Saturday, July 23, 2011

William Shakspere viewed only as a 'player'

William Shakspere seen by the relatives of his closest friends only as a ‘player’

In 1635 the players of the Globe and Blackfriars theatres were engaged in a dispute with the leaseholders over the division of the profits. (see E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, Vol. 2, pp. 65-6, and The Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, pp. 57, 414 and 509). The players alleged that the leaseholders received too large a slice. The dispute was referred to the summary decision of the Earl of Pembroke as Lord Chamberlain.

An answer to the petition was filed by Cuthbert Burbage (brother of the late Richard Burbage who had been Shakspere’s fellow actor), Mrs. Winifred Robinson (widow of Richard, now remarried) and Richard Burbage (son of the late Richard). The gist of their answer was that their shares were fair by reason of all the late Richard had done for the theatres. They told how Cuthbert and his late brother had built the Globe with money borrowed at heavy interest, and added (as another point in their favour): “to ourselves we joined those deserving men Shakspere, Hemings, Condell, Phillips and others”. Speaking of the Blackfriars theatre Cuthbert said of himself and the late Richard: “We purchased the lease with our money and placed men players which were Hemings, Condell, Shakespeare etc”.

Having thus twice attempted to strengthen their case by invoking the good name of those players, one might have expected Cuthbert to remind Pembroke that both theatres had been helped to prosperity and prestige by staging the Shake-Speare plays, the First Folio of which had been dedicated to none other than Pembroke himself and his brother. To describe Shakspere only as a “deserving person” and a man player seems unduly belittling, if he was Shake-Speare. Though the Shake-Speare plays meant far less to his contemporaries than to us, some of them had been popular, not least with Queen Elizabeth and King James. Of course, if Shakspere was Shake-Speare, Pembroke already knew that or assumed it. But he also knew already that Shakspere, Hemings and Condell were deserving men. An advocate does not refrain from making a good point because it is already known to his audience. So it remains a little odd that it speaks only of Shakspere as a player; one would have expected him to be given a more imposing designation, if he was Shake-Speare.

Shakespeare's Friend - Thomas Russell

Shakespeare’s Friend – Thomas Russell

One of William Shakspere’s (of Stratford) close friends, according to those that advocate he was also the author William Shakespeare (which name they say couldn’t have been used by someone else as a pen name), was Thomas Russell. Russell was one of the two overseers of William’s will, along with Francis Collins.

It turns out that this very same Thomas Russell had very close connections to Francis Bacon, according to the advocates of the Stratfordian authorship position. A family friend of Russell was Sir Tobie Matthew senior. And Russell himself was close friends with Tobie Matthew junior. Russell and the younger Matthew  were both schooled at Oxford. Well, Tobie Matthew junior was likely Francis Bacon’s closest friend (knowing him from at least 1595). Bacon went so far as calling Tobie his “other myself” or “my alter ego”. Bacon was in the habit of sending Tobie his writings for review and comments.

So, considering this connection, and that Tobie Matthew would likely know of Russell’s friend William, since William was an actor and supposedly a famous playwright, and also since Tobie was an avid theater goer (and known to have gone to plays at the Blackfriar’s theater), it’s interesting that the close friend of William Shakspere’s close friend Thomas Russell would say this of Francis Bacon:

“It will go near to pose any other nation of Europe, to muster out in any age, four men, who in so many respects should excel four such as we are able to show them: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas Moore, Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon. The fourth, was a creature of incomparable abilities of mind, of a sharp and catching apprehension, large and faithful memory, plentiful and sprouting invention, deep and solid judgment, for as such as might concern the understanding part. A man so rare in knowledge, of so many several kinds endued with the facility and felicity of expressing it in all so elegant, significant, so abundant, and yet so choice and ravishing a way of words, of metaphors and allusions, as, perhaps, the world hath not seen, since it was a world.”
        Tobie Matthew, Preface to his Collection of Letters, 1660, in Tribute to his friend Francis Bacon. [Note, these letters were edited by another of Thomas Russell’s friends – the poet John Donne.]

Wow, it’s as if someone had been reading a lot of the Shake-Speare plays and poems, and was writing of him!

It is similar praise that Shakespeare First Folio promoter Ben Jonson said of his friend Francis Bacon, calling him “the mark and acme of our language”, and that after Bacon’s death “wits grow downward and eloquence grows backward.”

So, what else did Thomas Russell’s friend Tobie Matthew think and say of Francis Bacon?

“And truly I have known a great number whom I much value, many whom I admire, but none who hath so astonished me and, as it were, ravished my senses, to see so many and so great parts which in other men were wont to be incompatible, united, and in that eminent degree in one sole person. I know not whether this truth will find easy belief….The matter I report is so well understood in England, that every man knows and acknowledges as much, nay hath been an eye and ear witness whereof; nor if I should expatiate upon this subject, should I be held a flatterer, but rather a suffragan to truth…. Praise is not confined to the qualities of his intellect, but applies as well to those which are matters of the heart, the will and moral virtue; being a man both sweet in his ways and conversation, grave in his judgments, invariable in his fortunes, splendid in his expenses, a friend unalterable to his friends, an enemy to no man, a most indefatigable servant to the King, and a most earnest lover of the Public, having all the thoughts of that large heart of his set upon adorning the age in which he lives, and benefiting, as far as possible, the whole human race. And I can truly say (having had the honour to know him for many years as well when he was in his lesser fortunes as now he stands at the top and in the full flower of his greatness) that I never yet saw any trace in him of a vindictive mind, whatever injury was done to him, nor ever heard him utter a word to any man’s disadvantage which seemed to proceed from personal feelings against the man, but only (and that too very seldom) from judgment made of  him in cold blood. It is not his greatness that I admire, but his virtue; it is not the favours I have received from him (infinite though they be) that have thus enthralled and enchained my heart, but his whole life and character; which are such that, if he were of an inferior condition I could not honour him the less, and if he were my enemy I should not the less love and endeavour to serve him.”    Tobie Matthew in a Dedicatory Letter prefacing an Italian translation of Bacon’s Essays and Wisdom of Ancients (1617)

If only the Shake-Speare works could also “astonish” and “ravish the senses” and show a “large heart” and “moral virtues” and “adorn the age” as well as far as possible “the whole human race”.  Was Tobie basing his admiration merely on Bacon’s Essays and his Wisdom of the Ancients?  Or maybe his legal writings or his philosophical works?

Well, Bacon did refer to what he called “my other works” which may refer to those works he penned at his Twickenham Lodge which he called “merry tales” whatever they might have been. Maybe that is what Tobie was thinking of. In one of Bacon’s letters to Tobie, who was on the continent, he sent him some works to review saying “I have sent you some copies of The Advancement [of Learning] which you desired; and a little work of my recreation which you desired not [that he had not asked for]”. We recall that Tobie did write to Bacon (in a letter with an erased date) “I will not return you weight for weight but Measure for Measure”,  which he may, like Bacon’s Essays, have also reviewed. And Bacon, writing to Tobie wrote “At that time methought, you were more willing to hear Julius Caesar than Elizabeth commended”, alluding to Bacon’s “Felicity of Elizabeth” which he seems to have sent to Tobie in 1608, but which wasn’t published until 25 years after Bacon’s death.
[Note1: the Shakespeare plays Measure for Measure and Julius Caesar were both first published with the First Folio of 1623]
[Note2: Russell’s friend mentioned earlier, John Donne, “…may still have been one of the group of young men whom Bacon met with at Twickenham to make verses. Donne would probably have come into contact with Bacon during Donne’s and Essex’s time at York House.]

And lastly, in a postscript in a letter to Bacon written by Tobie Matthew, again from the continent, likely in 1619, he wrote: “The most prodigious wit that I knew of my nation, and of this side of the sea, is of your Lordship’s name, though he be known by another.”

It’s possible that Bacon had sent Matthew a collection of 10 ‘Shakespeare’ plays “The Collection of 1619” printed by Thomas Pavier and William Jaggard. (Actually, only eight of them were truly Shake-Speare’s as the other two “A Yorkshire Tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle were just ascribed to Shakespeare).

It’s interesting that Matthew would say that Bacon’s most prodigious wit was known under another name. We recall, though, that Bacon himself wrote that he was a “concealed poet”.

These ‘hidden’ works (the “merry tales” of his recreation, perhaps) are further collaborated in one of the elegies written of Bacon after his death in 1626, which I quote in part:

“What man of greater achievements? Who of an eloquence richer?
Such versatility wondrous, lo! Is shown forth in his writings.
His works abound in profusion,
Part of them truly lie buried ….” By Robert Ashley

It really isn’t difficult to understand why a playwright, writing plays describing conspiracies against kings, and other controversial matters of state, may prefer to be ‘known under another name’. Even the eminent Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt in his Will in the World (p. 173), wondering as to why Shakespeare had been so elusive, asked “Why, in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote—even in the sonnets—couched in a way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts?” and then speculates that “he may well have heeded their warning” of the heads on the pikes on the London bridge when ‘William’ first came to town (including the heads of his relatives).

And he (Shake-Speare) may have just been clever enough to have used a pen name which resembled the name of a living actor.

But back to William Shakspere’s close friend Thomas Russell. It turns out that the Russell and Bacon families were connected. Bacon’s aunt Elizabeth (married John Russell (of the same Russell family as Thomas) and who also appears to have been a patron of Francis Bacon’s father Nicholas. And Francis got his first seat in the  House of Commons through the Russell family. Then, we are also told by the promoters of William as the playwright, that Thomas Russell was also a retainer for the Earl of Essex, this same Earl mentioned here several times as another of the closest friends of Francis Bacon. Like Bacon, Thomas Russell was a lawyer and so it’s reasonable that since they were both connected to the Earl of Essex (as well as having family connections) and probably at Essex’s house often at the same time, that they would talk to each other. Why Essex would even need Russell’s legal services, if he did, is one question, since Bacon was a pre-eminent lawyer with the most important contacts at the courts of Elizabeth and James I. In any case, this makes Thomas Russell, the principal overseer of the Shakespeare will (and one of his beneficiaries) a part of Bacon’s circle of acquaintances and, along with his connection to Tobie Matthews and John Donne, an easy channel to William Shakspere, if Bacon needed someone to pass along his ‘unblotted’ plays to the theater.

Bacon’s aunt Elizabeth (nee Cooke) was first married to Sir Thomas Hoby.

for Russell and Bacon family connections

William Shakspere friends

also of interest – Russell and Tobie Matthew Catholic connections

About Elizabethan retainers:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Introduction

Shakespeare Evidence Reviewed

On this series of posts I want to review the evidence that's been put forth as being sufficient to claim that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the Shake-Speare plays and poetry, some even claiming it as proof. I expect to show that not one piece of this evidence can be considered as strong evidence and certainly that none of it can overcome the barrier of the alternate theory of authorship. Then at some point I'll start posting material regarding the idea of Bacon's hiding his authorship.

To start, here is how one alternate author (not a Baconian) described the identity issue: "The reason the identity of Shakespeare is shrouded in mystery may very well be that it was planned that way. We should label this plan a deliberate, premeditated strategem rather than a deliberate hoax, for while the author is in part playing a joke on his audience, the secret of authorship was planned for any number of good and sufficient motives. For such a deliberate, deep-laid deception to have been successful for a period of close to four hundred years would argue that only a few individuals were entrusted with the secret".
Shake-Speare: The Mystery by George Elliott Sweet, 1956.

Returning to Nigel Cockburn's 1998 book The Bacon-Shakespeare Question, he has this to say about evidence criteria:

"There are also about a score of references in Shakspere's lifetime to Shakespeare or William Shakespeare, and without the "Mr.", in praise of his work. These individually throw no light on whether the makers of the references believed Shake-Speare to be (William) Shakspere or merely a pen name for someone else. It is likely that many or most of them believed him (Shake-Speare the author) to be Shakspere (of Stratford). But if a literary work is published under the name of a real person, or under a name close enough to be taken for that of a real person, one assumes him to be its author unless one has reason to know otherwise. Though Stratfordians are loth to concede this, a reference to Shakespeare is worthless individually as evidence of Shakspere's authorship unless it satisfies three conditions.

First, it must identify Shakspere with Shake-Speare in one way or another. Secondly, its maker must have been likely to know if Shakspere was not Shake-Speare. Thirdly, he must have been likely to reveal that fact in the reference under consideration.

This third condition must be added because someone likely to know the truth might still identify Shakspere with  Shake-Speare because he wished to protect the secret. In my view not one of the references satisfies all three conditions. And the same applies to the few further references to Shakespeare by name in the years following Shakspere's death.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Robert Greene

First up as a one who has been promoted as providing evidence of William Shakspere's authorship is Robert Greene.

Robert Greene (1558-92) is one contemporary of Shake-Speare often brought forward as providing evidence of William Shakspere's authorship. Greene was a poet, playwright and pamphleteer. In 1592 shortly before his death, he published a pamphlet Groatsworth of Wit, and annexed to it a letter to three unnamed author acquaintances who can be identified as Marlowe and (probably) Thomas Nashe and George Peele. The letter attacks actors for battening on dramatists and includes the following passage:

"Base-minded men all three of you, if by my misery you be not warned: for unto none of you (like me) sought those burrs to cleave: those puppets (I mean) that spake from our mouths, those antics garnished in our colours. Is it not strange that I, to whom they have all been beholding, shall (were ye in that case as I am now) be both at once of them forsaken? Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country".

The upstart crow was obviously Shakespeare; Shake-scene is a play on his name, and the words italicised are a parody of 3 Henry VI, 1.4.137: "O, Tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide".  And Greene's crow was both actor and playwright. So Greene identified Shakspere with Shake-Speare. But plainly Greene was not a confidant of Shakspere of Stratford, but an enemy;  and would therefore be unlikely to know Shakspere's secret, if there was one.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Cambridge - Will Kempe

Here’s another claim:

 Around 1601, students in Cambridge put on a play called The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, the third in a series of plays that satirized the London literary scene. In this play, two characters named "Kempe" and "Burbage" appear, representing the actors Will Kempe and Richard Burbage of the Chamberlain's Men. At one point Kempe says,

            “Few of the university [men] pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why, here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.

This passage establishes that the playwright Shakespeare was a fellow actor of Kempe and Burbage, contrasts him with the University-educated playwrights, and establishes him as a rival of Ben Jonson.

Another author even said that “In 1602 the famous comedian Will Kempe wrote 'Here's our Shakespeare puts them all down, aye, and Ben Jonson too”.

      Response: The famous comedian Will Kempe DID NOT say or write that. As mentioned by the first Stratfordian the quote comes from The Return from Parnassus Part 2, Act 4.3.1753-1760. The play was the third in a series played at St. John's College, Cambridge, between 1598-1602.  They are likely to have been written by two or more authors who were probably college members, and they were acted by college students. Will Kempe, the 'famous comedian' was one of the characters being portrayed and the full quote was making fun at his ignorance.

The character Will Kempe was made to look ignorant, first, because 'Metamorphosis' wasn’t a writer, but the title of a work by the classical writer Ovid. Secondly, he is made to look ignorant because he's supposedly admiring his fellow Shakespeare for NOT writing like the university playwrights who "smell too much of Ovid" when, in fact, Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, which the authors admire, is based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphosis (and headed by a couplet from Ovid's Amores), and The Rape of Lucrece was based on Ovid's Fasti. So, since the Parnassus authors are likely college students that admired classical authors as well as Shakespeare who also obviously liked classical authors, and since the character Will Kempe is being shown to be ignorant of 'his fellow' Shakespeare's reliance on classical authors, he is also probably being poked fun at for not realizing that 'his fellow' (the actor Will Shakspere) did NOT actually write the works under the name of Shake-Speare. Other parts of the play show the authors poking fun at actors for "mouthing words that better wits have framed" and because "They purchase lands, and now Esquires are named" (clear references to the actor Shakespeare). In other words, Kemp's "fellow Shakespeare" embodies the joke that Shake-Speare (as opposed to the actor Shakspere) was not Kemp's fellow at all. Instead, he was one that actually did share the “faults” of the university playwrights (“smelling of Ovid”) because he was one of them.
This is a very abridged response. A fuller response is found in Cockburn’s book and elsewhere. This is also discussed in Bate’s recent book Soul of the Age.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Heminges and Condell

Heminges and Condell were fellow actors of Shakspere and their names are printed beneath two commendatory poems in the First Folio of the Shake-Speare plays. Heminges is thought to have given up acting in about 1613 and Condell stopping in about 1623.

Despite the subscription of their names to the First Folio epistles, it is most unlikely, as many Stratfordians agree (this according to N.B.Cockburn’s research) that Heminges and Condell, who were probably of little education, drafted either of the poems, especially the first one. The language is too polished for the actors and shows signs of classical learning. For example, the Epistle Dedicatory has close parallels with the Epistle Dedicatory to Pliny’s Natural History. Some conjecture is that either Edward Blount or Ben Jonson had drafted these Folio epistles, who had also written the main commendatory poem as well as the lines beneath the portrait of Shake-Speare. Edmund Malone cited parallels between the epistles and Jonson’s work. One is the rather odd expression of classical origin in the epistle to the Readers, “absolute in their numbers” meaning “perfect”, which Jonson used at least three times elsewhere. For instance, Pliny wrote “a book absolute in all its numbers”. Jonson even used this phrase when writing of Bacon who he cited as one “who hath filled up all the numbers”, meaning everything he wrote was absolutely perfect.

Further evidence of Jonson’s hand in the Epistles supposedly written by Heminges and Condell is found in the first paragraph of the epistle to the Great Variety of Readers. In Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair he has an Induction with articles of agreement between the spectator and the author. This says that “Every person here have his or their free-will of censure, the author having now departed with his right…and it shall be lawful for any man to judge his six-pen’orth, his twelve-pen’orth, so to his eighteen-pence, two shillings, half-a-crown, to the value of his place, provided his place get not above his wit…if he drop but sixpence at the door, and will censure a crown’s worth, it is thought there is no conscience or justice in that”. So, both this Jonson passage and the one in the First Folio seem to make the same point that the extent to which a spectator or reader is entitled to criticize depends on how much he has paid.

We can conclude then that Heminges and Condell are less likely to have drafted the poems ascribed to them than would Jonson. And that their names were merely subscribed to them to convince potential buyers that the texts of the plays were authentic. A similar ploy was used in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647 where the dedicatory epistle is subscribed with the names of no fewer than 10 actors. It is hard to suppose that all 10 (if any) had a part in drafting the epistle.

Both poems treat Shake-Speare as the dead fellow of Heminges and Condell. But even if those two colleagues of his had actually drafted them, and knew the secret, they would still have had to pretend that Shake-Speare was their fellow actor Will Shakspere. The general public (in so far as they had heard of Shake-Speare) no doubt believed that, and Heminges and Condell would have had to play along with it in the interests of both Shakspere and of Bacon. Then not a word of either epistle need have been any different from what it was. To have disclosed the truth  would have been a betrayal of their dead fellow, whose name would have become a laughing stock, and of Bacon who was still alive and as anxious as ever to preserve his anonymity.

As to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery that the First Folio is dedicated to, they were friends of Bacon and may or may not have been in on the secret. And even if they knew it, they would have realized that the Folio’s promoters either did not know or had to pretend not to.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - John Davies

Next is John Davies of Hereford who, in 1610, published a volume entitled The Scourge of Folly, consisting mostly of poems to famous people and Davies's friends. One of these poems was addressed to Shakespeare:

To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare.
Some say (good Will) which I, in sport, do sing,
Had'st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King;
And, beene a King among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but, raile as they thinke fit,
Thou hast no railing, but a raigning Wit:
   And honesty thou sow'st, which they do reape;
   So, to increase their Stocke which they do keepe.

Response:  At first, this poem (or epigram) appears to show that Davies believed Will Shakspere, the actor, as to be also the playwright William Shake-Speare, since Terence was a Roman playwright. And the last line that says “to increase their Stocke” seems to suggest the creation of a ‘stock’ of plays that others benefited from. However, Terence was believed, both in Roman times (by Cicero) and in Elizabethan times (by Robert Ascham and John Florio) as a “Mask” for a patrician playwright (either Scipio or Laelius). And Davies would most likely be aware of this widespread belief about Terence. So why liken Will Shake-speare to Terence if not to suggest that he too was a mask for a similar hidden playwright? Others that likened Shake-Speare to an ancient author usually cited Plautus, who was generally regarded as the best Roman comedy playwright. Frances Meres does this as does Thomas Fuller. Since John Davies was a friend of Bacon’s, if he was in on Bacon’s secret, then he would go along with Bacon’s wish to keep that secret, though he may at times hint otherwise.

On the other hand again, Davies, in an earlier work, Microcosmos (1603) he wrote a poem about ‘Players’, some of whom did painting and poesy:

Players, I love ye and your Quality,
As ye are men that pass time, not abus’d:
And some I love for * painting , poesy

Then, to the left of this poem on the page are the initials W.S. and R.B. presumably standing for Will Shakspere and Richard Burbage (who was an amateur painter).

This poem seems more clearly to identify Will Shakspere as the poet “William Shake-Speare”, but on the other hand it was written 7 years prior to the one comparing Will Shake-speare to Terence. So, if Bacon was Shake-Speare, Davies may have learned of this after 1603 and kept up the secret, with possibly a hint otherwise. And again, if Bacon was Shake-Speare, and if Davies never did learn of this secret then the 1610 reference to “Our English Terence” may just have been a genuine compliment.

Interestingly, Davies, in that same The Scourge of Folly volume, wrote a sonnet to Francis Bacon:

To the royall, ingenious, and all-learned
         Knight, Sr. Francis Bacon

Thy Bounty, and the Beauty of thy Witt
Comprised in lists of Law and learned Arts,
Each making thee for great imployment fitt,
Which now thou hast, (though short of thy deserts,)
Compells my Pen to let fall shining Inke
And to bedew the Baies that deck thy Front;
And to thy Health in Helicon to drinke
As, to her Bellamour, the Muse is wont:
For, thou dost her embozom; and, dost use
Her company for sport twixt grave affaires:
And for that all thy Notes are sweetest Aires;
     My Muse thus notes thy worth in ev’ry Line,
     With ynke which thus she sugars; so, to shine.

So, here, though complimenting Bacon for his wit found in lists of Law and the learned arts, he also mentions “the Baies (bays) that deck thy front” (meaning the poet’s laurel wreath). The waters of Helicon that one would drink referred to the font of literary (especially poetic) inspiration. Davies also implies that Bacon’s Muse accompanies him for his ‘sport’ between grave affairs. Could this ‘sport’ be his hidden poetry and playwrighting?  In Bacon’s Promus (notebook) he had an entry that said “Ye law at Twick’nam for merrie tales”. N.B. Cockburn has analyzed this time of Bacon’s life and concludes that this time was between law terms that Bacon spent at his Twickenham residence for writing plays (merry tales).

In any case, there was, in the same book by Davies, one poem addressed to Will Shake-speare and another one to Bacon. But they don’t help us determine whether or not Davies believed Will Shakspere to be the author of the Shake-Speare works, or if he believed him not to be the author and was but helping to keep Bacon’s secret, assuming there was one.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 1a

Next up in this review of the evidence to support the argument that William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the Shake-Speare plays and poetry will be a look at Ben Jonson. But there will be a few preliminaries before getting to him. One is a reminder that I’m intentionally spelling this name as “Shakspere” instead of Shakespeare because this is a discussion of the authorship question and traditionally this is the spelling that I’ve seen most used to distinguish the man from Stratford from the poet-playwright Shake-Speare, even acknowledging that they may be the same person.

Also, the idea of writing under a pseudonym in the time of Shake-Speare, or in any other time, is not controversial. Authors in Shake-Speare’s time have explicitly said this was done and others have implied such. The author given for any piece of work is generally assumed to be as given, unless good reason is offered to suggest otherwise. Those believing that William of Stratford was the author believe they have sufficient evidence and reason to support their view and don’t need to examine evidence or arguments otherwise, or believe that it has already been examined and found insufficient. Those believing in an alternate author earnestly believe they have evidence to support their view and that it hasn’t been fairly examined.

With the theory that William of Stratford did not actually write the plays and poetry attributed to him there’s been the argument about whether or not this pretense could have been successfully carried out at all. For example, wouldn’t the secret eventually ‘get out’ and then published by his enemies, his fellow actors or by those in the well-connected literary world? So here are a few answers for this question.

We know from the documentary evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford was an experienced actor. He had acted in at least two of Ben Jonson’s plays, and had apparently played the ghost in Hamlet, Caesar in Shake-Speare’s Julius Caesar, and maybe other “kingly parts”.  So we know he could comfortably pretend to be other than he was if he wanted to. We also know that he was a successful and, many would say, shrewd businessman. And he was both the instigator and defendant in several lawsuits. So it appears that he was far more likely to be bold and assertive than to be shy, and not afraid of controversy or risk taking. Also, he was known to have a civil demeanor and to have friends among the gentry. If then he were to pretend to be a playwright, as cover to another individual, he should be fully capable of doing so.  And to know if someone was actually capable of being a great writer can be nearly impossible without seeing them write this great literature and then reading it oneself. Just as we cannot point out a great musician among a crowd of citizens walking down the street.

Under the alternative authorship theory, if William had also been familiar with the plays, which he may himself have brought from the true author, then he would even have the advantage of being able to make minor changes to the script and add comments during rehearsals. Over time, if his fellow actors and fellow theater managers suspected he wasn’t the true author they just may not have wanted to risk killing the golden goose of their acting income of these popular plays. And none of them may have kept journals where they would even record such suspicions, if this even mattered to them at all. And as to knowledgeable persons in the literature world some of them did seem to doubt William as the author and did write about it, as I’ll cover later.

When it comes to Bacon, if anyone could pull off such a deception of this it is likely him. He was used to writing under different names and a pen name of “Shake-Speare” fits him perfectly, as posted here in the other subject forum. And he was an authority on deception, as partly shown by his essay Of Simulation And Dissimulation.

Interestingly, though many claim that such a secret couldn't be maintained, consider that Bacon was oblivious to the secret plot of his close friend the Earl of Essex who had nearly carried out a plan to depose Queen Elizabeth. Also, the Gunpowder plot had also escaped the knowledge of most until just before it was to be completed.

In comparison, a semi-secret literary life of little consequence does not seem so daunting.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 1b

Since there’s so much material related to Ben Jonson and Shake-Speare and William of Stratford and also of Bacon, and since he’s such a key witness, it will take a series of posts to review the evidence, which I’m primarily taking from N.B. Cockburn, as usual. But I’ll also add other observations from others.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) Part 1

Jonson wrote the principal commendatory poem in the First Folio and to assess its significance we shall have to examine his relationship with both Shakspere and with Bacon. Jonson was 7 years younger than Shakspere and 10 years younger than Bacon. He was the son of a clergyman but was raised by his step-father, a bricklayer, and briefly followed the same trade, after some years as a scholarship student at Westminster School. He was then for a short time a soldier in the Netherlands. On his return he probably supported himself by acting and reworking old plays for the Earl of Pembrok’s company. In 1597 he and his colleagues were thrown into jail for two months for performing the ‘seditious and slanderous’ Isle of Dogs, a play originated by Thomas Nashe, but which Jonson helped to complete. Then, as now, writings that were disapproved of by a reigning power could be censored. Fortunately, in the West at least, we’re no longer thrown into a prison for this. Jonson saw the performance of his first original play, Every man in his Humour in 1598.

His acquaintance with Shakspere perhaps began when that play was staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with Shakspere himself in one of the roles. Nicholas Rowe in his Life of Mr. William Shakespeare related a story, which may not be true, that it was Shakspere himself who persuaded his company to put the play on. Shakspere also acted in Jonson’s Sejanus. Later Jonson knew Shakspere well enough to tell us in the first Folio that he had “small Latin and less Greek”. And in his Timber or Discoveries (1640) Jonson writes: “I loved the man and do honour his memory this side idolatry, as much as any”. However, in the Elizabethan vocabulary, “love” often meant no more than “friendship”. Jonson, who was not homosexual, sometimes ended letters to male friends with valedictions such as "“Your true love"”(see The Works of Ben Jonson edited by Percy Simpson (1925), Vol. 1, p. 190ff). This is the sum of our hard evidence as to the relationship between the two men. But there are various stories about them, mostly hatched in the second half of the 17th century, and none reliable. In one story, for example, the two men jointly compose a humerous epitaph on Jonson. In another, Shakspere, alleged to be godfather to one of Jonson’s children, makes a feeble joke about giving the child Latten spoons for Jonson to translate them. A third story attributes Shakspere’s death to a fever contracted during a bibulous evening with Drayton and Jonson.

Jonson is regarded by Stratfordians as their star witness. So it is necessary to examine carefully all his references to Shake-Speare and Bacon.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 2

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare


In Jonson’s Every man out of his Humour (1599)  Act .3.1.2010-47, Sogliardo, described as an “essential clown” and whose name is Italian for “filth”, has just acquired a Coat of Arms, and the following conversation ensues between Sogliardo and Puntarvolo:

Sog:  I’ faith, I thank god I can write myself Gentleman now, here’s my patent, it cost me thirty pound by this breath.
Punt:  A very fair coat, well charged and full of armoury.
Sog:  Nay, it has as much variety of colours in it, as you have seen a coat have; how like you the crest, Sir?
Punt:  I understand it now well, what is’t?
Sog:  Marry Sir, it is your Boar without a head, rampante.
Punt:  A boar without a head; that’s very rare!
Carlo: I, and rampant too; troth, I commend the Herald’s wit, he has decyphered him well: a Swine without a head, without braine, wit, anything indeed, ramping to gentilitie. You can blazon the rest, signior, can you not?
Punt:  Let the word be, Not without mustard. Your crest is very rare, Sir.

Cockburn Comment: This is plainly a dig at Shakspere whose father (no doubt with Shakespere’s encouragement) had acquired a Coat of Arms in 1596 with the motto Non sanz droict [Not without right]. “Marry Sir, it is your Boar without a head, rampante” tells that the gentleman Puntarvolo’s own crest featured a boar (unless “your Boar” means only “a boar, an animal you are familiar with”). Jonson gives Sogliardo’s crest a headless boar to symbolise boorish stupidity. “Not without mustard” is a parody of Non sanz droict and enjoins Shakspere not to eat boar without mustard. Bacon’s crest too featured a boar, and the Baconians interpret the above lines as meaning that Bacon was the “head” in the partnership between Shakspere and Bacon. But there is likewise a boar in the crests of Sir Philip Sidney and the Earl of Oxford. Jonson probably gave Sogliardo’s crest a boar because it was thus a familiar patrician emblem, and lent itself to Jonson’s joke. So the lines throw no light on whether Jonson believed Shakspere to be Shake-Speare.
On the other hand, if this is ‘plainly a dig at Shakspere”, and if Jonson chose to use a headless boar to “symbolise boorish stupidity” in the character, then it’s not far-fetched to think also that Jonson, at that time in 1599, was additionally implying that he thought Shakspere was not-well educated and not an intellectual. This is emphasized by the words of the character Carlo that followed. Remember that Jonson had likely seen William act in his play Every Man in his Humour from just a year earlier.

Then again, one who disagrees with the above comment by Cockburn says that current research shows that William Shakspere never used ‘Not without right’ as a motto. And furthermore, that Jonson’s play was performed at the Globe by The Chamberlain’s Men where William Shakspere was a shareholder and would never have allowed such insults of himself played on the stage.

On the other hand, again, the phrase ‘Not without right’ is shown in large letters on his coat of arms patent. Here’s the link to an image of it along with some further commentary by an Oxfordian:

Also, regarding the statement that Will Shakspere would not have allowed such a play to insult him, that’s pure speculation, especially since it suggests someone can know the motivation of someone he has never met and that had lived hundreds of years before, and of whom we have no personal letters of to even know how this person may have thought. Perhaps William, if he was the great Shake-Speare, wouldn’t have been bothered that a rival playwright was satirizing him. Maybe he would have just laughed it off. Also, assuming the play’s words above do refer to William, as they seem to fit him extremely well, it would not be likely that more than a few of the regular audience would realize who they were aimed at.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 3 - Poet Ape

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare

Poor Poet Ape

This next item is no more than a possible reference to Shake-Speare. In 1616 Jonson published a collection of Epigrams (as part of the Folio of his Works), though they were written some years earlier. No. 56 reads:

Poor poet ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e’en the frippery of wit
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it,
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth and credit in the scene
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,
And told of this he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours,
He marks not whose t’was first and after times
May judge it to be his as well as ours,
Fool! As if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.

Cockburn Comment: “Poet ape” means “Someone who aped poets”; in other words a bad would-be poet. Thus Sir Philip Sidney said in his The Defence of Poesy (1595): “The cause why it is not esteemed in England is the fault of poet-apes, not of poets”. Jonson in his plays twice used the term of actors who aspired to write poetry, but a poet ape could be anyone. So it is wrong to assume, as some have, that the poet ape of Jonson’s epigram was necessarily an actor. He has often been thought to be Shake-Speare. I doubt this because Shake-Speare did not buy the reversion of old plays, except possibly for King John and Hamlet, and did not plagiarize to the extent  the epigram alleges. Some have proposed Dekker or Marston. How about Thomas Heywood? Louis B. Wright in his Middle Class Culture in Elizabethan England, p. 629, wrote: “Though Jonson gave an immense stimulus to the drama of London life, he was no such idol of the multitude as was Thomas Heywood”.  Perhaps Jonson resented Heywood’s popularity Another possibility I think, is that the poet ape may have been, not a specific poet, merely a type of poet. However, if he was Shake-Speare, the relevant point for our purposes is that Jonson evidently believed him to be Shakspere since “And told of this he slights it” could not apply to Bacon, nor would Jonson have written of Bacon in such a hostile tone.

My comment:  I considered not including in this review this possible Jonson reference to Shake-Speare, since there is so little that can be gleaned from it. I’ve read some of both the “anti-Stratfordian” interpretation as well as a rebuttal of that interpretation. And along with Cockburn’s analysis it’s clear that there’s no justification for claiming it is about Shake-Speare and William of Stratford, though it would seem (from the anti-Stratfordian point of view)  to jibe with what Robert Greene had written of the “shake-scene”. Such an interpretation is self-serving and won’t stand up to scrutiny. But I think it does provide a glimpse into the character of the theater world in Elizabethan England and of the rivalries and controversies and allegations then. It also is another example of the indirect references to events and to others that writers used to vent, warn, or to cajole others.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 4 - Drummond

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) 

Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare

3.   The Drummond Conversations

In the winter of 1618/1619 Jonson walked all the way to Scotland where he had conversations with William Drummond, a poet. Jonson told him that Shake-Speare “wanted art…in a play [The Winter’s Tale] he had brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles”.  By 1618 Jonson idolised Bacon and would not have been so derisive about him.

Though Cockburn had little to say on Jonson’s conversations with Drummond, I find some of the most interesting comments to have come from Sir George Greenwood in his Ben Johnson and Shakespeare (1921). These are quoted in full:

But some four years before the appearance of the Folio of 1623, viz.: in January, 1619, Jonson was staying with Drummond of Hawthornden, and Drummond made notes of his conversation, and, under the title, or heading, "His Acquaintance and Behaviour with poets living with him," we have recorded remarks made by Ben concerning Daniel, Drayton, Beaumont, Sir John Roe, Marston, Markham, Day, Middleton, Chapman, Fletcher, and others. What do we find concerning Shakspere? "That Shakspere wanted arte. . . . Shakspeer in a play, brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwrack in Bohemia, where there is no sea neer by some 100 miles." Here, then, we have Jonson unbosoming himself in private conversation with his host and friend, and this, apparently, is all he has to say about the great bard who, only four years afterwards, he was to laud to the skies as the "Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage." We would have expected to find whole pages of eulogy, in Drummond's notes, of the poet who "was not of an age but for all time," instead of which we have only these two carping little bits of criticism: "That Shakspeer wanted (i.e., lacked) arte"—a curious remark to have proceeded from the mouth of him who wrote, in the Folio lines, that a poet must be "made as well as born"; that Nature must be supplemented by art; and that in Shakespeare's case such art was not lacking, but, on the contrary, was conspicuous "in his well-turned and true-filed lines." And then that niggling bit of criticism concerning the coast of Bohemia in the Winter's Tale, taken straight from the learned Greene's novel of Dorastus and Fawnia, which may be compared with the depreciatory allusion to Julius Caesar in the Discoveries. As Professor Herford remarks, "It is significant that both in the Conversations 'and the Discoveries,' where high praise is given to others, Jonson only notes in the case of Shakespeare his defi­ciency in qualities on which he himself set a very high value." (Article on Jonson in Dic. Nat. Biog.)

Now, though this shows that Jonson, at that time at least, believed that William Shakspere was the playwright Shake-Speare, it also demonstrates that we can’t take Jonson’s panegyric of Shake-Speare in the First Folio at face value as genuinely believing that he was “the star of poets”. His job was to get the folio ready for publication and to give it a good send off to the marketplace. Of course, this isn’t any new realization, but many people I come across offer it as proof, not only of Jonson’s belief of William’s authorship, but also of his true feelings toward him. A good description of this is by Andrew Lang in his Shakespeare, Bacon, and the Great Unknown, who in his rebuttal to Greenwood’s views above, said:

“In 1619, Ben spoke gruffly and briefly of Shakespeare, as to Drummond he also spoke disparagingly of Beaumont, whom he had panegyrized in an epigram in his own folio of 1616, and was again to praise in the commendatory verses in the Folio. He spoke still more harshly of Drayton, whom in 1616 he had compared to Homer, Virgil, Theocritus, and Tyraeus! He told an unkind anecdote of Marston, whith whom he had first quarreled and then made friends, collaborating with him in a play; and very generously and to his great peril, sharing his imprisonment. To Drummond, Jonson merely said that he :beat Marston and took away his pistol.” Of Sir John Beaumont, brother of the dramatist, Ben had written a most hyperbolical eulogy in verse; luckily for Sir John,  to Drummond Ben did not speak of him. Such was Ben, in panegyric verse hyperbolical; in conversation “a despiser of others, and praiser of himself….Yet I have proved that Ben was the least consistent of critics, all depended on the occasion, and on his humour at the moment. This is a commonplace of literary history”.

Mr. Lang was one Stratfordian that believed that Jonson’s “Poet ape” actually did refer to William Shakspere and that he  wouldn’t hesitate to direct his anger and envy at other playwrights, or would be poet-playwrights, as he did in Every man out of his Humour.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben Jonson - 5 - Small Latin

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare

4. The First Folio Commendatory Poem

Much has been read into form this Poem titled “To the memory of my beloved, the Author Mr. William Shakespeare”, by different advocates to the authorship question. For instance, both the Oxfordians and those favoring Mary Pembroke see the “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a sly reference to their candidate.  For my purposes I just want to focus on a couple of other issues.

First, Jonson puts emphasis on Shakespeare the poet, using phrases as “For though the Poets matter”, “For a good Poet’s made, as well as borne”, and “Starre of Poets”, but nowhere in the folio or in any other reference by Jonson is there a mention of Shake-Speare’s non-dramatic poetry. This is odd in view of the immense popularity of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Besides the extremely sparse biographical references, oblique ones at that, to Will Shakspere of Stratford, the lack of any reference to this Star Poet’s major poems, in a work meant to immortalize the author “for all time” is one of many inconsistencies that have bothered critical authorship commentators. Did Jonson not think that William Shakspere wrote them?

The second issue arises from Jonson’s observation of Shakespeare’s “small Latin, and less Greek”. This and the other reference to the Avon river, are most likely references to William of Stratford and would therefore suggest that Jonson considers him the true author.
But, along with the lack of any more biographical data and the ambiguity in some words and phrases, as well as  Jonson’s friendship with Bacon, leave open the possibility that Jonson was deliberately concealing his knowledge of or belief in a different person as the true author.

The “small Latin” is especially troubling. If Jonson was a friend of Will Shakspere, and if we agree that the reference is of him, then, Jonson being proficient in Latin, we should be safe in agreeing that Will Shakspere did indeed have “small Latin”. The troubling part is that the evidence shows Shake-Speare, the author, to have much more than “small Latin”.

English translations of classical sources used by Shake-Speare were not always available. Here’s one list of Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish sources Shake-Speare likely used that did not then have English translations (except Venus and Adonis but the Latin version of this was used to some extent):

The Comedy Of Errors:  a Latin source; The Two Gentlemen of Verona: a Spanish source (or a French translation of it); Richard II: two sources in manuscript in 15th century French; The Merchant of Venice: an Italian source; Much Ado About Nothing; an Italian source (or a French translation of it); As You Like It: a Spanish source; Twelfth Night: two Latin sources – University plays in manuscript; Hamlet: a Latin source and a French source; Troilus And Cressida: a Greek source (or Latin or French translations of it); Measure For Measure: an Italian source (or a French translation of it); Othello: an Italian source (or a French translation of it); Macbeth: a Latin source; Timon of Athens: a Greek source (or three Italian or one French translation of it); Cymbeline: an Italian source (or a French translation of it)”: Venus and Adonis: a Latin source (and an English translation of it); The Rape of Lucrece: a Latin source.

Even with an English translation available it is clear Shake-Speare consulted the original Latin. In 2 Henry VI, 5.1.157 the hunchback Richard is addressed with: “Hence, heap of wrath, foul indigested lump”. The Latin in Shake-Speare’s source, Ovid’s Metamorphosis is “Rudis indigestaque moles”. Whereas Golding’s translation is “rude and pestered heap”.

For these reasons scholars conclude that Shake-Speare read Latin with ease. Kenneth Muir in his Shakespeare’s Sources: Comedies and Tragedies (1957) wrote: “Shakespeare, then used translations when they were available; but he did not use them slavishly, and there is plenty of evidence that he read Latin works of which there was no translation – 2 plays by Plautus, Buchanan, Leslie, some of Livy and (if we are to believe Mr. E. Honigman) two manuscript chronicles about King John. He knew some Virgil in the original, …”. The Arden editor of The Comedy of Errors wrote: “[Shake-Speare] had an acquaintance with a wide range of Latin literature”. 

In addition, he had a tendency to Latinize his English. Lewis Theobald in his Preface to his The Works of Shakespeare (1773) wrote of “the surprising effusion of Latin words made into English, far more than in any other author I have seen”. E.K. Chambers in his William Shakespeare (1930), writing of Troilus And Cressida, said “The language is highly Latinised, …” Very occasionally he even puns in Latin, as in Cymbeline 5.5.447-9.

As the plot sources listed above show, Shake-Speare had a considerable knowledge of French and Italian literature. Sir Sidney Lee in his The Life of William Shakespeare (1931) wrote “There is no reasonable doubt that the dramatist possessed sufficient acquaintance with Italian to enable him to discern the drift of an Italian poem”. Allardyce Nicoll in his Shakespeare (1952) said “He was easily familiar with Latin, French and Italian…he read widely in these as in English”. Andrew Cairncross, a former Arden editor wrote that “His knowledge and use of Italian is established”. Kenneth Muir, again in his Shakespeare’s Sources, Comedies and Tragedies (1957) said “He certainly read French, perhaps even medieval French”.  A few scholars are not in full agreement with the above. Schoenbaum in his William Shakespeare, A Compact Documentary Life (1987) refers to Shake-Speare’s “smattering” of Italian. A couple others think that if one “has some knowledge of Latin” then it’s easy to read novels in French, Italian or Spanish. But why would an author with “small Latin” struggle through Latin, French and Italian source material  when plenty of English stories are available for plot ideas? Also, Ben Jonson, who had bragged to William Drummond that “he [Jonson] was better versed in and knew more in Greek and Latin, than all the poets in England” had also then admitted that when it came to French or Italian he could read neither.

This has been just a brief view of this topic, hitting some of the highlights. But it’s a major problem for arguing William Shakspere’s authorship. And this is all the more so considering that this language learning is evident so early in the Shake-Speare works. So Ben Jonson may or may not have believed that Will Shakspere wrote the plays. But his observation of Shakspere’s “small Latin” makes it difficult not to question this authorship.

Shakespeare Evidence Review - Ben J.- part 6 - Eton College Discussion

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) 

Jonson’s References to Shake-Speare

5. The Eton College Discussion

Jonson also spoke of Shakspere (William) when he was at Eton College. This is mentioned in Nicholas Rowe’s Some Account of the Life of William Shakespeare (prefixed to his edition of Shakespeare’s Works, 1709. Rowe concluded from the story that “It is without controversy that he had no knowledge of the writing of the ancient poets”. The conversation itself, probably occurring before 1633 went thus:

“In a conversation between Sir john Suckling, Sir William D’Avenant, Endymion Porter, Mr. Hales of Eton and Ben Jonson, Sir John Suckling, who was a professed admirer of Shakespeare, had undertaken his defence against Ben Jonson with some warmth. Mr. Hales, who had sat still for some time, hearing Ben Jonson reproaching him [Shakspere] with the want of learning and ignorance of the Ancients, told him at last “That if Mr. Shakespeare had not read the Ancients, he likewise had not stolen anything from them (a fault the other made no conscience of) and that if he would produce any one topic finely treated by any of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same subject at least as well written by Shakespeare”.

From the above we find Jonson is in the same view as in the First Folio commendatory poem where he wrote of Shakespeare’s “small Latin”. In this case Jonson is arguing for Shakspere’s “want of learning” and “ignorance of the Ancients”. If Jonson believed Shakspere to also be the playwright Shake-Speare, then Jonson is also referencing his views of the learning content of the plays in addition to his knowledge of the learning of the man. And this view of the learning content found in the plays seems to have been a common view, even of the literati of the time. Another example comes from Thomas Fuller in his History of the Worthies of England: Warwickshire (1662), who wrote:

“Plautus, who was an exact comedian, yet never any scholar, as our Shakespeare (if alive) would confess himself….Indeed his [Shakspere’s] learning was very little…”

So again we’re struck with the divergence of Jonson’s perceptions, or assertions, and with reality as we know it today.  Continuing research throughout the 20th century has revealed more and more about Shake-Speare’s sources, not only for his plots, but for countless individual lines and allusions. From these it is obvious that Shake-Speare read very widely, which most scholars accept. Following are some examples.

Lord Dacrre in his article What’s in a Name (Nov. 1962), wrote of Shake-Speare:  “We realise that he was highly educated, even erudite. It is true that he does not parade his learning. He wears no carapace of classical or biblical or philosophical scholarship, like Dante or Milton. Be he is clearly familiar, in an easy, assured manner, with the wide learning of his time; and had the general intellectual formation of a cultivated man of the Renaissance. He was at home in the Aristotelian cosmology of his time, he had learned the new Platonic philosophy. He was familiar with foreign countries, foreign affairs, foreign languages”.

A.L.Rowse in Shakespeare the Man (1973), p. 53, wrote:

The player-poet was a very much a reading man – one might almost say bookish, except for the pejorative overtone; for him life was more important than books”.

Peter Levi in The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1988), p. 34, wrote:

The one certain thing we know about Shakespeare’s youthful occupations is that he read a great deal…he was an omniverous reader…at some point he read a lot more Latin [than he had read at school], learned French well, and I think some Italian later, attempted a study of the Law and in general devoured whatever came to his hand…[at p. 87] Shakespeare draws on wider reading and more intense experience of poetry than most scholars can command”.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the poet and philosopher, wrote in Biographia Literaria, xv.4 (1817)) (Vol. 2, p. 18, of the edition by J. Shawcross, 1907):

Shakespeare, no mere child of nature; no automaton of genius, no passive vehicle of inspiration, possessed by the spirit, not possessing it; first studied patiently, meditated deeply, understood minutely, till knowledge, become habitual and intuitive, wedded itself to his habitual feelings, and at length gave birth to that stupendous power by which he stands alone, with no equal or second in his own class”.

This is not surprising considering Shake-Speare’s immense vocabulary. In N. G. Clark’s Elements of the English Language (1866) he said that “The vocabulary of Shakespeare becomes more than double that of any other writer in the English languageEnglish speech, as well as literature, owes more to him than to any other man”.

Sometimes Shake-Speare seems more learned than the editors who to this day have failed to perceive the sources (and hence sometimes the meaning) of some of his lines.

When we now return to Ben Jonson and his comments at Eton College what are we to think? Well, if he believed that William of Stratford was Shake-Speare the playwright, then he must not have known him well or must not have been very astute himself. Otherwise he must surely had recognized that William was very well read and highly learned, if he was indeed the author. We can excuse Ben from not seeing the deep learning in the plays since many other learned readers had also overlooked it. But Ben should have been aware whether or not a person he knew well was “want of learning” or not, if he knew him well and was learned and astute himself.

But if Jonson had not actually known Shakspere well then we have two other possibilities. If William was the learned Shake-Speare, then we cannot use Jonson as a reliable witness to his authorship since we have concluded that Jonson didn’t know William well enough to be sure of that observation. And if Shakspere was only pretending to be the author Shake-Speare, then Jonson could be fooled by this just as he was unable to perceive the deep learning in the Shake-Speare plays. 

Finally, if Ben Jonson knew that Shakspere wasn’t the true playwright and was only pretending to believe that he was in order to protect his friend Bacon as the author, then that may be why Jonson would try to convince others that Shake-Speare ‘wanted learning’ and was ‘ignorant of the Ancients’ for surely he knew that Bacon did not fit that profile.