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.

Shakespeare and the Battle of Memes (Part I)

A Rubens painting of a scene from "Titus Andronicus." Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?

A Rubens painting of a scene from “Titus Andronicus.” Did Shakespeare write the play to head off the competition?

My favorite Hamlet quote is “…there is nothing either good or bad except thinking makes it so.” How true that is – I chuckle at Nabokov’s 1956 afterword to Lolita, in which he describes themes that “are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned,” including “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Fifty-seven years on, today’s dynamic culture (namely, Western Culture) would treat such themes as “bad” not on moral grounds, but because they’re boring.

I’ve begun to apply Hamlet’s insight to my own thinking. For instance, just what makes a “good” explanation good, and a “bad” explanation bad?  Why do I care? That explanation begins in 1995.

My father died while I was going through a divorce. The pain peaked at the funeral as I sat in the front row and the preacher lauded my parents’ long marriage then, looking in my direction, chided those who “crumple up marriages like paper and toss them into the garbage.” During that awful time, I took solace in a book called “The Physics of Immortality” by Frank Tipler, a physicist at Tulane University. His book impressed me, and I arranged to meet him in New Orleans.

“How do you deal with religious fundamentalists who dislike your book?” I asked him.

“Oh, I don’t even try talking with those people.”

It was easy to understand why. Tipler’s book, which includes a 100-page long “Appendix for Scientists,” argues that our descendants in the far, far future – and I mean really far, like a trillion years from now – will resurrect every human being that ever lived and (bonus!) their pets along with them. This allowed me to finally let go any thought of one day freeze-drying Sebastian and Viola. I also found it easier to follow John Lennon’s instructions to “imagine there’s no heaven,” since Tipler’s theory does not mean that heaven will never exist, it just doesn’t exist yet. Ditto for God. For Tipler, heaven is a technical problem that will only take a bit longer to solve than, say, world hunger.

Tipler’s far future sounds fantastic, sure, but who in 1956, or even 1995, could have imagined being able one day to order an IPOD from Amazon.com over the Internet that a robotic drone can deliver to you in an hour? Not even Ray Bradbury, I bet.

A lot of people, of course, howled at Tipler’s ideas. But one who didn’t was David Deutsch, the British physicist and pioneer of quantum computing. Deutsch found merit in Tipler’s cosmology that predicted the eventual collapse of the universe into a Big Crunch, which would allow its inhabitants to create a computer that resurrects everyone and their cats, dogs, and parakeets. Years later, Deutsch saw the evidence that our universe will expand forever and never collapse. He now rejects Tipler’s predictions, but circa 1995, he was on board the train to what Tipler called “The Omega Point.” So was I.

I’ve kept track about what Deutsch is up to. He gives great TED talks. His 2011 book, The Beginning of Infinity analyzes the difference between good and bad explanations. With Hamlet’s line in mind, I began applying Deutsch’s analysis to Shakespeare, or more precisely, the Shakespeare authorship debate, which is a battle of memes.

A meme, a word created by Richard Dawkins, signifies a unit of culture and, like a gene, it can be replicated and passed on from one person to another. An example of a successful meme is the Beatles song Yesterday, which cover artists have replicated thousands of times.

Deutsch describes a “memeplex” as a group of related memes that facilitate each other’s replication. The Shakespeare “memeplex” would be the collection of Shakespeare-related memes – the name ‘William Shakespeare,’ his poems and plays, individual characters, and all those words and phrases created by Shakespeare which have been repeated billions of times, such as “bedroom” and “I have not slept one wink” – which go together when I forget my Melatonin.

The war that rages in the vast territory of Shakespeare is one between two, and in many ways opposite, Shakespeare memeplexes, each of which attempts to explain who Shakespeare, the man, actually was. Stratfordianism holds that a commoner with the first name William, and who signed his last name as Shakspere – the same way it appears in his birth, marriage, and funeral records – was the poet-playwright, William Shakespeare. Oxfordianism holds that Edward de Vere, a high nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court, wrote under the name William Shakespeare, which appeared in print as Shake-speare, the hyphen signaling that it was a pseudonym.

So after reading Deutsch on good and bad explanations, I was filled with excitement, to use another word created by Shakespeare, and anxious to put the Shakespeare memeplexes to the physicist’s simple test: a bad explanation is one that is easy to vary while still accounting for what it purports to account for, while a good explanation is one that is hard to vary.

Deutsch gives the example of the Greek myth that explains winter. In that myth, Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps and rapes Persephone, whose mother, Demeter, negotiates the terms of her daughter’s release. Persephone must marry Hades and return annually for a conjugal visit. Each year, when that time comes, Demeter becomes sad and makes the world cold.

Though the myth explains winter, Deutsch calls it a bad explanation because all its details are easy to vary with the same result. A Nordic myth, for instance, explains winter in terms of the fortunes of Feyr, the god of spring. The world is warm when he’s winning, cold when he’s losing. But Deutsch’s words here are better than mine:

The reason those myths are so easily variable is that their details are barely connected to the details of the phenomenon…Whenever a wide range of variant theories can account equally well for the phenomenon they are trying to explain, there is no reason to prefer one of them over the others, so advocating a particular one in preference to the others is irrational…That freedom to make drastic changes in those mythical explanations of seasons is the fundamental flaw in them.

The true explanation of seasons is based on the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation relative to the plane of its orbit around the sun. It is a good explanation – hard to vary – because all of its details play a functional role.

All of this got me to asking, why did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus? Are there better ways of spending my time? Probably.

It’s impossible to know what motivated Shakespeare to write Titus Andronicus. Trying to establish a person’s intent about anything is fraught with risk, even if you ask her why she ordered the crunchy grasshopper carrot cake and she happily tells you why. There’s only one person who can read your mind, and it’s not me. So the attempt to divine Shakespeare’s motives for writing Titus Andronicus – especially since nobody can ask him, given his death either in 1604 or 1616, depending on which Shakespeare memeplex you prefer – is a little like trying to understand why prehistoric cave dwellers in southern France painted pictures on their living room walls during their spare time.

Still, we can’t resist.

Stratfordians and Oxfordians give competing explanations for what prompted Shakespeare to write his first tragedy. The two camps loathe each other. Stratfordians launch ad hominem attacks against Oxfordians who, in turn, accuse Stratfordians of intellectual dishonesty.

Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck recently lambasted two Canadian universities for participating in a conference exploring Oxfordianism, publicly chastising York University Professor Don Rubin, an Oxfordian who teaches a course on the authorship question, for his “fringe views.” Oxfordians charge Stratfordians with a bias fed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and piles of money: millions of tourists have streamed through Stratford-upon-Avon to see where “William Shakespeare” was born, which Oxfordians equate with trekking to the North Pole to see where Santa Claus works.

Just think what would happen to Amazon.com’s sales if there were no Santa Claus – not even the myth – and how it would change the very idea of Christmas. Well, it would turn retail sales into a bloody disaster, which brings us back to Titus Andronicus.

In the Stratfordian memeplex, Shakespeare wrote his gory story of murder and mutilation, packed full with references to Ovid and Seneca, to match what others were writing at the time and showcase his learning. In 1949, Margaret Chute wrote this about Titus Andronicus: “Shakespeare was trying to write a ‘noble Roman history’ and conform to the best standards of the classical drama as they were understood in his day.” Fifteen years later, A.L. Rowse, in his biography of Shakespeare, explained that while Shakespeare was writing the play, “…his mind was filled with memories of his school-work…Titus is a well-constructed play on a tight and somewhat rigid scheme, for the craftsman is imitating someone else.”

One can imagine William entering London after days of riding on horseback from Stratford. He heads straight for The Mermaid Tavern and finds Christopher Marlowe at the bar. The two playwrights throw back sherry-sack and talk shop.

“So, Willie,” says Marlowe, “I wager you can’t come up with a conceit the groundlings could love more than The Spanish Tragedy.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

“Bet I can.”

“Bet you can’t.”

And so forth. This “To Prove Himself” explanation of why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus is easy to vary. Take Marlowe out of the picture and put William back in Stratford. Unlike most boys, he loved school and has stayed in touch with his teachers.

“Thanks for stopping by the old schoolhouse, Willie.”

“Nice to see you again, professor.”

“I caught Comedy of Errors when I was in London. Loved it – ever think about doing something a little different, old chap? You know, challenge yourself and give tragedy a go, along the lines of Seneca, for instance, with a good dose of Ovid?”

“What a wonderful idea.”

And so on. Or leave the other adults out of it and replace them with Willie’s first daughter, Susannah, who would have been around twelve at the time. Her father, being the intellectual, decides she must see more of the world, so he takes her to London. One afternoon, as they exit The Globe theatre, she says to him:

“O, I just loved The Spanish Tragedy, father. Why can’t you write a play like it?”

“Well…”

You could probably come up with a few of your own variations of this “To Prove Himself” explanation, or a few hundred. All you have to do is imagine – it’s easy if you try – which is why the “To Prove Himself” explanation is a bad one based on Deutsch’s definition.

It’s a different story when you enter the Oxfordian memeplex and assume that William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere’s pseudonym. Mark Anderson, one of de Vere’s recent biographers, explains that banishment plays an important role in the latter half of Titus Andronicus, which corresponds to “the shame and scandal” of de Vere’s exile from Queen Elizabeth’s court. Charles Beauclerk has a similar explanation, showing how the play reflects the disempowerment and brutal silencing of political adversaries. In short, de Vere alias Shakespeare wrote Titus to express his feelings about things that actually happened to him.

This “It Happened to Him” explanation is based on known facts about de Vere’s life and is thus difficult to vary. But the point here is not necessarily to come up with the singularly correct explanation for something, but to compare explanations in analytical terms of “good” or “bad,” which means that some explanations will be “better” than others.

The “It Happened to Him” explanation by itself does not prove that de Vere was Shakespeare, nor does the “To Prove Himself” explanation prove that William of Stratford was the great poet-playwright. But the first explanation happens to be the better one for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, in my neither good nor bad opinion.

Maybe my mind will change at the Omega Point, when I can ask him.