Punning is a harmless addiction, however annoying. Puns are fun if the conversation is light-hearted, but infuriating if it’s serious, where they come off as a kind of verbal sabotage. Habitual punners seem unable ever to let a serious conversation develop. The best puns elicit nothing but groans, the better the pun the louder the groan. Most of us remember the childish puns in silly book titles like “Under the Grandstand” by I.C. Butts, or the States song: “How did Wiscon sin boys, how did Wiscon sin? She stole a New brass key, boys, she stole a New brass key,” and so forth.
As I dug ever deeper into the culture that produced Shakespeare, I realized that puns and word play of all sorts lie at the heart of the English Renaissance, that the rebirth of poetry that it initiated brought this kind of wordplay with it, possibly even rode in on a wave of this kind of wordplay. Certainly Shakespeare himself was addicted to puns. As Samuel Johnson noted:
A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! He follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.
Like other obsessions, words were both Shakespeare’s virtue and his vice. Identifying an anonymous or questionable play as early Shakespeare (Oxford) is fairly easy if it contains one or more wit battles, a string of one liners in meter exchanged between two friends or potential lovers that form a series of rhyming couplets. When this accompanies certain other traits, you can be fairly sure it’s his. It’s also a way of distinguishing his early works from those of Francis Bacon, whose mind, however much it delighted in anagrams and codes, was simply too pragmatic (too Johnsonian) to be attracted to punning, at least to the extent that Shakespeare’s was, (though Piers Penniless was probably meant to be heard as Purse Penniless).
How interesting then to realize that none of the academics who have taken Shakespeare as their life’s work realize, or at least acknowledge, the fact that his very name is a pun; a pun of exactly the same order as Doll Tearsheet. Will Shakespear––like Smokey Stover’s dentist, Howie Hertz––describes the playwright’s purpose: Have wit, will shake spear! The word spear, or rather the image, suggests a relationship to both the Stage––where “spear-carrier” was, and still is, a slang term for a “walk-on” who simply “swells a scene or two” without having to speak lines––and the Pen, which we recall, is and was then, “mightier than the sword.” Nor could it have passed his notice that sword is a palindrome for words.
Could the pun Will Shake-spear be, perhaps, no more than a happy coincidence? Sometimes pun names arise naturally, but rarely where they have such a direct bearing on their owner’s role in life, and, we might add, probably never where the subject is, as Johnson pegged him, a writer addicted to puns. Does Robin Graves become a grave robber because his parents had a tin ear for puns? Did Armand Hammer make his living selling baking soda? Besides, there’s considerable evidence that William and his family pronounced the name very differently than did the readers of the plays that bore his name, closer to how we might pronounce the French name Jacques-Pierre, one of the many English names from the north of England where the Norman diaspora left so much anglicized French in the names of people as well as things.
When with much digging it became clear that the entire period was rife with puns, double entendres, and all the linguistic horseplay that wordsmiths like Oxford and John Donne delighted in, the possibility that the name Shakespeare was a pun meant to hide the author’s true identity, while suggesting to those attuned to such wordplay that it was merely a cover, brought me what had been merely a possibility as close to a certainty as it’s possible to get.
Again, as with issues such as Oxford’s eight years with a tutor, or his instruction from the age of four, such a pun name turns out to be nothing unusual. Martin Mar-Prelate was just such a pun name, conjured up to describe the writer’s purpose (i.e., to mar, or humiliate, the leading prelates, or bishops). The name Tom Nashe comes suspiciously close to his purpose, as he gnashes his literary teeth at the fools and devils that people his pamphlets. Robert Greene was less obvious, although to those aware that green in French is vert (pronounced vair) it sounded enough like Vere (pronounced Vayer) that Oxford’s friends could make the connection.
That Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare were real men, and Robert Greene surely one of several from the period (though no one can be sure exactly which), creates an extra dimension to the question of whether or not these names were legitimate or intentional tricks to hide identities. While Doll Tearsheet was fictional, and Marprelate obviously a pseudonym, the reason why Oxford, Bacon, Raleigh and Mary Sidney used the names of real persons was more complex. First the published name had to hide the writer’s identity; second it had to show a community of insiders that it was a mask and, if possible, suggest the true author’s identity; and finally it had to provide a living being who would affirm, if questioned, that he was indeed the author. Without this last the cover might not last past one or two publications, but it generally required that the standin live some distance from London.
The men who read these works with the greatest attention, and who would have been the ones to question their authorship, tended to congregate in the northern and eastern edges of the Westminster community, today’s West End. This is where so many writers lived because this is where there was secretarial work for lawyers, councillors, and members of Parliament. Travelling was not something that everyone did then with the ease we have today. Roads were rough and dangerous, inns were expensive, Londoners had to rent horses––so although there was always the chance that someone might brave the elements to track down a putative writer two days ride from London, it was not so likely (at least not until 1597 when the you-know-what hit the fan with the publication of Richard III.
What is likely is that only men of some influence could get away with such a ploy. They had to be able to pay the proxy enough to keep his silence, while the proxy had to feel for them the kind of respect that would prevent him from giving up his secret even for a fairly lavish bribe. Most important, the community that was most involved with writing and publishing would have been aware that such a ploy could only be engineered by someone from the highest social levels, so it was surely the better part of valor to be discreet.
Finding a standin who met all three qualifications could not have been easy. It took Francis Bacon upwards of ten years to find a cover for his early works (Edmund Spenser), and when he did it lacked the pun factor, though it more than made up for it by being located so far from London that the danger of discovery was minimal. Having published first under what was obviously a pseudonym (Immerito), he was limited to distributing successive versions of the Faerie Queene and other works among members of his Court community via manuscript. Since none of these manuscript versions have ever surfaced, Bacon must have kept them to a minimum, perhaps calling them in when he finally published in print in 1590. With an elegant print version with which to replace the old manuscript, this could not have been too difficult, particularly if he’d kept track of how many there were and who had them. By the time he’d found a proxy for his early stuff he was probably already on the lookout for a new name, one he could use for the voice he’d adapted from Martin Mar-prelate’s rant. The one he found (Tom Nashe, sizar at Pembroke during Bacon’s early years at Cambridge) may not have lived as far from London as Ireland, but his name couldn’t have been better.
People who get addicted to puns, who listen for them or for opportunities to make them, generally get the habit during a childhood spent hearing their elders banter. Having had such a childhood myself, I was amazed to discover as an adult that a lot of people don’t hear puns, that they simply can’t understand what’s so funny about them. Oxford discovered this early on, and used it to hide his meaning from the unenlightened. That he would use the same ploy with the name he needed to get published is simply another instance of this basic approach to the two audiences he addresses, one that separates the dull-witted sheep from the clever goats.
Of course the deaf ear that fails to hear, or at least to acknowledge, the clue that for us punners lurks in the name William Shakespeare is hardly the major factor in the authorship debate, but it is significant, for it turns on something that truly defines every aspect of the controversy. Oxford and Bacon and the University Wits at Fisher’s Folly, Philip and Mary Sidney at Wilton, John Harington and John Donne in the West End, were having fun! Struggling to free themselves from the gloom and doom of the threats of Hellfire, Sin, and Damnation that dominated them as children, they sought the joy that comes with laughter, then ways to share it with a community hungry for love and light. “When I am gone,” wrote Donne, “dreame me some happiness.”
No, William Shakespeare was not the author’s real name; the necessary pun was found in another man’s name, an illiterate provincial who was generously compenstated for the use of it. But if it’s not the name he was born with, it’s the name that describes him, the spear-shaker who––despite the rage of a generation of humorless puritans and envious in-laws out to shut him up––WILL be heard.