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Updated: May 5, 2021

This may seem an even sillier question than those I normally ask. I can hear the answer: because, on the title page of the plays, it says “by William Shakespeare”.

The question is only a sensible one for those heretics like me – and Mark Twain, Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, John Gielgud, Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi and actually many thousands of others – who think he didn’t. When and why did people start thinking he did?

To answer the question, we have to start with the curious fact that, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, no one – literally no one – thought he did. If they did, they kept very quiet about it and left no record. When he died in 1616, there was no public mention that the most famous poet and dramatist of his day had passed away: nothing but the bare record of his burial in the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon on 25 April 1616.

The first attempt to suggest that Will Shakspere (to use the name he normally used in Stratford) was the author seems to have been some six years after his death in 1623 when the first complete edition of the plays was published. We know it as the First Folio. But before looking at how it did this, there is another mystery to resolve.

The Upstart Crow

A curious pamphlet, apparently by a playwright called Robert Greene, published in 1592, contains a now famous passage that has been taken to be a scurrilous reference to Will Shakspere. The pamphlet was called Greene’s Groats-Worth of Witte. The passage appears to be warning fellow playwrights about an “upstart” actor benefitting from their writings. It reads like this:

“. . . those Puppets (I meane) that speake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours. . . . Yes, trust them not: for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

The purported links to Shakspere are two: first the phrase about a tiger’s heart seems to relate to a phrase in Henry VI Part 3; and second, obviously, the reference to “Shake-scene”. On the basis of these two links, people have concluded that Shakspere, the “Upstart Crow” (now, of course, picked up by Ben Elton in his comedy of that name), was an actor and playwright at the time and known to be such by the public.

However, recent scholarly research has shown this to be nonsense. It was much more likely to be an attack on the then prominent actor/manager Edward Alleyne, who was then well known and fits the description. There is no likelihood that Shakspere, even if he did at some stage do some acting, was known as such in 1592. No one would have connected Shakescene to the man from Stratford as the name Shakespeare was not associated with plays until some years later. So, admittedly mysterious as the passage is, buried as it is in a pamphlet about other things, there is no question of its being evidence of Will Shakspere being an actor, let alone an author.

The First Folio

As indicated, the first real connection of the plays of Shakespeare to Will Shakspere of Stratford appeared in the so-called First Folio, although even that is riddled with uncertainties and ambiguities.

The First Folio was published in 1623, some years after the death of Shakspere. It contains 36 of the plays that are reasonably firmly attributed to Shakespeare. The uncertainties and ambiguities relate to the introductory pieces written by Ben Jonson and, possibly, others.

The best-known reference is in the eulogy by Ben Jonson, a lengthy poem full of mysteries and oddities. Dryden, writing over a hundred years later, described it as “an insolent, sparing, and invidious panegyric”. How right he was! To quote the now famous reference:

“Sweet swan of Avon! what a sight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appear,

And make those nights upon the banks of Thames

That did so take Eliza, and our James.”

The oddity is that, back in 1623, few would have associated Shakespeare (or certainly Shakspere) with the term “Swan of Avon”. To us the connection seems obvious. But at that time, curiously, it would have been more likely to refer to the Countess of Pembroke, Mary Sidney (or Herbert), the mother of the two dedicatees of the First Folio. She was a significant literary figure in her own right (and has even been proposed as a possible author of the Shakespeare cannon), was presumably involved in the publication of the Folio, lived at Wilton which happened to be on another river Avon, and, rather amazingly, wore a swan motif on her elaborate collar. Was it meant to refer to her? And if so, why? Who knows? But ever since, the “Swan of Avon” has been assumed to be Shakespeare.

Another passage in the eulogy says “Thou art a Moniment (sic), without a tomb”. This links with another tribute in the Folio by a poet called Leonard Digges. He says, in a (somewhat ungrammatical) poem that Shakespeare’s works will live on when “Time dissolves thy Stratford Moniment”. These references have, of course, been taken over the years to refer to the monument in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. But why “moniment”, rather than “monument”? It was an alternative spelling for monument, but also in those days had a secondary meaning - a body of works. It makes one suspicious. In documents so riddled with ambiguities, it does make one wonder if the meanings are intended to confuse. It becomes all the more confusing – and interesting – when we get on to looking at the monument itself. See below.

And before we leave the Folio, we should consider another famous passage in Ben Jonson’s eulogy, which has been much quoted and has been important in the way that Shakespeare has been viewed over the years. Jonson says “though thou had small Latin and less Greek”. It is remarkable that it has been remembered in this way, in that nowadays we are well aware of the multiplicity of sources in many languages that Shakespeare must have used. But it was no throw-away remark. It was wholly consistent with other passages in the eulogy. The general thrust was to characterize Shakespeare as a natural, even rustic, writer who used no Art in his work. He was the popular actor-playwright, in contrast to Ben Jonson himself – giving rise to the distinction between Nature, personified by Shakespeare, and Art, represented by Jonson. This image persisted: Milton describes him “warbling his native woodnotes wild”. This idea of Shakespeare being an unlearned, simple, actor-playwright was reinforced by having it appear, quite unrealistically, that the Folio was published under the auspices of two actors, John Hemminges and Henry Condell, as homage to so “worthy a friend & fellow as was our Shakespeare”.

So, here we have the references to Will Shakspere: certainly not obvious; in each case ambiguous; but with an underlying message: the natural, unlettered genius.

The remarkable thing is that this, despite the confusions and ambiguities, was so successful. After the publication of the First Folio, the man from Stratford became identified, not quickly, but by degrees, as the author of the plays and the poems.

The Stratford monument

Frankly, the monument on the wall of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon cannot, in the first few years, have been a major influence in directing people towards Will Shakspere as the author. But it does seem to have been referred to in the cryptic words of Ben Jonson’s eulogy (and in Leonard Digges’ poem). What are the facts?

There are various curiosities. The first is that the bust of Shakespeare in the church at that time was not the same as the one we now see there. It was an image of someone who looked like a wool merchant, with his arms resting on a woolsack: no indication of his being a writer (see the image on the right). We know this from an image drawn by Sir William Dugdale in 1634. The earliest indication of a bust with him at least holding a pen is from the 18th century. (The present one is the one below the wool merchant.)

By contrast, the bizarre inscription does seem to be the same as the one still there. It is by no means the kind of inscription that one would expect, either for a successful local businessman (as he would certainly have been known in Stratford) or for the most revered poet and playwright of his age. It has two lines in Latin that say nothing about Shakespeare but refer to classical figures, namely Nestor, Socrates and Virgil; and six lines in almost unintelligible English that do at least refer to Shakespeare, albeit with his name spelt wrong.

One obvious conclusion is that the confusion is deliberate. The Folio refers to

a “moniment”: there would therefore have been an expectation in the minds of anyone familiar with it that there was one. But what kind of moniment or monument? The problem must have been that it should be that of a writer to satisfy the readers of the Folio - but of a businessman to satisfy the locals in Stratford. Hence the need for a degree of mystification. (It has nothing to do with the question I’m trying to explore, but Alexander Waugh has explained in a series of fascinating lectures on YouTube that the inscriptions are by no means unintelligible, and can be interpreted as clues, in a typically Elizabethan cryptic style, to the fact that Shakespeare is not buried in Stratford at all - but in Westminster Abbey.)

As already indicated, such was the confusion, deliberate or otherwise, the monument in the Stratford church cannot have been much influence on the way people thought about who wrote the plays, at least initially. That was of course to change, when tourists started to be encouraged to visit Stratford.

After 1623

How can we tell what most people thought about Shakespeare in the years and decades after the publication of the First Folio? Not long afterwards, the theatres were closed by the Puritans at the time of the Civil War. Then under Charles II a very different type of theatre took over, with what we think of as Restoration Comedy. King Lear certainly had to have a happy ending – and famously the play was amended accordingly.

But the underlying narrative started by Ben Jonson continued: Nature versus Art, with Shakespeare batting for Nature. John Ward, vicar of Stratford towards the end of the 17th century wrote: “I have heard yt Mr Shakespeare was a natural wit, without any art at all”. And John Aubrey in his famous Brief Lives (1681) perpetuated the story and added some of his own inventions and inaccuracies.

It was much later, in the middle of the 18th century, that the Stratford connection really took off. David Garrick staged his huge Jubilee at Stratford in 1769. Stratford-upon-Avon hasn’t looked back. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was founded in 1847 and is understandably hostile to any suggestion that their man might have had nothing to do with writing the plays performed under his name.


To conclude, it may well be surprising that the story – or, I would say, legend – of the man from Stratford appears to be based on a few small ambiguous remarks in the First Folio of 1623. But this would be to miss the point. The narrative of the man of genius, with a native wit, but limited formal education, writing the most brilliant and enduring works of literature the world has ever known, is powerful indeed. That is what had, and continues to have, such enormous appeal. It was really only in the 19th century that people like Mark Twain began to look at the reality behind it – and the struggle to get people to focus on the reality behind the legend still continues.

Tony Herbert

19 May 2020

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