the Tower of London.

Many scholars agree that Shakespeare gives cryptic praise to Essex in Henry the Fifth. I’ve proposed that Shakespeare, in the same play, was supporting Essex’s ally, the Earl of Southampton (the same courtier to whom Shakespeare dedicated the long poems) to be the next King of England.

Shakespeare sent this message by using markers in the play—including the name Southampton and the earl’s military role in Ireland—which link him to King Henry (Southampton’s birth name was Henry Wriothesely). This also suggests that Shakespeare was showing (very subtly) that Southampton was Elizabeth’s son, a dangerous business indeed.

For these reasons, anonymity was the better part of wisdom when it came to publishing Henry the Fifth.

Of course, all of this is only a theory, based on the content of certain Shakespeare plays, to explain why they remained anonymous even after others began showing his name.

As time goes on, one may hope that research in this area extends beyond traditional explanations, as well as beyond orthodox assumptions about who Shakespeare really was.

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.

Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare

The idea that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare never caught on.

In our zeal in making an argument, sometimes we’ll say something that doesn’t make the best sense. In my opinion, this has happened in the Shakespeare authorship debate. Allow me to explain.

First, some background. The debate – which is more like a cultural war – is over who wrote the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare. One main candidate is William of Stratford-upon-Avon (1616-1624), the man that most people assume was William Shakespeare. The second is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). In 1920, a Scotsman named Thomas Looney (pronounced “lo-knee”) published a book that showed de Vere, a playwright whom a contemporary called “the best for comedy,” wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. “Stratfordians” have battled “Oxfordians” ever since.

“We all know William Shakespeare, the most famous author of all time,” begins Sir Derek Jacobi in Anonymous, a new movie from director Roland Emmerich that depicts de Vere as Shakespeare. “But what if I told you,” Sir Derek says a moment later, “Shakespeare never wrote a single word?”

And thus begins a new battle in the Great Shakespeare War.

The war has raged on for 80 years. Based on the historical evidence, Looney put forth a strong case that de Vere was Shakespeare. He showed, for instance, that the connections between de Vere’s life and the plays are so numerous, the plays read like his autobiography. For the most part, Stratfordians have tried to dismiss Oxfordians as crackpots.

Full disclosure: I think that Looney was right, de Vere was Shakespeare. Many others share that opinion, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Over the years, the case for de Vere has grown stronger. For example, Professor Roger Strittmater has studied annotations in a Bible owned by de Vere. The marginalia in the de Vere Bible correspond so closely to biblical references found in Shakespeare as to be far beyond mere coincidence.

So what about William of Stratford? Well, for starters, his name was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare.

Which brings us back to the great Sir Derek Jacobi. Whichever side one takes in the authorship debate, one should admire how he’s taken such a pro-de Vere stance at a time when Stratfordians still dominate the theater world. Nonetheless, I think de Vere’s soldiers shoot themselves in the foot with rhetoric such as, “Shakespeare never wrote a single word.” Even if you agree (as I do) that de Vere was Shakespeare, it’s easy to prove such a statement is false.

Think about it. If Edward de Vere was William Shakespeare who wrote the plays, then William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere. This is the associative rule of logic: if A=B, then B=A. William Shakespeare therefore wrote the plays of William Shakespeare, even if the name was de Vere’s pseudonym.

What de Vere supporters really want to say is, “Shakspere never wrote a single word.” But instead they end up saying “Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” which is like saying, “Voltaire never wrote a single word,” or “Mark Twain never wrote a single word,” or “George Orwell never wrote a single word.” It sounds silly.

The latter three names are pseudonyms, but biographies of those authors contain statements such as, “it is unknown exactly when Voltaire wrote Candide,” and “Twain began his career writing light, humorous verse.” In short, Voltaire wrote Voltaire and Mark Twain wrote Mark Twain – and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Most Oxfordians underplay the importance of Stratford Will’s name, as if it were some minor detail. Instead, they rush to the mountain of other evidence that proves de Vere was Shakespeare. By doing so, Oxfordians get off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, and fall into the deep pit of confusion Stratfordians have been digging for decades.

So here are a few facts worth emphasizing. Will of Stratford was christened “Gulielmus Shakspere.” There are six surviving signatures of this man. All of them spell his last name without the ‘e’ that would make the ‘a’ sound long, as in “shake.” Furthermore, the second syllable of the name is always spelled so it is spoken with the “er” sound as in “her,” or the “air” sound as in “pair,” not the “ear” sound as in “spear.” Stratford Will never signed his name “Shakespeare.” Why? The simplest explanation is that his last name was Shakspere, as in “shack-spare.”

Those that argue that Stratford Will was Shakespeare but spelled his name Shakspere, will point to Christopher Marlowe, who once signed his name “Christofer Marley,” and other contemporary references that spelled “Marlowe” as “Marly” or “Marlin.” Or they cite the example of Shackerley Marmion, an early 17th century dramatist whose name sometimes appears as “Shakerly.” They also look to the anonymous 1592 play, Arden of Feversham, in which one of the villains is called “Shakbag,” sometimes spelled “Shakebag.” None of which supports that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare.

Unlike the difference between “Shakspere” and “Shakespeare,” the spelling and pronunciation of the first syllable of “Marlowe” doesn’t change in the variations. Moreover, we have just one surviving signature of Marlowe’s, but six for Shakspere. One can pronounce both “Shackerley” and “Shakerly” with the short ‘a’ since the second syllable is “er.” In any case, that name is not an example of a long ‘a’ sound remaining after the ‘e’ is dropped. “Shakbag” is an old word of mid-Yorkshire dialect meaning “a lazy roving person; a vagrant.” That’s the correct spelling and that’s how it appears the vast majority of times in Arden of Feversham. Adding the ‘e’ creates a misspelling. Those who argue “Shakbag” as proof that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare therefore must also argue that “Shakespeare” is a misspelling of “Shakspere,” which is absurd.

In fact, we have contemporary evidence that attributing the plays to William “Shakspere” or “Shakspeare” was a mistake. A 1608 quarto of King Lear names the author as “William Shak-speare.” Subsequent quartos correct the name to “William Shake-speare.” As Mark Anderson shows in Shakespeare by Another Name, in Elizabethan times a hyphen often signaled that a name was a pseudonym.

Hundreds if not thousands of editions of Shakespeare exist, but only a tiny fraction of them name the author as “Shakspere.” In 1868, Charles Knight edited “The Works of William Shakspere.” In the early 1900’s, Funk & Wagnalls published “The Complete Works of William Shakspere.” Clearly, the idea that “Shakspere” was the Bard’s correct name never caught on, simply because it wasn’t the correct name. The errant “Shakspere” editions serve as further proof that Shakspere wasn’t the Bard.

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, and he wrote many words at that. Oxfordians would help their cause by clearly stating that fact.