“To the memory of my beloved, The Author MR. W I L L I A M S H A K E S P E A R E : A N D what he hath left us.”

Before We Get Started

By Dennis Abrams

First off, I’d like to briefly re-address the subject of my last post – was Shakespeare the author of the plays attributed to him?  I think I made my feelings on this subject very clear – yes, without a doubt, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

The next day, on the Huffington Post, there was a video interview with the director of the film “Anonymous,” Roland Emmerich, and a listing of what the article’s author felt were the most telling points Emmerich made against Shakespeare:

  • Born to illiterate parents, Shakespeare went on to possess the largest English vocabulary of any writer in history. Yet his two children, Susanna and Judith, couldn’t read or write.
  • The largest literary hunt in history produced not a single hand-written note by Shakespeare.
  • Shakespeare makes grandiloquent references to Italian cities, French court life, and the manners and etiquette of foreign lands — a third of his plays are set in Italy — but no documented record exists of him having traveled outside of England.
  • His last will makes no mention of any books or manuscripts, leaving the impression that he did not care about what happened to his life’s work after death.
  • Shakespeare retired in his late 40s and promptly returned to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he never wrote a single poem or sonnet again.

Let me address these one at a time:

1.  Other then the fact that Shakespeare’s father John signed his name with an “x” (as did many people of the time, regardless of their level of literacy), there’s no evidence one way or the other that he was illiterate, nor is there any real evidence that Shakespeare’s daughters were illiterate either – a lack of proof of literacy (handwritten letters etc.) can’t necessarily be read as signs of illiteracy either.

2.  It’s true that we have just fourteen total words written in Shakespeare’s own hand – his name signed six times and the words “by me” on his will.  But as David Thomas of England’s National Archives pointed out, “The documentation for William Shakespeare is exactly what you would expect of a person of his position from the time.  It seems like a dearth only because we are so immensely interested in him.  In fact we know more about Shakespeare than almost any other dramatist of his age.”

3.  Yep – Shakespeare makes references to Italian cities, French court life, the manners and etiquette of foreign lands – and no record exists of him having traveled outside of England.  But as we’ll see, his knowledge of geography outside of England is limited to say the least – in our first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, our heroes travel by ship from Verona to Milan – an impossibility.  And, of course, there’s no reason why he couldn’t learn about the intricacies of French court life and the manners and etiquette of foreign lands without actually having to have visited said countries.

4.  In Shakespeare’s time, the playwright did not own his own works – they were owned by the theater company, so it is no surprise that the manuscripts were not his to bequeath.

5.  After the publication of Hapworth 16,1946, in 1965, J.D Salinger never published another word, and although there are rumors of manuscripts to come, there has been no official word.  Harper Lee has written nothing since the publication of To Kill A Mocking bird.  Does this mean that they are not the authors of their books?

t’s grasping at straws.   It’s the unanimous word of his contemporaries that William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare vs. a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  In his private notebooks, written years after Shakespeare’s death, Ben Jonson wrote “I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out [a] line.  My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand,” adding, “for I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any.”  As Bill Bryson points out, “Rather a strange thing to say in a reminiscence written more than a dozen years after the subject’s death if he knew that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays.”   And with that, I’d like to end this discussion of the authorship of Shakespeare.


From the Pelican Shakespeare, “The Texts of Shakespeare”

“As far as we know, only one manuscript conceivably in Shakespeare’s own hand may (and even this is much disputed) exist:  a few pages of a play called Sir Thomas More, which apparently was never performed.  What we do have, as later readers, performers, scholars, students are printed texts.  The earliest of these arrive in two forms:  quartos and folios.  Quartos (from the Latin for “four.”) are small books printed on sheets of paper that we were then folded in fours, to make eight double-sided pages.  When they were bound together, the result was a squarish, eminently portable volume that sold for the relatively small amount of sixpence (translating in modern terms to about $5.00).  In folios, on the other hand, the sheets are folded only once, in half, producing large, impressive volumes taller than they are wide.  This was the format for important works of philosophy, science, theology and literature (the major precedent for a folio Shakespeare was Ben Jonson’s Works 1616).  The decision to print the works of a popular playwright in folio is an indication of how far up on the social scale the theatrical profession had come during Shakespeare’s lifetime.  The Shakespeare folio was an expensive book, selling for between fifteen and eighteen shillings, depending on the binding (in modern terms, from about $150 to $180).  Twenty Shakespeare plays of the thirty-seven that survive first appeared in quarto, seventeen of which appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime; the rest of the plays are found only in folio.”

[FYI, the plays that appeared in print for the first time in folio were:  Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, King John, All’s Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale, Henry VI, Part I, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, and Antony Cleopatra.  Had Shakespeare’s close friends and colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell not taken the trouble to put the folio together, it is likely that all of these plays would have been forever lost.  It is also worth noting that of the approximately three thousand plays thought to have been staged in London from the time of Shakespeare’s birth to the closing of the theatres by the Puritans in 1642, 80 percent are known only by their title.  Approximately 230 play texts still exist from Shakespeare’s time, including the thirty-eight by Shakespeare himself – about 15 per cent of the total.]


“The prefatory matter to the First Folio gives a good indication of the audience Shakespeare’s first editors assumed and solicited.  The title page has an engraved portrait of Shakespeare; this must derive from a drawing made many years earlier, during the period of his greatest success, since it shows a man in his mid-thirties – say the Shakespeare of around 1600, the Shakespeare of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.  He is dressed, however, as a prosperous gentleman, nothing in the portrait alludes to either the acting profession or the craft of writing.  [Bill Bryson describes the portrait from a different perspective:  “The Droeshout engraving, as it is known (after its artist, Martin Droeshout), is an arrestingly – we might almost say magnificently – mediocre piece of work.  Nearly everything about it is flawed.  One eye is bigger than the other.  The mouth is curiously mispositioned.  The hair is longer on one side of the subject’s head than the other, and the head itself is out of proportion to the body and seems to float off the shoulders, like a balloon.  Worst of all, the subject looks diffident, apologetic, almost frightened – nothing like the gallant and confident figure that speaks to us from the plays.”]

Facing the portrait is a poem by his friend Ben Jonson, the most famous poet of the age, assuring us that however accurate the likeness, Shakespeare’s works alone are the true image of his genius, and urging us to ignore the portrait – and implicitly the theater – and attend to the book.  The volume includes a fulsome dedication to the two brothers Philip Herbert, Earl of Montgomery, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, influential aristocrats and generous patrons of the arts, who are acknowledged for the particular favor with which they regarded ‘these trifles,’ Shakespeare’s plays – which, in the monumental folio, are no longer trifles.  Following this are four dedicatory poems, starting with Jonson’s great eulogy to the memory of Shakespeare, declaring him ‘not of an age, but for all time.’  The preliminaries conclude with a table of contents and a list of the principal actors of the plays on the stage, Shakespeare’s professional colleagues during his theatrical career.

The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, and was authorized by his fellow actors, the co-owners of the King’s Men.  This publication was certainly a mark of the company’s enormous respect for Shakespeare; but it was also a way of turning the old plays, most of which were no longer current in the playhouse, into ready money (the folio includes only Shakespeare’s plays, not his sonnets or other nondramatic verse).  Whatever the motives behind the publication of the folio, the texts it preserves constitute the basis for almost all later editions of the playwright’s works.  The texts, however, differ from those of the earlier quartos, sometimes in minor respects, but often significantly – most strikingly in the two texts of King Lear, but also in important ways in Hamlet, Othello, and Troilus and Cressida.  The differences in these texts represent, in a sense, the essence of theater; the texts of the plays were initially not intended for publication.  They were scripts, designed for the actors to perform – the principle life of the play at this period was in performance. And it follows that in Shakespeare’s theater the playwright typically had no say either in how his play was performed or in the disposition of his text – he was an employee of the company.  The authoritative figures in the theatrical enterprise were the shareholders in the company, who were for the most part the major actors.  They decided what plays were to be done; they hired the playwright and often gave him an outline of the play they wanted him to write.  Often, too, the play was a collaboration:  the company would retain a group of writers, and parcel out the scenes among them.  The resulting script was then the property of the company, and the actors would revise it as they saw fit during the course of putting it on stage.  The resulting text belonged to the company.  The playwright had no rights in it since he had been paid.  [MY NOTE:  Another reason why Shakespeare’s will made no mention of manuscripts – they weren’t legally his.]  (This system survives largely intact in the movie industry, and most of the playwrights of Shakespeare’s time were as anonymous as most screenwriters are today.)  The script could also, of course, continue to change as the tastes of the audience and the requirements of the actors changed.  Many – perhaps most – plays were revised when they were reintroduced after any substantial absence from the repertory, or when they were performed by a company different from the one that originally commissioned the play.

Shakespeare was an exceptional figure in this world because he was not only a shareholder and actor in his company, but also its leading playwright – he was literally his own boss.  He had, moreover, little interest in the publication of his plays, and even those that appeared during his lifetime with the authorization of the company show no signs of any editorial consent on the part of the author.  Theater was, for Shakespeare, a fluid and supremely responsive medium – the very opposite of the great canonical text that has embodied his works since 1623.

The very fluidity of the original texts, however, has meant that Shakespeare has always had to be edited.  Here is an example of how problematic the editorial process inevitably is, a passage from the most famous speech in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s balcony soliloquy beginning ‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’  Since the eighteenth century, the standard modern text has read,

What’s Montague?  It is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man.  O be some other name!

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.


Editors have three early texts of this play to work from, two quarto texts and the folio.  Here is how the First Quarto (1597) reads:

Whats Montague?  It is nor hand nor foote,

Nor arme, nor face, nor any other part.

What’s in a name?  That which we call a Rofe,

By any other name would fmell as fweet:

Here is the Second Quatro (1599):

What’s Montague?  It is nor hand nor foote,

Nor arme nor face, o be fome other name

Belonging to a man.

What’s in a name that which we call a rofe,

By any other word would fmell as fweete,

And here is the First Folio (1623):

What’s Montague?  It is nor hand nor foote,

Nor arme, nor face, O be fome other name

Belonging to a man.

What?  In a names that which we call a Rofe,

By any other word would fmell as fweete,

There is in fact no early text that reads as our modern text does – and that is the most famous speech in the play.  Instead, we have three quite different texts, all of which are clearly some version of the same speech, but none of which seems to us a final or satisfactory version.  The transcendentally beautiful passage in modern editions is an editorial invention:  editors have succeeded in conflating and revising the three versions into something we recognize as great poetry.  Is this what Shakespeare ‘really’ wrote?  Who can say?  What we can say is that Shakespeare always had performance not book in mind.”

I do want to point out that the above example of competing texts is the exception not the rule, and as we go through each play I’ll discuss which versions it is based on.  It is safe to say, though, that there is no “definitive” version of Shakespeare.  But considered to be among the best modern editions would be The Arden Shakespeare, The New Cambridge Shakespeare, The New Folger Library Shakespeare, The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, and The Riverside Shakespeare.  In addition, any of these editions should have textual notes indicating variants and alternative readings from either Folio or Quarto texts.


And finally, I had a request for my suggestions for supplemental texts.  I’m going to be making reference to a lot of other critical texts as we go along, but a few of my favorites include:

Harold Bloom               Shakespeare:  The Invention of the Human.

A.C. Bradley                Shakespearean Tragedy

Harold Goddard           The Meaning of Shakespeare

Marjorie Garber           Shakespeare After All

In terms of reference books, a good dictionary will definitely be helpful.  I also will have my side:

Dobson & Wells           The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

Crystal & Crystal          Shakespeare’s Words:  A Glossary & Language Companion

My next post will be Thursday night/Friday morning, with our reading “assignment” for the weekend, my introduction to The Two Gentlemen of Verona , and my suggestions on how to “read” Shakespeare.

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2 Responses to “To the memory of my beloved, The Author MR. W I L L I A M S H A K E S P E A R E : A N D what he hath left us.”

  1. GGG says:

    I like your screenwriter analogy. To me, just one of the problems with the “not Shakespeare” author theories is the difficulties it would present for revising and changing plays while they are being rehearsed and finalized, before the first performances. (And I mean the Very First performances.)

    I’m not a playwright or a screenwriter, but I imagine this as a really fluid, quick kind of writing: moving passages, coming up with new passages, deleting ones that don’t work. Seems like it would be hard for Shakespeare to notify the “real” author, wait for revisions, and present them to the actors in any realistic Elizabethan time frame (which would involve writing things out longhand, sending a messenger to wherever the “real” author might be–in London? at a stately home several days ride away?–then waiting for the return message, then copying out again in his own handwriting.) Of course, we could accomplish this today hiding out with our cell phone in a convenient closet. (And how would this have been done during the years after Oxford’s death when Shakespeare continued to produce plays?)

    This “immediate” responsive writing, that Shakespeare as an actor and author must have produced, to me fits with Jonson’s statement about never blotting out a line once it was written. No time for agonizing over exact word choice–the actors’ are waiting!

    P.S. Heard about your Shakespeare blog/reading project in Lisa Gray’s column in the Houston Chronicle.

    • GGG: Excellent point on yet another reason why it is ridiculous to believe that any other than William Shakespeare is the author of William Shakespeare’s plays. I’m glad you’re going to be joining us.


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