Source of the name Shakespeare

Here’s a chapter from the forthcoming first part of Shakespeare and the London Stage:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Among the many facts that the Academy fails to note about Shakespeare are two that should be perfectly obvious: first, that the name Shakespeare is not now and never was a typical English name, and second, that the man Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a poet, so that if spear can be seen as a poetic meme for pen, it describes his role as a playwright, that is, by shaking his pen he fills the stage with spears, i.e., actors in costume. If this seems far-fetched, it would not have seemed so to the rhymers for whom the Bard provided the wordplay that Dr. Johnson referred to as quibbles, for the love of which, as he churlishly argued, the Bard was willing to sell his soul. That the name Shakespeareis just such a “quibble” is a fact of considerable importance, if seen through the perspective of the double lens of English History and English Literature.

The multitude of spellings

Perhaps the most obvious issue for anyone researhing the name Shakespeare is the trouble the scriveners of the sixteenth century had with spelling it. Admittedly, spellings were all over the place then, but with a name like Brown, where an might be added at the end, or Smith, where the i might be replaced with a y, nothing comes close to the 83 different versions of the name as it was spelled by English clerks from 1562 through 1635, as detailed by E.K. Chambers in Volume II of his William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (1929).

Beginning in 1248 with a William Sakspere, hanged in Gloucestershire for robbery, the name, though never numerous, pops up here and there all over England, but predominantly in Warwickshire, where Stratford is located. Among these, the version of the name the Lord Chamberlain’s Men put on his published plays appears  along with the more common Shaksperes or Shackspeers, and other variations such as Schakespere, Schackspere, Schackespeire, Shaxespere, Shakyspear, Shakysspere, Saxper, Chacsper, Shakisspere, etcetera. Long story short, the version used by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was not unique, but it did not predominate until they popularized it by putting it on a handful of his plays, beginning in 1598 with Richard III and Richard II. Yet even as late as 1605, a scribe reporting on plays performed for King James over that year’s winter holidays spelled it Shaxberd.

Totally focussed on how many times it had occured and how many different ways it had been spelled, Chambers never thinks to ask why this variety? Common sense would suggest that the name was not easy to pronounce, that such wildly divergent spellings reflect problems with pronunciation, which suggests that it began as something  unfamiliar to the English ear.

1066 and all that

English names from the Elizabethan period were primarily derived from one of two languages brought to England over the centuries by continental invaders. The original British Celts having been driven by various invaders to Devon, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland, by the sixteenth century the language spoken by the rest of England was predominately Anglo-Saxon, the most determined of the early invader-settlers. Also known as Old English, it gave the language the germanic root words it bears to this day. The other source was Norman French, imposed on the Saxon population by the invasion of William the Bastard, an aristocratic knight from Normandy, out to carve a domain for himself and his followers on the other side of the English Channel.

Saxon names often refer to a geographic feature, a hill, field, lake or wooded area; to a trade like Smith, Miller, or Carter; or to a father, like Thomson, Johnson, or Wilson. Since Shakespeare is certainly not a place, a trade, or a patronym, Norman French is the most likely source. The name of Shakespeare’s great literary predecessor, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, is the English version of the French word for shoemaker, chausseur.

By the sixteenth century, many of the original French names had been “Englished” to a point where their origin can’t be deciphered, but Shakespeare is easy. Since Sh in English sounds almost exactly like how the French pronounce as in “je suis jolie” (I am pretty) or Jean (John), if pronounced Shackspeare, the name sounds like the way the French pronounce Jacques-Pierre, the kind of double name that French Catholics still give their offspring, two saints’s names linked by a hyphen, as with the actor Jean-Pierre Aumont or the filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard.Thus it would seem that Shakespeare began, not as a surname, but as a first, or given, name, only becoming a surname later as with names like William Peters or Peter Williams.

By the Tudor era, most members of the upper levels of the English aristocracy were descended from French nobles who had come over with the Conqueror, a fact reflected in anglicized names like Seymour, the family name of the Duke of Somerset, originally St. Maur, or Devereux, the family name of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, from the Conqueror’s friend “Robair” d’Evreux. That Shakespeare derived from a first or given name suggests someone of a less elevated status, a serf or bond slave, a member of the “Jacquerie” that did without surnames.

Shack vs. Shake

By the 1590s the name Jacques-Pierre had long since  been anglicized into something easier to say in English––exactly what we can’t know for certain, but the spellings left us by the clerks and scribes of Stratford offer some suggestions . And as Dr. Ewan Johnson, research associate at Lancaster University in Lancashire, whose area of study includes the “Norman diaspora,” has affirmed (via email), Stratford was located well within the area settled by the Norman French in and after 1066. He also affirms that: “large numbers of servants and tradespeople accompanied the Normans,” and that, not surprisingly, their “assimilation is a matter of yet unresolved debate.” Thus William’s ancestor would have been one of the 8000 French immigrants that, according to Wikipedia, accompanied the conquering Norman nobility during and after 1066.

Chambers notes that of the 83 different spellings of Shakespeare, those that begin with “Shack, Schak, Shax, are nearly as common as those [that begin with] Shake . . .” (372). Although the pronunciation of vowels has changed considerably since the sixteenth century, as the OED shows clearly in its treatment of two simpler words, back and bake, both derived from Old English, that their pronunciation is indicated by the fact that they were always spelled then, as today, with ack for back and ake for bake. So if, as we surmise, the name Shakespeare originated with the French Jacques-Pierre, it would make sense that in Stratford, and the rest of England, for those who knew the name from hearing it spoken (not from reading it), the first syllable would have been universally pronounced Shack. What then of the spellings that appear to begin with Shake?

As usual, the Devil is in the details, in this case, the number of syllables. If we consider the possibility that spellings like Shakespeare may reflect its pronunciation, not as the two-syllable Shake-speer of today, but as a three-syllable word, Sha-kes-peer, suggested by spellings like Shakespeyr, Schakespeire, Shakesspere, Shakisspere and others listed by Chambers on page 371. Were there only one or two of these they could be considered anomalies; numerous as they are they must be taken as genuine efforts to capture how the name was pronounced.

Some spellings may suggest where a scribe copied the French name from an earlier document. Unaccustomed to the French habit of glossing or ignoring final consonants (unless followed by a word beginning with a vowel), he could well have attempted to transcribe what appeared to be the final syllable of Jac-ques, into kes or kiss. As for the final syllable, the fact that several of the variations reported by Chambers end, not with pear, peer, or pier, but pyeer or pyere, suggests Pierre.

Shake-speare the pun

But here’s where the issue of Shake vs. Shack gets hot. If William’s name was chosen by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as a much needed cover for the real author because it could be understood (and accepted) by the literati as a conundrum––in modern terms, a pun that equates a shaking spear to a pen––then the name would have to be pronounced Shake-spearenot Shack-speare. But if, as we’ve argued, the name was an anglicization of Jacques-Pierrethen wherever it had taken hold around the nation, it would often, perhaps always, be heard as Shacks-pair, Shacks-pyair, or even Shack-ess-pyair.

To ensure that the all-important name begin with Shake, someone clever, if not the Poet himself then another wordsmith––someone with experience publishing cheap paper pamphlets (which is how the plays first emerged into print) who saw that by placing a hyphen between the and the and thus turning what may have been a three-syllable word into the two-syllable Shake-speare, the actors and their patrons could be fairly certain that the public would come to pronounce the playwright’s name with the pun Shake-spear.

That the first two plays to display the name used hyphenation in this way ensured that it would be Shake-speare that would be spread to the unlettered public audience. Thus the image of a shaking spear would be immediately grasped by the groundlings who themselves were clever at confusing outsiders and authorities with hiding the subject of their conversation by rhyming it with the last word in a short phrase, what today we term “Cockney rhyming slang”––as in “trouble and strife,” or just trouble, for wife––as in “bread and honey,” or just bread for money. Wordplay of this sort was endemic to the English, who spread it abroad along with the language itself.

Here’s where the hyphen comes in. When the name William Shake-speare first appeared in print on the title pages of Richard III and Richard II in 1598, the insertion of a hyphen divided it into two syllables, the first spelled with the ake as in bake (not ack as in back) as the verb, and the final syllable as the object of the verb. As such, the name becomes a sentence with a verb and an object, and as such it conjures up the image of someone shaking a spear. When the name William is added it identifies the man shaking the spear as someone named Will (Will I am). Will is not only a man’s nickname, it’s a powerful term for the determination to act: as in “will vs. won’t”; as in “will I nill I,” (willy-nilly); as in a man’s  “last will and testament.” As Willy it’s also a slang term for the vital male organ that at times can seem to have a will of its own.

Such a word would have held tremendous value for the poet/playwright and the actors who depended on him for their livelihoods, which depended on communicating to that portion of their audience who lived by such undefined rules, the need to leave well enough alone in a political climate that clamored for the destruction of what by then had become so precious to them, their public theaters. That the ploy worked is evident from the fact that the London Stage continued to survive through the reigns of both Elizabeth and James, despite the best efforts of its political enemies and the Protestant evangelicals to “pluck it down.”

“Let the cobbler stick to his last.”

Efforts by orthodox theorist David Kathman to prove William’s authorship by referencing Chambers, is yet another example of the kind of circular reasoning to which we’ve becomed accustomed. One can only wonder how Kathman dares to claim that “Shakespeare was by far the most common spelling of the name in both literary and non-literary contexts” in the face of Chambers’s evidence for the of wild variety of nonliterary spellings. When he states that “there is no evidence that the variant spellings reflected a consistent pronunciation difference, but there is considerable evidence that they were seen as more or less interchangeable,” which pronunciation does he mean, Shake or Shack? When he states that “there is no evidence whatsoever that hyphenation in Elizabethan times was ever thought to indicate a pseudonym,” what about Martin Mar-prelate (as found in the tract from 1589, “The Just Censure and Reproof of Martin Junior” (online at or Cuthbert Curry-knave, “author” of the anti-Martin pamphlet “An Almond for a Parrat” (1590). As for the fact that “proper names of real people were also sometimes hyphenated,” how does that eliminate other possible uses?

Kathman’s a financial systems analyst; he’s not a poet. While the two are not totally incompatible, Kathman is no T.S. Eliot (who made his living by working in a bank). How helpful it would be if someone with his talents would tackle questions like whether it was Lord Treasurer Burghley who first turned England’s green and pleasant land into an early bastion of capitalism––or not.

NB: Sigmund Freud, creator of the science of Psychology, who loved Shakespeare above all other writers and based some of his theories on the behavior of Hamlet, came to the same conclusion about the source of the name as an anglicization of the French Jacques-Pierre, an opinion he shared with several of his correspondents (Norman Holland “Freud on Shakespeare” (1960), p 164; who quotes Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud.

9 thoughts on “Source of the name Shakespeare

  1. One of the most interesting spellings is “Shake-Speare,” in Ben Jonson’s 1616 Folio, under the list of actors for the first performance of Seajanus. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that format of two capital letters and a hyphen is used in Jonson’s book only for invented names. So it’s a good spelling for us to emphasize. Ben Jonson was a master of ambiguity, and we would do well to take his hint seriously.

  2. Which I certainly do. Thanks, Rick. Wherever I go into the issue in depth I make note of Jonson’s not so subtle point, and of your part in putting it out. It also helps to show how Jonson, as editor of the First Folio, was the member of the coverup committee most responsible for setting the Stratford myth in stone.

  3. Quotes from Ben Jonson, a lauded Poet and confidant of Francis Bacon’s

    “One, though he be excellent and the chief, is not to be imitated alone; for never no imitator ever grew up to his author; likeness is always on this side truth. Yet there happened in my time one noble speaker who was full of gravity in his speaking; his language, where he could spare or pass by a jest, was nobly censorious. No man ever spake more neatly, more presly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness, in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss. He commanded where he spoke, and had his judges angry and pleased at his devotion. No man had their affections more in his power. The fear of every man that heard him was lest he should make an end.” – Ben Jonson (1572 -1637) ‘On Francis Bacon’

    ‘Dominus Verulamius,’ Timber, or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641)

    “[Bacon] is he who hath filled up all numbers, and performed that in our tongue which may be compared or preferred either to insolent Greece, or haughty Rome. In short, within his view, and about his times, were all the wits born that could honour a language, or help study. Now things daily fall: wits grow downward, and Eloquence grows backward. So that he may be named and stand as the mark and acme of our language.”
    -Ben Jonson, ‘Scriptorum catalogus,’ Timber, or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641)

    “My conceit of his Person was never increased toward him by his place or honours. But I have and do reverence him for the greatness that was only proper to himself, in that he seemed to me ever, by his work, one of the greatest men and most worthy of admiration that had been in many ages. In his adversity I ever prayed that God would give him strength: for greatness he could not want. Neither could I condole in a word or syllable for him, as knowing no accident could do harm to virtue, but rather help to make it manifest.”
    Ben Jonson, ‘Lord St Alban,’ Timber, or Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641)

  4. Thanks Jerry. Certainly Francis Bacon was all that Jonson said he was, and that all English writers and critics believed he was (until the homophobic hysterics of the 19th century went after him). And while Francis wasn’t Shakespeare, it’s my belief, after studying the period for 30 years, that he was the greatest friend that both Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men ever had, and that without him Oxford’s enemies would have destroyed, not just Oxford himself, in which sadly they’ve been successful, but his works and the London Stage as well.

  5. Can you if you haven’t already explain how the man from Stratford became the person granted the legacy of another man’s writing. Why this man from Stratford? I know there is a cover up of the real author but why and who attached this body of writing to the man from Stratford?

    1. That of course is the number one question. I’ll respond as soon as I can with keywords to type in the search field. The general answer is that the true author was at war with his political enemies, who couldn’t defeat him through the Stage where he was simply too popular, so they found a way to erase him from history.

  6. On the pronunciation… Distinguished scholars will split the name between the sibilant and the plosive “Shakes” “Peare”. So prevalent is this tendency that a group one thousand-strong devoted to the Oxford theory flies under the banner, “Shakes” “Vere” somewhat defeating their very purpose. The hyphen makes clear that the default syllabification is meant to be “Shake” “Speare,” but the tongue will not have it so. Thank you for referencing Jacques-Pierre, a name split as a speaker is given to pronounce it.

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