The latest Stratfordian “Proof” that William of Stratford was Shakespeare the Author
Note: this counter argument was discussed recently by Oxfordian Alex McNeil in the Winter 2017 edition of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter and I’m grateful for his summary and thoughts that I am adding to.
So, in January of this year, there was news and discussion that a researcher at the Folger, Heather Wolfe, and Folger director Michael Whitmore, had sought and found “documentary evidence produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime that unambiguously links the actor and shareholder to the famous playwright and poet.” And that this would address the non-Stratfordian requirements for proof of authorship.
Before we review it let’s first review a little background of why they thought this was necessary.
Prof. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted as saying:
“... the process of writing the book ... has made me respect that preposterous fantasy [of the authorship question], if I may say so, rather more than when I began ... because I have now taken several years of hard work and 40 years of serious academic training to grapple with the difficulty of making the connections meaningful and compelling between the life of this writer and the works that he produced.”
So he admitted that after all his decades of study he still found it difficult to make any meaningful connection between the Stratford man and the author Shakespeare.
Also, Prof. James Shapiro has said:
“Circumstantial biographical evidence has certainly been wielded more effectively by anti-Stratfordians. You can bet Stratfordians would make the most of 'autobiographical readings' if they had them… Will does not have a biographical record (like) his challengers have.”
And when Prof. Stanley Wells talked about the authorship issue and he considered what would settle this question for good, he replied “I would love to find a contemporary document that said William Shakespeare was the dramatist of Stratford-upon-Avon written during his lifetime,” “There’s lots and lots of unexamined legal records rotting away in the national archives; it is just possible something will one day turn up. That would shut the buggers up!” [emphasis added]
So it would appear that Wolfe and Whitmore are claiming to have answered this great requirement. You can find their article here:
They too started by admitting that:
- · “Written by William Shakespeare” on the title pages of his plays in his lifetime is not enough”.
- · “William Basse’s elegy to William Shakespeare written between 1618-20, which refers to his monument at Holy Trinity Church (“Vnder this carued marble of thine owne / Sleepe rare Tragoedian Shakespeare, sleep alone”) and alluded to by Ben Jonson in the First Folio of 1623 is not enough.”
- · “Ben Jonson’s reference to Shakespeare as the “Sweet Swan of Avon” on those same pages is not enough.”
“The evidence needs to be provided by a witness prior to Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616. This witness must have direct knowledge of William Shakespeare, and needs to declare that William Shakespeare, the actor and gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon, is also the exalted poet.
So Folger Wolfe found a Shakespeare coat of arms document demonstrating his status as “gentleman” before 1615. Further, they make a point that when a herald (Brooke) had earlier attacked the granting of the coat of arms, it was done by referring to William as “Shakespear ye player by garter”, that is, he was not a playwright and poet but merely a lowly actor. And the logic is that since this herald attacked other applicants with derogatory references that minimized their occupation, that he was also minimizing the occupation of Shakespear. This, they reason, demonstrates that the hearalds knew he was a poet and playwright! One should wonder, however, that if William actually was merely a lowly actor, then how would this herald attack him by diminishing his occupation when it could hardly be diminished any further? I’d say they don’t score anything with that argument.
But wait, they also recalled a reference from “an edition of Stow’s Chronicles printed in 1615. In this book, the chronicler Edmund Howes refers to “Master W. Shakespeare” as both a “gentleman” and one of “our moderne, and present excellent poets.”
Not only that, but Howes “claims personal knowledge” of Master W. Shakespeare as a poet because he (Howes) referred to him “in my owne knowledge”.
Therefore, they claim to have satisfied the non-Stratfordian requirements through the logical equation derived from contemporary documents and personal testimony, so that
“we have William Shakespeare + gentleman + poet in a printed book in 1615. Unless there is more than one William Shakespeare who has a coat of arms and is referred to as a gentleman in the early 1600s, the poet and the Stratford gentleman actor are one and the same man.”
Now, here are the problems with their ‘proof’:
That William Shaksper of Stratford had been granted a coat of arms in his lifetime is not in dispute. We don’t have a problem with others acknowledging him as a ‘gentleman’. It doesn’t even seem farfetched that he acquired this title by 1602 and that it was under review before then since his father had submitted the original application. In fact, it has long been argued (and accepted by many Stratfordians) that Ben Jonson likely satirized this in his 1599 play Every Man Out of his Humour with the passages relating to Sogliardo and his ‘arms’ including ‘Let the word [motto] be, Not without mustard: your crest is very rare, sir.’ This likely being a reference to ‘NON SANZ DROICT’ (‘NOT WITHOUT RIGHT’).
The Edmund Howes evidence was discussed in Ros Barber’s Shakespeare: The Evidence, p. 105. She summarizes the counter-argument as:
- This is not a personal reference; as with all the other impersonal references in this section, it is only evidence that a contemporary writer knows the works published under the name William Shakespeare.
- The title gentleman suggests he associates the author with the theatre shareholder Shakspere, who was eligible to use this title, but there is no evidence Howes had personal knowledge of the author, or of Shakspere.
In other words, Wolfe and Whitmore, are equating “in my owne knowledge” with “direct observation” of William writing poetry or plays. If he didn’t have such direct observation then at best he met and asked William if he wrote a particular poem or play and William answered yes, which wouldn’t prove that he did because, as has long been hypothesized, Will could have agreed to act as a type of frontman for the real author. If this were the case then it likely would have been a fairly passive act since if he wasn’t the real author and yet boldly acted as such then everyone essentially would see through the charade. But a fairly passive act could suffice for the role and we’d still have some insiders and sharp writers like Ben Jonson who could quietly mock him but keep the real author hidden.
But is the non-Stratfordian interpretation of Howe’s “in my owne knowledge” more probable than the Stratfordian interpretation? Well, consider the context of Howe’s statement. All he did was to list who all he understood to be “Our modern, and present excellent Poets”. There were 27 listed. The important passage is “all of them in my owne knowledge lived together in this Queen’s reign”. So did he mean by “lived together” that they all lived in the same house?” Of course not! Did he spend time with each of them? Not a hint of evidence of this and extremely unlikely! Otherwise he likely would have wrote something somewhere of these interactions or of these interesting and accomplished persons. Instead, all he does is list them by name and precedence in rank. And even if he did have personal knowledge of Shaksper and knew that he wasn’t a poet, someone like Jonson or even Bacon who also was an antiquary, could have asked Howe to keep William on the list for the sake of the hidden author.
Where then did he get this list of names? We don’t know. He may have made an enquiry to two or three persons familiar with the writers of Queen Elizabeth’s era. Or he may have just asked for the opinion of one single person who seemed to have that knowledge and that sufficed for his “own knowledge”. How scientific or historically accurate can we expect that to be? We can only trust our assumptions somewhat if we can find confirming evidence for them, like, say, a literary trail. Oh, that test has already been done and Willi of Stratford failed it. But if we need to find confirming evidence for what was supposed to be confirming evidence itself, then that piece of evidence is already disproven as confirming.
So the Folger key witness, Edmund Howe, is NOT known to have had any “Direct Knowledge” of the Stratford William as a poet or playwright. Therefore their ‘thought experiment’ and ‘proof’ fails. Remember also that they agreed that any evidence they provide for their proof must “unambiguously link the actor and shareholder to the famous playwright and poet”. The other pieces of evidence that they cited as “not being enough” failed because they were all ambiguous. And it’s actually difficult to believe that they didn’t suspect that their new link from Howe’s phrase “in my owne knowledge” was also not unambiguous since they first took it out of its context and then never attempted to justify how it qualified as being equivalent to “direct knowledge”.
Furthermore, their goal, as they stated, was to find “a novel way of addressing the anti-Shakespearian requirements.” And in their minds they went “through the thought exercise of considering the views of skeptics”.
Actually, they did neither. They did not consider more than a very few views of us skeptics. And the ‘requirements’ that would satisfy most of us are probably pretty lengthy. Once more, they seem to even know this to some extent too since they also say “To our minds, the ideal explanation of documentary evidence is the one that explains more by assuming less.” So they acknowledge that in whatever argument they make, at the very least in the absence of unambiguous direct knowledge, they can’t just assume William of Stratford had a great elementary education, was a genius of any sort, learned to read multiple languages, had a very deep knowledge of law, music, medicine, Italy, France, art, naval terminology, had access to very rare books, etc. etc. Otherwise they would be assuming way too much and this would instantly invalidate their argument from the perspective of the principle of Occam’s razor to which they alluded.