The story of Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms is one of those things that demonstrates the power of small things, easily overlooked, that can trigger long lasting effects. As the old verse has it, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of the shoe the horse was lost, for want of the horse the rider was lost, for want of the rider the battle was lost, for want of the battle the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
The “horseshoe nail” in this case is a comma, small but deadly, that lies at the heart of one of the few incidents history allows us to see into the life of William of Stratford, and equally important, into the nature of the times he lived in. Misinterpreted on purpose by the mythmakers bent on selling him as the magical playwright who conjured up the language we speak out of nothing, that comma is a valuable little key to the truth.
In late October of 1596, just months after the Shakespeare name first appeared in a record touching the London Stage (March 15, 1595), William, it seems, took the arduous three-day journey by horseback from Stratford to London to see about getting the Coat of Arms that his father had applied for twenty years earlier, but never got.
The Coat of Arms
At stake was an image that provided visual evidence of the socio-political status of its bearer. Through a language of patterns and images that had developed over the centuries since the Crusades, it was a much coveted proof of virtue. As the shields once held by knights in armor gave way to modern battlefield tactics, their designs remained. In Queen Elizabeth’s time the physical shield continued as an element in the dangerous sport known as the tilts, or the tourney, where jousters needed it to protect themselves from the impact of their opponent’s lance. But while the shield itself diminished in importance, their designs migrated to doors, flags, entrances to courtyards, stationery, etc..
The images displayed on a genuine Coat of Arms were generally divided into sections known as “quarterings.” These consisted of recognizable elements from the badges of the great families whose symbols the bearer had the right to show because he was related to them either by direct descent or marriage. The Coat of Arms of a prince consisted of many such quarterings, as was true of that created for Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. A poet, Howard was the author of sonnets in a style later adopted by his younger cousin, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Shortly before King Henry’s death, Surrey was accused of treason by the crazy old king and executed for having “quartered” on his badge an image that his enemies had convinced the paranoid old autocrat that Surrey was intending to make himself King once Henry was gone. While history blames the King for overreaching, Surrey may well have been guilty of doing just that. After four decades of Henry’s reckless cruelty, the nation was weary of the greedy, sick old king and his sycophants, and so may well have been hoping for just such a leader.
Non, sanz Droict
With the King’s death, power shifted to the men Henry deemed worthy of running the nation for the nine years that his little son would be too young to rule, an exceedingly corrupt crew that had hung on during Henry’s last years in hopes of reaping a bounty of offices, lands and titles. The corruption that saw them creating dukedoms and earldoms for themselves as soon as the King was dead spread to the College of Arms, where the chief Herald, an intemperate Henry appointee named Gilbert Dethick, offered no resistence to their claims. Followed in 1586 by his rascally son William Dethick, it seems clear from the record that by 1596, when William of Stratford was seeking the Coat of Arms that his father had been denied by the older Dethick, Dethick Jr. was selling Coats of Arms at exorbitant rates to a whole slew of ambitious commoners.
Dethick was supposed to share his authority with heralds from other areas of England. In 1602, the York Herald, outraged by Dethick’s malfeasance, demanded that a number of the designs he’d passed be thrown out as “without right,” among them the one William had obtained for his father. While William’s biographers acknowledge this, they fail to account for the obvious fact that no authority at the time put any stock in his father’s Coat of Arms. It’s far too important for the Stratford defenders as the sole piece of evidence for the genteel middle class hero of biographical fantasies like Greenblat’s Will in the World (2004) or Shapiro’s A Year in the Life (2005).
The two ink sketches on paper that remain in the possession of the College of Arms as evidence of the Shakespeare transactions both contain, in the upper left corner, the words “Non sanz Droict,” Law French for “Not without right,” or so we’re told. On the earlier sketch, the phrase appears three times, first as “Non, sanz Droict,” then, just under it, without the comma,“Non sanz Droict.” This line was erased either soon after or later, by having a single line marked through it. Finally, written at some distance from these in big capital letters, is written “NON SANZ DROICT.” On the later of the two draft papers, the only phrase in the upper left corner is simply “Non sanz Droict.” Someone, it could only be Dethick, had reversed the earlier decision, which, WITH the comma, quite obviously meant “No,” the Shakespeare application was “without right.”
What should we make of this?
If nothing else we should take seriously the only thing that changed from one version of what’s been taken as a title to another, the presence then disappearance of the comma. Why? Because its disappearance changes the meaning of the phrase! As an application for legal acceptance by the Herald, the upper left corner of the draft, just above the sketch of the proposed shield, was clearly meant for the Herald’s decision as to whether or not the credentials as described in the rest of the draft gave the applicant the right to a Coat of Arms.
The original sketch, as drawn on both the surviving drafts, is not inspiring of confidence, consisting as it does of a single element, the spear, clearly a pun on the applicant’s name. The spear appears twice, once on the shield and once grasped by a “falcon” who stands on one leg on the shield. No other elements are present on the original sketch, although over time the advocates of William as a literary genius would add, first a helmet, a favorite item, originally referring to military service by an ancestor but by then simply a flourish, then a variety of other flourishes, increasinover time, but only seen on the monument. As William’s biographers are forced to admit, the Shakspere family seems to have had little use for it. The barren design, plus John’s weak credentials, a distant connection to the Arden family through his marriage and an ancestor’s brief military service under Henry VII, are strong evidence for what to an unprejudiced observer were clearly grounds for the earlier rejection.
Turning the sow’s ear into a silk purse
William’s biographers explain the fact that John Shakspere did not get the Coat of Arms twenty years earlier because it cost too much. While it’s certain that John’s request must have been made before whatever caused him to begin selling off the land he had acquired up to then, there’s no evidence for exactly when it was made; all the paper from 1596 says is “xx years earlier,” roughly twenty years, and since the fact that as the paper asserts, twenty years earlier he had been the leading official in Stratford, its Bailiff, a sort of super Mayor, by 1596, when his son felt the urge to reapply, John Shakspere had been out of office for many years. Perhaps there was some pressure from on high, patrons of the royal company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who needed William’s name to protect the true author and his friends at Court.
The truth lies in that deadly little comma, the one that separates the “Non” from the “sanz Droict” on the earlier paper. To anyone but a dedicated Stratford defender, the phrase, written twenty years or so earlier was the determination of the current Rouge Croix Pursuivant as to whether or not the humble application should be accepted. By “Non, sanz Droict,” obviously he meant “No,” the applicant did not have the necessary credentials for a Coat of Arms, and thus he was “sanz Droict,” i.e., “without Right.” This, of course, was the reason why John came away from the College of Arms empty handed, not because, as the academics would have it, he couldn’t afford the fee. (The word sans, French for without, had long been adopted by the English as we see in Jacques’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, the description of a man in the final stage of life as a dotard “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”)
The line written right after “Non, sanz Droict,” apparently in the same hand, the one that he or another clerk erased with a strikethrough, must have something to do with the need to change the meaning of the comment by eliminating the comma, for that is the only difference between the two lines. The fact that it was then written large in capitals in the center of the page suggests that whoever had decided that John Shakspere was no longer “without right” wanted to make it very clear to anyone who saw it that the final verdict was acceptance.
The unbelievably ridiculous and totally idiotic motto
Exactly how the world was meant to take the strange phrase thus created is not clear. Pitched a curve ball, William’s early biographers came up with was the notion that “Not without right” was “a family motto.” The absurdity of this ranks high amongst the many absurdities a complacent world has been asked to swallow with regard to the authorship question. No one, however ignorant or muddle-headed, would ever adopt as a motto a meaningless double negative like “Not without Right.” No academic has ever attempted to deconstruct it, doubtless because it is so meaningless that no deconstruction is possible. Both modern literary historians, E.K. Chambers and Sam Schoenbaum, have been compelled to admit that the family appears never to have used it either then or later. Academics cling to it as a motto since they can think of nothing else to do with it.
Conjured up during a period when there were no newspapers and few people could read, who but antiquarians, courtiers, and later historians would have been aware of this kafuffle within the College of Arms, and even had they known, who would have cared? Shakespeare’s connection to the ten or twelve anonymous plays that had turned London into the entertainment capital of the nation would not be made public for another two years, when his name suddenly appeared for the first time on two of London’s currently popular plays, Richard III and Richard II.
There’s more to be learned about this deadly little comma and its place in our story. Hopefully at some point someone who lives in or near London, maybe one of you, my dear readers, will be inspired to dig deeper than Malone, Halliwell-Phillipps, Chambers or Schoenbaum into the history of the College of Arms. What documents remain if any, how Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms compares with others from his and earlier times. The Authorship Question is compounded of dozens of such questions, many yet to be thoroughly explored in the English archives with a fair amount of ordinary common sense.