What is Shakespeare?

A word can mean more than one thing: a can can hold beer while to be canned can mean you can be fired from your job; you can be canned for driving with an open can in your hand.  By the word can alone we can’t know which of these is the intended meaning; that can only come from the context.  The meaning of “I’ve been canned” (I’ve been fired) as opposed to “it’s been canned” (what’s happened to my tomato) can only be determined by a pronoun.  Can, spelled differently, can even be a place on the French Riveria and or a film festival.

Language is a tricky thing.  It can hide as well as reveal.  It can hide while appearing to reveal.  Which is the case with the word Shakespeare.  First, it can mean the great poet and playwright; second the uneducated man from Stratford-on-Avon who was born with a similar name, though not pronounced the same; third, the body of work produced by the first; and fourth, a pun involving the shaking of a spear.  Which is the desired meaning can be understood by context: Shakespeare wrote Hamlet; Shakespeare was born and died in Stratford; I’ve read all of Shakespeare; the playwright shook a spear.  Our problem lies with an inability to distinguish among the first three: “I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”

Writer vs. author

One good thing that came out of the semiotic mess of the mid-twentieth century is the understanding that while an author is always a writer, a writer is not necessarily an author.  A writer becomes an author only when his or her writing gets published and his or her name gets printed on the title page.  The two may be identically spelled, or they may not,  they may not even be the same name.  Mary Ann Evans was a writer, as an author she was George Elliot.  Daniel Nathan and Manfred Lepovsky wrote mysteries together, as authors they were both Ellery Queen.  When writing the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay were PubliusMark Twain was really Samuel Clemens.  Lewis Carroll was really Charles Dodgeson.  And so forth.  The list of writers cum authors is long and would probably be even longer were all clearly identified.

From the very beginning of writing there’s been an issue over the author’s name.  Writing is one way of getting a message out that can’t be expressed any other way, so a large percentage of written material has come from sources that were unable to disseminate it directly through word of mouth.  Notes passed in class, anonymous letters, demands for ransom, are the result of situations where the writer can’t speak without fear of retaliation.  The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, was probably written by priests at a time (or times) of stress when it was feared that what until then had been an oral tradition might vanish should none of those who held it in memory survive.  During the Reformation and the period leading up to it it was worth a man’s life to publish the Bible or any of its parts in anything but the official Latin.  With the invention of printing came two great and powerful instruments: first, the ability to disseminate writing to a far greater readership at almost a single stroke, and second, the power to hide its source.

Literature originated as speech.  The rules that governed self-expression back in ancient times, known as rhetoric, were created to help orators communicate verbally with crowds in public arenas.  It took centuries before these rules were altered to fit the needs of communications created solely for publication.  Shakespeare, who wrote most obviously for speakers but also, as Lukas Erne makes clear, for readers as well, represents a transition between the two.

With printing, suddenly a few hours of labor by a compositor and a pressman, and there were hundreds of copies ready for distribution.  With this also came the ability to cleanse the writing of the tell-tale handwriting that could lead angry authorities to the author of a manuscript, or to his secretary.  No sooner were presses imported from the Continent than laws were passed and rules created to make such mystification difficult: printers were licensed, printshops were limited to a fixed number and location, censors were appointed, the name of the printer and the author had to be published on the title page.  And of course as rules were created, methods were found for circumventing them, many of them used as often by the Crown as by its enemies, and far more successfully.  Which brings us back to Shakespeare.

It should be obvious that Shakespeare (meaning the author) was closely connected to the Crown, that is the central government of the nation.  The name William Shakespeare is not to be found on anything relating to the Stage or the theater until 1595 when it appears on a warrant for payment for a Court performance by the recently-formed Crown company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  From then on the only reliable records connecting the name William Shakespeare to theatrical matters will come from this same source, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––later the King’s Men, sanctioned, licensed, and protected by patrons who were, if not the monarch himself or herself, leading members of the Privy Council, responsible for all matters of Crown policy and its dissemination.

Shakespeare an instrument of the Crown

The fact that from the first the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were in every respect a Crown company is rendered ambiguous by their name, which deflects, probably on purpose, their roots as a part of the Court establishment, but the name does reveal the fact that, as an instrument of the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, their primary purpose was to entertain the Court and otherwise do the Court’s bidding in terms of what plays they put on and where, the Lord Chamberlain being the second most powerful member of the Privy Council, the Queen’s cabinet.  As second in power only to the Secretary of State, he was a major instrument of Crown policy, both creating it and enforcing it.

Shakespeare’s Company was preceeded by the first Crown company, the Queen’s Men; for whom the earliest versions of some of his plays were written.  Following the death of Elizabeth, the Company was more formally acknowledged by the incoming monarch as the King’s Men.  Their first actors and managers included some who had been entertaining the Court since Elizabeth first took the throne, first under her favorite, Robert Dudley, as Leicester’s Men, their manager and the creator of the first purpose built stage in London, James Burbage and his sons.

That from their organization by the Lord Chamberlain Hunsdon in 1594 until 1611 or thereabouts, their company playwright was one William Shakespeare is a fact known and accepted by all theater historians.  Towards the end of the 1590s they began to perform works by other writers, but that Shakespeare was their mainstay throughout their entire history until the Civil War shut them down, is evident from the history of publishing throughout that period and from what bits of evidence have accrued from other sources.

How strange is it then that no evidence that a William Shakespeare was ever recorded as having been seen or introduced at either Court, Elizabeth’s or James’s?  Ben Jonson, who took on the role that Shakespeare played earlier as leading author for the King’s Men was the Poet Laureate of the Court of both James and Charles I with clear ties to the King’s Lord Chamberlain, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.  Milton and Dryden were both Poets Laureate, and as such, instruments of the Crown, purveyors of Crown policy.  Molière, whose plays were written as much for the Court of Louis the Fourteenth as Shakespeares’were for Elizabeth’s, was a well-known member of the French Court community as was the poet Ronsard earlier to the Court of two French kings, and as were Ariosto and Tasso to the Court of the Princes of Este in Italy.

But at Elizabeth’s Court?  Nary a trace of William Shakespeare.

3 thoughts on “What is Shakespeare?

  1. In dealing with different meanings for the same word, the word “shake” has many, many uses in Early Modern English from the OED. When looking for it’s use in “or Hundreth Riddles shak’t to sleeue-lesse rimes”, a definition which I think is the correct one in this phrase, is to sing. Had never seen that before. Gave another meaning to Shake-speare: sing spear or sing pen. Interesting as well to think of Romans (sleeve-lesse/wearing togas) singing their “Hundreth Riddles” (enigmas).

  2. “Shake” is indeed a word for the lip trill or intervalic tremolo produced by the trumpet, or for the heavy, whole-arm vibrato a cellist or, more rarely, a violinist will produce. No doubt there is indeed a vocal origin here. Are there not Elizabethan and earlier song lyrics which refer to the shake the bird’s vocalizings produce? I should have to look into some of the collections Oxford’s poems appear in…

  3. Then there’s the “notable Shake-rags” from Kemp’s 1595 Jig to Norwich, and Shake-Bag, one of the the murderers in Arden of Faversham. And there’s Robert Greene’s “Shake-scene” that the academics want to see as the first (and only) non-Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s theatrical reference to Shakespeare, but which was in reality Oxford’s reference in Groatsworth to Edward Alleyn, who had deserted him and Burbage for Henslowe and Marlowe at the Rose.

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