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  • Writer's pictureTony Herbert

The Shakespeare First Folio mystery

Updated: May 10

It’s been something of a mystery for 400 years. In 1623 almost all of the plays we think of as being by Shakespeare - 36 of them - were printed in a large “folio” edition, known to us today as the First Folio. It must have been a massive, and highly expensive, undertaking.


Who organised it all? And why?


The conventional story


The conventional story is that the plays were collected together by two actors in the theatrical company known as the King’s Men (formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men) and that they were the organisers. They, John Heminge and Henry Condell, say in a dedicatory letter that appears in the First Folio itself that they “offer” the plays to the brothers, the Earl of Pembroke and the Earl of Montgomery. They say that they do it “only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend & Fellow alive, as was our SHAKESPEARE”. (Interestingly, our so worthy friend doesn’t get a Christian name!)


Frankly, this story doesn’t stack up. As someone said, way back in the 18th century: “very fishy”. Two actors couldn’t conceivably have organised or, certainly, financed one of the biggest publishing ventures that had ever been attempted. Who then did? And why?


The speculations which follow are prompted by the detailed and fascinating researches of Joella Werlin, a family historian much involved in the work of the De Vere Society, the society devoted to the proposition that the plays and poems were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.


The Herbert family


The Folio was dedicated to William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Philip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery. This gives us the first clue. Actually, more than a clue, an obvious lead towards an understanding of what was really going on. They must clearly have been involved. But to go further, we have to get into the authorship question.


One of the main candidates is certainly Edward de Vere. It is instructive to assume that indeed he was the author, or at least the principal or leading author, and see how that fits in with a different narrative that is more convincing than the conventional one and which, as a result, gives further support to the view that he was indeed the author. Which is indeed my view.


We start with various family connections, connections between the family of the two

dedicatees, the Herbert brothers (sadly not ancestors of mine!), and Edward de Vere.


The first connection is that Philip Herbert, the Earl of Montgomery, was Edward de Vere’s son-in-law: de Vere’s youngest daughter, Susan, married Philip Herbert.


The next connection is that de Vere’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married William Stanley, the Earl of Derby. He was a writer. It has even been suggested that he was the author of the Shakespeare cannon. He certainly spent much time with his father-in-law, particularly during the 1590s when a few of the plays were first being published. Also, some of the plays, particularly Love’s Labour’s Lost, seem to reflect his experiences and influence. He indeed was the family member best placed to carry forward the printing project involving, as it must have done, editing the plays for publication.


So, we have a group of family members, members of one of the leading and wealthiest families in the country and related, directly or indirectly, to Edward de Vere.


Can we piece together what they then did and what their motives might have been?


Family affair


Here we are in the realms of speculation. How could we not be? No records seem to survive about the process by which the First Folio came into being. So we have to guess - as, of course, do believers in the conventional story, as no records survive of what would have been the enormous amount of work done by the two actors.


The first guess is pretty obvious. The family of Edward de Vere must have wanted to preserve the works of their admired and illustrious relative. About half of the plays - 18 to be precise - had never been published. These include some of the greatest, such as Anthony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Were it not for the First Folio, they might all have disappeared into the dustbin of history.


We can assume that the author himself continued to hold the manuscripts, not least because the plays were frequently revised. There is evidence that, after his death, members of the family did. The evidence is in a curious preface to the quarto edition of Troilus and Cressida, published in 1609. It refers to the grand possessors”, a phrase that must presumably refer to the family. It couldn’t conceivably have referred to two actors in those wickedly hierarchical and class-conscious days!


But were there obstacles to overcome? Probably.


And why the secrecy? As so many people have pointed out, Ben Jonson’s introduction in the Folio is riddled with ambiguities and what are presumably cryptic clues. If this wasn’t part of some elaborate conspiracy, we are forced back to Dryden’s view that it was an “insolent, sparing and invidious panegyric”. But why? Why did the “grand possessors” feel the need to get Ben Jonson to indulge his well-known abilities for confusion and obfuscation?


To answer these questions, we need to move away from the traditional view of dear old Will Shakespeare, with his “open and free nature” and his “gentle expressions”. We need to look at the reality of the wilder side of Edward de Vere.


This is where people get nervous. We are so schooled in the “dear old Will” story that it’s hard to believe that the genius who wrote the greatest works in the English language could have been other than a saintly figure. But let’s hold on tight and look at some facts. Remembering that geniuses aren’t always nice cuddly people - think Wagner, even Beethoven, and closer to our times, Picasso. And what about Byron - “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.




Edward de Vere


What about Edward de Vere? There is no doubt that he was in disgrace towards the end of his life. There is plenty of evidence. The best evidence is perhaps from him himself.


Sonnet 29 says:


When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself, and curse my fate . . .


Why was this so? As a young man, he was a star - even the star - in the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was a favourite of the Queen. It was assumed that he would have a glittering future in the affairs of state. But his volatile personality was his downfall. Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) who, in de Vere’s early days, was a great admirer, said later that “all his life he attracted scandal”.


When he was 17, in a temper he stabbed one of Cecil’s cooks, who died of his wound. He managed to be acquitted of murder. A few years later, he was behind a brawl in which a group of his men attacked others on the road between Gravesend and Rochester - an event that has resonated down the centuries because of the very similar Gadshill robbery in Henry IV Part 1. Then there was the famous tennis-court quarrel with Sir Philip Sidney that would have ended in a duel had the Queen not stepped in to forbid it. He was a temperamental, potentially violent, man.


When his wife, Anne, the daughter of William Cecil, was expecting her first child, he reacted violently to rumours that he was not the father. He essentially deserted her for about five years. She pleaded with him for a reconciliation. It did not endear him to her eminent and powerful father.


He had an affair with one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne Vavasour. She gave birth to a son by him. The Queen was furious. He, along with the mother and baby, were sent to the Tower of London. Indirectly, it caused brawls in the streets of London between him and relations of Anne, in which several men were killed.


By the mid-1580s he had lost his position at court. His relations with William Cecil, his father-in-law and the most powerful man in the country, were highly troubled and his relations with his son, Sir Robert Cecil, hostile. From then on and until his death, he had no part in public affairs. Wiliam Cecil referred to him as “ruined”.

There was another aspect that would have made certain family members - both Cecils and Herberts - unkeen to be associated with their late, though famous, relative. Many of the plays contain scurrilous caricatures: the pompous Polonius was certainly based on William Cecil; his son Robert has his lameness reflected in the “rudely stamped” Richard III; and Sir Philip Sidney, never a friend of de Vere (to put it mildly), but the beloved brother of the Herbert brothers’ mother Mary, appears only lightly disguised as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and, very possibly, as the Dauphin with his tennis balls in Henry V. There were probably many other naughty, satirical, barbs that are lost in the mists of time.


The political background


Despite his troubles, and even disgrace, there is no doubt that he was still the admired and revered author. In that capacity, he had a role in the affairs of state.


The history plays have been described as, in part, government propaganda, supporting the authority of the Tudor monarchy. For example, and as we are increasingly aware today, Richard III is full of historical inaccuracies, all set to denigrate the supposedly villainous subject of the play and support the virtuous claims of Henry VII.


Queen Elizabeth authorised an extravagant annuity for de Vere, for reasons that are still mysterious, but which must have had some connection with governmental services. The annuity was continued under James I under the unfriendly regime of Sir Robert Cecil.


The author and his plays had a value to the powers of the day. As always, governments seek control. Conveniently, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, was Lord Chamberlain. As such, he had authority (as Joella Werlin explains) over the Master of the Revels and public theatres, registering plays and enforcing compliance with royal edicts. This was important: as Hamlet observed, actors and plays were "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time".



The solution


The solution seems to have been twofold: to publish the plays under controlled conditions; and to distance them from the disgraced author.


To achieve these objectives, they obviously kept the pen-name William Shakespeare. The name was well-known to the reading public, following the publication in the 1590s of the two immensely popular narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece and also the fact that some of the plays had been published under the name.


It must have been convenient, to say the least, that there was an actor (or was he only an investor?) in the King’s Men called William Shaksper - near enough to “Shakespeare” to allow a useful degree of confusion. So the Herberts got the great master of ambiguous and playful subterfuge, Ben Jonson, to write a preface to the plays in the First Folio. He managed to write his preface in such a way as to give ambiguous pointers to the actor Will Shaksper from Stratford on Avon, at the same time as giving subtle, even more ambiguous and cryptic, clues toward the identification of the real author.


So, we have an impressive volume that has preserved the great works for posterity, produced in a way that concealed the identity of the author to the satisfaction, one must assume, of his immediate descendants and the authoritarian concerns of the then Stuart monarchy. (Over 230 copies survive, the largest collection being in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC but many of which are still in Britain.)


The subterfuge turned out to be more successful than presumably anyone could have forecast, although the cryptic and ambiguous hints toward the Stratford decoy were those that took off. By the 18th century it had become part of settled literary “truth” that the Stratford man was the author. And this “truth” still survives today, despite the doubts of many thousands from Mark Twain onwards and despite the labours and diligent researches of the many sceptics.

The great Henry James felt bold enough to say: ”I am sort of haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patent world”.

May 2024 

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