Missing the fun factor

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.

14 thoughts on “Missing the fun factor

  1. Thanks, Stephanie. Here is a related example of de Vere’s word-play, hinting at his concealed identity.

    When Rosalind and Celia in AYLI are discussing how to disguise their real identities with “poor and mean attire” and new names, Rosalind proposes to carry a “boar-spear.” This is one of two times that word is used in Shakespeare. The other time is in Richard III, which was published a year before the first play that carried the name “William Shakespeare” (but after V&A and Lucrece, which used that pseudonym). So did “boar-spear” hint at the connection between de Vere and “Shakespeare”? I wonder.

    EEBO lists only four previous authors before Shakespeare who used the word. Three authors had used it once each, until Thomas Lodge’s Euphuist book Rosalynde (which influenced AYLI). Lodge was likely a member of de Vere’s retinue of fellow writers. Rosalynde uses “boar-speare” four times. Curiously, the word “boar” alone does not appear in the book.

    Especially with its context of disguise in AYLI, “boar-spear” may be yet another allusion to our disguised author. It seems significant that six of the first nine uses of this word in EEBO are by Lodge and de Vere.

    1. Of course he knew what he was doing! Johnson had him pegged. Wordplay nagged at him. But Johnson was wrong that he couldn’t resist. Of course he had to, for the tragic mode. Most who are sensitive to multiple meanings know that they must be avoided on occasion. For instance, those who teach teenagers have to be careful that they phrase things so that they can’t be taken in a sexual way, which is not so easy as you might think! Our language is loaded with potentials for sexual double entendres. Perhaps all languages are.

  2. Dear Stephanie,

    Thank you for the discussion. Punny thing, Smokey Stover and Howie Hertz the dentist have been giving me nothing but trouble just lately.

    In case no one has read my essay in the September 2009 SOSNL about puns in Oxford/Shakespeare’s apocryphal “Sweet Cytherea” sonnet in “The Passionate Pilgrim,” I shall help out and inflict them on you one more time.

    Quickly running through the punning: Sweet Cytherea is sitting by a BROOK=ford, a yEE-Ong=EO Adonis=sun=son, who is l-OVE-ly [EO & V], fresh=vers (Dutch), and green=vert (French, ver-de=de ver, Spanish). He is later bored into by a boar=verres (Latin). The ultimately FAIR=Vair queen flops on her back, and Adonis ROSE and then ran away, a fool too froward=ver-nil-is (Vere O is).

    We find the charged terms ‘green’, ‘fresh’, ‘lovely’, ‘fair’ and ‘youth’ again, central to the meaning of the Sonnets.

    Punning, this exasperating here and gone distraction, is so relentless upon the consciousness. To put it in my own words, What plague is greater than the brief of mind? I ask you.

    Wishing a good happy New Year,

    William Ray

  3. Mahatma Gandhi walked barefoot most of the time, a habit which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. And, he ate very little, a habit which resulted in a rather frail man with bad breath. This made him a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

  4. LOL! Or my Dad’s favorite, the horticulture pun from Dorothy Parker: You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.

  5. Hello Oxenfordians,
    I am currently reading Sobran’s Alias, Shakespeare.
    I am beginning to think that the best way to start clearing up the controversies is by spelling the names properly and correctly. The “Stratford man” should be referred to as Shaksper or Shaxsper since these were the spelling forms found on his last will and testament. The “Oxford man” should be spelled Shake-spere–which is what most Oxford scholars refer to him.
    Sobran has the most convincing arguments because he relates the Sonnets to Oxford’s life. Also, the words/vocabulary used by Oxford is most convincing because they reveal and connect to a writer’s style.

    I would like someone to find out what happened in the 1580’s to Oxford, Marlowe(who died supposedly in 1593) and how the Howards and Mary Sidney,Lady Pembroke and Jonson and Thorpe were all interconnected with Emilia Lanyier and John Florio–could all these people have had something to do but specifically WHAT!!! wHEN THE FOLIO APPEARED
    who paid for it really, who edited it and what cursive copy(ies) were used to be set to print? Were they all destroyed,the cursive written originals–someone must have some!!!
    Good going, excellent controversy!

  6. Sal, keep reading. You’ll find answers here to most of these questions. If you type a keyword into the search field in the upper right corner, all the articles that deal with that issue will be listed.

    You’re right that the name is the biggest hurdle to communication. I get around it by calling the standin “William of Stratford” and Oxford “Shakespeare the Poet.” In my view, Oxford deserves the name since it was he who made it famous. Had he never used it, who would care whose name it was?

  7. If an aristocrat was the author of Shakespeare then surely there were others who had to have been the anonymous fronts for the other playwrights of the period? So, who wrote Ben Jonson (didn’t attend university), or Thomas Middleton, or John Marston, or John Ford?

    I’ve also had the opportunity to see a lot of Shakespeare’s colleagues plays. I’ve become a huge fan of Thomas Middleton’s works and Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore – influenced by Romeo and Juliet in a very disturbing way. And I’ve developed a high regard for Henry VI, Part 3, currently my favorite history play of Shakespeare’s.

    One of the problems with claiming that the Earl of Oxford is the true author of Shakespeare’s plays is that he dies in 1604 and it is clear from the later plays that they were written after de Vere’s death. The style of Shakespeare’s plays changes dramatically once Elizabeth dies and James comes to the throne. Every play that comes after James contains elements of the masques that James so adored.

    [Reply sent to me by an associate]

  8. Gary, certainly there were other fronts during the early years of the London Stage, but Jonson, Middleton and Ford came later, when men from the lower middle or working classes could actually hope to earn a living at writing. The Stratford dating has forced the plays to all be dated too late. By 1604, all of Shakespeare’s plays were in existence, as authorship scholars have proven, though academics pay no attention.

  9. We know when several of the plays were performed because of their required registration with the stationers office. 18 of the plays only exist because they were printed in the 1623 folio which was compiled and printed by Hemings and Condell who were actor/managers in the company. They very likely got the idea to print the folio because Ben Jonson compiled and printed his own folio of “complete” works in 1616.

    As for Shakespeare not having the required knowledge shows how little people know about source material. When it comes to the history plays its mostly Hall’s chronicle. I attended a pre-performance text lecture on Henry V that showed how little was changed in some scenes from the chronicle to the play. The writers and companies stole from each other ideas all of the time. Unfortunately a lot of the source plays no longer exist.

    And I’m still waiting to hear who were these aristocratic fronts for the other playwrights.

    [Sent by an e-mail associate.]


  10. Briefly, there were at least three courtiers who published under the names of real persons who were willing to let their names be used in exchange for various benefits: Oxford, who, among others, published (serially) as Richard Edwards, George Gascoigne, George Pettie, John Lyly, Robert Greene and William Shakespeare; Francis Bacon who published as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe, and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who published as John Webster. Raleigh too may have published some of his poetry as by Spenser. My reasons for these identifications are developed at length in pages and essays elsewhere on the blog. If you’re truly interested, I’ll gladly direct you to them. If not, there’s no point in taking the time.

    That Pembroke and the King’s Men allowed Jonson to publish his own collected works in 1616, a thing never before allowed a playwright by the company that owned his plays, was probably something of a quid pro quo for helping get Shakespeare’s collected works into print. It also set a precedent, so the First Folio wouldn’t be seen as a suspicious anomaly. Much of the creation of the First Folio was to quell questioning about the authorship. Considering the excitement over the authorship of Primary Colors, so obviously by a Clinton insider, we should be able to imagine the kind of curiosity over who wrote Richard III, so obviously a blow directed at Secretary Robert Cecil.

    There’s no argument that anyone could have written the English history plays since the sources were available in English, the question is, who might that “anyone” have been? William Shakespeare didn’t put in an appearance in the London records until 1595. The early version of Henry V, The Famous Victories, contains far too much identical language to have been simply a source, as academics term it, and the companies certainly did not recklessly steal material from each other. They might produce their own play on a subject, but they did not steal text. To do so would mean real trouble, particularly if they were stealing from the Crown company, the Queen’s Men, who are known to have performed three of the early versions of the plays in question.

    If you’re interested in this issue, and in particular Henry VI Part Three, and haven’t yet read Albert Feuillerat’s The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays (1953), you would find it of immense interest. It shows the close connection between Shakespeare’s English history plays and their early versions, all far too early for William (who the record shows, couldn’t write clearly even so much as his own signature).

  11. J. Thomas Looney first proposed that de Vere also published poetry as “Ignoto,” and many of us find that plausible. There is some evidence that he also wrote the commentary in Spenser’s The Shepherd’s Calendar under the initials “E.K.”

    1. Thank you all for these informing comments and replies. I shall post them all (assuming permission) with replies to the Sir Thomas Smythe Forum in Yahoo Groups. They’ve already been posted with controversy elsewhere. Very informative and updates to the original article explain what the more common reader has little background to rediscover–including myself. Thank you, Gary Smith

  12. With regard to Gary’s statement that “We know when several of the plays were performed because of their required registration with the stationers office”. This is inaccurate. The date in the SR is the date the manuscript was brought the Stationer’s Office to be registered. It proves nothing about performance dates. A play would have been acted many times by different companies before then, as only very popular plays would sell and thus be worth printing. Once printed they carried the date of publication. This too proves nothing about the dates the plays were performed and even less so when they were written. The publisher usually stated on the title page the name of the acting company who performed the play ‘sundry times’. This gives some clue, but care still needs to be taken. If The Queen’s Men are mentioned this suggests the play was performed between 1583 when they were founded with a charter from Elizabeth I and 1594 when they began to decline, to be overtaken by Chamberlain’s Men. Therefore, if a play has a printing date after 1591 and states it was played by the Queen’s Men, this can suggest a date as early as 1583 for performance, This has a knock-on effect on the whole issue of the dating of Shake-speare’s plays.

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