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Shakespeare’s Bible Brings Truth to Light

Roger Stritmatter and Mark K. Anderson

This article first appeared in the Fall 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


A special seminar at the 1996 annual SOS Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul provided Conference attendees with a long-anticipated opportunity for a detailed update on work-in-progress on the hand-written annotations in the Edward de Vere Geneva Bible. Co-sponsored by the Plymouth Congregational Church and the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum, the seminar featured slides of the de Vere Bible and lectures by Mark Anderson and Roger Stritmatter.

The Bible, owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., was first discovered in 1992 by SOS members Dr. Paul Nelson and Isabel Holden. It has been carefully studied by Roger Stritmatter, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for five years. The discovery has been featured in several news articles in the U.S., Germany and Italy, and Stritmatter was interviewed for the 1992 GTE authorship teleconference organized by Gary Goldstein and John Mucci.

As one further step in bringing the light of twentieth-century technology to bear on the “fine mystery” (in the words of Charles Dickens) of the authorship controversy, Stritmatter and Anderson spoke for about two hours, to eighty listeners, illustrating their points with slides of the annotated Bible and other illustrations.

Drawn largely from material Stritmatter is preparing for his proposed PhD dissertation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the work will also be featured in Anderson and Stritmatter’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Prospero’s Bible: The Shakespeare Mystery Resolved. The book will consider for the first time, in detail, why the evidence contained in the de Vere Bible is the humanist equivalent of DNA evidence in a murder trial.

“We are here to try Edward de Vere on the charge of having written Hamlet and the other works of Shakespeare” said Stritmatter. “As Joe Sobran recently wrote, de Vere is ‘guilty as sin.’ Today, we hope to show you the equivalent of the DNA evidence in the case against him.”

As many readers know, since 1925 the Folger Shakespeare Library has held in its vaults a hand-annotated 1570 Bible originally owned by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. The Bible is a copy of the second edition of the “Geneva” translation prepared from 1550-68 by Protestants in exile from Mary’s counter-reformationist government. As reported previously in these pages (Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, Spring 1992), the marginalia (consisting of about 1000 underlined or marked verses and about forty brief marginal notes) exhibit a striking correspondence to the Bible verses and themes found in Shakespeare. The case for just how striking that correspondence is, however, has yet to have its day in court.

Stritmatter and Anderson began their presentation by answering the current crop of de Vere Bible naysayers and detractors -most notably the Folger Library itself, the Smithsonian Magazine, and Iona College’s Shakespeare Newsletter, which have all claimed that the de Vere Bible annotations were made by someone other than de Vere! As unlikely as such a proposal might seem, it was not only proposed in the Folger’s Roasting the Swan of Avon pamphlet (1993), edited by the former President of the Shakespeare Association of America Bruce Smith -but swiftly endorsed (as if by institutional osmosis) by the Smithsonian and The Shakespeare Newsletter (summer 1995). The Bible, declared the April 1995 Smithsonian with more than a touch of hubris, had “proved a false alarm.”

Before getting into some of the particulars of the connections between the de Vere Bible annotations and Shakespeare, Stritmatter and Anderson set the record straight concerning this phantom annotator.

In 1570 the Court of Wards purchased for Edward de Vere a number of books recorded in extant accounts as follows: “To William Seres, stationer, for a Geneva Bible gilt, a Chaucer, Plutarch’s works in French, and other books and papers..2L, 7S, 10 d” (Ward 1928, 33). The Folger 1570 Geneva Bible fits the above description. Furthermore, the marroon velvet binding bears silver centerplates engraved with de Vere’s heraldic arms: the rampant boar on the front and the quartered sheild with the sinistral star on the obverse. These facts alone, before one begins to examine the handwriting in the book, are sufficient to establish de Vere’s original ownership of the Bible. As luck would have it, this is almost certainly the same book described in the Court of Wards record.

Enclosed within the sumptuous heraldic binding with the de Vere arms are actually three distinct books, originally published separately, and bound for the purchaser by a London stationer, perhaps the same William Seres (or an associate) named in the Court record: a 1570 Old Testament, a 1568 New Testament, and a 1569 edition of the psalms set to music -a copy of the so- called Sternhold & Hopkins Metrical Psalms- all of which contain annotations in the same fine 16th-century italic handwriting.

Many of these notes, written in the Bible’s margins, have been cropped by a binder’s knife. It was this circumstance which led Bruce Smith, in the Folger pamphlet, to the bizzare conclusion that the Bible had been annotated before Oxford acquired it. Presumably, Smith reasoned that since the Bible was bound with Oxford’s heraldic arms, and since it would have been cropped preparatory to the original binding process, the annotations must have been in the Bible before it was bound for Oxford.

Of course, as Stritmatter explained, Smith apparently never paused to consider the circumstances his scenario requires. Before examining what did happen, let’s take a glance at what Smith, the Folger Library, and the Smithsonian assume must have happened according to their theory: In the first weeks of 1570 our phantom annotator acquires the unbound (and uncut) broadsheets of the Bible and proceeds to mark them up with over one thousand underlinings and marginal notes distributed in fifty-eight books of the Bible. Within less than six months, he resells these used and marked sheets to the London Stationer and Bookbinder William Seres, who crops, binds and resells the book to the Earl of Oxford at the standard rate for a new Bible.

Seres’ notoriously literary and spendthrift customer doesn’t blink when handed a vandalized Bible. Instead, he shells out several pounds for an expensive, customized binding in royal crimson velvet, adorned with delicately engraved silver clasps, cornerplates, and centerplates bearing his coat of arms; he proceeds to cherish this book for the next thirty years of his life without making any of his own annotations in it. Flashforward four hundred years..the apparent congruence between these annotations and Shakespeare’s biblical references is coincidental -or was the phantom annotator the five year old William Shaksper of Stratford?

Needless to say, this scenario is not only implausible but also, it turns out, superfluous. Smith suppressed unambiguous evidence of the Bible’s 18th-20th century spine replacement (called “rebacking”). As any antiquarian book lover can tell you, binders customarily trim the loose margins of a book when rebacking or otherwise rebinding it. Quite probably, given its age, the book has been repaired two or three times; that it has been rebacked at least once is all too obvious.

And, finally, our phantom annotator just happens to have handwriting which is remarkably, if not indistinguishably, similar to Edward de Vere’s! In the Plymouth Church talk, Anderson demonstrated the annotator’s identity with Oxford by using slides showing details of the annotator’s hand compared both to Oxford’s and to those of his fellow writers who possessed similar stylistic traits. These slides are part of a study-in-progress which will prove that the annotator was indeed Oxford.

“Our explanation for the cropped annotations is simple,” declares Anderson. “Oxford bought the Bible in the same year it was printed, as the original purchase order shows; he had the Bible bound for him, and subsequently made notes in it -those we are studying today. Some of those notes were cropped when the Bible was rebound during the next three centuries. No reasonable person in possession of the facts of the case could conclude otherwise.” “Some folks have asked,” continued Anderson, “why don’t you just go out and hire a handwriting expert?” Handwriting analysis, he explained, is a complicated field strewn with minefields, sometimes planted by Stratfordian pundits. Some so-called paleographers are dealers in manuscripts who trade on their “expertise” for personal prestige by reaching conclusions profitable to their clients. Some readers may be aware, for instance, of the 1985 book, In Search of Shakespeare, by the New York manuscript and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton, which reveals to the world that the same person responsible for the six well- known “Shaksper” signatures, also wrote the Shakespeare will. In a later book, Mr. Hamilton, having quite a bit of fun with the naive susceptibilities of his readers, announced that the recently rediscovered manuscript of the pseudo-Shakespearean play, Cardenio, was also in the Bard’s evanescent hand.

Under such circumstances, Stritmatter and Anderson have understandably approached possible “experts” with some circumspection. “Before laying ourselves at the mercy of paleographers whose professional judgement might be contaminated by Stratfordian loyalties of one kind or another, we wanted to educate ourselves so that we understand the technical aspects of the field. We want to be informed collaborators, not just paying customers, in the paleographical investigation of the Bible,” explained Stritmatter.

Handwriting samples
Mark Anderson’s analysis of the annotator’s handwriting
(top) with both Oxford’s (second row) and other samples
from the period (third row is Lyly, fourth row is Peele)
indicate the strong, unmistakable parallels between Oxford
and the annotator.

“In the process,” he continued, “we’ve pushed the state of the art in Elizabethan paleography”. Anderson’s computer-assisted methodology is pioneering advancements in paleographical technique which should earn the respect and assent of the best professional paleographers and demonstrate unequivocally that the annotator of the Bible was Edward de Vere. “Although this work is still in progress,” he concluded, “all work to date confirms that the hand of the annotator shares numerous idiosyncratic characteristics with Oxford’s accepted handwriting.”

This conclusion -that de Vere was the annotator- is what Stritmatter and Anderson call the minor premise of the syllogism of the de Vere Bible. Despite claims to the contrary, this minor premise is all but unassailable, and remains so with every new development in the paleographical investigation. Undoubtedly, those troubled with the implications of the study will unearth new “refutations” in the months to come. As things stand in 1996, however, the minor premise has generated the most heat. Accordingly it received more attention than might otherwise be expected in the Plymouth Church presentation.

As the researchers continue to buttress the minor premise through further study and professional consultation, they express hope that critics, supporters and -most important- the public at large will be drawn to the centerpiece of their argument, that the Earl of Oxford’s 1570 Geneva Bible not only confirms that Oxford wrote under the pen-name “Shake-Speare,” but also teaches us how to be better readers of his work.

Of the more than one thousand marked passages in the Bible, nearly a quarter turn up as direct references in Shakespeare, and many more have reverberating thematic resonance within the canon. About a hundred of these references can be found in the work of previous scholars of Shakespeare’s Biblical knowledge, such as Richmond Noble (1935) Peter Milward (1974, 1987) or Naseeb Shaheen (1987, 1989, 1993). A further hundred are new contributions to what is known about Shakespeare’s knowledge and use of the Bible. “Much of what we have learned about the de Vere Bible in the last three years, and the reason for the length of time consumed by the research, is that this group of verses has steadily grown to the present number of around a hundred,” explained Stritmatter.

In Stritmatter’s spring 1992 letter to the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, the figure was quoted as “around a dozen”; by the time of the summer 1992 filming of the Bible for the GTE authorship teleconference, the number was “thirty or more.” Further research continues to reveal more -now over a hundred. This means, said Stritmatter, that the de Vere Bible functions as an “answer key” to the quiz: which Bible verses did Shakespeare remember and use in his work? Of course, if Oxford’s annotations could also be found in the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, critics such as the Folger or the Smithsonian might have something to complain about. Indeed, Shakespeare Authorship Page (SAP) editor David Kathman continues to claim publicly -though on what reasoning or authority remains unclear- that the relationship between the de Vere Bible annotations and Shakespeare is “random”.

Contrary to Kathman’s claims, Stritmatter reports that a study of biblical references in Bacon, Marlowe, and Spenser’s Fairie Queene (the only authors and texts, unfortunately, for which comparable data is easily available) suggests that the correspondences between the de Vere Bible and Shakespeare are anything but random. While nearly half of Shakespeare’s top verses can be found marked in the Earl of Oxford’s Bible, the overlap between marked Bible verses and those favored by other authors approaches zero.

Page from Geneva Bible
One of the marked passages (Philippians 2:15) includes not
only the words “naughtie” and “worlde”, but also, in a
footnote (pasted in on the right), the word “candle”, thus
providing three key words in Portia’s
Merchant of Venice
speech, “How far this little candle throws his beam! So
shines a good deed in a naughty world.” (V, ii, 61-2)

In a few critical cases, the answers supplied by the “quiz key” actually allow us to correct and fine-tune previous work done by other scholars. For example, since Carter (1905) it has been generally accepted that Portia’s stirring message in Merchant of Venice about the power of a tiny candle to cast a blazing light of moral truth in this dark and “naughty world” -”How far this little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (MV, V, ii, 61-2)- is a paraphrase of the New Testament proverb about not hiding your light under a bushel. Carter and Noble (1935) both associated the image, incorrectly it transpires, with Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven.”

Matthew 5.16 is not marked in de Vere’s Bible. However, the preferred source of Portia’s moral (Philippians 2:15) is marked. We know this is the preferred source, because both Portia’s utterance and Philippians 2:15 include the peculiar collocation of the words, “naughty… world”, and in a footnote to the verse, “candle”.

“Now, who said you can’t learn by peeking at the answers?” quipped Anderson.

And, as Stritmatter revealed in his lecture, Portia’s moral could not be more apt. For, as he explained, he had communicated this particular discovery to Professor Naseeb Shaheen, author of several important books on Shakespeare and the Bible, during the spring of 1993. When Shaheen’s third book, Biblical References in Shakespepare’s Comedies, was published five months later, it claimed -correctly, but for the first time in print- that Portia’s “naughty world” was a reference to – lo and behold! – Philippians 2:15. Just how Professor Shaheen “discovered” this correction, however, remains unpublished.

Needless to say, Philippians 2:15 is only one of over two-hundred Bible verses -albeit a particularly significant one- to which Stritmatter’s study of the de Vere Bible devotes serious consideration. Nevertheless, Portia’s moral based on this verse seems all too pertinent to present circumstances. Hamlet charges Horatio to “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied.” As all Oxfordians are aware, anyone who takes Horatio’s words seriously will sooner or later run afoul of court politics. Portia admonishes us not to despair. The little candle of which she speaks is, afterall, “this star of England” -the five-pointed heraldic star of the de Veres of Castle Hedingham in Essex. “How far that little candle throws his beam!” declares Shakespeare’s Judge. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

Copyright 1996 Mark Kendall Anderson and Roger Stritmatter

Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies

by Naseeb Shaheen
(U. of Delaware Press, 1993)
Reviewed by Roger Stritmatter, Ph.D.

This review first appeared in the Elizabethan Review. Dr. Strimatter is a professor of English Literature at Coppin State University in Baltimore Maryland and was written while he was a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


The third in Naseeb Shaheen’s series on Biblical references in Shakespeare not only supplies a complement to previous studies of the Tragedies (1987) and the Histories (1989), but also marks an advance in the sophisticated treatment of complex interpretative problems that were neglected in the two previous books. Here one detects a heightened awareness of the need to balance strictness in distinguishing influential sources from illusory ones, combined with a guiding vision which seeks to explicate the “spirit in which all the relevant passages are used” (28). Shaheen’s appreciation of the complex associative processes of Shakespeare’s “extremely retentive and associative mind” (Hankins infra) emerges more here than in his previous books. For the first time, for example, we find reference to “composite readings” evidently based on more than one translation of key texts, such as Genesis 25:25 (57). Such advances are the fruit of many years patient labor in the vineyards of bibliographical source studies by someone who has done more this century than any other scholar to advance an awareness of the many salient details of Shakespeare’s Biblical knowledge.

The empirical method of charting Biblical references as they occur in sequence through act, scene and line of each play, first applied by Shaheen in his study of Biblical references in the Faerie Queene ( 1976) and used in his two previous books on Shakespeare, is both the great strength and, potentially, a weakness of his approach. Although he develops a more comprehensive and detailed treatment than any previous scholar, Shaheen’s methodology originates with Carter’s 1905 attempt to establish the priority of the Geneva Bible (f.p. 1560) as Shakespeare’s primary English Bible. Carter was the first to systematically tabulate Shakespeare’s references against the lexical variation in different translations of the English Bible. Carter concluded that the Geneva Bible, prepared by William Whittingham and other Calvinist exiles from the reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558) and first published in Geneva in 1560, was Shakespeare’s preferred translation. In his landmark 1935 study, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge, Richmond Noble refined Carter’s methodology and modified his conclusions regarding Shakespeare’s sole reliance on the Geneva translation. In that study, Noble showed that although Carter was probably correct in asserting the priority of the Geneva translation in Shakespeare’s Biblical imagination, he was also familiar with other translations, especially the 1568 Bishop’s Bible. The key to this method lies in distinguishing among influences which can be demonstrated at the lexical level: coordinate ideas, image-clusters, rhythmic or other figurative influences can play little role in distinguishing among variant sources.

Shaheen prefaces each of his books with a chapter on variant Bibles (“Which Version Shakespeare Used”) which summarizes and evaluates the evidence for Shakespeare’s knowledge of each of the major English Translations. In order of roughly declining influence, these include The Geneva (f.p. 1560), The Bishop’s (f.p.1568), Thomson’s New Testament (f.p.1576), The Great Bible (f.p.1539), The Coverdale (f.p.1529,1535), The Matthew, largely a reprint of Tyndale and Coverdale (f.p. 1537), Taverner’s (f.p. 1539), and Tyndale’s (f.p.1526,1530) New Testament. In his previous books, Shaheen found a clear preference for readings from the Geneva translation: 10 Geneva readings in the Histories and 14 in the Tragedies, with only 11 from all other translations combined in both genres. In the Comedies, the Geneva is, perhaps, not quite so preponderant: Shaheen finds four readings from the Geneva, four from the Bishop’s, three of them to Romans 13:10, and five from other translations combined. The Geneva still seems to predominate, particularly if all three references to the Bishop’s Romans 13:10 are treated, as they well might be for comparative purposes, as a single reference. More significantly, Shaheen omits, as I shall demonstrate, one vital Geneva reading which decisively tips the balance in favor of the predominance of that translation for the Comedies as well as the Tragedies and Histories.

In this book, Shaheen devotes a chapter to each of the Comedies, and each chapters begins with an analysis of alternative sources which addresses the all-important question of false positives.” A false positive would be an apparent Biblical reference which could be traced to an acknowledged secular source of the play. Shaheen’s survey establishes an extremely significant negative foundation for future research. “Shakespeare seldom borrows Biblical references from his [secular] sources, even when those sources contain many [Biblical] references” (40). The low number of religious references carried over from secular sources is strong evidence for the original character of the author’s religious thought. His Biblical references seem clearly to result from his own religious study and to manifest a distinctive theological vision. They are not a reflex of some hypothetical generic Elizabethan or Renaissance “Biblical culture.” Although Shaheen finds some passages inspired by Cramer’s Book of Common Prayer (f.p.1545) or the Homilies, these references constitute only a small portion of the total religious references found in Shakespeare. These findings supply some teeth to Roland Mushat Frye’s 1963 conclusion that Shakespeare shows almost no influence of contemporary theological texts, either English or Continental, and that his theological usage “seems to have been familiarly and almost instinctively drawn from intimate awareness” (13) cultivated through reading the Bible, particularly the Geneva translation:

I…have found no demonstrable influences of Shakespeare’s indebtedness, even to Augustine or Aquinas … on the basis of [extensive study of all major and many minor theological tracts influential during the 16th century. [Footnote 1] I must report my inability to establish Shakespeare’s theological affinities or to discover even a single unquestionable instance of indebtedness of the kind which can so frequently be found in the history plays or of the kind which so unequivocally demonstrates Shakespeareans extensive use of the Geneva Bible…. (Frye 1963, 11-12, my emphasis)

More than any other single study, Shaheen’s trilogy supplies the evidence to confirm Peter Milward’s conclusion that the “deepest inspiration in Shakespeare’s plays is both religious and Christian” (1973,274). Shakespeare texts, though secular in orientation (see Frye 19-42) [Footnote 2], are “charged with religious over- tones, largely in virtue of their frequent, though unobtrusive, Biblical references” (Milward 87). Notice of such “frequent though unobtrusive” allusions to scriptural sources goes back to Walter Whiter’s seminal 1794 study of Shakespearean compositional dynamics [Footnote 3] which found that

Our Poet frequently alludes to the narratives of scripture, and often employs its language in a remote and peculiar language. (254)

Moreover, states Whiter:

Traces of so subtle an influence will often be invisible to the hasty glance of a superficial observer, though they will be apparent to a more careful view in distinct and unequivocal characters. (76)

Shaheen has done more than any other scholar to track down and list for future reference all, or at any rate, most, of this frequent though often remote and peculiar scriptural influence in Shakespeare. The staggering dimension of this influence may be evaluated by considering some raw numbers from Shaheen’s trilogy. In his three books, Shaheen finds more than 1,300 Biblical references, an average of almost 40 per play. In the 12 Comedies, Shaheen finds 371 Biblical or liturgical references. These references are established by locating key phrases or idioms of a distinctively Biblical origin. Because such phrases often recur in more than one Biblical verse, the references yield a total of 1,202 potential source listings in Shaheen’s appendices.

On average, then, there are more than three possible Biblical “origins” for each reference . Although we may be reasonably certain that a given Shakespeare phrase reflects a Biblical influence, the precise local origin of the influence frequently remains indeterminate. Although the 1:3 ratio found in the Comedies holds reasonably constant in plays studied by Shaheen, this average conceals considerable variance in the degree of certainty with which individual references can be tagged to specific Biblical verses. Although many references list six or more possible sites of Biblical origin in Shaheen’s appendices, others can be identified as originating in the language of a specific Biblical verse, sometimes even from a specific translation of the Bible. These examples become litmus-markers for the specific verse and perhaps even the edition preserved in Shakespeare’s mind during the compositional process: with them we can pinpoint the Biblical or liturgical source of Shakespeare’s language.

One striking example of such a Biblical reference occurs in Portia’s stirring moral from The Merchant of Venice:

How far that little candle throws his beam! So shines a good deed in a naughty world. (V.ii.61-2)

This passage marks one of the few instances in which it can positively be stated that Richmond Noble, in his landmark 1935 study, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge, misidentified the Biblical origin of a Shakespearean phrase. Noble mistakenly attributed Portia’s words as a reference to Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good worked and glorify your father which is in heaven.” The actual reference, however, is to a parallel but toxically distinctive verse, Philippians 2:15:

That ye may be blameless, and pure, & the sonnes of God without rebuke in the middes of a naughtie and crooked nation, among whome ye shine as lights in the worlde. (1570 Genevan, italics supplied)

In Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies (1993, 130-1), Shaheen corrects Noble’s misattribution. This correction, based on the conjunction of the Biblical commonplace of virtue shining like a candle with the idiosyncratic phrase naughty world echoing the naughty nation …world of Philippians 2:15, demonstrates the reliability of Noble and Shaheen’s methodology, when practiced with the most scrupulous regard for investigative method, for self-correction. When a particular collocation of words occurs in both the Bible and Shakespeare, preferably in conjunction with a shared moral or image, as in this case, it becomes possible to pinpoint the local origin of Shakespeare’s language in a specific Biblical verse.

Fortunately, Shaheen’s bibliographical conservatism saves him from falling prey to a trendy preoccupation with the supposed instability of the Shakespeare corpus. When John Cox faults Shaheen’s 1989 study of the Histories for unwarranted assumption of “textual stability,” and urges that “the various ‘Shakespeares’ ought to be included in a reference work like this just as much as various translations of the Bible” (1992, 487-9), one can only applaud Shaheen’s conservatism in preserving the reasonable assumption easily susceptible of proof, if necessary that textual variation in the Shakespeare canon has practically nil consequences for a study such as his.

Indeed, the limitations of Shaheen’s methodology, if such they are, lie in a contrasting direction. Shaheen’s painstaking attention to lexical detail obscures the significance of structural identity or permutation . Appreciation of transformational grammar, even of an intuitive sort, which finds genetic relationships between two texts which preserve a common “deep structure” underneath lexical variation in surface structure, is nowhere in evidence in Shaheen’s books. Hog-tied to the lexical level, he overlooks a number of unmistakable Biblical influences which show themselves beneath lexical variation, which mirrors, in some cases clearly by authorial intent, the deep structure of the Biblical original. In Biblical References in the Tragedies (1989), for example, Shaheen fails to note that the Biblical source of Hamlet’s apologia to Laertes (V.ii.226-239) is Romans 7:20, a verse also of great though subtle influence in Measure for Measure and other texts. Milward (1987, 57), for his part, catches Hamlet’s sly reference to the Pauline doctrine of sin as an alien force.

By using lexical identity as the only criterion for textual relationship, Shaheen misses numerous instances of such second order patterning between source and primary text and consequently slights the powerful unity which pervades the Shakespeare canon. When, for example, Horatio recalls the awful era of

carnal, bloody and unnatural acts…
…and in the upshot, purposes mistook,
Fall’n on th’inventor’s heads

the emphasized phrase clearly belongs by association to Shaheen’s well-acknowledged series of references of I Kings 2:32 (or related passages) which declares that “the Lorde shal bring his blood upon his owns head.” Shaheen, however, omits this reference in his 1987 book on the Tragedies presumably because of the absence of a direct lexical link tying the passage to the Biblical verses expressing the same idea.

Other missing references, some of surprising prominence, can be detected in the present study of the Comedies . For instance, Speed and Proteus’ lengthy comical interlude (Two Gentlemen of Verona, I.i.73-100) about the sheep which “follows the shepherd for food” is based within Ezekiel 34. In this case, even the lexical echoes are distinct and unequivocable.

In one light, stressing such addenda to a work of this magnificent scope and crafted detail might seem like counting the number of angels on the head of pin, or even be compared to the Scottish vice of skepticism. I include them in the present review only to counter the mistakes of previous reviewers. John Cox incorrectly claims that Shaheen’s study of the Histories (1989) “quotes every Shakespearean passage that has a Biblical origin.” This is simply not true. Nor is it true of Shaheen’s present study of the Comedies. What is true, and it certainly deserves recognition, is that Shaheen has assembled the most comprehensive and accurate collection, destined to remain a standard reference work for many decades, of the numerous Biblical references in three quarters of the Shakespeare plays. For the first time, students of Shakespeare’s Biblical references and influences have the equivalent of a mental map charting the major coordinates of these influences.

A more serious objection to Shaheen’s approach is that his particulate and empiricist methodology tends to preclude any serious consideration of the theological motives of the author. Like the post-WWII “documentary” biographical tradition espoused by Professor Samuel Schoenbaum, in opposition to the phenomenological biographies of Frank Harris or Oxfordians such as Looney (1920), Shaheen’s method leads resolutely away from psychology and literary criticism, which make use of concepts such as analogy, motive, allegory, irony and theme, and towards the mechanical accumulation of information for information’s sake. For instance, there is no consideration in Shaheen’s work of whether the author ever cites scripture with the intention of creating specific literary effects or of reinforcing his own ethical or theological principles. If, as Antonio declares, even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (Merchant of Venice, I.iii.98), then surely Shakespeare’s characters can cite it for their, or their author’s, rhetorical purposes.

Just as it would be unjust to lay too much emphasis on such sins of omission or possible alternative methodologies, it would also be a mistake to think that Shaheen has written the last word on Shakespeare and the Bible. The empiricism which is so bothersome at times is also what makes Shaheen’s series destined to remain an important reference tool for many decades to come. Now that Shaheen has assembled a reasonably comprehensive catalogue of Shakespeare’s Biblical references, other students are free to make use of his data to explore the phenomenological implications. One thinks especially of Hankins’s 1953 study of Shakespeare’s use of images and ideas derived from Palingenius’s Zodiacke Vitae) a study which begins not with a bibliographical survey designed to impress the reader with his comprehensive knowledge of bibliographical variation, but with a thoughtful phenomenology of Shakespeare’s “extremely retentive and associative mind” (10). It organizes its conclusions around a series of predominating metaphors, Dusty Death, Brief Candle, Mental Sickness, The Painted Walls, The Golden World, etc., by which Shakespeare organized his reading and the symbolic cosmos created through the fusion of life with his literary materials.

In constructing a phenomenology of Shakespeare’s compositional practice, Hankins turned to John Livington Howe’s classic study of Coleridge, Lyle Road to Xanadu, which demonstrated, making use of Coleridge’s own original notes, that Coleridge possessed this retentive and associative power to an imminent degree and demonstrated how varied images coalesced and fused in the ‘deep well’ of his subconscious mind” (10). This model of such a retentive and associative mental process, argued Hankins, has implications for understanding Shakespeare’s use of sources. It may consequently, he wrote

be inaccurate to speak of the source of a Shakespeare image when there were several possible sources. More than likely all of them were recalled together, and it is our task to separate the primary sources from the secondary ones. The multiplicity of sources does not alter the fact that Shakespeare has adapted the image and not invented it. (10; emphasis added)

Hankins’s distinction between primary and secondary sources and his emphasis on the dynamic psychology of composition, the recollection, fusion or recombination of derived imagery, allows for a more supple and phenomenological reading of the source-text question than Shaheen’s empiricist categories of reference, parallel, and see also. Thus, while Shaheen’s empiricism is perhaps fitted to the task of mapping the progression of Biblical references within each play, it would be a mistake to regard his work as the final word on Biblical references in Shakespeare. Shaheen’s own data exhibit some powerful structural implications which are not, nor should they necessarily be, addressed in his analysis. Hankins, for example, finds that the image of the “brief candle” from Macbeth’s memorable speech “is traceable to the Scriptures; but, through its association with other sources in Shakespeare’s mind it comes to have a significance far beyond that of mere verbal reminiscence” (43). Tracing the symbolism of the candle through two chapters of commentary Hankins discovers that

the “light of life”… is the bond between man and God. It refers to that “godlike reason” which makes us capable of desiring union with God. But that reason may be misdirected by an error of the will and may be turned against God. In such case, the reason is a candle or torch which no longer shines and cannot until man’s will is once more in harmony with God’s…the awakening of conscience is symbolized by the desire for light. (61-2)

Shaheen, like Hankins, writes in a tradition in which light is shed on the events of the present by considering the inheritance of the past. In assessing the relative contribution of these previous scholars to the sum impression of Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Comedies, one begins to feel slightly uneasy that Shaheen’s empirical strictness does not extend to the historical dimension of his study. Because Shaheen does not cite Carter or Noble, except for the purposes of refutation, it is not easy to know when the postulated sources have been identified by Shaheen himself, and when he has taken a tip from prior scholars or students. It is scarcely a discredit to Shaheen that many of the references he cites were first identified by prior workers in the vineyard, but it does detract from the force of his conclusions when readers are not made aware that different scholars have independently arrived at conclusions in some cases identical to, or substantiative of, his own.

In concluding this review it may then be pertinent, without seeming to appear ungracious for the enormous labors which contributed to this third volume in Professor Shaheen’s important study, to remark on one further lacuna which somewhat perplexes the present reviewer. Although Professor Shaheen, as noted above has correctly identified the primary source of Portia’s “little candle” (MV, v.i.91 ) as Philippians 2:15, he failed to include Philippians 2:15 in his preliminary discussion titled, “Which Version Shakespeare Used” (22-27). As in his other books, one presumes that Professor Shaheen prefers to delineate such generic bibliographical matters before proceeding to discuss specifics. In this case, however the correction of Noble’s error may have been an afterthought: the Shakespeare phrase, naughty world, can be derived only from the Geneva edition, not from the Bishop’s or, so far as I am aware, any other translation. However, although the citation belongs in Professor Shaheen’s list of strong evidence for the Geneva translation, it fails to appear there.

This lacuna, one is obliged to remark, may prove of some interest to future historians of Shakespeare scholarship.



1. For the details of Frye’s thorough survey of all the conceivably relevant literature, see Frye, 10-16.
2. Frye rightly warns, in my estimation, against reducing the plays to conventional religious allegories “because the plays are themselves primarily concerned with the secular realm” (7). Nevertheless, Shaheen’s data demonstrate a pervasive undercurrent of theological concepts and language in the plays which cannot be lightly dismissed. Although Shakespeare is surely a secular thinker in Frye’s terms, he often explores theological conundrums within the context of the secular drama. Above all he is interested, in my judgment, in promoting a dialogue between theological or christological philosophical concepts and those proper to the pagan or secular domain. Thus, it is not coincidental that Hamlet cites Romans 7:20, a Biblical verse which seems to flatly contradict the Aristotelian notion of tragic action as a consequence of the hero’s hamartia, in Shakespeare’s most autobiographical, and in some ways most political, drama.
3. The forerunner, according to Whiter’s modern editors, Over and Bell, of all 20th century studies of Shakespeare’s imagination, among them Spurgeon (1935), Armstrong (1946), Clemen (1951) and Hankins (1958).

Works Cited

Edward A. Armstrong, Shakespeare ‘s Imagination: A Study of the Psychology of Association and Inspiration. London, 1946.

Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture. London, 1905.

W.H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespearea’s Imagery. London, 1951.

Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. 1963.

John Erskine Hankins, Shakespeare’s Derived Imagery. 1953.

John Thomas Looney, Shakespeare “Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. 1975 edition, Minos Publishing.

Peter Milward, Shakespeare’s Religious Background. 1973.
Biblical Influences in Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies. 1987.

Richmond Noble, Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge. 1953; 1970.

Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality. 1984.

Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare Tragedies. 1987.
Biblical References in Shakespeare Histories. 1989.

“Shakespeare’s Knowledge of the Bible, How Acquired,” Shakespeare Survey (1988),201-214.

Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells us. Cambridge, 1935.

Walter Whiter, A Specimen of A Commentary on Shakespeare. London,1794;1967.

Recent Developments in the case for Oxford as Shakespeare

By Peter R. Moore

This paper was presented at the 20th Annual Conference, October 10-13, 1996.


If this book succeeds in its purpose, it will have no future except as an historical curiosity. (91)

But surely, it will be argued, there must have been persons acquainted with the identity of the man behind the name Shakespeare who risked confiding their knowledge to personal letters or private papers — why then have these not come to light? … Speaking for myself, I can say only that I hope, not without optimism, that such documents will be turned up among the masses of Elizabethan manuscripts that have been inadequately combed by investigators knowing what to look for, if combed at all. Indeed, my guess is that an enormous opportunity beckons young scholars. (184) Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984).

Charlton Ogburn’s first statement, given above, has not yet come true. His monumental work is still the foundation for those of us seeking to establish the identity of the author known as William Shakespeare. On the other hand, his second statement has, to some extent, come to pass. We do not yet have the long sought smoking gun, though we may within a year or so, but, in consequence of standing on Ogburn’s shoulders, we and he know much more now than he knew in 1984, especially about the life story of the Earl of Oxford. And yet many of our public utterances, written and spoken, seem to show no awareness of the progress that has been made.

Ogburn discusses the problem of packaging the Oxford case in short and long magazine articles and books; there is so much to say, and a few thousand words, or a couple of hundred pages, are not enough. Eventually he decided that a long book was necessary to tell the whole story, even if its bulk deterred some readers. And so came about the 900 pages of The Mysterious William Shakespeare. In those pages, Ogburn gives us just about every argument that’s ever been made concerning the authorship controversy, which, as far as I’m concerned, is of inestimable value. But this is not how you argue the case in a limited presentation such as an oral debate. We need to sort out the stronger points from the weaker, and then focus on the former. We must lead from strength, not from weakness. We also need to alter or discard aspects of our arguments that are wrong or simply of no value. The rest of this paper discusses improvements we need to make, the essentials of the case for Oxford as I see them, and recent and not-so-recent developments that have gone unnoticed.

Needed Improvements

1. Get rid of the notion that Shakespeare was a universal genius, which is a relic of nineteenth century bardolatry that we inherited from the Baconians. We must define what Shakespeare didn’t know, just as well as what he did. Shakespeare clearly had a working knowledge of Latin, French, and Italian, though he preferred English translations to the originals in those languages. Given those tongues, it would be easy enough for him to read Spanish if he had to. Given the education that we know Shakespeare had, he was almost certainly taught the Greek alphabet and the rudiments of Greek, and the Greek alphabet alone is enough to pick out words here and there in a Greek text, as I know from my own experience. But if Shakespeare was fluent in Spanish, Greek, or any other tongue, he concealed it quite well. Shakespeare had excellent legal knowledge, a matter to which I will return, but I see no evidence that he possessed advanced knowledge of astronomy or medicine. Playing the Universal Genius gambit as a means of eliminating a man with, at best, a grammar school education is not the same thing as pursuing the truth. Moreover, the Universal Genius is no more a believable human being than the fuzzy Everyman/No-Man from Stratford. Finally, while it is true that Oxford was an above average student who maintained intellectual interests all his life, we would have a tough time trying to prove — with evidence — that he was a universal genius.

2.Clean up and expand Oxford’s biography. The Gad’s Hill episode of 1573 was no prank; the breakup of his marriage in 1576 was the Puritan Lady Burghley’s response to Oxford’s conversion to Catholicism; “the Lord Chamberlain with his white staff … the people began to laugh” of 1581 is not about Oxford who was on the run or in prison concerning Anne Vavasour at that date; the man on the footcloth nag of 1581 was an opponent of the Queen’s proposed French marriage, of which Oxford was a leading supporter; the 1,000 pounds per year was not secret service money; Oxford did not oppose the execution of Mary of Scotland; the 1603 letter by Captain Edward Vere to “kinde father” was to Sir William Browne, not to Oxford; etc. Oxford was a significant but minor figure at Elizabeth’s court. Arguments about ‘Poet-Ape’ (probably Thomas Dekker) aren’t worth making. On the other hand, arguments about the ‘Not Without Mustard’ section of Jonson’s Every Man Out are definitely worth making. Incidentally, trying to strengthen your arguments with a lot of adjectives and adverbs is about as effective as trying to strengthen them by raising your voice –it doesn’t work in serious debate. For example, a statement like, “It is absolutely and utterly inconceivable that a total tightwad like Elizabeth I would ever give anyone 1,000 pounds per year without expecting something extraordinary in return” is no good. All I need to do in response is to point out her grants to other people, and to note that she gave 200 pounds per year to Lord Henry Howard (a much lower ranking figure than Oxford) in compensation for detaining lands that he should have inherited, which she was also doing to Oxford.

3. Present the cover-up as a tacit conspiracy like the Stella Cover-up, not as The Greatest Secret Ever Kept, that is, a directed cover-up with oaths of secrecy, death threats, etc. Understand that Shakespeare wasn’t deified until the eighteenth century; the seventeenth century regarded him as an excellent playwright and the equal of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher. Oxford himself was part of the cover-up, and he didn’t litter his works with secret signatures. As Joe Sobran puts it, “Oxford didn’t write the plays and poems for the sole purpose of proving that he was Shakespeare”.

4. Face reality on this “Prince Tudor” business, and submit it to proper historical scrutiny. Always try to make the strongest arguments you can against your own theory, or ask your friends to do so (as I was taught to do as a graduate student in economics). It’s far more unpleasant to have your enemies shoot holes in you in public, than to have your friends do it in private. If you can’t make or listen to the strongest arguments that can be made against your own theories, then you’d better keep them to yourself (this also applies to some Stratfordian professors).

5. Understand that Oxford’s autobiography is in the Sonnets, not the plays. Autobiographical arguments can be made concerning Hamlet, All’s Well, and the bed trick in Measure for Measure, but the Eva Turner Clark approach of seeing Oxford’s autobiography all over the plays simply makes it easy for the other side to discredit us.

6. Prioritize the arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare and against the Stratfordian. Emphasize the strong arguments, de-emphasize the weaker ones, and get rid of the arguments of zero value. Using every argument imaginable is a poor tactic, which simply guarantees that the strong arguments will be diluted and lose impact. Furthermore, it allows the Stratfordians to limit their response to shooting down the weak arguments, and we should not aid them in their well developed technique of dodging the issue. Irvin Matus’ book, Shakespeare, In Fact, is a complete exercise in shooting holes in all of our weak arguments and errors, while totally ducking all of the strong arguments. I’ve met Matus a couple of times, and I couldn’t even get him to discuss the strong arguments in private. Here are some simple examples of strong, weak, and zero arguments: “EVER-LIVING POET” is a strong argument, “Shake- speare” is a weaker argument, “Shakspere” versus “Shakespeare” is a zero argument, the Droeshout engraving and the Stratford monument are weak arguments at best, while John Benson’s question marks offer a very strong argument.

a. We have dug up many examples of usage of the term “ever- living” and none applies to a living person. Moreover, Prof. Donald Foster of Vassar has done us the enormous favor of confirming our findings in “Master W. H., R.I.P.”, PMLA, vol. 102, no. 1 (January 1987), 46, making it impossible for Stratfordians to sneer at the fruits of amateur research.

b. The Stratfordians have come up with a few examples of ordinary names being hyphenated in that period, which weakens the argument that “Shake-speare” indicates recognition of a pen name. Hyphenation of real names was a rarity, and our argument is not valueless, but the few exceptions require recognition on our part and deprive the argument of much of its punch.

c. The spelling of family names was extremely variable in Elizabethan times. Smith, Smyth, and Smythe were all the same name, as were Moore, More, Moor, and Muir. Even if it could be determined beyond doubt that the name in question –Shakspere– was pronounced with a short ‘a’ in the first syllable in sixteenth century Warwickshire, the fact remains that it was regarded as a variant of Shakespeare, as indicated by the shield and crest granted to John Shakspere by William Dethicke. This argument isn’t worth the breath required to utter it.

d. Arguing that the Stratford monument and the Droeshout engraving are obvious frauds is also pointless, though contrasting the two different personas, the gentleman and the actor, is of value.

e. The question marks in the frontispiece in John Benson’s 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems make a very strong argument that Benson regarded the First Folio’s identification of the author as a fraud. Incidentally, I once read in a Stratfordian source (the name of which I can’t recall) that Benson’s question marks mean nothing because question and exclamation marks were used interchangeably in those days. This argument is false, and so I may as well go over it here. They used the question mark in exactly one place where we would use an exclamation mark, namely a rhetorical statement put as a question. For example, if I say, “I worked hard under the hot sun all day; was I ever tired”, I would close with an exclamation mark because I’m not really asking a question (for another example, see S. Schoenbaum’s statement beginning “What would we not give …!”, below). But Shakespeare’s contemporaries would probably have used a question mark, because, after all, the statement is put in the grammatical form of a question. John Benson’s words are exactly the opposite case. You can verify this old use of question marks in Percy Simpson’s Shakespearian Punctuation (Oxford, 1911), 85-6, or by simply looking at the question and exclamation marks in the 1609 edition of the Sonnets. Or, see Stephen Booth’s edition of the Sonnets, notes to numbers 95.3, 97.2-4, and 148.1-2.


The essentials of the case for Oxford and/or against Shakspere are these six items:

1. The author’s background and education as revealed by his works: Shakespeare’s works were written by someone with an instinctively aristocratic outlook, who had detailed familiarity with hunting with horses, hawks, and hounds, who had traveled in France and Italy, who possessed considerable legal knowledge, who had completely assimilated the first two years of the university curriculum, and who seems to have had some military and nautical experience. These things are true of the Earl of Oxford. The state of the art Stratfordian response to this unpleasant reality is given in the Shakespeare article by John Russell Brown and T. J. B. Spencer in the current Encyclopaedia Britannica:

In lieu of external evidence, such extrapolations about Shakespeare’s life have often been made from the internal “evidence” of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer; for he was clearly a writer, who without difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the composition of his plays. (15th edition, 1995 printing, my emphasis)

No author who ever lived, especially a man of humble origins and educational attainments 400 years ago, ever got whatever knowledge he needed without difficulty. In other words, Shakespeare was superhuman, and the age of miracles was still alive circa A.D. 1600.

2. The obscurity of William Shakspere of Stratford: His early obscurity is understandable, but not after Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594). Then he becomes one of Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, and has, according to the authorities, a stable career of over fifteen years as London’s leading playwright. And yet we only know where he lived for a short part of this period because of records of tax evasion and a law suit. Ogburn is quite good on this topic. Edmund Chambers notes that Shakespeare’s acting company became more prominent after James came to the throne in 1603, averaging over ten court performances annually, far more than all the other play companies put together (I.77). Chambers also says that putting dates on Shakespeare’s plays becomes more difficult after 1603 (I.85-86). Why should this be so? Why should greatly increased popularity for the acting company coincide with increased invisibility for the playwright? No one paid attention to his death; compare to Spenser (1599), Beaumont (1616), Donne (1631), Drayton (1631), Jonson (1637), and Burbage (1619) (see Ogburn 52, 112).

3. The Sonnets: Shakespeare’s autobiographical Sonnets pose such problems for the Stratford theory that since around 1960 the story behind them has been declared off-limits by the orthodox authorities. When the Sonnets were published in 1609, the editor’s dedication clearly said that the author was dead. Most of the Sonnets address a handsome young man, promising him immortality through verse. But the young man is never named, and the Sonnets seem to have been suppressed after the first edition –Why the mystery? Shakespeare in the Sonnets repeatedly refers to himself as old, which fits Oxford (1550-1604), but not Shakspere (1564-1616). Shakespeare says that he is lame in Sonnets 37 and 89 –Oxford was lame. Shakespeare repeatedly speaks of being involved in shame and disgrace, which makes sense coming from an aristocrat who violated the rules of his caste, but makes no sense coming from Shakspere. Shakespeare complains of poverty in several sonnets, but speaks of his jewels in 48 and of his rich clothes in 146, which makes sense coming from an earl who was relatively poor, but not from a successful man like Shakspere. The young man addressed by Shakespeare was clearly a man of rank, but is nevertheless castigated by Shakespeare at several places in the Sonnets.

An examination of leading editions of the Sonnets since 1780 provides an instructive look at the establishment’s changing views. W. G. Ingram’s and Theodore Redpath’s edition of 1964 discusses eleven annotated Sonnets from Malone’s edition of 1780 to Hyder Rollins’ of 1944. All of these editors thought that the story behind the Sonnets was important and said so. But then the Penguin edition of 1961, edited by Douglas Bush and Alfred Harbage of Harvard, opined that the wise reader ought to ignore the story altogether, a view endorsed by Ingram and Redpath, both of Cambridge. W. H. Auden in the Introduction to the Signet edition of 1964 denounced anyone interested in the story behind the Sonnets as an invader of Shakespeare’s privacy. Stephen Booth in the 1977 Yale edition sneered at the very idea that there was a story behind these poems. John Kerrigan of Cambridge in the New Penguin edition of 1986 followed the orthodox line by announcing that the “Sonnets are not autobiographical in a psychological mode” (11), whatever that means. But Kerrigan’s scholarship got the better of him later in his commentary, in which he cites recent articles strengthening the argument that the 1609 Quarto prints the Sonnets in the right order (66, 71, 430). Moreover Kerrigan’s notes to Sonnet 107 provide about the best short discussion I’ve seen on the date of that sonnet, concluding that it was almost certainly written on the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1604. Most recently, in the Cambridge edition of 1996, G. Blakemore Evans of Harvard ignores the scholarship of Kerrigan and others and dismisses the whole story with, “the question of the documentary nature of the Sonnets is largely irrelevant” (28).

We find a combination of the attitudes mentioned in the last two paragraphs in the writings of Samuel Schoenbaum. At the close of his 1970 Shakespeare’s Lives, Schoenbaum laments:

Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record. What would we not give for a single personal letter, one page of diary! (767)

And then, in some preliminary remarks on the Sonnets in his 1977 William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, Schoenbaum refers to them as:

sporadic entries, as it were, in a poet’s rhyming diary (180).

The Sonnets could also be called letters, as most address the recipient, and so at last we seem to find a Stratfordian scholar who wants to know what Shakespeare’s autobiographical poems have to say. But then we get to Schoenbaum’s main section on the Sonnets, only to read:

All of the riddles of the Sonnets –date, dedication, sequence, identity of the dramatis personae– elude solution, while at the same time teasing speculation. This writer takes satisfaction in having no theories of his own to offer. (271, my emphases)

Note the extraordinary implications of that last sentence; Shakespeare’s leading biographer was actually proud of his ignorance.

4. The evidence on the dates of the plays: Most reference books say that Shakespeare’s plays were written between about 1590 and 1612, and they place perhaps a dozen plays after Oxford’s death in 1604. But the orthodox dating scheme is primarily the work of Edmond Malone in the late eighteenth century and Sir Edmund Chambers in the early twentieth century. Both Malone (Shakespeare’s Works, 1821 ed., I.291) and Chambers (I.253) explicitly state that they based their dating schemes on the assumption that it had to be made to fit into the presumed working career of Shakspere of Stratford. Since Chambers published his final dating scheme in 1930, a large number of eminent Shakespeare scholars have said that Chambers’ dates are too late, and that the plays were written earlier. These dissenters include Peter Alexander, Andrew Cairncross, F.P. Wilson, E.A.J. Honigmann, John Crow, William Matchett, John Russell Brown, T.J.B. Spencer, Russell Fraser, and Richard Hosley (the list could be expanded considerably). In fact, it is now completely orthodox to say that Chambers’ dates are too late, and I could be criticized for attacking Chambers’ obsolete scholarship. The trouble is that the establishment is unable to act on its knowledge, because to do so would wreck the Stratford theory. No play by Shakespeare can be proven to have been written after Oxford’s death in 1604, including Macbeth and The Tempest, though, on the other hand, we can’t prove that the late plays were written earlier than 1604. Various Stratfordians have charged that we don’t offer an alternative dating scheme, to which I will make two responses. First, it is a major scholarly sin to pretend to know more than you do, as is the case with any dating scheme for the plays that assigns each to a particular year. Second, my guess is that the plays as we know them were written in their conventional order from about 1585 to 1604; in other words, subtract from three to seven years from Chambers’ dates, and you’ll be about right. Another thing that must be understood about the whole dating picture is that the history of the English stage before about 1590 is the Dark Ages, as noted by Chambers, F.P. Wilson, and G.E. Bentley. In other words, our ignorance of the history of the Elizabethan stage before 1590 may explain why Shakespeare and his works weren’t noticed until after that date.

Edmund Chambers on the history of the English stage before 1592: “The fragmentary nature of the evidence makes a dramatic history of the period extremely difficult. The work of even the best-known writers is uncertain in extent and chronology, and much of it has come down in mutilated form. Marlowe’s authorship of Tamburlaine is a matter of inference; it is only by an accident that we know The Spanish Tragedy to be Kyd’s.” William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford 1930), 55.

F. P. Wilson: “Admittedly, few of the plays acted in the fifteen-eighties have survived. So serious are the losses that the historian of the Elizabethan drama –especially of this period, before the practice of printing plays to be read became popular — often feels himself to be in the position of a man fitting together a jigsaw, most of the pieces of which are missing.” The Clark Lectures, Trinity College Cambridge, 1951, published as Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford, 1953), 106. See also Wilson, “Shakespeare’s Reading”, Shakespeare Survey 3 (Cambridge, 1950), 14-21, esp. 16.

Gerald Eades Bentley: “Perhaps I ought to explain the chronological limits which I have set [i.e., 1590-1642]. … Before 1590, moreover, records are so scanty, and such a large proportion apply to amateur or semiprofessional theatrical activities, that conclusions about working conditions must be very shaky. One cannot even be sure that a profession of play-writing had yet developed.” The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time 1590-1642 (Princeton, 1971), viii.

But the Stratfordian position continues to evolve. They now deny our assertion that the dates of the plays have been made to fit Will’s life, but they don’t face up to what Malone and Chambers say because we haven’t forced them to. Also, some of them –specifically, the ones who use computers– are trying to prove that the Malone-Chambers dates are completely in line with developments of other English playwrights. In other words, no one wrote like Shakespeare in his later plays until after 24 June 1604.

5. The oddity of contemporary comments on Shakespeare: A fair number of contemporary writers commented on Shakespeare, but only one did so in a way that implied that he actually knew the man, that one being Ben Jonson. Others spoke of him respectfully, but often strangely, in a way that would make sense if he were a nobleman who lost caste by association with the public stage. What else are we to make of: “And though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood, yet generous [i.e., aristocratic] ye are in mind and mood”? Edmund Spenser (Pleasant Willy in “Tears of the Muses” and Aetion in “Colin Clout”), Ben Jonson (revision of Sejanus and Epigram 77 “To one that desired me not to name him”), Thomas Edwards (the “center poet” in the prologue to “Cephalus and Procris”), Sir John Davies (“Orchestra”), and John Marston (a great writer “whose silent name / one letter bounds” in Scourge of Villanie) all mention some important writer who had to be referred to by a pseudonym or who could not be named at all. Meanwhile, Puttenham and others discuss the discretion that surrounded the writings of the aristocracy. Ben Jonson included a well known description of Shakespeare in “Timbers or Discoveries”, in which he said five times that Shakespeare let his wit run away with him — that he couldn’t control it. Somebody said exactly the same thing about Oxford in 1581.

6. The discredited academic establishment: Since about 1960, the establishment has declared that looking for Shakespeare’s background in his works is not allowed (see item 1, above), and the story behind the Sonnets is a taboo (see item 3). The conventional biographies of the Bard that keep appearing, some written by professors, are best classed as fiction (see 2). The establishment clings to a Procrustean dating scheme that everyone knows is false, because they feel they have no choice (see 4). All contemporary references to Shakespeare are twisted and contorted to fit the Stratford theory (see 5), save one, which is so damaging that it is ignored. In 1613 Francis Beaumont wrote a poem to Ben Jonson with a six and a half line evaluation of Shakespeare. Beaumont implied that Shakespeare had considerable scholarship, that is, Latin, but that the ignorant future would proclaim him to be a simple child of nature. Beaumont was, of course, completely right, with the new party line being announced in 1623 by Jonson. The 1966 Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare makes no mention of Beaumont’s verse, neither does the standard scholarly biography of the Bard, Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. The 1986 Oxford William Shakespeare: The Complete Works omits Beaumont’s lines from its section of “Commendatory Poems and Prefaces (1599- 1640)”. Edmund Chambers, in his William Shakespeare, remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only Stratfordian authority to print Beaumont’s words, which Chambers flagrantly misinterprets in his discussion of them. But perhaps the most striking example of scholarly dereliction on the part of the establishment concerns Greene’s Groatsworth. They cannot bring themselves to admit the obvious facts that Henry Chettle must be presumed to be the author; that Chettle’s apology was to one of the three playwrights, not to Shake-scene the Upstart Crow; and that, even under Stratfordian authorship assumptions, Shake-scene need not be Will Shakspere (see Ogburn, 56-64, or see my article in The Shakespeare Newsletter, Winter 1991). They are so vulnerable on the matter of Groatsworth that we are obliged to keep on hitting them.


1. Shakespeare had a University Education.

The foundation of formal education in sixteenth century England was the old medieval trivium, consisting of Latin grammar, rhetoric, and logic, which were studied in that order. The standard works on the amount of formal education found in Shakespeare’s plays and poems are William Shakespeare’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke by Prof. T.W. Baldwin (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1944) and Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language by Prof. Sister Miriam Joseph (Columbia Univ. Press, 1947). Baldwin shows that Shakespeare had fully mastered grammar, which is to say that he knew most of the grammar school curriculum. But Baldwin did not in any way place a cap on Shakespeare’s educational attainments, as by showing that he knew only grammar and not the other two subjects. In fact he states that he believes that Shakespeare knew some rhetoric and logic, but that investigating those matters was beyond the scope of his book. Sister Miriam Joseph shows that Shakespeare had fully mastered rhetoric and logic. Like Baldwin, she does not cap Shakespeare’s education; nothing shows that he went no further.

Baldwin falsely asserted that university education was mostly professional (i.e., civil law, medicine, and theology) (II.662), and that therefore Shakespeare missed little by not going to a university.

Most important of all, if Shakespeare had this grammar school training, he had the only formal literary training provided by society in his day. University training was professional, with literary training only incidental and subsidiary. [Baldwin goes on to give two quotes from Roger Ascham, noting that the universities produced professionals, as if Ascham was saying that they produced nothing but professionals.] The grammar school gave the linguistic basis of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The university perfected the logic, together with some rhetoric and made the application to the professions of physic, law, and divinity. The universities were professional schools.

Sister Miriam Joseph declined to tackle the question of how far Shakespeare’s education went. Baldwin’s blatant falsehood has been embraced by orthodox scholars (see, for example, Schoenbaum’s Compact Documentary Life, 71), but the curricula of Oxford and Cambridge are well known and are easy to look up. The great majority of students at both universities were in the arts curriculum; only a minority were in professional studies (which, in any case, required a B.A. or M.A. first). Prof. Craig Thompson in Universities in Tudor England (1959), published for the Folger Shakespeare Library, states (p. 9): “The Elizabethan Arts course was based firmly on the old medieval trivium and quadrivium. In his first two years an undergraduate studied mostly rhetoric and Aristotelian logic and some arithmetic and music.” In other words rhetoric and logic were only mastered after two years at a university. Thompson also remarks (p. 7): “Every boy who completed grammar school had worked at Latin [grammar] for seven years and for three or more had studied rhetoric.” and (p. 10) “Some history and geography found their way into the B.A. course, but the main fare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continued to be grammar and rhetoric, logic and philosophy.”

Baldwin’s obiter dictum is a good example of a Stratfordian modus operandi. He is the official guru on Shakespeare’s education, grammar schools, and university education, so the other scholars can hide behind his falsehoods. The same is true with Shakespeare’s legal knowledge. Likewise with statistical stuff, to include not only the recent Elliott-Valenza foolishness, but also R. L. Widmann’s vapid attack on Warren Austin’s study of Groatsworth (Shakespeare Quarterly, xxiii (1972), 214-15; see also my article “Groatsworth and Shake-scene”, The Shakespeare Newsletter, Winter 1995). You must always try to get behind these “experts”. In the case of the statistics, I know enough to do it myself. I don’t know enough about law, but Arthur Underhill gave the game away (see 3, below). As for Baldwin, it just took a bit of research, because you don’t need to be an expert on the Elizabethan grammar school and university curricula.

Sister Miriam Joseph shows that Shakespeare had fully assimilated at least the first two years of the university arts curriculum, however he got it, and she offers no evidence that his education stopped there.

2. Stratford Theory at Stake in Unnoticed Debate Over King John.

Shakespeare’s King John was written between 1587 (second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles) and 1598 (mentioned by Francis Meres); Chambers dates King John at 1596-97. A related play about King John, The Troublesome Reign, was published anonymouslyin 1591. From the eighteenth through the early twentieth century, it was assumed that Shakespeare regularly borrowed and fixed up other men’s plays, and so King John was taken to be adapted from Troublesome Reign. But then in the 1920s, Peter Alexander showed that the bad, early versions of 2 and 3 Henry VI were not sources for Shakespeare’s plays, but rather were piracies of them; what came to be called “bad quartos”. Subsequent work on other plays reversed the old belief, which went back to Tyrwhitt’s discovery of and theory about Greene’s Groatsworth, and so Shakespeare came to be seen as a victim of pirates, not a pirate himself. And Stratfordian views on Groatsworth changed without fanfare; Robert Greene was now seen as charging Shakespeare with presuming to compete with his betters, rather than with stealing the plays of others.

In 1954 the Arden series released its King John, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann, who showed that Shakespeare had done a great deal of research on that play, research that is not reflected in Troublesome Reign. Honigmann went on to argue that Shakespeare’s play was the source for the anonymous play, hence Shakespeare’s King John had to have been written by 1591. The next important King John was William Matchett’s Signet edition of 1966, which offered further arguments in support of Honigmann’s position on the priority of the two plays. Since then, R. L. Smallwood in the New Penguin King John of 1974, Kenneth Muir in The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays 1978, and A. R. Braunmuller in the Oxford King John of 1989 have argued that Troublesome Reign came first, while L. A. Beaurline in the Cambridge King John of 1990 supports Honigmann and Matchett. The most recent contribution to the debate that I’ve noticed is “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: Sources, Structure, Sequence” by Brian Boyd, Philological Quarterly (Winter 1995), which argues that Shakespeare’s play came first. Boyd, like most of his predecessors, avoids any mention of the dating issue.

In short, for over forty years some quite eminent Stratfordian experts have been debating whether King John was written by 1591, with the experts evenly divided. But no one outside the debate seems to have noticed its implications, which are that if John must be moved back to 1591 or earlier, then about a dozen other plays must be moved back earlier still, and the Stratford theory goes up in a puff of smoke. We can continue with Honigmann’s story.

In 1954 Ernest Honigmann had recently received his doctorate, having done a dissertation criticizing Edmund Chambers’ dating scheme for Shakespeare’s plays. Honigmann recognized the drastic implications of his research into the sources of King John, but he withheld comment.

Honigmann’s next significant Shakespeare publication was “The Date of Hamlet”, Shakespeare Survey (1956), 24-34, in which he toed the party line, offering up stale arguments to stick Hamlet at its conventional date of late 1599 to early 1600.

By 1980 Honigmann was a major Shakespeare establishment figure and so he published Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporaries, in which he greatly added to the case against Chambers’ dating scheme and also strengthened the case for the priority of Shakespeare’s King John over the 1591 version. He also offered empty arguments to the effect that we could be pretty sure that Shakespeare’s play was written in 1591, with the pirated play being written and published immediately after, and not in 1590, 1589, 1588, or 1587, though any of those years is just as likely as 1591. He argued that the “dozen or more” earlier plays could be crammed into a few years immediately preceding 1591. And he recognized the implied void of five years or more in Shakespeare’s production of plays, so he proposed that the later plays be “thinned back” from their conventional, Chambers dates to cover the gap.

And Honigmann also told, in a very understated manner, what happened in 1954:

the relationship of the two King John plays, one by Shakespeare and the other anonymous, a tale of a tub that fascinated me from 1948 to 1954, and that I then abandoned (as Swift might have said) to divert the whales. The whales sported happily and spouted mightily, but solved no problems. Returning now to King John after a quarter of a century I am particularly conscious of my debt to three brilliant teachers … I can only hope that, had they lived, they would have given their approval not only to a thesis presented in 1950 but also to its belated afterbirth. (x-xi)

In other words, Honigmann was told by his superiors to stop causing trouble, and the warning was serious enough to drive him away from his stunning academic breakthrough for twenty-five years.

The debate about which King John play came first has been going hot and heavy since 1954, and it won’t go away. But those involved tiptoe around or ignore altogether the implications with regard to the orthodox dating scheme of Shakespeare’s plays. Oxfordians should not be part of this conspiracy of silence. Incidentally, I have the utmost respect for those Stratfordian scholars who have argued for the priority of Shakespeare’s King John. They are in no position to emphasize what’s really at stake, but the same cannot be said of us.

3. Shakespeare and the Law; the Testimony of Arthur Underhill.

The first scholar to argue that Shakespeare had a legal background was Edmond Malone, himself a lawyer, who proposed that young Shakespeare might have been a lawyer’s clerk. That idea was shot down in 1859 by Lord Chief Justice Campbell in Shakespeare’s Legal Acquirements Considered, but Campbell maintained that Shakespeare’s legal knowledge was flawless. His opinion was fully supported in 1883 by Cushman K. Davis in The Law in Shakespeare, which analyzes several hundred legal passages in Shakespeare’s works, and includes over 600 legal terms in its index. But other lawyers can be found to argue against Shakespeare’s legal knowledge, permitting Stratfordian professors to shrug off the whole matter. And how can any of us laymen be sure, especially given that lawyers are trained to argue both sides of a case? It is notorious that members of different professions, hobbies, and religions all want to argue that Shakespeare was their fellow, and so perhaps the Stratfordian bias of the lawyers who argue against Shakespeare’s legal knowledge is balanced by Malone’s, Campbell’s, and Davis’ desire to claim that “Shakespeare was just like me”.

But one Stratfordian lawyer showed his hand, revealing both his motives and the emptiness of his arguments, namely Arthur Underhill, one of the Conveyancing Counsel to the High Court of Justice and author of the chapter on the law in the 1916 Shakespeare’s England. This work, now slightly out of date, consists of thirty essays by leading authorities on various aspects of Elizabethan England and how they appear in Shakespeare’s works. Underhill, who proudly records his descent from the man who sold New Place to Will Shakspere, opens his chapter:

Despite Shakespeare’s frequent use of legal phrases and allusions his knowledge of law was neither profound nor accurate. (I.381)

Underhill does not try to rebut Shakespeare’s legal knowledge with a direct show of counter-evidence, instead he artfully distributes three and a half objections to Shakespeare’s knowledge across his chapter. Underhill’s most interesting hit at the Bard’s law is the one I referred to as a “half” objection.

King Lear orders law to sit with equity (, and Underhill remarks that “[b]ut for [this] passage, Shakespeare gives no hint that he knew of the existence of Courts of Equity as distinguished from Courts of Law” (I.395). We might just as well say that, but for one remark in 1 Henry IV (I.iii.60-62), we would have no idea that Shakespeare knew that saltpeter is used in making gunpowder. But the remark is there, and so obviously Shakespeare did know that saltpeter is used in gunpowder, just as he knew about the judicial system called equity. So what’s Underhill’s point? Underhill won’t say, but the point is that Francis Bacon was a specialist in equity who ended up achieving his goal of becoming Lord Chancellor, that is, the head of equity. In other words, Underhill is arguing the case against Francis Bacon. The three objections Underhill made to Shakespeare’s law are these:

a. Love’s Labour’s (II.i.220-21): Where Maria rejects Boyet’s request for a kiss with: “My lips are no common, though several they be”, Underhill natters that Shakespeare did not know the two meanings of the word “several”. Any annotated edition of Love’s Labour’s will explain that Maria is playing on the two meanings. Any Shakespeare concordance, such as Alexander Schmidt’s, which was available to Underhill, will show that Shakespeare, like everyone else, knew both meanings of “several”.

b. Hamlet (V.i.110-18): Where Hamlet in the graveyard remarks on the technicalities of buying land, including ‘statutes and recognizances’, Underhill sneers: “What ‘statutes and recognizances’ had to do with the buying of land is not evident to a lawyer, and may suggest that Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law of property was neither accurate nor extensive.” (I.406) Any annotated, university-level edition of Hamlet, such as Arden, Oxford, or Cambridge, will explain exactly what statutes and recognizances had to do with buying land. Notice how Underhill words his statement in a evasive manner, instead of simply saying that statutes and recognizances had nothing to do with real estate.

c. All’s Well (II.iii.58-59): When the King of France proposes to marry Helena, “a poor physician’s daughter”, to his ward, Count Bertram, Underhill complains about the requirement “that the spouse must be of equal rank with the ward, which Shakespeare had ignored”. Underhill is really getting desperate when he brings up this nonsense. One need not even look at the footnotes in the Arden edition. Just read on a few more lines to Bertram’s objection to Helena’s low rank, and then note the King’s answer: “I can build up [her title]“. In other words, Shakespeare was perfectly well aware of the requirement.

Incidentally, every one of these four items is clearly explained by Cushman Davis, who, like Lord Campbell, found no faults in Shakespeare’s legal knowledge. Underhill, with the advantage of over a century of accumulated research into Shakespeare’s law, and with Campbell’s and Davis’ books in front of him, was unable to point out a single defect in that knowledge.

We must always be aware of the importance of knowing and using our opponent’s work: what Malone and Chambers say about dates, Sister Miriam Joseph on Shakespeare’s classical education, Prof. Foster on “ever-living”, Honigmann and others on King John and other dating issues, Underhill on the law. It is difficult for Stratfordians to dismiss the testimony of experts from their own camp. Also, these and similar sources, each of which must be searched out, can give us accurate evaluations of the extent and accuracy of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Latin, the law, etc. Typical Stratfordian sources tend to say that Shakespeare knew all that he needed to know about such subjects, but really didn’t know very much, which tells us exactly nothing.

4. The Demolition of Shakspere’s Signatures.

The 1985 Shakespeare in the Public Records, by David Thomas, published by the British Public Records Office includes a chapter on “Shakespeare’s Will and Signatures” by Jane Cox (pp. 24-34 ). Miss Cox reproduces and examines five of the six supposedly authentic signatures of Will of Stratford (she omits the first signature on the will as unusable). She concludes:

It is obvious at a glance that these signatures, with the exception of the last two [on the will], are not the signatures of the same man. Almost every letter is formed in a different way in each. Literate men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed personalized signatures much as people do today and it is unthinkable that Shakespeare did not. Which of the signatures reproduced here is the genuine article is anybody’s guess.

We may add that it is anybody’s guess whether any of the signatures is genuine. The only orthodox scholar that I know to have responded to Miss Cox’s bombshell is, to his credit, Samuel Schoenbaum in his 1987 William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (pp. 326-7) and his 1991 edition of Shakespeare’s Lives (p.566). Schoenbaum is cautious about accepting Miss Cox’s verdict, but he does not disagree. In the two works cited and in his 1990 Shakespeare: His Life, His Language, His Theater (p. 213), Schoenbaum moves toward what he hopes to make the new orthodoxy — that the three signatures on the will are authentic. But Prof. Schoenbaum has no credentials at all in this field, and is on record as sneering at amateur paleographers (Shakespeare’s Lives, 1970 ed., 616), not to mention the fact that Miss Cox thinks that three of the witnesses “signatures” on the will are by the same hand. And, as one remembers, the will was originally drafted to be sealed, not signed. As Miss Cox says:

But if one must select one of the four signed documents as being the sole example of our greatest playwright’s hand, the will has no better claim than the Requests deposition, the mortgage deed or the Guildhall conveyance. As we have seen, the legal sanctity of the signature was not firmly established.

We no longer have any certain samples of Will signing his name (though we may have one or two). Therefore the presumption of literacy provided by the signatures vanishes. The man may not have been able to write.

But the supposedly authentic handwriting of the Bard was a key part of the evidence used to make the case for him as the author of one scene in the manuscript play of Sir Thomas More. So an item drops out of the Shakespeare canon. Schoenbaum was not about to proclaim such a loss, but he silently acknowledges it in the 1991 edition of Shakespeare’s Lives. Page 341 of the 1970 edition includes this sentence, concerning the nineteenth century Shakespeare Society: “Among its notable achievements was the first publication, in Dyce’s edition, of Sir Thomas More [which in our own century has come to earn a place in the Shakespeare canon by virtue of a single scene].” This sentence appears on p. 251 of the 1991 edition, but the bracketed passage has been deleted. Page 696 of the 1970 edition states that several scholars “pooled their expertise and critical powers to make a [persuasive] case for Shakespeare’s Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More.” This sentence is on pages 503-4 of the 1991 edition, but the bracketed word, “persuasive”, has been downgraded to “impressive”.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought they had a real, flesh and blood Shakespeare. The stories about poaching, horse holding, wit combats at the Mermaid, and the merry meeting with Jonson and Drayton humanized the dry records of the Stratfordian grain hoarder, investor, tax dodger, and bringer of law suits. But these beliefs eroded under scholarship, and were finally toppled by Sir Edmund Chambers’ 1930 William Shakespeare, which left only a bare-bones Bard or minimalist Shakespeare. But now we lose the signatures, the presumption of literacy, and a scene from Sir Thomas More –Will continues to play the Cheshire Cat. And the Stratfordian professors must be held to have suffered a loss of face for their incompetent handling of the supposed signatures.

It is quite understandable that the overwhelming majority of Stratfordian scholars lack the courage to acknowledge the expert testimony of Jane Cox. After all, they wouldn’t want the newspapers to notice this horrible embarrassment with its implication of illiteracy. But it is truly astonishing that most Oxfordians also want to look the other way. Too many of us have gotten too comfortable slamming the six famous signatures, as if literary ability had something to do with good handwriting. Those who feel this way are no different from Stratfordians who can’t let go of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century legends about Gentle Will. We must become accustomed to adjusting our theories to new evidence, not demanding that all new finds be forced to fit old theories.

The Phaeton Sonnet

by Joseph Sobran

This article first appeared in the Summer 1996 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Mainstream Shakespeare scholars are currently debating the authorship of the poem A Funeral Elegy, published in 1612 and assigned to an otherwise unidentified “W.S.” Professor Donald Foster argues that the poem is by Shakespeare. Others disagree, partly because they deem the poem unworthy of our greatest poet. The controversy has even reached the front page of The New York Times.

A few years earlier, the short lyric “Shall I Die?” achieved the same distinction when Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor included it (along with several doggerel epitaphs) in the canon of the Collected Oxford Shakespeare. Their lead was followed, with some reservations, by Maurice Evans in the New Penguin edition of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. Another poem sometimes thought to be Shakespeare’s has never received comparable attention, and yet it has closer affinities to Shakespeare’s traditionally acknowledged work than a Funeral Elegy, “Shall I Die?”, or the epitaphs. This is the so-called “Phaeton” sonnet. The sonnet appeared under the title “Phaeton to His Friend Florio” as a commendatory poem in John Florio’s book Second Fruits, published in 1591. It merits careful study. In 1591 Florio (1554?-1625) had lately served as tutor to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and he later became a friend and protege of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, both of whom are believed to have been Shakespeare’s patrons. Florio is now chiefly remembered for his translation of Montaigne; the son of Italian Jewish immigrants who had become Protestants, he was best known in his own time for his fashionable books of Italian lore, of which Second Fruits is one.

As Robert Giroux argues in The Book Known as Q, it seems likely that Florio and Shakespeare crossed paths, especially since it appears that Shakespeare consulted Florio’s version of Montaigne’s Essays in manuscript. Moreover, Florio may well have inspired the title of Love’s Labour’s Lost with his aphorism “It were labour lost to speak of love.” The play also uses Italian expressions from his books, and the character Holofernes may be, as some surmise, based on Florio himself. Some scholars believe the Phaeton sonnet is Shakespeare’s. Others rule this out, because they believe the date of its publication, 1591, was too early for Shakespeare to have known Southampton’s circle. It is also puzzling that Shakespeare should have written it under a pseudonym.

Beginning with William Minto in the nineteenth century, a few scholars have held that “Phaeton” and Shakespeare were the same poet. The reason most have given is simply the sonnet’s excellence. “Those familiar with the commendatory verse of the period,” Minto wrote, “will recognize at once its superiority.” In our own time Giroux and Peter Levi have revived this thesis with plausible arguments. Giroux calls the Phaeton poem “good enough to be Shakespeare’s work.” This may be, but there were many excellent sonneteers writing in 1591. What, if anything, makes this poem Shakespearean? “From a literary point of view,” Giroux says carefully, “it is possible that the ‘Phaeton’ sonnet is an early poem of Shakespeare’s. From a scholarly point of view, it is clearly impossible to prove it.”

In The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Levi goes further. The poem, he contends, “is surely by Shakespeare: he certainly knew Florio, though we don’t know when they met, and no other poet in 1591 could have written the sonnet.” He adds: “No other writer of sonnets is as good as this except Spenser, but Spenser would have signed it. The humour is Shakespeare’s, and so is the movement of thought, so is the seasonal coloring.” This is shrewd, as far as it goes, but it is hardly real proof.

A much stronger claim can be made for the Phaeton sonnet than any of its supporters have yet advanced for it. Not that the poem has had many supporters, or, for that matter, many detractors. It has generally been ignored, even though it is a far more accomplished poem than those that have received publicity of late. We should note, however, that the magisterial E.K. Chambers doubted that the poem could be Shakespeare’s. For him its early date was strong evidence against the idea. He allowed that the Phaeton sonnet “is of merit, but does not compel a recognition of Shakespearean authorship, and in any case antedates Venus and Adonis [published in 1593, the first work to bear Shakespeare's name].” The Phaeton sonnet also uses the “Spenserian” rhyme scheme “abba abba cdcdee”, which none of Shakespeare’s known sonnets employs; Shakespeare generally prefers the less demanding pattern “abab cdcd efef gg”.

So far, then, the external evidence points away from Shakespeare’s authorship of this poem. But the internal evidence of the Phaeton sonnet points strongly in the opposite direction. The poem is rich in Shakespearean terms, conceits, and images.

Phaeton to his Friend FlorioSweet friend, whose name agrees with thy increase
How fit a rival art thou of the spring!
For when each branch hath left his flourishing,
And green-locked summer’s shady pleasures cease,
She makes the winter’s storms repose in peace
And spends her franchise on each living thing:
The daisies spout, the little birds do sing,
Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release.
So when that all our English wits lay dead
(Except the laurel that is evergreen)
Thou with thy fruits our barrenness o’erspread
And set thy flowery pleasance to be seen.
Such fruits, such flowerets of morality
Were ne’er befroe brought out of Italy.

Let us examine it line by line, beginning with its author’s pseudonym. Phaeton: The name Phaeton is found in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 2. Phaeton is the son of Phoebus Apollo who insists on driving his father’s chariot, only to scorch the earth and fall to his death. Shakespeare refers to the Phaeton story five times in his plays.

Line 1 – Sweet friend: A typical Shakespearean endearment, as in sweet love (76, 79), thy sweet-beloved name (89), fair friend (114), sweet boy (108), my lovely boy (126), thy sweet self (126), my sweet’st friend (133), etc. (Shakespeare uses the word sweet 72 times in the Sonnets, and nearly a thousand times in his works as a whole.)

Line 1 – whose name agrees: Giroux notes that this phrase calls to mind John of Gaunt’s cry “O how that name befits my composition!” in Richard II (2,1,78). Shakespeare often remarks or plays on the aptness of names, as when Henry V ironically tells the blustering Ancient Pistol that his name “sorts well with your fierceness” (Henry V, 4,1,64). In Titus Andronicus (2,3,119) Lavinia tells “barbarous Tamora” that “no name fits thy nature but thy own.” In Cymbeline (4,2,383) Lucius tells “Fidele”(who is Imogen in disguise): “Thy name well fits thy faith, thy faith thy name.” At the end of the same play (5,6,444-6) the Soothsayer says:

Thou, Leonatus, art the lion’s whelp.
The apt and fit construction of thy name,
Being leo-natus, doth import so much.

Notice too that the word fit, which I have italicized in these examples, appears in the second line of Phaeton’s sonnet. The Sonnets also refer seven times to the youth’s name (which they promise to immortalize, yet, curiously, never actually mention).

Line 1 – thy increase: It is typical of Shakespeare to use increase as a noun and to rhyme on it. As a matter of fact the very first line of Sonnet 1 ends with it: “From fairest creatures we desire increase.” The word is almost the poet’s trademark: “Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase” (11), “When I perceive that men as plants increase” (15, though here for once it is a verb), “The teeming autumn, big with rich increase” (97). He often uses the word in his other works, as in Venus and Adonis (169-70):

Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?

Equally characteristic is 3 Henry VI (2,2,164): “And that thy summer bred us no increase” (which -see below- links increase to summer). The reader may also recall such familiar examples as Hamlet’s “increase of appetite” and Lear’s “organs of increase.”

Line 2 How fit a rival art thou of the spring!: This line bears witness to its author first in its syntax (Shakespeare often begins an exclamatory or declaratory clause or sentence with “how,” using this form 14 times in the Sonnets alone) and, more important, in likening his friend to a season: “only herald to the gaudy spring” (1). Just as the Phaeton sonnet and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 1 both end their first lines with increase, so the Phaeton sonnet and Sonnet 1 both rhyme on spring. The most famous similitude between the poet’s friend and a season is of course Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Note the simile that begins 97:

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!

And of course, seasonal images and analogies dominate many of the sonnets, especially the early ones.

Line 3 – For when each branch hath left his flourishing: Richard II (1,2,18) gives us “One flourishing branch of his most royal root.” The word flourish also occurs in Sonnet 60. And “each branch” has a close match in “every bough” (102) _ no great coincidence, but the sort of thing we should expect if Phaeton and Shakespeare are the same poet.

Line 4 – And green-locked summer’s shady pleasures cease: Compare Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” See also “Making no summer of another’s green” (68); “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet” (94); “For summer and his pleasures wait on thee” (97); and this quatrain from 12:

When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard.

Trees that are barren of leaves implies branches that have left their flourishing, and canopy against heat implies shade. Beard also suggests locks. The Phaeton sonnet shows the same subtle patterns of association and imagery we find in Shakespeare. The Sonnets use shade, shady, and shadow 16 times. And when Shakespeare mentions locks, he often specifies their color (yellow, gory, grey, golden, browny).

Line 5 – She makes the winter’s storms repose in peace: Compare the line “Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day” (13). Again, no miracle, but another interesting little similarity. So is the occurrence of repose in Sonnets 27 and 50.

Line 6 – And spends her franchise on each living thing: Shakespeare loves to blend legal and commercial language with seasonal imagery and with the language of love. (The Sonnets contain at least 80 legal terms.) One of the most pertinent passages comes in 4:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.

The word spend occurs 14 times in the Sonnets, not to mention the related words expense, thrift, waste, consume, and so forth. Spending a franchise and spending a legacy are kindred ideas, as the word frank, cognate with franchise, underscores. Shakespeare uses the legal term franchise and its variants about twenty times in all his works, a remarkable number. Venus uses enfranchising as a metaphor at 369, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (3,1,156) has enfranchise within two lines of the name Phaeton! (For extended legal metaphors, see Sonnets 4, 13, 30, 35, 46, 49, 58, 87, 134, 136, 146, and 152.)

Line 6 – each living thing: This phrase, in its position and function here, reminds us of Sonnet 98:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing.

The epithet proud-pied April has several resemblances to green-lock’d summer: A season is personified with a compound word that describes its coloring. And April in this sonnet, like spring in Phaeton’s, vivifies all living things.

Line 7 – the little birds do sing: Shakespeare is particularly fond of the simple image of little birds singing: “When birds do sing,/Hey ding a ding ding!” There are dozens of examples in the plays. In the Sonnets we find several: “Upon those boughs . . . where late the sweet birds sang” (73), “And thou away, the very birds are mute” (97), “the lays of birds” (98), not to mention such variants as “Philomel in summer’s front doth sing” (102). Commonplace as this image may seem, not every poet uses it; it seems too naive for Marlowe or Jonson, for example.

Line 8 – Herbs, gums, and plants do vaunt of their release: Romeo and Juliet (2,3,16) offers a parallel in plants, herbs, stones. Even more striking is the brilliant image of plants exulting in spring: we find the same image again in Sonnet 15, where “men as plants increase . . . [and] vaunt in their youthful sap”! Venus (165) offers “Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear.” And release suggests 87′s “The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing.” Its legal overtones also recall summer’s lease (18) and several other uses of lease in the Sonnets. Venus and Adonis (254-6) rhymes increasing and releasing.

Line 9 – So when that all our English wits lay dead: A faint echo of Henry V (3,1,2): “Or close the wall up with our English dead.”

Lines 10, 12 – evergreen, seen: Shakespeare rhymes green and seen in four different sonnets.

Lines 11-14 – fruits, barrenness, pleasance, Italy: The antonym of increase, barrenness is a theme of the Sonnets, which use the word barren six times. I have already quoted “barren of leaves” (12). And in Shakespeare, barren is often accompanied by fruit. Compare Venus, where fruitless chastity (751) is followed by barren dearth (754). Or see A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1, 1, 72-3), where a barren sister is imagined chanting hymns to the cold fruitless moon. What is more, Phaeton’s association of fruit and pleasance with Italy in the concluding section of this poem calls up several passages in Shakespeare. Lucrece yields us barren skill (81) and, four stanzas later, fruitful Italy (107). The Taming of the Shrew (1,1,3-4) gives us fruitful Lombardy, The pleasant garden of great Italy.

And in Antony and Cleopatra (2,5,23-5), Cleopatra welcomes the messenger from Rome with a sensual image:

O, from Italy!
Ram thou thy fruitful tidings in mine ears,
That long time have been barren.

Line 11 – o’erspread: Shakespeare is fond of the prefix o’er; the Sonnets give us o’ercharg’d, o’ergreen, o’erpress’d, o’ersnow’d, o’ersways, and o’erworn, among other constructions. (His plays boast such odd coinages as o’erwrastling and o’erstunk!)

Line 12 – thy flowery pleasance: Shakespeare is extremely sensitive to vegetation: if anything delights him more than little birds singing, it is flowers and plant life. The Sonnets mention roses, violets, lilies, marjoram, marigold, buds, blooms, sap, thorns, blooms, fruit, olives, boughs, leaves, forests, apples, meadows, sheaves, cankers, weeds. The words flower and pleasure appear in the Sonnets about a dozen times each.

Lines 13-14 Such fruits, such flowerets . . . Were ne’er before: Compare the syntax of 17: “Such heavenly touches ne’er touched earthly faces.” Shakespeare often doubles such: “Such wretched hands such wretched blood should spill” (The Rape of Lucrece, 999); “such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery” (Troilus and Cressida, 2,3,71); “O, such another sleep, that I might see/But such another man!” (Antony and Cleopatra, 5,2,77); “Such seething brains,/Such shaping fantasies” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5,1,4-5); “such ferret and such fiery eyes” (Julius Caesar, 1,2,186).

Lines 13-14 – morality . . . Italy: The rather lame rhyme of the final couplet is not out of character for Shakespeare’s sonnets, whose endings are often weak. And sometimes he is content with pairs of words that end with -y, as in Sonnets 40 (poverty with injury) and 55 (enmity with posterity). And of course the poem’s affection for things Italian is typical of Shakespeare, a dozen of whose plays are set in Italy and whose English characters are apt to quote Italian phrases.

The Phaeton sonnet should be studiously compared with Sonnets 1, 5, 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 54, 68, 73, 97, 98, 102, and 103 for theme, style, sentiment, imagery, vocabulary, rhyme patterns, and other affinities. Sonnets 97 and 98 are surely the work of the same hand that wrote the Phaeton sonnet, which they echo in the words winter, pleasure, bareness, summer’s, increase, decease, fruit, birds, sing, spring, sweet, flowers, shadow, and various synonyms and paraphrases.

If internal evidence alone can prove authorship, Shakespeare wrote the Phaeton sonnet. It certainly deserves at least parenthetical inclusion in the canon. Its early date certainly poses a problem –but only for those who assume that “Shakespeare” must mean the Stratford man born in 1564.

If he was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the problem vanishes. Not only was Oxford 41 years old in 1591; he was a highly esteemed poet, a patron of literature, and a member of both the courtly and the literary circles Florio moved in. Florio later referred to an unnamed “friend” of his as “a gentleman” who “loved better to be a poet than to be accounted one.” This could have meant any number of gentlemen (including noblemen) who deemed it beneath their dignity to publish their writings; but it would fit Oxford with a peculiar aptness. Being addressed to the poet’s “friend Florio,” the Phaeton sonnet reminds one irresistibly of Francis Meres’ reference to Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends.”

To my mind the question is not whether Shakespeare-Oxford wrote it, but how many other such poems he wrote, anonymously or pseudonymously, which are now lost to us _ or perhaps awaiting rediscovery.