If I’ve been slow with blogging lately, it’s because I’ve been slowly slogging through the histories of the period seeking patterns in events and dates to complete the puzzle of when and why the authorship question first arose. Now that I have it, I have to find a way to present it as a narrative, which is a thing that takes time and a lot of thought. Rather than hold off any longer, I’ve decided to post as pages what I’ve come up with so far. This means I will risk contradicting or repeating myself, but if I don’t, life being what it is, I may never get around to it at all.
There’s no hard evidence for the story I’m at pains to tell, but then there wouldn’t be. First, they didn’t keep evidence of this sort of thing back then; no one who was close enough to the action to know the truth would have mentioned it openly either in a letter or a published work. Second, this was the very thing that, once he had control of the national archives, was erased from the record by the man who made the coverup necessary. Obsessed with making it go away, he made it appear that the English Literary Renaissance had never happened. If it weren’t for the hundreds of published works that were beyond recalling or burning, he would have gotten away with it. He did get away with erasing all evidence of how it came to be.
Literary historians like E.A.J. Honigman, Andrew Gurr and Scott McMillin have seen the truth. McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean, for instance, see the truth about Walsingham, unlike their mainstream colleagues who still see the great Secretary as little more than the Queen’s spymaster. But without the chief protagonists it’s all just a collection of shadows on a wall. Without the authorship question and the answers it provides about the principals, there’s no dynamic, no thrust; it’s Yalta without Churchill or Stalin.
For years I’ve felt that it was impossible that no one seriously questioned Shakespeare’s identity until the mid-19th century. If there was a problem with revealing it, and if William of Stratford was hired to stand in for the real playwright to resolve this problem, then it must be because at some point the question of who was writing the plays demanded an immediate response.
A man who created something so popular as the plays that made the Lord Chamberlain-King’s Men the most successful acting company of its day and perhaps of all time, would not have gone unnoticed, unrecorded, without commentary, in London or in his own home town as Ramon Jiménez has so clearly and succinctly shown was in fact the case. That there is so little, really next to nothing, in the record about the author as a person, not just a name, cries out for an explanation and this cry would not have waited until the late 19th century. It would have been immediate.
In fact, it was immediate, as Andrew Gurr shows in his studies of the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, though he can’t get to the heart of it without knowing the principals and the stakes involved. No doubt questions were asked throughout the 1580s, but the author wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet. Not until the 1590s, with his quantum leap in style from “Robert Greene” to “Shakespeare,” would theater buffs begin asking with increasing emphasis: “Who is writing this stuff?” (Of course there were theater buffs then as there are now and always have been, particularly when the commercial Stage was so new. )
Although they didn’t use the name Shakespeare right away, the company must have purchased it from William at some point in 1594-95. The first (and only) appearance of the name William Shakespeare on a Court warrant as payee for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is dated March 1595, so the deal must have been done by then. Why then was the name not used on any of the 15 Shakespeare plays published between 1594 and some point in 1598? It would seem that not everyone in a position to make policy was enthusiastic about using a standin, or at least, not William. Were they waiting for a better solution? And what was it that caused them to begin using it in 1598?
As we might have suspected, as in Hamlet, “the play was the thing” that caused the question of the author’s identity to rise to such a pitch that a response had to be forthcoming and as soon as possible.
That play was Richard III.