The view has often been expressed that it would be impossible to keep such a secret. That may be true today, but it would certainly not have been true then. Keeping in mind how small was the community involved, how important it was to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that they get, and continue to get, Oxford’s (Shakespeare’s) popular plays, how important it was to Oxford, his family, the Queen, et al,all for different reasons, that his involvement in the theater remain hidden, the long traditions of anonymity in the arts, the long tradition of closely held trade secrets, the need on the government’s part that it not be seen as overly involved in the production of public entertainments, particular by the more rabid puritan elements, the need all governments have to keep secrets and their success is so doing, the question answers itself.
Over the past half-century we’ve become familiar with the idea of The Big Lie; that is, if a lie is repeated often enough and with enough fervor it will eventually become accepted as true. That an ordinary uneducated man of a lowly social and economic status was able to write these erudite, sophisticated plays about distant times and places, in plots that reveal an intimate awareness of Court life and interests, is simply one more instance of authority propagating a Big Lie. By waiting until almost everyone involved was dead, those who launched it ensured its survival.
How many knew?
For a long time, the only people who knew for sure who was writing the scripts for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men would have been the Burbages, James and his sons Cuthbert and Richard, their manager John Hemmings, lead actors Will Kempe, Augustine Phillips, and Thomas Pope, and their patron, Lord Hunsdon. As William’s neighbor and Oxford’s printer, Richard Field must have known. That William’s wife Anne Hathaway and Richard Field’s wife Jacqueline Vautrollier also knew seems likely, as these women were partners in their husbands’ business enterprises.
The other actors in the company would have known that there was some sort of secret about the source of the plays. For one thing, Oxford would have been involved, however discreetly, in directing what he’d written. But they didn’t need to know everything and they knew they didn’t need to know. All actors in repertory companies protect their company’s works and will keep any secrets pertaining to their source. In fact, most loyal company members know secrets about their companies that they won’t tell. This was particularly true then, when learning a trade was seen as being initiated into a“mystery,” referring to stock in trade methods that young apprentices took vows to keep secret. As long as they were well-treated, as no doubt the actors who were members of this incredibly successful company were, there could be no possible telling tales out of school.
The truth must have spread over time. Oxford had had secretaries who had worked with him, taking dictation, making fair copies, as he wrote for Blackfriars and for the Queen’s Men. He’d lost some of these when his finances went haywire, but it’s unlikely that they would have felt there was anything to gain by letting the secret out. When the original actor-sharers with the LC/K’sMen died, others took their places. From Hunsdon’s death in 1596 until King James took over as their patron in 1603, must have been a rocky time for both the Company and for their top playwright. Though still named the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, it’s questionable how much the men who held the office of Lord Chamberlain during the final years of Elizabeth’s reign knew about the company the were supposed to be patronizing. Both of them behaved more like enemies of the Stage than promoters.
There must have been theater insiders who knew his style, who thought they could recognize it. To escape detection, and also because he couldn’t bear to use a style that others had adopted and cheapened, or perhaps just out of the desire to move forward, he changed his style, purging it of worn out tropes, pushing it past anything he’d done before, making it work for more than just the ladies of the Court or the gentlemen of the Inns. Making it work for that unpredictable and devouring beast, the public.
A romantic would suggest that there was the wearing of a symbol of some sort that could be taken as a sign that one knew. Without that symbol, or handshake, or some other sign, a member of the inner circle would not divulge his or her membership or even the existence of such a circle; all standard practice with secret societies, of which there were many at that time. But we are not here to be romantic, however plentiful the evidence. This need for secrecy was combined out of a great need for privacy on the part of the author with a long tradition of aristocratic secrecy, plus the long tradition of trade secrecy, but chiefly with the need to protect him, and his works, from their enemies.
In this way was born the fictional poet Will Shake-spear, an uneasy amalgam of William of Stratford and the Earl of Oxford, a shadowy creature generated out of sheer necessity and several serendipitous connections. Most notable among these was the discovery and acquisition, through Oxford’s printer, of the perfect name, one that contained a pun that was not only subtle but totally appropriate to his purpose. For indeed, through a combination of early life training and a high level of adult frustration, Oxford had the “will” to “shake a spear” at all sorts of things, at the villains of history known to him through his family history, at persons he saw as enemies, not only of himself, but of the state, and most broadly at the persistent evils of ignorance, sycophantry, and malice.
The name also worked as a pun for theater insiders, for the term “spear-carrier” still means an actor who has no lines to recite, a “walk-on” who merely “serves to swell a scene or two.” (As opposed to a “spear-shaker,” who takes some part in the action?) Although there seems to be no support for the frequent assertion by Oxfordians that Pallas Athena, the militant goddess of ancient Athens, was known by the Greeks as “the spear-shaker,” she’s always depicted as holding a spear. More signficantly, perhaps, it was believed that her helmet rendered her invisible. According to Wikipedia, she used “the Helm of Darkness” during the Trojan War to become invisible to Ares when she aided Diomedes, his enemy, enabling him to injure the god of War with a spear, something that Shakespeare, author of Troilus and Cressida, knew all about.
As Samuel Johnson noted, Shakespeare could never resist a quibble, Johnson’s term for a pun. To the man who created Doll Tear-sheet, Will Shake-spear was the perfect persona to protect his privacy from then on, to allow him to function without fear of being attacked, hounded, wrongly-praised, stupidly-criticized, even assassinated (like Marlowe). There are coincidences in life, some of them quite amazing, but such a thing as a name that works as a pun for one of the greatest pundits who ever lived, a name that perfectly expresses his purposes in writing, is not, cannot be, sheer coincidence.
From now on, when you read about Shakespeare, ask yourself with every mention of the name which of the three uses the writer has in mind: 1) William of Stratford; 2) the poet-playwright; or 3) the canon? If 1) and 2) are not kept separate, you must then ask yourself, what is the purpose of a particular statement? If it seems at all to come, not from documentary evidence, but from a desire to maintain the Stratford story, regard it with suspicion.