Shakespeare’s Bad Law

by Mark Alexander

This article was first published in the Winter 2000 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


In Shakespeare, IN FACT (1994), Irvin Leigh Matus attempts to dispose of any notions that Shakespeare had a formal legal education and used legal terms accurately:

The question of his legal knowledge has been most recently [sic] tackled by O. Hood Phillips, a jurist, legal scholar and educator, in Shakespeare and the Lawyers. In the chapter, “Did Shakespeare have a Legal Training?” he gathered and summarized the varying opinions that have been handed down. The most reliable assessment of the playwright’s knowledge of law, in his opinion, is that of P. S. Clarkson and C. T. Warren, whose reading of Elizabethan drama revealed that about half of Shakespeare’s fellows employed on the average more legalisms than he did, and some of them a great many more. Most of them also exceed Shakespeare in the detail and complexity of their legal problems and allusions, and with few exceptions display a degree of accuracy at least no lower than his.

Clarkson and Warren’s verdict is that Shakespeare’s references “must be explained on some grounds other than that he was a lawyer, or an apprentice, or a student of the law.” (272)

Though he advances an implied argument that Shakespeare is guilty of “bad law,” Mr. Matus fails to give examples, merely relying on the authority of Mr. Phillips. Indeed, that authority is secondhand since Mr. Phillips only presents the authority of Messrs. Clarkson and Warren and quotes none of their examples (159-161, 191).

More recently, in The Elizabethan Review (Autumn 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2), the co-editor of the Internet’s “Shakespeare Authorship Page,” David Kathman, Ph.D., claims that, “Paul Clarkson and Clyde Warren, in an exhaustive study of legalisms in the work of seventeen Elizabethan playwrights (The Law of Property in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama), found that Shakespeare was average at best in the number and accuracy of his legal allusions.” (22) The concept of “average accuracy” is found nowhere in the source text, indicating that Dr. Kathman has not closely read either Shakespeare & the Lawyers or The Law of Property in Shakespeare. 1

Before we examine some examples of Shakespeare’s “inaccuracies” in The Law of Property in Shakespeare — a text that in many other respects is excellent — let’s first take a closer look at the history of the arguments.

The Early Debaters

Those relying solely on Matus would remain unaware of the nearly 150-year history of arguments over Shakespeare’s legal knowledge in over 35 books and numerous articles. The 19th century saw a Golden Age of books supporting the proposition that Shakespeare possessed an extensive and unerring knowledge of the law.

Although the first mention was made by lawyer and Shakespeare editor Edmund Malone in 1778 2, it was not until 1858-1859 that the idea began to take hold with the publication of two books: William Rushton’s Shakespeare a Lawyer, and Lord Chief Justice John Campbell’s Shakespeare’s Legal Acquirements Considered. 3

These two works were followed by several others, one listing 312 examples of Shakespeare’s use of legal terms. Lord Campbell, by far the most influential, gives his unequivocal opinion of Shakespeare’s use of legal terms:

I am amazed, not only by their number, but by the accuracy and propriety with which they are uniformly introduced. While Novelists and Dramatists are constantly making mistakes as to the law of marriage, of wills, and of inheritance, –to Shakespeare’s law, lavishly as he propounds it, there can neither be demurrer nor bill of exceptions, nor writ of error. (132-4)

In The Law in Shakespeare Senator Cushman K. Davis explores how

…this legal learning is accurately sustained in many passages with cumulative and progressive application. The word employed becomes suggestive of other words, or of a legal principle, and these are at once used so fully that their powers are exhausted. (16)

Such sweeping declarations invite opposing arguments and examples. The first such major salvo was launched in 1899 by William C. Devecmon in his IN RE Shakespeare’s “Legal Acquirements”: Notes by an Unbeliever Therein. 4 Thus began a 21-year debate over Shakespeare’s legal knowledge, one proposition being, “Shakespeare made mistakes using legal terms.”

The major debaters were Devecmon: Pro–J. M. Robertson: Pro, in Did Shakespeare Write Titus Andronicus? (1905) and The Baconian Heresy (1913)–Arthur Underhill: Pro, in the essay “Law” in Shakespeare’s England (1916)–and Sir George Greenwood: Con, in The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908), Is There a Shakespeare Problem? (1916), Shake-speare’s Law and Latin (1916), and Shakespeare’s Law (1920).

Greenwood was the most reasoned and methodical of those debaters favoring Shakespeare’s legal knowledge. Among a sea of Baconians, he stood apart not only as a critic of the orthodox authorship attribution, but also as an agnostic who patiently awaited a reasonable alternative. When Looney published Shakespeare Identified, he found the case for Oxford persuasive. 5

After this 21-year debate, a nine-year gap ensued until Sir Dunbar Plunket Barton came out with Links Between Shakespeare and the Law (1929). Barton came down on the side of Greenwood:

Some critics have gone to the opposite extreme, and have dwelt upon what they call ‘the bad law’ in the plays of Shakespeare. He, like other dramatists, probably cared very little whether the law was strictly accurate, so long as it helped the plot or the dialogue. Sir George Greenwood, with whom the present writer does not always agree, has disposed of this subject in a recent book.(149)

There is then a 13-year gap until the 1942 publication of Clarkson and Warren’s The Law of Property in Shakespeare, in which once again the idea is raised that Shakespeare erred in such a way that excludes the possibility of his having legal training. But let us return now to the beginnings of this debate and William Devecmon.

Greenwood on Devecmon

In 1899, Devecmon attacked both Lord Campbell and Senator Davis. J.M. Robertson later supported these attacks. Greenwood spent much space in his books refuting both Robertson and Devecmon (and lesser critics), but as Robertson follows Devecmon, offering no “errors” of his own, Greenwood’s refutations of Devecmon will suffice. Devecmon listed 13 examples6 of Shakespeare’s “gross errors” in using legal terms. Four of these reveal Devecmon’s literal-mindedness. He claims that “Well ratified” and “replication” in Hamlet (I.i.90 and IV.ii.11), “challenge” in Henry VIII (II.iv.75), and “indenture” in Pericles (I.iii.8) are all misused.

But the OED — unavailable to Devecmon — reveals that each term had a history of figurative and alternate usage that fits the passages cited. Of those remaining, Greenwood refutes five (four in The Shakespeare Problem Restated and one in Shakespeare’s Law).

These five refutations by Greenwood are:7

1) “Demise” Richard III (IV.iv.247-8):

Eliz. Tell me what state, what dignity, what honor
Canst thou demise to any child of mine?

Devecmon simply states that dignities and honors cannot be demised and cites Comyn’s Digest in support. Greenwood quotes Comyn’s Digest, which states that “a dignity or nobility cannot be aliened or transferred to another.”

“Not a very unreasonable proposition!” says Greenwood. He then continues,

If the king grants a title or ‘dignity’ to a subject, it is natural enough that the grantee should not have the power to assign it away to another (perhaps for a round sum down), or to put it up to auction. Therefore the Queen is right, prima facie at any rate, when she suggests to Richard that he has no power to ‘demise’ any dignity or honour to a child of hers. Where is the legal error here? But there is this further observation to be made. It was possible for Richard to ‘demise’ such dignities or honours, inasmuch as he was king, and even a subject could make a grant of such things ‘with the king’s licence.’ (Comyn’s Dig., ad loc.) Therefore the error is entirely on the side of Mr. Devecmon. (Restated 399-400)

2) “Common/Several.” Love’s Labour’s Lost (II.i.221-223)

Boyet. So you grant pasture for me.

Kath. Not so, gentle beast;
My lips no common are, though several they be.

Devecmon admits that “Shakespeare doubtless knew that one cannot at the same time hold a thing in common and in severalty, and if so, he here sacrifices his knowledge for a mere play on words, which I fancy a professional pride, if he had had any legal training, would not have permitted him to do.” Greenwood relies on a note of William Hazlitt’s to Sir John Oldcastle (I.iii.1) to explain the usage, but Clarkson and Warren do a better job while criticizing Devecmon for being so over-literal. (Sh. Law 88)

3) “Statutes.” Love’s Labour’s Lost (I.i.15-19):

King. You three, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville,
Have sworn for three years’ term to live with me,
My fellow-scholars, and to keep those statutes
That are recorded in this schedule here:
Your oaths are pass’d; and now
subscribe your names

Devecmon thinks “statutes” is misused here to mean merely “articles of agreement,” since there is no such meaning in law. According to Greenwood, Shakespeare uses “statutes” in the sense of “ordinances,” as is usual in a college. (Restated 404) In this one case, Mr. Robertson explicitly agrees with Greenwood (The Baconian Heresy 175n). But amazingly, though he claims that Greenwood’s refutations hold no weight, Robertson hides behind vague generalities and fails to explicitly refute even a single one.

4) “Testament.” Henry V (I.i.9-11):

Cant. For all the temporal lands, which men devout
By testament have given to the church,
Would they strip from us.

Devecmon claims that “testament” is used incorrectly since it bequeaths personal property. A “will” is used for devising real estate. Greenwood responds:

‘How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card!’ Must the Archbishop speak by the card too, or the writer be set down as no lawyer? But really this is but another example in support of the proposition that a little learning is a dangerous thing. ‘A testament is the true declaration of our last Will; of that wee would to be done after our death,’ says the learned author of that famous old book Termes de la Ley. A ‘testament’ includes a ‘will,’ said the Court in Fuller v. Hooper (2 Vesey Senior 242). Nay, more, Littleton, the great and learned Littleton, uses ‘testament’ as applicable to a devise of lands and tenements; and all Coke has to say about it is that ‘in law most commonly “ultima voluntas in scriptis” is used where lands or tenements are devised, testamentum when it concerneth chattels.’ But we know that ‘testator’ is used of a man who has made a will, whether it be of lands or of personal property. So that again Mr. Devecmon’s attempt fails. (Restated 402)

5) “Single bond.” Merchant of Venice (I.iii.140-6):

Shy. Go with me to a notary; seal me there
Your single bond, and in a merry sport
If you replay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such a sum as are
Expressed in the condition, let the for feit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh

Devecmon says, “It is hardly conceivable that any lawyer, or anyone who had spent considerable time in a lawyer’s office, in Shakespeare’s age, could have been guilty of the egregious error of calling a bond with a collateral condition a ‘single bond.’”

In Shakespeare’s Law Greenwood quotes both the Encyclopaedia of the Laws of England and Stephens Commentaries to point out that single bonds include those where people are bound to pay at a certain time and place with a penalty attached in the event of failure to pay. Payment of a pound of flesh is the “penalty” and not a “condition.”(24-26)

In other words, Devecmon sees that Shakespeare has used the words “Expressed in the condition” and wants to immediately translate that as a conditional bond in the legal sense. It is not. The bond is properly defined as a single bond. Once again, the error lies with Devecmon.

Literal-minded vs. literary

Now let’s examine four more “Devecmon errors” that Greenwood did not address in his books, but which are quite similar to those five he did address, having in common the one error that Devecmon himself makes over and over–he simply cannot conceive of the “literary” use of legal terms.

1) “Moiety.” 1 Henry IV (III.i.66-9,

Glend. Come, here’s the map; shall we divide our right?
According to our threefold order ta’en?

Mort. The archdeacon hath divided it
Into three limites very equally.

Hot. Methinks my moiety, north from Burton here,
In quantity equals not one of yours.

Devecmon points out that “moiety” means a half, not a third. However, he fails to point out that Shakespeare does use it correctly both legally and figuratively in All’s Well That Ends Well (III.ii.66), The Winter’s Tale (III.ii.39), Henry V (V.ii.212), Richard III (I.ii.254; and II.2.60), Henry VIII (I.ii.12), Antony and Cleopatra (V.i.19), and Cymbeline (I.iv.105).

In several other plays he uses the term figuratively to mean simply “a portion” rather than “a half.” But it may be objected that in the case of Hotspur, the strict legal usage is called for. A close reading reveals that in fact Hotspur uses the term correctly. Devecmon and other critics want to yoke Hotpsur’s “moiety” reference to the tripartite division mentioned over 20 lines earlier.

In fact Hotspur is speaking, not of his third, as compared to the other two men, but a smaller section of his third, which he is comparing to a smaller section belonging to Mortimer only. If Hotspur were comparing his third to the two other men’s, he would be speaking of the whole compared to the whole of theirs. He does not. His land borders Mortimer’s, and the argument center’s around a portion “north from Burton.” Shakespeare uses the legal term correctly.

2) “Jointress.” Hamlet (I.ii.8-9):

Claud. Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike State.

Devecmon cites Co. Litt. 46 to define jointress as “a woman who has an estate settled on her by her husband.” Referencing Blake’s Commentaries he states that a “jointure” was used for barring dower, and that “Gertrude could have neither a dower nor a jointure in Denmark.” But it takes little imagination to recognize that Shakespeare is using the term in a royal context that enlarges its meaning (a common Shake-spearean practice, which is responsible for giving us our flexible language). The two have just married, and Shakespeare plays on the idea of that royal joining.

The context also suggests irony, in that such a marriage should bar the King’s brother from the “dower” of the kingdom. Devecmon fails once again to look at the literary context, assuming that every use that appears to deviate from strict legal usage represents an error that no one trained in the law would commit. As we shall see, Clarkson and Warren criticize Devecmon for over-literalizing this speech.

3) “On the case.” The Comedy of Errors (IV.ii.41-2):

Adr. Why, man, what is the matter?

Dro. S. I do not know the matter: he is ‘rested on the case.

Devecmon points out that there are two kinds of civil actions: those growing out of breach of contract and those for the recovery of wrongs independent of a contract. “On the case” applies to the former, but the statement here applies to the latter. However, Devecmon neglects to notice that this is a comedy with comedic characters who will, like Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, mix their legal terms. Dromio is mixing up the usage.

4) “Entail.” 3 Henry VI (I.i.200-3):

King H. I here entail
The crown to thee, and to thine heirs forever;
Conditionally that thou here take an oath
To cease this civil war

Devecmon quotes Senator Davis:

The use of the word ‘entail’ here seems to be inaccurate, for, though the use of the word ‘heirs’ is necessary to create a fee, so the word ‘body’ or some other words of procreation are necessary to make it a fee tail. A gift to a man and his heirs, male or female, is an estate in fee simple and not in fee tail.

Greenwood avoids this one also, believing that this play was not Shakespeare’s. Once again, we have an instance where the literal-minded lawyer assumes that only the strict legal definition was in common usage. A quick check of the OED reveals that both Davis and Devecmon err. According to the OED “entail” was used apart from its strict legal usage: “2. transf. and fig. To bestow or confer as if by entail; to cause to descend to a designated series of possessors; to bestow as an inalienable possession.”

Thus, in 1513 Sir Thomas More in Edward V writes, “The Crowne of the Realme [was] entayled to the Duke of Yorke and his Heires.” (OED) Perhaps Shakespeare was following Sir Thomas in this usage of appointing an hereditary possessor, but Shakespeare uses “entail” in its stricter legal usage in All’s Well That Ends Well (IV.iii.270), showing that he understood both definitions precisely.

Arthur Underhill’s “Bad Law”

Let us now turn our attention to another of the early debunkers of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law. In Shakespeare’s England: An Account of the Life & Manners of his Age (1916)8, Arthur Underhill lets the reader know exactly where he stands by opening the section on “The Law” with the statement,

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

In a paper presented at the 20th Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Oxford Society (Minneapolis, 1996), entitled “Recent Developments in the Case for Oxford as Shakespeare,” Peter Moore deftly refutes the three instances where Underhill accuses Shakespeare of using legal terms incorrectly.9

Two of these are easily refuted: Underhill’s resurrection of Devecmon’s claim that in Love’s Labour’s Lost Shakespeare incorrectly uses “common” and “several,” (discussed earlier in this article), and his criticism of Hamlet’s graveyard remarks on buying land in Hamlet (V.i.101-110), where he dashes off almost a dozen legal terms, including “statutes and recognizances.”

Moore accurately points out that “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.”

Underhill’s third error is quite interesting. Turning to All’s Well That Ends Well he accomplishes what can only be described as an intentional misrepresentation.

First, Underhill states that “the King of France insists upon his highborn ward Bertram marrying Helena, a poor physician’s daughter, who was of inferior rank to him.” He then quotes a passage (II.iii.52-3) where the King has Helena choose a husband. Underhill then informs us that “when Bertram, whom Helena chooses, protests,” the King informs him peremptorily that

It is in us to plant thine honour where
We please to have it grow. Check thy contempt:
Obey our will, which travails in thy good.

Underhill skips over 100 lines to quote this passage (II.iii.156-8). He then quotes a passage from Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which he says alludes “to the condition that the spouse must be of equal rank with the ward, which Shakespeare has ignored.”

Yet, between the two passages that Underhill quotes, is this (II.iii.112-21):

Ber. But follows it, my lord, to bring me down
Must answer for your raising? I know her well:
She had her breeding at my father’s charge–
A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain
Rather corrupt me ever!

King. ‘Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which
I can build up. Strange it is that our bloods,
Of colour, weight, and heat, pour’d all together,
Would quite confound distinction, yet stands off
In differences so mighty.

Bertram directly addresses the unequalness in rank between him and Helena. The King responds that he can raise her in rank, and then proceeds to reflect on how strange it is that people can in every other respect be the same, yet so different in rank.

In Peter Moore’s words, “Shakespeare was perfectly well aware of the requirement.” And Underhill knew that Shakespeare knew. One must wonder if Underhill has been intentionally deceptive.

Clarkson and Warren’s “Bad Law”

Now, we should finally turn to Clarkson and Warren’s 1942 book The Law of Property in Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Drama, yet another oft-quoted (see Irv Matus’s Shakespeare IN FACT) debunking of Shakespeare’s knowledge of the law that comes up short upon closer analysis.

The authors labored long and hard to cross-catalog all of the legal references to property law used by 17 Elizabethan playwrights. They claim that the others “with few exceptions display a degree of accuracy at least no lower than his.” (285)

This statement, of course, could be construed to mean that Shakespeare had 100% accuracy. Using the index, a researcher is hard-pressed to discover Shakespeare’s alleged inaccuracies. But under Devecmon’s name there are two listings–with three actual mentions in the text–all criticizing Devecmon for erring in his criticism of Shakespeare. Two of these have already been examined as part of Devecmon’s 13 “gross errors.”

The first is Devecmon’s criticism of Claudius’s use of “jointress.” The authors quote Middleton’s, “That’s my Soul’s jointure” in No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s (I.ii.23), and then say, “One can only wonder what inaccuracies Devecmon would have found in this metaphorical usage.” (84)

The second is Devecmon’s criticism of Boyet and Katherine’s “common” and “several.” The authors’ comparative research shows both words are commonly used to refer, “not to the right of pasture but to the place where the right is exercised.” (86) Thus, they conclude that Devecmon’s criticism is not valid. (88-9)

The third is Devecmon’s criticism of “a deed of gift” in The Merchant of Venice (V.i.292):10

It has been pointed out that such an instrument would be quite inoperative to transfer after-acquired property; only that which was in esse at the time the deed was delivered would pass. This observation, however, seems largely beside the point because this deed was not intended at the time of delivery to pass even the property which was in esse. (183)

The authors also criticize Charles Allen for erroneously pointing out errors in Shakespeare’s use of legal terms in his 1900 book Notes on the Bacon-Shakespeare Question (219, 224, 246). They even use Greenwood’s Shakespeare’s Law, referenced in a single footnote (246), as a counter to one of Allen’s claims.11

The Law of Property in Shakespeare appears to contain only three examples of Shakespeare’s inaccurate use of legal terms. First, the authors repeat Devecmon’s discovery of a “technical error” in Shakespeare’s use of “entail” in 3 Henry VI. (59) They repeat Devecmon’s mistake in assuming that the term has only a technical usage. Second, they cite the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor (II.i.206-7) for misusing “egress” and “regress.” (70) There is little point in belaboring the obvious–that to quote such a character in such a play as an example of Shakespeare’s error is beyond highly questionable.

Clarkson and Warren’s third error is different, and may actually promise to be a significant discovery. They begin their second chapter of Part III by setting the stage for a discussion of the use of the term “heir,” particularly in “heir apparent” and “heir presumptive,” noting that there is an important distinction between the two (197-9).

The heir apparent’s succession was contingent only upon his outliving his ancestor, such as an eldest son. This is the only circumstance that could deprive him of his inheritance. Thus, the heir apparent is in the direct line of succession. The heir presumptive, on the other hand, would be like a brother to a King, one whose succession could be displaced by the birth of a child to the King.

Thus, Clarkson and Warren reveal Shakespeare’s error:

Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘heir apparent’ incorrectly when Cardinal Beaufort says of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester [2 Henry VI (I.i.150-1)],

Consider, lords, he is the next of blood
And heir apparent to the English crown.

Gloucester was not Henry VI’s eldest son, of course, but his uncle, and therefore heir presumptive. Shakespeare did not adopt this language from Holinshed, and did not have here the excuse of metric requirements, since either word fits the iambic pentameter equally well. We have here just another example of Shakespeare’s being interested not so much in correctly stating a legal proposition, as in putting into the mouth of his character words which to the laymen-groundling sounded like good law, and at any rate conveyed the desired information. This is, of course, the essence of good theatre. (199)

If this is an error, it indeed qualifies as one that a man trained in law would not commit. Clarkson and Warren then proceed to give examples of contemporary playwrights who display a knowledge of the distinction–and these examples present a problem: they contain only the concept of the distinction, not the use of the phrase “heir presumptive.”

A quick check of a concordance reveals that Shakespeare never used “heir presumptive” or even “presumptive.” A quick check of the OED reveals that the first public use of “presumptive” occurs in 1609, and that “heir presumptive” is not used until 1628. Could this mean that the term was not in use during Shakespeare’s time? Yes! Under the third listing under “presumptive” the OED provides this example:

1683 Brit. Spec. 272. Apparent (or according to the new-coyned Distinction, Presumptive) Heir of the Crown is His Royal Highness James[etc.].

In other words, “heir presumptive” was regarded as a newly-coined term in the late 17th century, and that “heir apparent” was commonly used for both distinctions!

Once again, the critics of Shakespeare’s law are themselves proven to be the ones in error. As to Shakespeare’s use of legal terms, it can still be truly said, over 140 years later, that “there can neither be demurrer nor bill of exceptions, nor writ of error.”


In 1899, William Devecmon wrote,

Though the frequent use of legal terms, with their proper technical meanings, has a cumulative effect, and tends strongly to prove a legal training; yet a very few errors in such use, if glaring and gross, would absolutely nullify that effect and proof. (33)

In other words, according to Devecmon, if it can be shown that Shakespeare continually uses legal terms aptly and free of error, then that fact strongly proves he had legal training.

This essay, I believe, provides proof that no critic of Shakespeare’s “bad law” has yet given even a single valid example. In every case where a critic provides an example it can be shown that it is the critic, and not Shakespeare, who errs. This, then–to use Devecmon’s own words–is strong proof of Shakespeare’s legal training.

In the end, when someone claims, without giving examples–as do Dr. Kathman, Mr. Matus, and Mr. Phillips–that Shakespeare used legal terms inaccurately, one must demand specifics. And when someone gives such specific examples–as do Devecmon, Underhill, and Messrs. Clarkson and Warren–one must examine them closely.

Lord Campbell and Sir George Greenwood were right. Shakespeare uses legal terms accurately. To date, his critics have a history of profound ignorance, error, and, in the case of Underhill, possible deception.


  1. Kathman is plainly wrong in claiming that Clarkson and Warren’s book is “an exhaustive study of legalisms.” The book’s title confines the scope to “The Law of Property,” and the authors admit the need to narrow the scope: “Long ago we realized that the subject of the law in the drama was so broad that it had best be treated in installments. References will be noted throughout this book to later treatises on the law pertaining to Equity, Marriage and Divorce, Criminal Law, etc.” (xxvi) In almost 60 years, the authors have yet to deliver the promised installments. Mr. Phillips actually points much of this out in Shakespeare & the Lawyers.
  2. Edmond Malone, “Essay on the Chronological Order of Shakespeare’s Plays,” in a footnote to Hamlet. Two years later in his “Prolegomena” to The Life of William Shakespeare, he states that Shakespeare’s “knowledge and application of legal terms, seems to me not merely such as might have been acquired by casual observation of his all-comprehending mind; it has the appearance of technical skill; and he is so fond of displaying it on all occasions, that there is, I think, some ground for supposing that he was early initiated in at least the forms of law.” (II, 107-9)
  3. Rushton claims in Shakespeare’s Testamentary Language that Lord Campbell relied more on his research than on his own readings.
  4. Published by The Shakespeare Society of New York (No. 12). One minor criticism was made in 1863 by R. F. Fuller, “Shakespeare as a Lawyer,” (Upper Canada Law Journal, p. 95). Also, Edward James Castle alleges some legal errors in his 1897 Shakespeare, Bacon, Jonson & Greene, but Devecmon himself states that “I have failed to discover a single instance given by him of any real blunder in the use of legal terms.” (30)
  5. Sir George Greenwood and J. Thomas Looney founded the Shakespeare Fellowship in Hackney on November 6, 1922. Greenwood was elected President, and Looney one of several Vice-Presidents. Col. B. R. Ward was elected Hon. Secretary and Treasurer. The Fellowship was not confined to Oxfordians, although it was founded as a direct result of Looney’s book. Looney drew many of the criteria of his search from Greenwood’s books. (See The Shakespeare Authorship Review, No. 8, Autumn 1962.)
  6. Actually 14. I postpone discussion of this last example until my discussion of Clarkson and Warren’s “Bad Law.”
  7. All citations are from The Arden Shakespeare.
  8. Although Shakespeare’s England was published in 1916, Underhill only shows knowledge of the some of the arguments through 1900. He lists only Campbell, Davis, and Allen in his bibliography, and neglects to mention Devecmon. Perhaps the essay was already out of date when it was published.
  9. Moore’s paper is available here.
  10. This is Devecmon’s 14th example of Shakespeare’s bad law.
  11. Phillips also holds up Allen as an authority of Shakespeare’s “bad law,” but he cites only one example (135) and that only to shoot it down with a reference to Greenwood! This use of Greenwood as a supporting authority is strangely typical of almost every critic of Shakespeare’s law and of every Oxfordian critic, including Schoenbaum in Shakespeare’s Lives, and Matus.

The End of Stratfordianism

By Joseph Sobran

This article was first published in the Spring 2000 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


My book Alias Shakespeare has come under attack from Stratfordian scholars and critics, as one might expect. Most recently it has been the target of a long, captious review by Alan H. Nelson of Berkeley in The Shakespeare Quarterly (Fall 1999), that bastion of Shakespearean orthodoxy (published, of course, by the Folger Shakespeare Library). But while enduring all this pummeling, I have made one important and rather astonishing discovery about the Stratfordians: namely, that they don’t exist! True, they persist in the annoying habit of pretending to exist; they tell themselves, and everyone else, that they exist; they continue to bluster and quibble and quarrel and heap scorn on the heretics; but let us not be fooled. They agree that the evidence points to Oxford.

Appearances perhaps to the contrary, Alias Shakespeare has been a tremendous success. Every Stratfordian scholar who has addressed it has admitted the truth of its basic thesis.

It was not to be hoped that the partisans of William of Stratford would surrender as gracefully and gallantly as, say, Lee at Appomattox. After all, they are important people with reputations to uphold. We could hardly pray for such a miracle of humility as an article in The Shakespeare Quarterly saying: “The game is up. We so-called ‘experts’ have been confounded, and a cult of rank amateurs has beaten us at our own game. It’s time we admitted that the Stratford man didn’t write these plays, and that the Earl of Oxford did.”

But in their own very indirect way the orthodox scholars have made their acknowledgments. If you think I exaggerate, dear reader, allow me to explain. We have won!

When Alias Shakespeare was published in 1997, I never dreamed that my scholarly opponents would, without exception, implicitly concede my basic argument. But they did, one and all. Not that they are fully conscious of doing so, but we can’t have everything, can we?

My central argument concerns the Sonnets. The poet speaking here doesn’t sound like the legendary William of Stratford, who in the 1590s was (we are told) a brilliant young poet-playwright, taking London by storm and becoming one of the wealthiest men in his home town. The poet sounds, instead, like an aging gentleman whose life is in decline, ruined by some unnamed “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

If the poet can be believed, he is “old,” “lame,” “poor,” and “despised,” among other things. He knows a lot about the law, using hundreds of legal terms metaphorically. He seems to be bisexual, which may have something to do with his damaged reputation. He hopes that his name will be “buried where my body is” and that he will be “forgotten.” As he faces the prospect of death, his only consolation is the love of the handsome young man–the “lovely boy”–to whom the first 126 Sonnets are addressed. The first seventeen Sonnets urge this youth to get married and beget a son “for love of me.”

Nothing of this sounds like the legendary William. William of Stratford was young and prosperous in the 1590s. He was never a public figure, let alone a topic of scandal. We have no evidence that he was lame, which would have been a handicap for an actor. He had no training in the law. If he was becoming famous as a poet, taking London by storm and confident that his verse would be immortal, why should he think his name could be “buried” or “forgotten”?

No, this poet is an aging man, at least middle-aged, with all the despair and regret common to men who feel they have wasted the golden promise of youth. It may seem amazing that the author of Hamlet, of all the men who ever lived, should feel this way, but there it is. He says so, over and over again: “disgrace,” “shame,” “guilt,” “blots,” “vulgar scandal,” and on and on. That is one of the recurrent themes of the Sonnets. No sensitive reader can take these for the poems of a young man. Yet the orthodox scholars have almost entirely missed this dominant note of the Sonnets.

But of course the poet’s profile closely matches what we know of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as of the 1590s. He was in his forties, in ill health. In his letters he once described himself as “lame.” He had lived a scandalous life (including various charges of sexual misconduct) and wasted his fortune. He was a lawyer (Gray’s Inn and all that) and frequent litigant. If he was writing poetry under a pen name, the poet’s wish for obscurity becomes intelligible.

Similarly, the handsome young man resembles Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, on several counts. Even many Stratfordians think the youth was Southampton, who in the 1590s, by an interesting coincidence, was being urged to marry Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth. (The case for Oxford, we are assured, rests entirely on “coincidences”–quite an amazing number of them, in fact: far more than William can boast.)

The first salvos against Alias Shakespeare came from Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia, writing in The Weekly Standard, and Jonathan Bate of the University of Liverpool, writing in The Wall Street Journal. Both Cantor and Bate accused me, in nearly identical terms, of making the “naive assumption” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical. Both pointed out that most Elizabethan sonnets and indeed most poems are not autobiographical. Yet neither went quite so far as to deny flatly that the Shakespeare Sonnets reflect their author’s actual life; they merely hinted that it was “naive” to think so.

In fact, I was not “naive” and I didn’t “assume” that the Sonnets are autobiographical. Both Cantor and Bate failed — unconscionably — to mention that I’d devoted several pages to the old question of whether the Sonnets tell us anything about the man who wrote them. This omission served, of course, to mislead their readers about what the book really said. Neither review would have held up with a reader who had already read the book itself.

On the question of the Sonnets, I’d actually quoted the unanswerable argument of A.C. Bradley:

No capable poet, much less a Shakespeare, intending to produce a merely ‘dramatic’ series of poems, would dream of inventing a story like that of these sonnets, or, even if he did, of treating it as they treat it. The story is very odd and unattractive. Such capacities as it has are but slightly developed. It is left obscure, and some of the poems are unintelligible to us because they contain allusions of which we can make nothing. Now all this is very natural if the story is substantially a real story of Shakespeare himself and of certain other persons; if the Sonnets were written from time to time as the relations of the persons changed, and sometimes in reference to particular incidents; and if they were written for one or more of these persons (far the greater number for only one), and perhaps in a few cases for other friends, – written, that is to say, for people who knew the details of which we are ignorant. But it is all unnatural, well-nigh incredibly unnatural, if, with the most sceptical critics, we regard the Sonnets as a free product of mere imagination.

I’d also quoted others. C.S. Lewis adds that the Sonnets tell “so odd a story that we find a difficulty in regarding it as fiction.” Paul Ramsey agrees: “The Sonnets have too much jagged specificity to ignore, too little development and completing of the events to be an invention.” Likewise Philip Edwards: “[T]hat there is a solid core of autobiography in the Sonnets, in the events referred to, the relationships described, the emotions expressed, seems to me beyond dispute. It may not be their most important or interesting feature, but it can hardly be argued away.”

The only reason some scholars dismiss the disclosures of the Sonnets as “fictional” is that the poet’s self-portrait can’t be reconciled with what we know of William of Stratford. If the poet is Oxford, there is no difficulty–especially if the youth is also his prospective son-in-law. The famous “riddle” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is really the riddle of Shakespeare’s authorship, and the solution to both is the same.

Neither Cantor nor Bate nor any of my other antagonists (Frank Brownlow, writing in Chronicles, Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth, writing in National Review, James Bowman of the Times Literary Supplement, writing in The Washington Times, and a few others) bothered explaining why William of Stratford should write “fictional” poems whose speaker just happens to resemble Oxford so closely, or why the youth should just happen to resemble Southampton just as closely. None denied the resemblance of the poet and the youth to Oxford and Southampton. Some of them made no mention of the Sonnets at all!

Bowman took a slightly different tack. “Mr. Sobran,” he wrote, “attempts to draw autobiographical inferences from literary works in a way that virtually the entire spectrum of professional critics has regarded as impermissible, at least since W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy (1946).”

But the “intentional fallacy” is the fallacy of inferring an intention of the poet that is irrelevant to the poem as a work of art. It doesn’t mean that poets never write autobiographically, as witness, for example, the sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth. No literary biographer would dream of ignoring such poems as Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.

Following the lead of Cantor and Bate, Bowman, abruptly changing course, further charged me with “two highly dubious assumptions–first that the Sonnets must be autobiographical and second that our lack of evidence relating to Shakespeare’s [that is, William's] life in London means that something like the experiences described in the sonnets did not happen to him.” Not a word about my actual argument; just the assertion of my “assumption” that the Sonnets “must be” autobiographical.

But here Bowman introduced a new note to the familiar Stratfordian defense. If it weren’t for our “lack of evidence,” the poet of the Sonnets might be seen to match William! So much for the “intentional fallacy”–perhaps the Sonnets are autobiographical after all!

Here Bowman tacitly concedes the point at issue: that the evidence we have, as opposed to the evidence we lack, would seem to favor Oxford. No more than the others does Bowman deny that the poet does seem to fit the known facts about Oxford; he merely pleads that if only we knew more about William, the poet might turn out to fit the facts about William just as well! Much virtue in “if.”

All these critics seem to have missed the whole point of Alias Shakespeare: that the existing evidence–especially the evidence of the Sonnets–reveals a poet who sounds mighty like the Earl of Oxford, and not at all like William of Stratford. That, in a nutshell, is what I was trying to get across.

As for evidence that has never turned up, I take no position, except that I am willing to agree that if evidence favoring William should ever turn up, it would no doubt strengthen the case for William. Which is to say that the case for William reduces to a purely hypothetical tautology. Granted, if we had proof of his authorship, it would prove he was the author. But unfortunately, we don’t and he wasn’t.

Having given away the game without realizing it, my critics, needless to say, resolutely maintained the usual authoritative tone of utter scorn that anyone should question William’s authorship.

Now comes Alan Nelson, who has actually done research on Oxford’s life. He charges me with about a dozen minor factual errors, few of which have even the slightest relevance to my argument (Elizabeth Vere’s age in 1590, for example). Unfortunately, he cites no sources so that we may judge whether my alleged errors are in fact errors; and Nelson’s inability to comprehend what he reads–he repeatedly misstates my argument, for example–doesn’t inspire confidence in his scholarship.

But let me pass over the factual quibbles and proceed to the crucial points in Nelson’s review. It’s amusing, by the way, that a review yielding the essential case for Oxford should have slipped under the radar of the august Shakespeare Quarterly.

Countering my argument that the Italian plays reflect Oxford’s youthful journey to Italy, Nelson replies that it is “not impossible that [William of Stratford] traveled to Italy — perhaps in a company of players” (my emphasis). But with “perhaps” and “not impossible,” just about any unsupported statement can be made trivially true. Of such qualifiers are Stratfordian biographies composed.

Here, Nelson, without realizing what he is saying, tacitly admits that the positive evidence favors Oxford, of whose Italian voyage there is no “perhaps” or “not impossible.” Besides travelling to the same cities Oxford visited in Italy, did William also meet the same two Italians Oxford mentions in his letters — Baptisto Nigrone and Benedic Spinola — whose names are fused in “Baptista Minola” in The Taming of the Shrew? And since Oxford met Spinola in Paris, not Italy, did William also visit France? Though it is “not impossible,” such reasoning forces us to posit too many coincidences, if not outright miracles.

Nelson avoids the specifics of the Sonnets showing that, as we have seen, the poet is, among other things, “lame.” This is really egregious dishonesty, since Nelson himself has published the very letter in which Oxford, writing to Burghley in March 1595, jokes about being “a lame man.” In the same way, Nelson fails to mention the charge of “buggering boys” made by Oxford’s enemies–an episode he is quite familiar with.

The overwhelming fact about the poet, missed by orthodox critics, is that he faces age and death with shame and guilt at the ruin he has made of his life; his only consolation being, as I say, his “lovely boy.” Again, this is not the outlook of a young, successful, prosperous writer from the provinces, taking the big city by storm.

How does Nelson handle the problem the Sonnets pose for William’s authorship? By resorting once again to the “not impossible” argument.

“The Sonnets,” he writes, “may bear a distinct relationship to what we do not know (which must be vastly more than what we know); nor are they by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about William]” (my emphasis).

Nelson fails to realize that he is conceding my whole case. We can only argue from “what we know,” not from “what we do not know.” Nelson is indirectly (and no doubt unconsciously) agreeing that “what we know” points to Oxford’s authorship, while speculating, with naive confidence, that “what we do not know” “may” favor William’s. Thus the case for William rests on non-existent evidence, while the case for Oxford rests on substantiated fact. Q.E.D.

That last sentence demands explanation: “[N]or are [the Sonnets] by any means impossible to reconcile with the little that is known [about William].” Really? How? Was William an aging nobleman and public figure, in disgrace, lame, bisexual, trained in the law, eager to see Southampton marry Elizabeth Vere? What conceivable evidence could turn up to support such an assertion? (Has Nelson ever read the Sonnets?)

Instead of showing how the poet of the Sonnets could possibly match William in so many respects, Nelson offers only the eccentric explanation that William might “feel old” by the age of thirty because he may have been “prematurely balding.”

“Prematurely balding”! As “scholarship,” which Nelson professes to uphold against “junk scholarship,” this is laughable. The poet describes himself as “old” (with “lines and wrinkles”), “lame,” “poor,” “despised,” “guilty,” “sinful,” “a motley to the view,” and many other unflattering things, but “bald” is not one of them.

This is where it gets good. After all, even Francis Bacon — a lawyer, a homosexual, a writer (and occasional poet), a nobleman who fell into disgrace — matches the poet’s profile better than William! If we enter another claimant, the scandalous homosexual Christopher Marlowe, William drops to a distant fourth place in the Authorship Sweepstakes. To such implications do Nelson’s concessions lead.

Most orthodox scholars insist that we know so much about William that the case for his authorship is conclusive. Nelson (as usual without realizing it) adopts the same new line as Bowman: that so “little” is known about William that his authorship is “not impossible.” The only thing Nelson does assume is impossible is that William is not the author, and, as a good fundamentalist of the orthodox persuasion, he is willing to accept any number of coincidences to sustain that assumption.

It may seem safer to stick with the standard line that the Sonnets are mere “fictions.” Like defense attorneys for a guilty client, most orthodox scholars want to declare this powerful evidence about the author inadmissible. But they fail to realize that to call the Sonnets fictions is to abandon them as evidence for William and to surrender them to the candidate who most closely matches the poet’s self-portrait: Oxford.

It bears repeating that if we regard the Sonnets as “fictions,” we must posit yet another coincidence to save William’s claim: that he would create an imaginary speaker with so many points of resemblance to the actual Earl of Oxford. We must further suppose that this imaginary being would lament his imaginary disgrace and urge an imaginary youth, coincidentally similar to the Earl of Southampton, to beget issue — themes without parallel in Elizabethan sonneteering.

As for the chapter in Alias Shakespeare which enumerates the many links between Oxford and Hamlet (along with other plays), Nelson merely says snidely that it is “mercifully short.” Dealing with the facts it presents (the many echoes of Oxford’s life and letters in Hamlet, for example) would no doubt have forced him to employ those giveaway qualifiers “perhaps” and “not impossible” with unseemly frequency.

He is likewise deaf to the dozens of echoes of the Sonnets in Oxford’s 1573 letter to Thomas Bedingfield. So many coincidences, one supposes–but why do they all point toward Oxford? Nelson scornfully quotes my suggestion that the Bedingfield letter constitutes one of the strongest pieces of evidence for Oxford, but he doesn’t explain to his readers why I think so.

Keeping readers in the dark about the contents of Alias Shakespeare seems to be a basic strategy of the Stratfordian critics. Nelson is the only one who even bothered with a glancing reference to the Bedingfield letter.

Nor does Nelson address the — extraordinary, one would think — fact that all three of the dedicatees of the Shakespeare works had been Oxford’s prospective sons-in-law; Southampton was matched with Elizabeth Vere; Pembroke with Bridget Vere; and Montgomery with Susan Vere (whom in fact he did marry). On the orthodox view, all these startling links with Oxford must be dismissed as more coincidences.

Most important, Nelson makes no attempt to show that either the plays or the Sonnets bear witness to William’s authorship. If William were the author, the total absence of links to him in his works would itself be a freakish coincidence. In the authorship debate, it is Oxford’s partisans who always appeal to the evidence of those works; the orthodox rely almost entirely on the name on the title pages and the Folio testimony, to which orthodoxy ascribes literal inerrancy.

Nelson makes it unanimous. None of the professed Stratfordians looks for support in either the plays or the Sonnets. I should add that I’ve also debated John Tobin, editor of Harvard’s prestigious Riverside Shakespeare, with the same results. He questioned my scholarship, my character, and everything but my virginity, but didn’t bother explaining how William could have written those Sonnets. Neither did several scholars I debated last year in a mock trial at the U.S. Supreme Court. (The jury was evenly divided–a moral triumph for the underdogs.)

I once asked David Kathman, a bright young Shakespeare scholar who claims to be Stratfordian: “Suppose the Shakespeare works had been ascribed to Oxford by the First Folio in 1623, and that his authorship had been accepted for four centuries. What in those works would have led you to break with the herd and challenge Oxford’s authorship? And what in those works would have led you to believe that the real author was William of Stratford?”

He had no answer. There is no answer. There are only indignant poses and quibbling diversions and blustering non-sequiturs by embarrassed scholars pretending to be convinced Stratfordians. I don’t rule out the possibility that some of them are deluded enough to think they really are Stratfordians.

But by now I know better.

Palamon and Arcite

by Katherine Chiljan

This article was first published in the Spring 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, three plays were produced based on Chaucer’s “The Knights Tale.” Palamon and Arcite, the main characters, are royal cousins whose close friendship is tested when they fall in love with the same woman. Military honor, symbolized by Arcite, and true love and passion, symbolized by Palamon, are also put to the test when the cousins duel for the hand of Emilia. The gods decide the outcome. This is the essential plot of the story, which has origins in Boccaccio’s La Teseida and the epic poem Thebaid by Statius (d. 90 AD).

The first play, Palamon and Arcite, debuted at Oxford University in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s visit of 1566, and has the distinction of being the first dramatization of The Canterbury Tales. In 1594 a play of the same title had four performances at the Rose theater, according to Henslowe’s diary. In 1634, a third play about the royal cousins is printed, titled The Two Noble Kinsmen by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare–a first for Shakespeare to share billing on a title page. Both authors had been dead for several years. The “Stratford Shakespeare’s” vital statistics of 1564-1616 has rendered it unthinkable that these three plays were related, but if the Earl of Oxford’s pen name was “Shakespeare,” evidence suggests that they were essentially the same play by Oxford with later additions by Fletcher.1

The problems of Two Noble Kinsmen

After years of controversy, most scholars agree that TNK’s main plot (Acts I & V) was composed by Shakespeare, and that the subplot– the play’s majority– was written by Fletcher, explaining why his name topped Shakespeare’s on the title page. By assuming the two collaborated, scholars conclude that TNK was Shakespeare’s very last effort, yet they’re puzzled why the play lacks the quality of his late works. Shakespeare’s abandonment of his art, wrote Harold Bloom of this play, is virtually unique in the annals of Western literature.

There’s no evidence, however, that the two collaborated. According to Paul Bertram, the prologue and epilogue is where dual authorship would be acknowledged; in TNK it is not. In fact the prologue explicitly makes reference to a single writer:

Chaucer of all admired, the story gives…
If the first sound this child hear be a hiss,
How will it shake the bones of that good man
And make him cry from underground, Oh fan me
From the witless chaff of such a writer
That blasts my bays and my fam’d works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood

Bertram’s argument is further supported by Leonard Digges’ commendatory poem to Shakespeare (1640):

Nor begs he from each witty friend a scene
To piece his acts with, all that he doth write
Is pure his own; plot, language exquisite.

It’s most unlikely that Fletcher’s subplot about the daughter of Palamon and Arcite’s jailer–a poor imitation of Ophelia — was part of the original play, as it had almost no relation to the main plot. One can only conjecture that the first and last acts of Shakespeare’s original version had survived, and that later Fletcher filled in the rest. Fletcher rode on the coattails of Shakespeare before — as late as 1611 he wrote a sequel to Taming of the Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed.

Scholars are unsure about the dating of TNK, but place it no earlier than 1613 because the morris dance in Fletcher’s subplot was virtually copied from a masque by Francis Beaumont acted before King James in the same year. That composition date may be true about Fletcher’s portion of the play, but there’s evidence that Shakespeare’s portion was written earlier. In 1606, Barnabe Barnes in his Four Books of Offices wrote that war “is the noble corrector of all prodigal states, a skillful bloodletter against all dangerous obstructions and pleurasies of peace” — a clear echo of Arcite’s prayer to Mars in Act V, scene 1 of TNK:

Oh great corrector of enormous times;
Shaker of o’er-rank states; thou grand decider
Of dusty and old titles, that heal’st with blood
The earth when it is sick and cur’st the world
O’th’ pleurisy of people

In 1605, Palamon was the main character in Samuel Daniel’s The Queen’s Arcadia, which, if this is another allusion to the play, pushes TNK’s date back a year more, and into a period when Fletcher was not known to be writing. The way then is cleared to link TNK with performances of Palamon and Arcite by the Admiral’s Men in 1594 at the Rose Theater.

Now here’s a true connection of the 1566 play to TNK. In TNK when Palamon is called down from the scaffold, no longer condemned to die as the loser of the duel, he says in disbelief, “Can that be, / When Venus, I have said, is false?” (V, iv, 44).

In TNK, Palamon never berates the goddess, but he did in the 1566 play, according to the summary by spectator John Bereblock, fellow of Exeter College. Palamon, “having failed of every hope …casts reproaches upon Venus, saying that he had served her from infancy and that now she had neither desire nor power to help him.” The absence of this important detail indicates that TNK was not a coherently written play and that original material had probably been lost or censored. An even more convincing link of TNK to the 1566 play occurs in the last lines of the prologue:

If this play do not keep,
A little dull time from us, we perceive
Our losses fall so thick, we must
Needs leave.

The reference to “our losses,” says Bertram, was probably an allusion to some public misfortune that befell the acting company. It is unlikely that a dramatist would go out of his way to be unintelligible in a prologue designed to court the favor of his audience, and the “losses” would presumably have been well enough known for the audience to recognize the reference and respond to it.

There are various interpretations for our losses but critics are far from consensus on this mysterious reference.

Earlier play answers the questions

Let’s turn to Oxford University in 1566. The biggest event is the play, Palamon and Arcite, to be acted by students.2 Rehearsal previews are outstanding, spectacular scenery and effects are eagerly anticipated, as is the Queen’s attendance. After the Queen and her train are seated, a crowd throngs into Christ Church hall by way of a staircase, which, from the pressure, rips out of the wall, killing three people and injuring more. (John Elliott, Jr. discovered that for aesthetic reasons, a new coat of lead had been laid on the steps.) Remarkably, after the rubble had been cleared, the show went on! Bereblock wrote,

This untoward happening, although touching everyone with sadness, could by no means destroy the enjoyment of the occasion. Accordingly, taught by the misfortune of the others to be more careful, all turn again to the play.

The reference to our losses from the staircase disaster would have been clearly understood by the audience — a somewhat necessary insertion considering that three deaths weren’t enough to halt the entertainment. These two examples present in my opinion strong evidence that TNK is comprised of parts of the 1566 play.

What hasn’t been explained is that the authorship of the 1566 play in contemporary accounts was attributed to Master Richard Edwards.3 Two months before the Queen’s visit to Oxford, Edwards was preparing the entertainment at the university. It’s recorded that he rehearsed and directed three plays, trained actors, and supervised the construction of stage and scenery in Christ Church hall. Edwards’ biographer, Leicester Bradner, believed he — alone — would have been unable to write a play of two long parts in two months with that workload. Of course, he may have written it earlier, but there are other considerations to be looked at.

Edwards’ previous play was Damon and Pithias. Is it likely that an author would write two consecutive plays on the similar theme of friendship between two young gentlemen from ancient Greece? Both plays were compared by spectators, who agreed that Palamon and Arcite far surpassed Damon and Pithias; yet scholars have noted with surprise that in 1568 the students at Merton College, Oxford, chose to put on a revival performance of Damon and Pithias instead of Edwards’ more celebrated play. The same is true for printed editions: there were two editions of Damon and Pithias (1571, 1582), and several of Edwards’ poems were printed, but no effort was made to print Palamon and Arcite–resulting in the lost manuscript of the superior play.

TNK’s prologue, besides expressing insecurity about the worthiness of the play, metaphorically implies it was the author’s first effort: “New plays and maidenheads are near akin.” Edwards had been writing plays for at least 5 years — but what about the 16-year-old Earl of Oxford, who later was recognized as a top playwight?

Oxford as author?

It is indisputable that Oxford was present at the university during the Queen’s visit, as he received his master’s degree the day following the performance of Palamon and Arcite. We know that from his earliest years Oxford was deeply involved in literature. Arthur Golding (in his translation of Justin’s Histories of Trogus Pompeius, the first of many books Oxford patronized) attested to the earl’s “earnest desire…to read, peruse and communicate with others as well the histories of ancient times, and things done long ago… and that not without a certain pregnancy of wit and ripeness of understanding.” Oxford was only 14. At 16 Oxford was writing polished poetry, and Edwards was collecting it ( seven pieces were in his personal collection, later published as Paradise of Dainty Devices).

One portion of the 1566 play — Emilia’s song4 — has survived, and it very closely echoes Oxford’s early poetry:

Come follow me you nymphs,
whose eyes are never dry,
Augment your wailing number
now with me poor Emelie.

Give place ye to my plaints,
whose joys are pinched with pain:
My love, alas, through foul mishap,
most cruel death hath slain.

What wight can will, alas,
my sorrows now indict?
I wail and want my new desire,
I lack my new delight.

Gush out my trickling tears,
like mighty floods of rain:
My knight, alas, through foul mishap
most cruel death hath slain.

Oh hap, alas, most hard,
oh death why didst thou so?
Why could not I embrace my joy,
for me that bid such woe?

False fortune out, alas,
woe worth thy subtle train:
Whereby my love through foul mishap,
most cruel death hath slain.

Rock me asleep in woe,
you woeful Sisters three,
Oh cut you of my fatal thread,
dispatch poor Emelie.

Why should I live, alas,
and linger thus in pain?
Farewell my life, sith that my love
most cruel death hath slain.

Oxford’s early poems reveal a fondness for the words wail, plaint, wight, foul, hap, cruel, woe, pain and linger. Two poems contain the phrase “trickling tears,” and compare also Oxford’s “Patience perforce is a pinching pain” with the above “Whose joys are pinched with pain.”

An excerpt from Oxford’s “A crown of bays” encompasses much of the above word usage:

Melpomene, alas, with doleful tunes help then,
And sing bis woe worth on me, forsaken man.
Then Daphne’s bays shall that man wear, that triumphs over me,
For black and tawny will I wear, which mourning colors be.
Drown me you trickling tears, you wailful wights of woe,
Come help these hands to rend my hairs, my rueful haps to show.

Perhaps it was no accident that in The Arte of English Poesie “Th’ Earl of Oxford and Master Edwards of Her Majesty’s Chapel” were named together as deserving “the highest prize…for Comedy and Interlude.” (John Stow used the word comedy to describe the 1566 play Palamon and Arcite.) It could suggest that they collaborated, perhaps as writer and director respectively. Richard Edwards may have been Oxford-Shakespeare’s playwriting mentor, and as convention prevented nobility from publicly associating with the theater, perhaps Oxford allowed the Edwards attribution of Palamon and Arcite. But it appears that Oxford, whose family name was de Vere, implanted his signature in line 7 of TNK’s first act: Primrose, first-born child of Ver — a most uncommon word for spring.

In conclusion then, given what is known about the 1566 play Palamon and Arcite and its connections to TNK, it is reasonable to postulate that it was written by Oxford, probably his very first play, as the prologue suggests. His source may have been the new 1561 edition of The Canterbury Tales, which had long been out of print. The play’s success, with royal approbation, undoubtedly encouraged the young playwright. Oxford revised the play (along with others) in the 1590s and it was performed at the Rose Theater. After Oxford’s death, only part of the play survived, or censored portions were lost. Fletcher replaced the missing parts with a subplot, circa 1613, and this was the version that was finally printed in 1634, with the new title, Two Noble Kinsmen. As over half of the surviving play was Fletcher’s, it was purposely left out of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).


Adams, Joseph Q. Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, 1924.

Arnold, Janet. Lost from Her Majesties Back, The Costume Society Extra Series, no. 7, 1980.

The Arte of English Poesie, 1589.

Bertram, Paul. Shakespeare and the Two Noble Kinsmen, 1965.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: Invention of the Human, 1998.

Boas, Frederick. University Drama in the Tudor Age, Oxford, 1914.

Bradner, Leicester. “The Life & Poems of Richard Edwards” Yale Studies in English 74 (ed. Albert S. Cook), 1927.

Brandes, George. William Shakespeare: A Critical Study, vol. 2, 1898.

Chiljan, Katherine. Letters and Poems of Edward, Earl of Oxford (private printing, 1998).

Dictionary of National Biography

Durand, W.Y. “Palamon and Arcyte, Progne.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, ed. Charles H. Grandgent, vol. 20, 1905.

Durand, W.Y. “Notes on Richard Edwards.” Journal of Germanic Philology, ed. Gustaf E. Karsten, vol. IV, 1902.

Edwards, Richard. Paradise of Dainty Devices, 1575.

Elliott, Jr., John R. “Queen Elizabeth at Oxford: New Light on the Royal Plays of 1566,” English Literary Renaissance, vol. 18, 1988.

Ogburn, Charlton. The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Dodd, Mead and Co, New York, 1984.

Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Sir Paul Harvey, 1967.

Poems Written by Wil. Shakespeare, Gent., 1640.

Rollins, H.E. “A Note on Richard Edwards,” Review of English Studies, vol. 4, 1928.

Stowe, John. The Annals or General Chronicle of England, 1614.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, Arden Shakespeare, 3rd edition, ed. Lois Potter, Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., Walton-on-Thames, 1997.


  1. John Fletcher (1579-1625) was educated at Cambridge University. He wrote about 16 plays solo, and collaborated with Beaumont, Massinger, Rowley and others on several more. His father was the Queen’s personal chaplain and later Bishop of London.
  2. Miles Windsor (d. 1624) acted in the play (Perithous, according to Elliott) and wrote an important historical account of it. Windsor began study at Oxford in 1556/7, and was awarded an M.A. in 1566. He was the first cousin of Edward, 3rd Lord Windsor–Oxford’s brother-in-law. Unfortunately, Miles Windsor made no mention of Oxford in his account–perhaps he was reluctant to mention nobility in association with theater. The day after the Queen left Oxford, Lord Windsor (1537-1575) entertained her at his estate in Bradenham, Buckinghamshire.
    A fascinating note is that the Queen allowed royal garments to be used as costumes for this production. Windsor mentioned King Edward’s cloak, presumably that of Edward VI, and according to the logbook of the Queen’s Wardrobe, there was occupied and worn at Oxford in a play before Her Majesty certain of the apparel that was late Queen Mary’s. The forequarter of a gown without sleeves of purple velvet with satin ground was lost.
  3. Richard Edwards (1523?-1566) died two months after the performance of Palamon and Arcite at about age 40. The circumstance of his death is unknown. He was master of the Children of the Chapel (choirboys that entertained the Queen with plays and concerts) from 1561 to his death. His acquaintance with Oxford may have began at the wedding of Lady Anne Russell and the Earl of Warwick in August, 1565, where Oxford was a page and Edwards took part in the entertainments. Possible mis-attributions of Oxford’s work to Edwards are two songs: (1) “In Commendation of Music,” part of which was featured in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (IV,v,155); and (2), a song from Edwards’ Damon and Pithias, probably first performed during Christmas, 1564. Both pieces are reproduced below (following footnote 4).
  4. Arbor of Amorous Devices, registered Jan. 7, 1594 (unsigned), and British Museum Additional MS 26,737, fol. 106, signed “The song of Emelye per Edwardes.”
    In Commendation of Music
    Where gripping griefs the heart would wound
    And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
    Then music with her silver sound,
    Is wont with speed to give redress.
    Of troubled mind for every sore,
    Sweet music hath a salve therefore.
    In joy it makes our mirth abound,
    In grief it cheers our heavy sprites,
    The careful head release hath found,
    By music’s pleasant sweet delights.
    Our senses, what should I say more,
    Are subject unto music’s lore. The gods by music hath their prey,
    The foul therein doth joy,
    For as the Roman poets say,
    In seas whom pirates would destroy,
    A dolphin saved from death most sharp,
    Arion playing on his harp. A heavenly gift, that turns the mind,
    Like as the stern doth rule the ship,
    Music whom the gods assigned
    To comfort man, whom cares would nip.
    Sith thou man and beast dost move,
    What wise man then will thee reprove?Song from Edwards’ Damon and Pithias (line 588+)

    Awake ye woeful wights,
    That long have wept in woe:
    Resign to me your plaints and tears,
    My hapless hap to show.
    My woe no tongue can tell,
    Ne pen can well descry.
    Oh, what a death is this to hear:
    Damon my friend must die. The loss of worldly wealth,
    Man’s wisdom may restore,
    And physic hath provided too,
    A salve for every sore: But my true friend once lost,
    No art can well supply,
    Then what a death is this to hear:
    Damon my friend must die. My mouth refuse the food,
    That should my limbs sustain.
    Let sorrow sink into my breast,
    And ransack every vein. You Furies all at once,
    On me your torments try:
    Why should I live, since that I hear:
    Damon my friend should die. Grip me you greedy griefs,
    And present pangs of death,
    You Sisters Three, with cruel hands,
    With speed now stop my breath. Shrine me in clay alive,
    Some good man stop mine eye:
    Oh death come now, seeing I hear,
    Damon my friend must die.

Thomas of Woodstock

by Mark K. Anderson

This article was first published in the Summer 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


It’s hard to believe that nearly four centuries after the author’s death a work of Shakespeare would still lie unproduced, unacted and unregarded. But in the anonymous Elizabethan historical drama Thomas of Woodstock, the Hampshire Shakespeare Company has unearthed one of the most promising contenders for anointment with the million-dollar tag “Written by William Shakespeare.”

The arguments for Woodstock’s canonization are compelling, though they can be touched upon only briefly here. The drama also provides the missing piece of a historical puzzle famously set out by Shakespeare. And it proves to be a surprisingly accessible, clever, fun, tragic, humorous and engaging text — long overdue for the public’s consideration and entertainment, regardless of author.

Thomas of Woodstock is named after and centers on one of the infamous seven sons of the 14th-century British monarch Edward III. King Edward’s offspring ultimately led the country through a century-long soap opera of intrigue, treason, greed, revenge, lust and war. And Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, played a crucial role in unfolding the drama at the outset.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), the nation had put the War of the Roses into its collective past. But the populace had certainly not forgotten the battles and generations’ worth of strife. And, as the country endured a long-simmering war against Spain, Shakespeare’s recapitulation and contemporization of the civil tumult was a popular and widely praised enterprise. Some even think the Queen hired the author to craft patriotic propaganda for both the church and state that would arouse public sympathy for the crown and help the nation stave off the Spanish, Catholic menace.

Whether created for his own edification or for the Elizabethan state’s self-interest, Shakespeare’s history plays tell a nearly complete story of the War of the Roses from beginning to end.

It’s “nearly complete” in that part of the beginning — one of the crucial events leading up to the deposition of Richard II in 1399–is left untold. The first of Shakespeare’s “Lancastrian history cycle” is Richard II, and opens with a trial whose ostensible purpose is to discover who killed Thomas of Woodstock.

The background and the eventual enactment of Woodstock’s murder are precisely what Thomas of Woodstock is about. It’s the prequel to Shakespeare’s history plays that Shakespeare should have written — and, perhaps anonymously, did.

One of the chief problems of staging Thomas of Woodstock is that the play has no end. The only extant copy of the drama is a manuscript in The British Museum in London, and the final page or pages are missing. (The document is a prompt-book script, used for drama troupes of the Elizabethan period, and does not, unfortunately, appear to be written out by the author himself.)

When the Hampshire Shakespeare Company decided to take on Thomas of Woodstock — a play that, according to every source yet consulted, appears to have never been staged on these shores — it cleverly solved the problem with a contest.

The company spread the word earlier this year that it needed a late-20th-century bard to finish the late-16th-century Bard’s handiwork. If Woodstock had come from a later period in the artist’s development, of course, the contest would have been a cruel taunt. Since the work is still leagues away from the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s development, though, the task was daunting but certainly not insurmountable.

The winning entry — written by Frederick Carrigg of Agawam and chosen by a panel of three local judges — sews up the drama comfortably and sets the stage for the political unraveling that begins with Shakespeare’s Richard II and ends with soon-to-be Henry VII’s slaying of Richard III and rout of Richard’s forces on the field of Bosworth in 1485.

The other unusual dramatic challenge Woodstock posed was that the script calls for a courtier to ride onstage on horseback. And, while the director admits the parts would have been simple enough to cut, the comic exchange between Woodstock and the horse is so much fun and so Shakespearean — a la Launce’s harangue to his dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona — that director Timothy Holcomb opted instead to ransom his kingdom for a horse and proceed with the play as written.

The equine role, incidentally, will be handled by a gelding named Poco. “Has a wonderful temperament. Very agreeable,” Holcomb said. “Nothing phases him. Does what he’s told. Never misses a line.”

For those who follow the new discoveries surrounding Shakespeare’s life and works, Woodstock represents a small part of a truly monumental paradigm shift now under way.

Newly rediscovered Shakespeare works have been cropping up like wildflowers over the past few decades. Some, in the case of the anonymous Elizabethan plays Edmund Ironside and Edward III, are slowly being integrated into the officially sanctioned Shakespeare canon after the publication of comprehensive attribution studies (both, in this case, undertaken by the British scholar Eric Sams; the former in 1986, the latter in 1996).

We can only hope that others — such as the imitative, dry and ineffectual poem A Funeral Elegy for William Peter (an early-17th-century Shakespeare rip-off that, nevertheless, is included in the current edition of the industry-standard textbook The Riverside Shakespeare) — are temporary lapses in the critical judgment of the “experts.”

As the Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s production bravely sets forth, Thomas of Woodstock belongs with Edmund and Edward as an example of the bard’s early dramatic output. The troupe’s promotional material for the show does not attribute Woodstock to anyone — save, in the play’s program, where it’s attributed to “Anonymous.” Nonetheless, following a literary manhunt that stretches back into the 19th century, the program notes encourage what promises to be an exciting line of inquiry.

Although no definitive study advancing a Bard-authored Woodstock has yet been done, the program’s introduction to Woodstock quotes Shakespeare scholar Ian Robinson’s 1988 study of the play: “Who else but Shakespeare writes like this?” he asks. Essayist Roger Stritmatter of UMass’ comparative literature department, who also first brought Woodstock to Hampshire Shakespeare’s attention, replies, “The question is rhetorical: the only answer — with exception taken for the anonymous composition — is ‘nobody.’”

To those familiar with Shakespeare’s hallmark style, the play resounds with language, characters, rhetoric, scenes and allusions that sound suspiciously like our man, albeit in a youthful outpouring of his raw talent. If you go to this Woodstock expecting Hamlet, Richard III or even one of the comparatively unrefined Henry VI trilogy, you will be disappointed. No question.

But if you go to the show with a curious, skeptical mind, expecting a sampling of the Bard’s juvenilia, you may walk out at the end of the night saying, “So that’s how Shakespeare started out …”

The play, in short, is pockmarked with the rough pavement and potholes that young writers inevitably leave behind when first developing their art. It also contains moments of genius, transcendent wit and youthful exuberance that would recommend this production to any lover of historical — and literary — mysteries.

As Holcomb put it, “Here’s something that’s sat on the shelves, and the damned thing plays. It’s good theater.” Just as Shakespeare’s Richard II presents the titular monarch as an early draft of Hamlet — pensive poet-like royalty whose thoughts prove a truer kingdom than anything the real world presents — Woodstock casts through plot lines and character sketches that prefigure King Lear. Here King Richard II displays a Lear-like penchant for indulging sycophants and banishing the voices of truth. In that sense, Woodstock becomes a figure like Lear’s Kent — a man almost tragically predisposed to call everything for what it is.

When I pointed this out to Holcomb, he added, “It’s got this static-ness that finally breaks in Act Five. There’s the suggestion of a paring away that our playwright picks up — and the last actors on stage are York and Lancaster. It’s the same kind of ‘what are we going to do now?’ question that gets posed at the end of Lear.”

Still, Woodstock chooses a Hamlet-like course of inaction — and loses his life as a result. Ultimately, the line that best summarizes the play (spoken by Woodstock) resonates with one of the great overriding themes that pervades the Shakespeare canon: “When kingdoms change, the very heavens are troubled.”

When Richard’s queen dies, in the words of Woodstock’s servingman, “The lights of heaven are shut in pitchy clouds/And flakes of fire run tilting through the sky/Like dim ostents to some great tragedy.”

Woodstock’s multi-hued use of language also reveals a Shakespearean love of words, setting forth the same kind of idiosyncratic wordplay that define Shake-speare’s style — in more elemental form than what can be found in his mature works. The Shakespearean trick of antithesis and verb-noun inversions, for instance, dot the dialogue (“this chain doth, as it were, so toeify the knee and so kneeify the toe, that between both it makes a most methodical coherence, or coherent method”).

And one of Shakespeare’s favorite rhetorical forms — two complementary or even near-synonymous words joined by “and,” such as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — is so prevalent in Woodstock that I lost count by Act Two (“tax and pill,” “remiss and inconsiderate,” “mickle care and woe”).

Some scholars now argue that Woodstock is a 19th-century forgery, that the work indeed has many Shakespearean characteristics but is both too immature and perhaps too Shakespearean to be believed. To that accusation, Holcomb asks why a hypothetical forger would have created a drama that never appears to have been staged and never even states who the author is. History has seen several Shakespeare forgeries — but the forger has always derived some personal, professional or economic gain from it.

“I think there’s way too much stuff in here for someone to put the energy and time into this and then not do anything with it,” Holcomb said. “If it was a hoax, why didn’t it play? Why didn’t somebody make money off it?”

Put such questions of authorship and authenticity to the play itself — or at least to the version that includes Carrigg’s elegant two-page ending — and you find yourself concluding with the closing couplet:

“Only through plainness and truth dare we lay / The fate of the Crown on this field this day.”

“What Author would conceale his name?”

By James Fitzgerald

This article was first published in the Summer 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


The lawyer and writer John Stephens, of a large and politically-active Gloucestershire family, became an “admitted member” of Lincolns Inn in 1611. Stephens is remembered by some for his Satyrical Essayes, Characters, and Others or accurate and quick descriptions fitted to the life of their subjects (1615). Nicholas Storogenko, in Notes and Queries (4th ser., iii, 550-51, 1869), characterized Essayes as the most accomplished of several conscious imitations of Bacon’s Essayes (1597) which enjoyed considerable eclat among a scandal-attuned readership who strove to make out the personal allusions obscured by a fog of generalities.

Of specific and especial interest to Oxfordians is Stephens’s essay “A Worthy Poet,” his representation of the Poet-Ideal. Storogenko sees a similarity between Stephens’s “Worthy Poet” and Shakespeare, and quotes Stephens:

He only among men is nearest infinite; for in the scenical composures of a tragedy or comedie, he shewes the best resemblance of his high Creator, turning his quicke passions and witty humors to replenish and overcome into matter and form, as infinite as God’s pleasure to diversifte mankinde.

Storogenko ignores the boundaries between the categories of poet and playwright in observing that “among the dramatists of the day” only Jonson might be considered a rival, but he then goes on to show that Stephens was at pains to exclude Jonson on the grounds that, unlike Jonson, the “Worthy Poet” was more indebted to the moderns for his sources than to the ancients.

In support of his relay of Stephens’s views, Storogenko quotes one Headley that “were the ancients to reclaim their property, Jonson would not have a rag to cover his nakedness.”

In the Dictionary of National Biography entry on Stephens, A. F. Pollard cites Storogenko, remarking that “A Worthy Poet” has been perceived as a veiled portrait of Shakespeare, but “on no very conclusive grounds.”

A monument to whom?

According to Storogenko, Stephens educes a “biographical fact” in Shakespeare’s life when he observes that…

When he is lastly silent (for he cannot die), he findes a monument prepared at others cost and remembrance, whilst his former actions be a living epitaph.

Storogenko asserts that “this last allusion to Shakspeare is so clear that it needs no further explication,” identifying it as the final encomium to [the Stratford] “Shakespeare” before his death in 1616.

Yet the quoted passage seems better suited to Oxford-as-Shakespeare.

Let us first scotch the objection most likely to be raised to the foregoing proposition, that the present tense of the passage consorts with the still-living state of William of Stratford in 1615 and conflicts with the defunctiveness of Oxford after 1604. In delineating his Poet-Ideal, it is unremarkable that Stephens would employ an eternal-present tense, since the Poet-Ideal is a philosophical entity and so stands outside time. In fact, if Stephens did take the biographical particulars of some living model as the clay from which to shape his Ideal, we are compelled to interpret the gnomic present as a projection from a real historical past. Here that means that the real poet (and dramatist, by Storogenko’s lights) indeed is silent, probably because he has died; a monument has already been prepared for him at others’ expense; and his “former actions” — to wit, his literary works — continue to exist as his epitaph.

There are two expressions in the quotation that tend to qualify Oxford (if Stephens did indeed take Shakespeare for his paradigm) and to disqualify William of Stratford.

“For he cannot die,” declares Stephens of the Poet-Ideal. Would this be said any more frequently of the living, one wonders, than the “ever-living” of The Sonnets dedication?

“Whilst his former actions be a living epitaph,” he then adds. Who would ever so characterize one who was not yet a tenant of the narrow house? Truly, this passage doth breathe the cypress and the willow.

Owing to its peculiar concreteness, the phrase “a monument prepared at others cost and remembrance” strikes one as a genuine event which Stephens has blithely lifted into the empyrean as a typical characteristic of the Poet-Ideal. Going along with Storogenko — that Stephens has fashioned his Poet-Ideal from Shakespeare — can we avoid reading here an allusion to the Stratford monument?

Supposing it to be the Stratford monument, it must have come into existence after the death of Oxford and before the death of William of Stratford (a possibility that the deep-diving Robert Detobel of Frankfurt, Germany, has already surmised). Stephens could have seen the Stratford monument finished, or in the process of completion, prior to its installation at Stratford, sometime during that period after Oxford’s death in 1604, when the creators of the Stratford myth were waiting for the Stratford “Shakespeares” to disappear, and thereby relieve the Shakespeare-Folio project of its chief potential embarrassments.

While it may not be wise policy to stray too far beyond the illumination of evidence, we would all the same be too timid and prudential not to at least acknowledge the good fit between the apparent timing of the fabrication of the monument and the Oxfordian hypothesis of a possible larger fabrication: that William of Stratford was eventually to be employed, that is to say, paid off, to serve as the dummy upon which to drape the literary habiliments of the true Shakespeare.

Who is a concealed Author? — and why?

Moving back closer to the fire, there remains the matter of how Stephens might have known that a monument had been prepared for “Shakespeare” by 1615. The solution seems relatively straightforward, even convincing, if we take the following as evidence: John Stephens knew Ben Jonson personally.

Stephens was also the author of a play, called Cynthia’s Revenge, or Menander’s Exstasy. The DNB entry (describing it as “long and tedious,” and based upon the Pharsalia of Lucan and the Metamorphoses of Ovid) gives it a date of 1613 and reports that it was published on the quiet, without being entered into the Stationers’ Register. Jonson supplied the following commendatory poem, entitled “To His Much and Worthily Esteemed Friend the Author”:

Who takes thy volume to his vertuous hand,
Must be intended still to understand:
Who bluntly doth but looke upon the same,
May aske, what Author would conceale his name?
Who reads may roave, and call the passage darke*,
Yet may as blind men sometimes hit the marke.
Who reads, who roaves**, who hopes to understand,
May take thy volume to his vertuous hand.
Who cannot reade, but onely doth desire to understand,
Hee may at length admire.

*darke: obscure
**roave: shoot to determine the range

Nine of these ten Jonson lines verge on literal nonsense. Three relatively incoherent lines lead up to line four, which asks unambiguously — and momentously, being uniquely italicized in the original — “what author would conceal his name?”

The concluding six lines are more mumbo-jumbo out of which we can only glean the sense that a hidden meaning in literature (i.e. hidden in “the passage darke”) is difficult to bring into the light, with success being a hit-or-miss affair.

Jonson’s commendation has little, if anything, in it to connect it to the work to which it is prefixed. His deliberately incondite warning about secret messages is generic. And, finally, what author would conceal his name?

The italicized portion of line four has really little to do with the other nine lines of matrix, except that all ten bear upon that which is hidden — and ought, perhaps, to be revealed. Cool as a cuckoo, Jonson has dropped line four into the nest confident that to the inattentive reader of his encomium his lines shall prove to be no more than nine dull and incomprehensible eggs — and one ovate ringer.

The hiding place commendatory

A close investigation of Stephens’s book of philosophical satires and his play must await a subsequent article, yet here we see perhaps that this minor and hitherto ignored genre of poetry, the literary-commendatory verse of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, bears examination in the ongoing Shakespeare authorship controversy. This verse and others like it have been ignored for good reason, as they were the dust jacket blurbs of the age. Read, for example, the grandiloquent English eulogies to be found at the front of Du Bartas’ Divine Weeks (“How great thou art, how great thine art…”).

The ruefully illuminating experience of Ben Jonson supports the view that such commendatory verse is the branch of the McPoetry clan living up in the hollow. Jonson’s introductory verse to the First Folio probably ranks as the greatest eulogy of one writer for another in the English language. It may be Jonson’s greatest poem. But its strange — yet not strange — fate has been to serve as a now well-turned forty acres of Shakespeare research, where the diggers, intent upon the fragment of bone and the shard of pottery, have gone blind to the beauty of the lie of the land.

To end with a question is to end with a beginning, but: where was there a handy place in the Tudor and Jacobean world of letters to cache sensitive or explosive material where it might avoid premature exposure, and where it might enjoy protection from the total destruction or obscurity that is the customary fate of the long passage of time? It begins to look as if the commendatory poem may have been an almost allowed “drop” or hollow tree wherein one might conceal the goods.

To read the standard eulogistic confections in Josuah Sylvester’s Divine Weeks, for example, and then, by way of comparison, to re-examine there the Latin eulogy of Edward Lapworth, the bizarre-anywhere eulogy of R.R. (almost certainly by Jonson), and Jonson’s own signed eulogy, is to realize how thoroughly atypical are these latter (see Shakespeare Oxford Newsletters, Winter 1997 and Spring 1997).

Jonson’s weird accolade which we have just looked at seems but one more indication that in such aberrant dedications as these may authorship clues be discovered.