Diana Price reviews Stanley Wells’s Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare (2014)

NOTE: In this review, I refer to the man from Stratford as “Shakspere” and to the dramatist as “Shakespeare.” And if you have already read the opening paragraphs in my Amazon review, please click here to resume reading where you left off.


Prof. Stanley Wells has published a short book online, downloadable in Kindle, titled Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare (Kindle Singles, 4 Feb. 2014). At 57 pages, with virtually free access, it is a short read, available to anyone interested in the subject.

There is an obvious irony in the appearance of this e-publication, not quite one year since the publication of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, edited by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). The 2013 collection of essays by 20 specialists in various fields purported to put an end to the Shakespeare authorship question once and for all. That mission evidently fell short, or Wells would not feel any need to further defend the orthodox narrative.

I am one of many anti-Stratfordians who reviewed the 2013 collection of essays, posting my essay on my website, with slightly shorter versions on Amazon US and Amazon UK. I have to wonder whether Wells read any of the anti-Stratfordian criticism of the essays, as so many claims re-appear in his Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare. Since most of my objections concern claims that cannot be supported by the evidence, at least as I see it, I am concerned here with our disagreements over criteria and skepticism.

Wells’s pamphlet is a handy summary of unsupported claims for the orthodox narrative, and it reads plausibly enough for those with little interest in testing evidence. But he does not re-examine the evidence for Shakspere using the criteria routinely applied by most historians, critics, or biographers of other subjects. The unprecedented reliance on posthumous evidence to prove that Shakspere WAS Shakespeare is a subject on which the orthodox and I continue to disagree.

However, Wells does acknowledge that the first evidence in the historical record that identifies the playwright as the man from Stratford is posthumous; that evidence is, specifically, the Stratford monument and the 1623 First Folio testimony. As we agree on this point, it is appropriate for me to reiterate that Shakspere is the only alleged writer from the time period for whom one must rely on posthumous evidence to make the literary case, i.e., to support the statement that his profession was writing. As he pointed out in our exchange on BloggingShakespeare, Wells considers this distinction “irrelevant.”

Wells faults me for questioning the reliability of posthumous evidence: “Price irrationally casts doubt on posthumously derived evidence.” Most literary critics, biographers, and historians question the reliability of all evidence, including that which is posthumous. Such skepticism is not only rational, it is essentially just common sense.

Robert C. Williams makes the point: “A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provides evidence about the past. It is an original document created contemporaneously with the event under discussion” (The Historian’s Toolbox: A Student’s Guide to the Theory and Craft of History, 2003, p.58). Paul Murray Kendall puts it this way: “What a man leaves behind him after he dies is a mess of paper: birth certificate, school grades, diary, letters, check stubs, laundry lists . . . This paper trail, extending from his entrance to his exit, is what the biographer tries to tread” (The Art of Biography, 1965, p. xiii).

Since I am concerned with the professional literary activities and interests of William Shakspere, I revisit all his paper trails to ask yet another question: does the evidence support the statement that Shakspere was a writer or does it have any bearing on his literary activities or development? If one is attempting to construct a ‘literary’ biography, then I submit that identifying ‘literary’ paper trails is an essential step. In my book and more fully on here my website (“Criteria” sidebar), I cite more scholars who illustrate or enumerate various criteria and problems of reliability, including H.B. George, Richard D. Altick & John J. Fenstermaker, Harold Love, S.P. Cerasano, Harold Jenkins, Arthur Freeman, D. Nichol Smith, John Huntington, and William Ringler, among others. I doubt that Prof. Wells would describe these scholars as irrational.

Yet regarding the Shakespearean testimony in the First Folio, posthumous by seven years, Wells does not question the authorship of the two prefatory epistles printed over the names of the actors John Heminges and Henry Condell; he does not analyze the ambiguities and contradictory statements made throughout the Folio front matter; and he accepts at face value those statements that support the orthodox narrative. He overlooks the statements that imply or point to a gentleman of rank, so he never has to choose between two sets of signposts, or question the overall reliability of the front matter. And how much of the front matter is promotional in nature, aimed at encouraging sales (“whatever you do, Buy”)? Surely that sales pitch should alert the reader to be on the lookout for more signs of a promotional agenda or commercial considerations in the testimonials.

Similarly, Wells uncritically accepts literary allusions to the Shakespeare plays and poems as proof that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare, even when those allusions are impersonal literary commentary or confined to references to the written or performed word. Wells is of course following the orthodox biography as it has been handed down ever since the late eighteenth century. From the time of Edmund Malone, who was the first Shakespeare scholar to introduce serious scholastic rigor into his studies, the assumption of Shakespeare’s authorship has been accepted as fact, and few have stopped to question the absence of proof. If sheer repetition of a narrative constituted proof of that narrative, Prof. Wells’s pamphlet Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare would carry the day. But if he applied the criteria routinely applied by biographers of other subjects, by historians, and by literary critics, he would have to confront the problem that the orthodox literary biography of Shakespeare is founded on unproven assumptions.

[The foregoing is posted on Amazon US and Amazon UK.]


Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare: a point-by-point rebuttal

Wells categorizes all anti-Stratfordians as “deniers.” Yet, anti-Stratfordians come in many stripes. Not all anti-Stratfordian arguments have been, or remain, credible. Indeed, there have been some pretty outrageous anti-Stratfordian claims that make some of us cringe. But it is unfortunate that in leading off, Wells entitles his first chapter “The Growth of the Anti-Shakespearean Heresy.” Pejorative #1: “Anti-Shakespearean” makes it sound as though skeptics hate Shakespeare. Most anti-Stratfordians love the works of Shakespeare and describe themselves “anti-Stratfordian” to distinguish the man from Stratford from the real author, whoever he/she was. Pejorative #2: “Heresy.” Wells is relegating the anti-Stratfordians in toto to the pre-determined category of “heretics.” What if anti-Stratfordian skepticism (a term I would prefer) turns out to be justified? Wells condemns his opponents before he has defended the first challenge. As one of the “deniers,” I have elsewhere pointed out that I don’t deny any evidence; I re-evaluate it. And he concludes that my own unorthodox biography is “destructive”; it has been my goal to reconstruct what can be known about the life of the man from Stratford, and to reconstruct that life from the available evidence.

Wells asserts that we know more about Christopher Marlowe than we do about Shakespeare. I would disagree, and it is relevant to point out why I disagree, since it involves the distinction between a general paper trail and a literary paper trail. Only a few parts of Marlowe’s biography are documented, including his sensational murder. But in general, his life is not particularly well-documented, and few of the paper trails he left behind are literary.  

Marlowe left over twenty records of his presence at Cambridge University, largely recorded in the so-called buttery books (Boas, 13), but also in academic testimony (Ide, 58-59). The recommendation for his degree taking includes an inconclusive reference to state service, whatever that was (Boas, 22-23). So Marlowe is man of recorded education. We can make no comparable statement for Shakspere.

The circumstances of, and factional politics surrounding Marlowe’s death have been debated (by e.g., Charles Nicholl and Paul E. J. Hammer). Yet his murder sheds no light on his writing career, although the poet George Peele wrote a tribute to him (“unhappy in thy end / Marley the Muses darling, for thy verse”) a few weeks after the murder (Nicholl, 51-52). Even Marlowe’s arrest along with Thomas Watson, presumably the poet, is not evidence of his literary activities. One has to consider Robert Sidney’s letter to Lord Burghley, reporting Marlowe’s apprehension for counterfeiting, and Thomas Kyd’s undated letters to the Lord Keeper protesting that Marlowe’s manuscripts were “shuffled with some of mine . . . by some occasion or writing in one chamber two years since” to make decisions about those reports (with respect to Kyd’s letters, see especially J.A. Downie, whose analyses raise questions about the dates of composition of the two letters). But even accepting those records, Marlowe is one of the least documented of the alleged writers from the time period – in terms of literary paper trails.

Ironically, we know more about Shakspere’s professional activities than we do about Marlowe’s. The evidence that Shakspere left behind tells us that he was a theatrical shareholder, actor, money-lender, commodity trader, real estate investor, and so on. Regrettably, none of the evidence for Shakspere’s professional activities can be used to support the statement that he wrote for a living. And he is a man of no recorded education.

To put this into another perspective: Richard Burbage’s business affairs are well-documented, as are Shakspere’s. Nobody questions whether Burbage was an actor and businessman. Nobody questions whether Shakspere was an actor and businessman. But like Burbage, Shakspere left no evidence that would support the statement that he was a writer by profession.

Early on, in Chapter 1 (the Kindle download does not show page numbers), Wells claims that

we know as much as we have a right to expect about Shakspere’s public and professional career.

But that is one of the problems. We do not know as much as we have a right to expect about Shakspere’s professional career as an alleged writer, not when the quality of the evidence he left behind is compared to the quality of that for two dozen writers from the time period. The absence of any literary paper trails for Shakspere is a unique deficiency.

Wells dates the onset of authorship doubts to the mid-1800s. He claims:

Until the middle of the nineteenth century nobody doubted it.

That statement is inaccurate. We find Elizabethans speculating on or suggesting alternative authors. A character in one of the Parnassus plays guesses that a lesser poet named Samuel Daniel wrote Romeo and Juliet. Gabriel Harvey insinuates that the poet of Venus and Adonis was possibly Sir Edward Dyer. There are more, although such early expressions of confusion over Shakespeare’s authorship stopped short of explicit statements such as “I don’t think Shakspere of Stratford wrote Hamlet.” But they do show that confusion of attribution and authorship existed during Shakspere’s lifetime.

Nor did doubts about authorship originate with Joseph C. Hart and Delia Bacon. Wells might argue that they were the first to formalize the question, although both of them present fairly easy targets, and Wells spends some space ridiculing them. The strategy is not new. From a review, published in Shakespeare Quarterly, of two books defending orthodoxy: “One impressed by the learning and dialectic of a Sir George Greenwood may well feel perhaps that [Frank W. Wadsworth and R.C. Churchill], eager to write amusingly, have generally chosen to discuss the more patently absurd [anti-Stratfordian] claims and to disregard arguments less easily ridiculed” (Maxwell, 437). 

Hart and Bacon also prompt Wells to bring up the snobbery issue. Miss Bacon, for example, could not reconcile Shakspere’s records, which lacked any documented access to the upper classes, with the aristocratic perspectives and past-times in the plays and poems. But pointing out a disconnect is not snobbery; it is the identification of a problem.

Wells claims:

Most recently, as if in despairing acknowledgement of the absurdity of the proliferation of contenders, sceptics have taken to saying that they have no idea who the author was, only it can’t have been Shakespeare.

Unlike many anti-Stratfordians, I do not argue for or against any alternative candidate. Wells implies in the above quote that my candidate-neutral position is a cop-out. It is not. For one thing, I do not think that presenting an alternative circumstantial case is the appropriate way to challenge the circumstantial case for the incumbent William Shakspere; that challenge should be made on its own merits. For another, as far as I am aware, the advocates for alternative candidates all present competing circumstantial cases of varying degrees of persuasion. None has discovered the smoking gun.

Wells claims:

The subject is well worthy of serious academic discussion as a social, psychological and intellectual phenomenon.

While some anti-Stratfordians are ideologically-driven, Wells implies that anyone who questions the authorship is somehow lacking mental or emotional stability. A social, psychological, or intellectual “phenomenon” deflects a discussion that should be focused on a critical analysis of the evidence, as well as on the criteria for that analysis.

Wells claims that in the film Anonymous, actor Mark Rylance

also takes the role of Richard III in the play that is performed on the eve of the Essex rebellion. (In fact, the play was Richard II, but where so much else is fiction how can we object to this additional distortion of the historical record?)

Wells corrects the record that it was Richard II, not Richard III, as the play performed during the Essex Rebellion, but few of his general readers would be aware that there has been debate on this subject as to whether the play performed in 1601 was even Shakespeare’s (see Blair Worden and Paul E. J. Hammer).

Wells references the earlier collection of essays:

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (2013) . . . contains essays on various aspects of the authorship debate written by an international team of scholars.

In my review essay of this collection, I identified numerous leaps of faith and outright errors committed by this international team of scholars. Interested readers may take a look at my review here.


Chapter 2

Wells claims:

There is nothing unusual about the fact that so little is known about William’s siblings; it just highlights how much, by comparison, we know about him.

With this statement, Wells sets up the reader to confuse or conflate quantity of evidence with quality of evidence. One thing that we know about Shakspere from the 70-plus records that survive is that his professional activities are well-documented. Unfortunately, his alleged career as a writer is not one of them.

Wells claims:

Stratford was not (as the deniers often claim) a backwater. A market town, which served the surrounding villages, it had a splendid church, a well-established grammar school, fine houses and townsmen who were well educated and wealthy. One of them was Richard Quiney.

Wells cites Richard Quiney’s ability to write in Latin. In this case, Wells is on solid ground. Some of Quiney’s correspondence survives, so we know he could read and write Latin. No comparable evidence survives for Shakspere. But the implication that one might extrapolate Quiney’s education and correspondence to represent the general milieu, perhaps the majority of townsmen in Stratford, is undermined by Charles Knight’s early observation that in the year that John was elected alderman (1565, the year after son William was born), only seven out of nineteen aldermen and burgesses could write their names (Knight, 15-17).

All of Wells’s speculation on what Shakspere would have learned at grammar school remains unsupported by any evidence. As I pointed out in my review of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, T.W. Baldwin is unable to cite one document to support the statement that Shakspere attended school, or expressed gratitude to a mentor, or attended university or one of the Inns of Court, or owned a book, or wrote a word of dialogue, a line of poetry, or even a letter concerning his business affairs. Shakspere remains a man of no recorded education. The best that can be said is that if Shakspere of Stratford wrote the plays, then he must have attended the Stratford Grammar School. His assumed education is therefore the result of circular reasoning. Nor does Wells explain how a theoretical grammar school education could have equipped a student with a knowledge of French, Italian, and Spanish, subjects not taught at provincial grammar schools.

Wells compares William’s hypothetical grammar school training with Ben Jonson’s. While there is no evidence of Jonson’s attendance at Westminster School, Jonson twice acknowledged his gratitude to his mentor, William Camden, who had taught at Westminster School:

Camden, most reverend head, to whom I owe

All that I am in arts, all that I know,

 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

What weight, and what authority in thy speech!

Man scarce can make that doubt, but thou canst teach

[epigram xiv]


Jonson’s dedication of Every Man in His Humour in his 1616 folio is addressed to Camden with comparably explicit gratitude, to “the instructor” for “the benefits confer’d upon my youth”. There is no comparable evidence for Shakspere.

Richard Field, a printer who was born and bred in Stratford, printed three of the Shakespeare poems, but that is not good evidence that Field and the dramatist were acquainted. Nobody knows how the Shakespeare poems were transmitted to the printing house.

Yet, Wells claims that

It is virtually certain that the two were lifelong friends.

But there is no evidence to support the statement. (Why the dramatist should name a headless corpse in Cymbeline after Field remains a matter of speculation.)

Wells finds generic biographical echoes in the plays (premarital sex, schooldays, etc., but nothing with any thematic heft. He accepts Andrew Gurr’s reading of Sonnet 145 as

a love poem which puns in its closing lines on the name Hathaway: ‘I hate’ from hate away she threw, And saved my life, saying ‘not you.’

It’s a guess, not only about “Hate away” punning on Hathaway, but also involving speculation on what Shakspere was doing during one of the undocumented Lost Years. Wells further speculates that during those Lost Years,

before long he was writing plays, sometimes (as was common) in collaboration with others.

“He was writing plays” is not fact. It is conjecture. There is no evidence that can prove that Shakspere ever composed a line of dialogue. For those who would look to title page attributions for that “proof,” it is important to point out that title-page attributions are not personal records. They are not even reliable as evidence of authorship (witness the title-pages for A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, or The Passionate Pilgrim). The authority of Shakespearean title-pages is further compromised as more “co-authors” are identified, e.g., Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, etc. And in light of other cases of misattribution, it is possible that the name Shakespeare, however spelled, appears on title-pages for some other reason.


Chapter 3

Concerning the famous Upstart Crow / Shake-scene passage from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Wells claims:

Of all the allusions to Shakespeare from his own time, this is the least complimentary, both professionally and personally. On the whole, people seem to have liked him.

The Upstart Crow passage is indeed uncomplimentary, but Wells’s second statement, that “people seem to have liked him” cannot be supported by any of the allusions. The allusions to “gentle” or “sweet” Shakespeare,” “good Will,” “friendly Shakespeare,” and “so dearly loved a neighbor,” to name some of the most quoted, are examples of impersonal literary commentary, not testimonials about the author. To paraphrase Harold Jenkins, the allusions to Shakespeare are of a purely literary character and necessitate no personal knowledge (11).

In response to complaints over the open letter containing the Upstart Crow passage, Henry Chettle subsequently published an apology. Wells repeats the claim that Chettle was apologizing to Shakspere:

significantly he goes on to say that ‘divers of worship [i.e., various eminent people; could he include the Earl of Southampton, soon to become Shakespeare’s patron?] have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious [meaning urbane, polished] grace in writing that approves [bears witness to] his art.’ Obviously this refers to a writer (Shakespeare),

There is no evidence that the earl of Southampton was vouching for the insulted party (and an earl would not be referred to as your “worship”). But more importantly, Chettle’s apology is explicitly directed to two of the three playwrights addressed in Groatsworth, that is, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and George Peele. However, like most orthodox biographers, Wells claims that Chettle apologized instead to Shakspere. With that sleight-of-hand, biographers transform Shake-scene from being the subject of the open letter blasting the Upstart Crow, into being one of its three addressees, and therefore one of the “fellow Scholars” who spends his wits “making plays.” (Lukas Erne makes the case that George Peele is the intended recipient of the apology.)

Like most biographers, Wells claims personal interaction and even friendship between the poet Shakespeare and the earl of Southampton, basing his suggestion on the dedications of the two narrative poems to the earl:

The first dedication is relatively formal in tone, the second much warmer, suggesting that a real friendship may have developed.

Neither dedication to Southampton is useful in supporting the theory that the poet and the earl of Southampton developed a friendship or were even acquainted; both dedications are couched in impersonal or formulaic language. Further, the second dedication tells us that after his first try with Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare, whoever he was, was still writing that he had merely heard about, or been assured (“the warrant I have”) of Southampton’s presumably generous disposition.

Wells claims:

From now on Shakespeare was the resident playwright of the most important theatre company in the land.

This is another statement based on the assumption that Shakspere the actor was also the playwright. So far, Wells has produced no evidence that Shakspere wrote anything.

Wells claims:

The closeness of this relationship is clear from the fact that the printed texts of some of the plays he wrote for the company show that he had specific actors in mind for particular roles. In the first printed text of Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, [Will] Kemp’s name appears in speeches designed for the character Dogberry.

Nobody knows what the compositors (typesetters) were looking at when they set type for a play, including Much Ado. According to Andrew Gurr, “The naming of players in playscripts is a vexed question that depends heavily on what sort of manuscript is identified as the source for the printed text, and when the names were inserted in the manuscript” (72n; see also Werstine, 118).  “the source” could be an authorial manuscript, but it also could be a scribal transcript, edited copy, a reported text, the transcript of a shorthand report, a playhouse script, or some other descendent copy. However, since no ‘foul papers’ by Shakespeare or anyone else have ever been discovered, the arguments proposing that the dramatist’s ‘foul papers’ served as printer’s copy for this or that printed text are unsupported by any evidence.

Wells claims:

What all this means in relation to the authorship question is that the man who wrote the plays (no woman is recorded as having written for the public theatres in his time) was a thoroughgoing professional, familiar with, and deeply immersed in, the practices of the public theatres.

Wells builds on Shakspere’s documented career as an actor and theatrical shareholder, and then adds to that his assumptions about the authorial origin of certain speech prefixes, to claim that Shakspere was the dramatist, “a thoroughgoing professional, familiar with, and deeply immersed in, the practices of the public theatres.” It sounds good, but it is more than we know.

The cast lists that Wells quotes, from two Jonson plays of 1598 and 1603, were not printed until 1616, the year of Shakspere’s death. Not only do they not tell us what parts he played, they shed no light on his alleged writing activities. They also represent the first time in the surviving historical record that Jonson recorded the name “Shakespeare.”

Wells claims:

About half of Shakespeare’s were printed in his lifetime.

Shakespeare, the writer considered his work good enough to “outlive marble.” Shakspere, the businessman, had a sharp eye for any source of income. The Shakespearean publishing record therefore presents two obvious contradictions. (And it surely presents a problem for Lukas Erne’s recent theories about Shakspere’s supposedly active role in getting his plays into print as a deliberate career initiative.)


Chapter 4

All of the Shakespearean literary allusions are accepted into the literary biography of a man whose documentary remains cannot support the statement that he wrote anything. In accepting the literary allusions as personal testimony for Shakspere, Wells follows the orthodox tradition:

In 1594 , when he was thirty years old, a minor writer called Henry Willoughby names Shakespeare as the author of The Rape of Lucrece, published in that year;

Actually, the allusion (in Willobie His Avisa) to Lucrece is not by Henry Willoughby; the allusion occurs in a prefatory poem subscribed with the pseudonymous “Contraria Contrariis: Vigilantius: Dormitanus” (Willoughby, 19-20). Henry Willoughby himself was almost certainly an innocent bystander in the publication of Willobie His Avisa; the attribution to him is made in the preface on the dubious authority of “Hadrian Dorrell,” for whom no historical evidence exists (Willoughby, 19-20). All that aside, the naming of Shakespeare as the author of Lucrece is good evidence that “Vigilantius” had read The Rape of Lucrece; it is not evidence that he recognized Shakspere as that poet. (Note: In the interest of saving a little space, I am not reproducing all the literary allusions; many, perhaps most are available online via search engines.)

Concerning the much-quoted allusions to Shakespeare in the 1598 publication of Palladis Tamia, Wells claims:

It looks as if [the author Francis] Meres had private knowledge, possibly that he knew Shakespeare personally. When he says ‘among his private friends ’ he may mean that Shakespeare is actually addressing sonnets to his intimates or simply that he is showing them sonnets which may or may not have been addressed to specific individuals.

Wells's suggestion that Meres had inside personal knowledge of Shakespeare sonnets cannot hold up under scrutiny. While the statements sound plausible enough, not only is it speculation, it also fails to take into account the analyses by various scholars. Don Cameron Allen’s edition of Palladis Tamia remains an important reference point, and he is not alone when he considers the book “the work of a hack who had a contracted obligation to fulfill,” one who relied on literary critics such as George Puttenham and William Webbe for some of his information (Meres, vii). Another commentator likewise supposed that Meres’s “information about [the poets] must have come, not from his own direct knowledge, but from a reliable outside source” (Thomas, “Dating,” 188).

Richard Barnfield’s praise of Shakespeare’s poetry is another impersonal reference, necessitating no personal knowledge of the poet of Venus and Adonis. Similarly, although John Weever recognizes the name Shakespeare as both poet and playwright, his sonnet does not tell us whether Weever personally knew Shakspere; Weever’s biographer could not be sure (Honigmann, 21).

With respect to the three Parnassus plays (Cambridge student satires), Wells claims:

[the character] Gullio has spoken almost all of the second stanza of Venus and Adonis, exclaims ‘Sweet Master Shakespeare!’ (‘Master’ shows that he is aware that by this time Shakespeare has been granted a coat of arms and the status of gentleman that goes along with it.)

The entry in the Stationers Register (1600) for Much Ado About Nothing and Henry IV (2) names “master Shakespere,” and it is subsequent to the grant of the coat of arms to John Shakspere. I am surprised that Wells did not cite Tom Reedy’s recent attempt to invest that entry with ultimate attribution authority, as though it were the elusive literary paper trail that clinches the case. (My analysis of Mr. Reedy’s assertion is here.)

The “praise” that the character Gullio bestows on “sweet Master Shakespeare” is, in the opinion of the editor of the Parnassus plays, worthless praise from a fool (337). And while some critics consider Gullio a stock character rather than a satire of a real person, the scenes in which Gullio appears merit a closer look. My own analysis of the Parnassus plays, as they concern the Shakspere biography, takes up several pages in my book.  And a close look at the scenes in which Shakespeare (however spelled) is mentioned can support an unorthodox narrative of Shakspere’s life. One cannot break the impasse by avoiding the ambiguities and contexts that should raise red flags.

The orthodox biographer rarely puts these sorts of allusions under the microscope, probably because such analyses raise too many awkward questions. However, anti-Stratfordians have been free to ask such questions, as did, for example, Sir George Greenwood; his analyses of the Parnassus scenes, especially the one with actors Burbage and Kemp (328-330),  remain Must Reads. Any critical reader of the Parnassus plays will also want to consult J.B. Leishman’s edition to get some ideas about how to decide which interpretation(s) might make sense. To present the Parnassus lines as obvious, or to be taken at face value, is a disservice to the Elizabethan and Jacobean satirists, who were conditioned to write between the lines, and to poke fun in ways that, if challenged, allowed them to defend their innocent intentions.

Wells claims that the pedant Gabriel Harvey’s annotations show that he knows “Shakespeare as both poet and dramatist.” But Harvey’s written annotation demonstrate his familiarity with the printed works of Shakespeare in both genres; his comments could not by any stretch be used to show that he personally recognized the man from Stratford as the poet-dramatist.

Wells claims:

The second poem to be explicitly addressed to Shakespeare appears in a collection by the poet known as John Davies of Hereford (to distinguish him from another of the same name). Cryptic as epigrams of this period often were, it certainly names him as an actor, and in its title –‘ To our English Terence, Mr Will. Shakespeare’, compares him to the great Roman dramatist whose plays were often studied in schools. (Absurdly, some of the deniers say that this comparison with Terence, who apparently had a reputation as a plagiarist, shows that Shakespeare’s reputation was based on other men’s works.)

Wells is dismissive of anti-Stratfordians who point out that “Terence” was known not only as a dramatist but also as a front man. He grudgingly acknowledges that Terence “apparently had a reputation as a plagiarist.” Apparently? No, Terence’s reputation as a front for aristocratic playwrights (Scipio and Laelius) was well-known to those who lived in Shakespeare’s time; that reputation was in print in several editions of Roger Ascham’s The Scholemaster (1570, 1579, 1589) and also in the 1603 translation of Montaigne’s Essays. Identifying ambiguities in this epigram is a necessary step. A full analysis of Davies’s epigram to “Shake-speare,” as well as some of Davies’s other epigrams that precede and follow the one to Shake-speare, reveals many more ambiguities and competing interpretations. I disagree that identifying potential ambiguities is absurd.


Chapter 5

Few question the legal and documentary records that can be used to reconstruct Shakspere’s activities in the theater, whether as actor, company shareholder, or shareholder in the Globe and Blackfriars theaters. They may yield more information about Shakspere’s activities than previously thought, as I have argued elsewhere (Unorthodox, 102-8). However, there is one record that I still have questions about: the 1604 Revels accounts that Wells cites:

In the Christmas season of 1604 to 1605 he is explicitly named four times (under the spelling ‘Shaxberd’) as the author of the plays – including seven by him – acted at court before the king and his family.

Some readers will have heard of the notorious forger John Payne Collier. Collier’s friend and colleague, Peter Cunningham (1816-69), came under suspicion when he tried to sell the 1604-5 and 1611-12 Revels accounts to the British Museum in 1868. These accounts were at first pronounced forgeries, then pronounced genuine, then questioned again. A. E. Stamp’s The Disputed Revels Accounts (1930) continues to be quoted as the ultimate vindication of the disputed documents, but Samuel A. Tannenbaum’s analysis of their irregularities, e.g., Shakspere Forgeries (1928), leaves lingering doubts. In my view, the jury is still out. And the “Shaxberd” spelling should prompt more questions than it does.

Wells introduces the famous Heywood apology:

The Passionate Pilgrim was reprinted in 1612 with the addition of other poems by the prolific dramatist and poet Thomas Heywood, who, in another book, An Apology for Actors (published in the same year), complained of the ‘manifest injury’ done to him by including some of his poems in a book under another’s name, pointing out that this might give the impression that he had stolen them. And he says that the author – obviously Shakespeare – was ‘much offended’ with Jaggard, who had, ‘altogether unknown to him, presumed to make bold with his name’. Probably as a result, the original title page was cancelled and replaced by one that does not name Shakespeare.

It is not “obviously” Shakespeare who was the “much offended” party, although that claim has been repeated so often that it has solidified into “fact.” A “manifest injury” was inflicted when some of Heywood’s poems were passed off, by published William Jaggard, as by Shakespeare, named on the title page. It would seem that either Heywood or Shakespeare could have taken offense at the misattribution. But in this case, the victim of the “manifest injury” was not Shakespeare, but Heywood. Like his predecessors, Wells pays no attention to the semantics and literary conceits used by Heywood in his Apologie for Actors, in which he refers to himself three times as the “Author” before repeating the word in the famous passage that Wells quotes (Price, Unorthodox, 138-39). Wells further claims that “as a result, the original title page was cancelled and replaced by one that does not name Shakespeare.” Actually, if Colin Burrows has it right, and he makes some good observations (79n), it was the other way around: Shakespeare’s name was left off of the first title pages to come off the press and was re-instated in a press correction, for promotional purposes.

Wells opines that Shakspere may not have approved of the publication of plays such as A Yorkshire Tragedy or The London Prodigal, both attributed to Shakespeare on the title pages; these are two of the plays in the Shakespeare Apocrypha. But Wells’s unsupported assumption (that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare) should raise yet another red flag. Considering the plays and poems misattributed to Shakespeare (or to “W.S.”) during his lifetime, as well as the number of Shakespeare plays published in corrupt editions (the so-called “bad quartos”), the larger question is, or should be: “where was Shakespeare?”

Wells reports on the Shakespeare collaborations as though they obviously represented active hands-on partnerhships. Collaborations can certainly represent two or more authors actively working at the same time on various parts of a play, whether jointly writing scenes or revising each other’s drafts, for example. The Henslowe papers show payments in the same entry to playwrights collaborating and getting paid for their respective contributions to a play (Henslowe’s, 125, 126, 127, 129, etc.). But other scenarios are possible.

Scholars simply do not have the evidence to prove the nature of the Shakespearean collaborations, that is, whether active or passive.  Some editors of collaborative plays such as Timon of Athens (with Thomas Middleton) or Two Noble Kinsmen (with John Fletcher) consider the possibility that one or the other playwright was picking up an abandoned or incomplete text, and contributing to, adding to, or revising a play independently of a second author (Jowett, Timon, 98-99; Potter, 32).


Chapter 6

Wells associates Shakspere’s son with Hamlet:

Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet (the name is a variant of Hamlet)

It may be pleasant to think that Shakspere named his son in anticipation of the title character of what was to become Shakespeare’s most famous play. However, Shakspere’s neighbors were Hamnet and Judith Sadler, and biographers reasonably suppose that the Shakspere twins were named after their neighbors. However, since Hamnet Sadler’s name is spelled “Hamlet” in a few Stratford documents, Wells’s supposition is not outrageous. But there are only two documentary records for son Hamnet, his christening in 1585 and his burial in 1596. Both are spelled “Hamnet” (Chambers, Facts, 2:3,4).

Wells claims:

So far as we know Shakespeare’s wealth came from his share in the profits of the acting company; and this supposition is supported by the fact that other members of the King’s Men also died wealthy men.

Wells cites Henry Condell and Augustine Phillipps as shareholders who likewise amassed a small fortune. But their wealth is documented in later years. However, I point out that

While it is safe to conclude that Shakspere made money from theatrical investments, even his shareholding does not fully explain his financial history. He bought New Place in Stratford in 1597, three years after he became a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but two years before he became a shareholder in the Globe theatre. Obviously, Shakspere had other sources—major sources—of income. (Unorthodox, 97, 101)

And in 1598, Shakspere invested in a commercial quantity of grain and was approached for financing by Stratford neighbors. Again, that is a year before the Globe was built.


Chapter 7

To begin with the posthumous evidence, specifically the Stratford monument, Wells claims:

it is surely patently obvious that whoever wrote them [the epitaph] wished to convey that a man called Shakespeare who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon was a supremely great writer. The deniers have to go through extraordinary contortions in their attempts to deny this.

Agreed: the monument conveys the impression that Shakspere was the writer. But there are more questions: What is its provenance? What does the epitaph tell us? Wells himself describes the epitaph as “cryptic.” Why doesn’t the epitaph contain explicit and coherent praise of a writer? More on this below.

In the final analysis, it all comes down to the 1623 First Folio about which Wells claims that

several references in the prefatory matter of the First Folio make it very clear that this is the Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.

True. But as I conclude in an article published in the Tennessee Law Review:

One of the critical passages from Heminges and Condell’s testimony is the claim that they are publishing the plays in the First Folio “Only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his plays.” This claim is made in no uncertain terms. Now, just who wrote this passage is an authorship question for another day, but in weighing this testimony, one would need to put the author on the stand to determine whether he was an impartial and trustworthy witness, if he was a pen for hire, if he had an agenda, if he contradicted himself, and so on. In other words, we would need to be satisfied that this testimony holds up under cross-examination. However, putting aside the complexities of this testimony, for the sake of argument, let us accept this statement at face value.

If we do, is this good evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford was the writer? I’d say yes. Is it personal evidence? I’d say yes. So, does it qualify as a personal literary paper trail for Shakespeare? That depends on the admissibility of posthumous evidence. I maintain that it is not admissible as contemporary testimony. But every modern biographer follows the lead of E.K. Chambers [Sources, 50], who asserts that this “prefatory matter . . . may be regarded as contemporary” [emphasis added].

Why? Why should it be regarded as contemporary, when it is posthumous by seven years? (145-46)

Wells does not question the authorship of the two prefatory epistles, he does not identify and analyze the ambiguities and contradictory statements throughout the front matter, and he accepts at face value those statements that support the orthodox narrative. In other words, he overlooks the signposts in the Folio front matter that point to a well-born author, so he never has to choose between the two contradictory sets of signposts, much less question the reliability of the front matter. In the absence of contemporary evidence that could prove that Shakspere wrote for a living, the question about the reliability of the First Folio testimony is of great relevance.


Chapter 8

In “Some Arguments Against,” Wells states that

The argument is that the town [of Stratford] was an intellectual and cultural backwater which could not have fostered genius.

While there were educated men in Stratford, I doubt that Wells would characterize the market town as the intellectual and cultural capital of Warwickshire. Nevertheless, I do not say that Shakspere couldn’t have become the literary genius. I do say that if he did, he would have left some records behind to show how he did it. By leaving out that important question, Wells can again set up a misplaced argument about the intellectual snobbery of skeptics.

In his attempt to absolve the dramatist, whoever he was, of foreign travels to Italy, Wells claims that “we don’t know for certain that Shakespeare didn’t visit Italy.” There is no evidence that Shakspere did. Wells then denigrates the research of Richard Paul Roe (The Shakespeare Guide To Italy), by pointing out that Romeo and Juliet is not, as Roe stated, Shakespeare’s first play. Probably not, although in 1845, Joseph Hunter proposed that it was (2:120-21). Yet that “howler” is enough for Wells to belittle Roe’s research. (Would Wells dismiss out of hand the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare, because, in the introduction, Arthur F. Kinney states that ca. 1577-78, Philip Henslowe built the Curtain in Shoreditch?)  More to the point, Roe’s research is not dependent on the generally accepted chronological order of writing. His areas of inquiry are the culture, geography, topography, and customs in early modern Italy. He identified Shakespearean dialogue that might exhibit firsthand familiarity with matters Italian. He then attempted to retrace the dramatist’s Italian travels, using the dialogue as his guide, to see if there were, in fact, real life prototypes, locations, travel routes, and so on.  

Wells criticizes Roe’s reconstruction of the travels in Two Gentlemen:

The author of The Two Gentlemen of Verona does not simply say that the journey is made by water, but makes it quite clear that it is a sea journey. Proteus says to Speed:

Go, go, be gone, to save your ship from wreck,

Which cannot perish, having thee aboard,

Being destined to a drier death on shore. (1.1.141– 3)

This in itself is enough to show that the playwright imagined a voyage by sea, not by canal, on which ships, shores and wrecks are to say the least uncommon.

Wells omits subsequent critical lines of text that Roe explores, including the dramatist’s clarifications of terms:

Panthino Launce, away, away, aboard! thy master is shipped and thou art to post after with oars. What's the matter? why weepest thou, man? Away, ass! You'll  lose the tide, if you tarry any longer.

Launce It is no matter if the tied were lost; for it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied.

Panthino What's the unkindest tide?

Launce Why, he that's tied here, Crab, my dog.

Panthino Tut, man, I mean thou'lt lose the flood, and, in losing the flood, lose thy voyage, and, in losing  thy voyage, lose thy master . . .  [emphasis added] (II.iii.33-45)

Panthino tries to get Launce to understand that by “tide” he means “flood.” Roe describes the canal and sixteenth century lock system that produced the “flood” that transported the boat out of the “mitre gates.”

Launce Lose the tide, and the voyage, and the master, and the service, and the tied! Why, man, if the river were dry, I am able to fill it with my tears; if the wind were down, I could drive the boat with my sighs. [emphasis added] (II.iii.50-54)

Roe cites Elizabethan and Jacobean travel reports, in which “river” is used interchangeably with “canal,” 150), and he documents the use of the inland canal system by large cargo-laden vessels and even warships, generally associated with ocean sailing (47, 48, 49, 58-59). Roe is able to reconstruct several other Shakespearean journeys, including those in Merchant of Venice and Winter’s Tale. 

Roe’s research is more meticulous than Wells indicates. Nevertheless, if Wells were determined to find fault with his research, he might have criticized Roe’s reliance on the quarto or Folio texts with respect to presumed authorial choices of spelling or capitalization (Roe, 146-47, 148, 184-85). None of the printed plays can be proven to be based on the author’s so-called “foul papers” (see Werstine, e.g. 44-50). Nevertheless, Roe’s research is not ultimately reliant on the printed idiosyncrasies. Wells might also have criticized Roe’s reliance on a modern Catalan dictionary for translations of the names Ariel and Caliban (as Ros Barber pointed out on the Shaksper listserve). Perhaps some anti-Stratfordians can dig around for sixteenth-century Catalan journals, maritime logs, correspondence, and so on, that might prove the case one way or the other. But it’s a minor point, especially compared to his major discoveries, including St. Gregory’s Well in Two Gentlemen and the Duke’s Oak in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Roe’s research is ground-breaking, not the least because he read the Italian plays more closely than his predecessors. In a sense, his list of Italianate specifics comprised a sort of bucket list. I do not know how many more investigations he had in mind before his death in 2010, but based on his published book, his batting average is outstanding. It is regrettable that Wells does not appreciate Roe’s original research or share in the thrill of his discoveries.

Switching the subject to Shakespeare’s genius. If, as Wells claims, some anti-Stratfordians discount the notion of genius, I am not one of them. I do consider genius a factor in studying the Shakspere biography, but I am puzzled that Wells argues that

The achievements of such relatively untutored geniuses as a Robert Burns, a John Clare, a Charles Dickens, a Franz Schubert, a William Blake, an Emily Dickinson, a Charlotte Brontë, or a Mark Twain should be enough to disabuse anyone of such a notion.

Yes, and every one of these geniuses left behind some evidence that I call literary paper trails. Some of those “untutored” geniuses even left behind evidence, however scanty, of their education (e.g., Burns, Brontë, Dickinson, and Schubert). For none of these literary geniuses of humble beginnings must one rely on posthumous evidence to support their literary development or activities. So again, if Shakspere was another untutored genius, how did he do it? There is no evidence that can tell us how he did it.


Chapter 9

In his criticism of my paperback edition of Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, Wells reproduced much of the relevant sections of his comments first posted on Blogging Shakespeare. He claims:

At other points she attempts to denigrate Shakespeare of Stratford’s literary reputation by proposing that his wife and daughters were illiterate.

The evidence we have (including Susanna’s single ill-formed signature and her inability to recognize her husband’s handwriting) supports the statements that wife and daughters were indeed functionally illiterate.

Wells claims:

Price writes of Stratford-upon-Avon as an educational backwater, while also quoting John Hall’s description of one of the Quineys – the family into which Judith Shakespeare married – as ‘a man of good wit, expert in tongues, and very learned’.

As we have seen, there is more evidence to support the statement that Richard Quiney could read and write in both English and Latin. But daughter Judith’s marriage to Thomas Quiney is not evidence of her literacy; obviously, literate in-laws do not automatically confer literacy on illiterate relatives, even spouses. (See also Charles Knight’s observation above).

Wells’s criticism that I “misleadingly [say] that there are ‘no commendatory verses to Shakespeare’, ignoring those printed in the First Folio, as well as the anonymous prose commendation in the 1609 edition of Troilus and Cressida, and that by Thomas Walkley in the 1622 quarto of Othello.” His criticism illustrates the problems that Wells and I have with criteria. The commendatory verses in the First Folio were published seven years after Shakspere died. The poems by Leonard Digges and Hugh Holland contain literary praise but no personal testimony about the author. Digges’s reference to the Stratford monument may or may not be at firsthand.

Jonson’s eulogy is far more complex. Like his two Folio epistles, Jonson’s eulogy is factually inconsistent, but it takes many pages to comprehensively explore his language and point out the contradictions. Suffice it to say here, by taking certain statements at face value and ignoring those containing contradictions, Wells can avoid choosing between two sets of signposts, the first pointing to Shakspere of Stratford, and second pointing to an unnamed gentleman.

There are two editions of Troilus, both printed in 1609. The preface in one issue of Troilus tells us nothing personal about the dramatist, and it claims that Troilus is “a new play, never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar.” The title-page of the other issue contradicts that claim; it states that the play “was Acted by the Kings Majesty’s Servants at the Globe.” Far from confirming the traditional attribution, these conflicting statements simply raise more questions.

The 1622 epistle by Walkley, the publisher of Othello, tells us that the dramatist was dead, but offers no further details except to encourage potential customers to read the play. Neither the Troilus nor the Walker prefaces require personal knowledge of the author. They are impersonal literary commentary aimed at encouraging sales.

Wells refers to:

the monument in Holy Trinity Church, with its inscriptions eulogizing Shakespeare of Stratford as a writer

The epitaph reads: “Stay Passenger, why goest thou by so fast? / Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath plast [placed] / Within this monument Shakspeare: with whom / Quick nature died: whose name doth deck this tomb / Far more than cost: sith [since or see] all that he hath writ / Leaves living art, but page to serve his wit”. As I have argued above and in more detail in the book, the epitaph to Shakespeare does not constitute coherent praise for a writer. Some of the shortcomings are obvious, especially so when one compares the epitaph to those for

·         Edmund Spenser “with thee our English verse was rais’d on high”

·         Francis Beaumont “He that can write so well”

·         Michael Drayton “a Memorable Poet of his Age”

·         John Taylor “Here lies the Water Poet”

·         George Chapman “a Christian Philosopher and Homericall Poet”

(Pettigrew, 406, 407; LeNeve, 150).

Wells repeats his criticism from his BloggingShakespeare comments on William Basse’s (or John Donne’s?) elegy:

Still more importantly, Price downplays William Basse’s elegy on Shakespeare, which ranks him alongside Chaucer, Spenser and Beaumont. This poem could have been written any time after Shakespeare died, and, as I have said, it was circulated widely in manuscript – at least thirty -four copies are known – before and after it was published in 1633; and Price fails to note that one of the copies is entitled ‘On Willm Shakspear buried att Stratford-vpon-Avon, his Town of Nativity’.

. . .

So William Basse’s poem, and the fact that it has come down to us in so many versions, bears witness to Shakespeare’s popularity as a great writer worthy of comparison with England’s best. And the titles people gave to some versions of Basse’s poem make clear that this was the Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon; one of them, indeed, reads ‘On Willm Shakspear buried att Stratford-vpon-Avon, his Town of Nativity’. It is a clear identification by an unprejudiced early witness of Shakespeare the playwright as a Stratford man.

My response to that criticism stands:

I “downplay” this elegy for several reasons. Its authorship remains in question; it may have been written by John Donne, to whom it is attributed in Donne’s Poems of 1633. There is no evidence that either Basse or Donne knew Shakspere. And yes, the elegy does exist in numerous manuscript copies; the one allegedly in Basse’s handwriting is tentatively dated 1626 and shows one blot and correction in an otherwise clean copy– suggesting that it might be a transcript.

The poem itself contains no evidence that the author was personally acquainted with Shakspere. Whether by Donne or Basse, it is a posthumous and impersonal tribute, requiring familiarity with Shakespeare’s works, and, possibly, details on the funerary monument in Stratford. Wells and Taylor themselves cannot be certain which manuscript title (if any) represents the original (Textual, 163).

Wells seems to think that the Basse/Donne poem is convincing evidence that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare. The title “On Willm Shakspear buried att Stratford-vpon-Avon, his Town of Nativity’ is prefixed to one of the manuscript copies of unknown provenance. The title could be derivative of the First Folio front matter, it could be reliant on the monument inscription, but it cannot prove that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare.

Wells is critical that I offer “a detailed discussion of William Dugdale’s sketch, made around 1634, of the Stratford monument”.

She accepts this monument as an effigy of the Stratford Shakespeare, but fails to take note of Dugdale’s statement that it portrays ‘william Shakespeare the famous poet’, even though she reproduces it in her book.”

The annotation in Dugdale’s notebook tells us very little, since it is impossible to know whether it represents Dugdale’s original description or is derivative of someone else’s. Interestingly, and also in 1634, a Lt. Hammond similarly described “A Neat Monument of that famous English Poet, Mr. William Shakespeere” (Chambers, Facts, 2:243). Perhaps one report was derivative of the other, or just as likely, both derived from the same source. For all we know, the Stratford vicar put up a make-shift sign in the chancel to make sure that visitors were made aware of what they were looking at.

Wells faults me for citing sonnets when it suits my unorthodox purpose, although he did not specify which ones he would challenge. The reason I cite certain sonnets is because they are difficult to reconcile with Shakspere’s documented activities.

Wells especially faults me for not dealing with Sonnet 136, which proves that the author’s name was Will (‘I was thy Will’ and “My name is Will”).’ Wells’s criticism of my selectivity must stand; I did not quote this sonnet. However, Stephen Booth’s critical edition of the Sonnets provides readers with various interpretations from which to choose. And when one juxtaposes Sonnet 136 and the lines about “My name is Will” with these lines from sonnet 72 [emphasis added]

My name be buried where my body is,

And live no more to shame nor me nor you.

For I am shamed by that which I bring forth

And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

one confronts a contradiction. “My name is Will” vs. “My name be buried where my body is.” The conflicting sentiments are difficult to reconcile with the orthodox narrative, but perhaps less difficult with an unorthodox one.

In closing, Wells argues with plausible-sounding statements that cannot withstand skeptical scrutiny, and too often, extended scrutiny exposes the weakness or invalidity of an assumption, the ambiguity of the actual text, and in some cases, an outright misreading of an allusion (such as the Chettle apology). It has been my intention in challenging the various claims made by Prof. Wells to demonstrate why questions remain about Shakespeare’s authorship.

Wells has not been able to produce one literary paper trail for Shakspere, left behind during Shakspere’s life. (Interestingly, he steered clear of the one “literary paper trail” proposed by scholars in 1923: that is, the Hand D portions of the Sir Thomas More manuscript. The identification of Hand D as Shakspere’s continues to gain momentum in orthodox circles as another “fact,” so I suppose it is a relief that Wells omitted it.)

In the absence of documentary evidence comparable to that left behind by two dozen other writers from the time period, the orthodox literary narrative for Shakspere collapses. If sheer repetition of a narrative constituted proof of that narrative, Prof. Wells’s pamphlet Why Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare would carry the day. But if he applied the criteria routinely applied by biographers of other subjects, by historians, and by literary critics, he would have to confront the problem that the orthodox literary biography of Shakespeare is founded on unproven assumptions, not facts.




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