In my opinion (and Sigmund Freud’s), the name Shakespeare was derived from the French given name Jacques-Pierre by essentially the same process that the French word for shoemaker, chausseur, became Chaucer. In Shakespeare’s case it arrived at its current form through a more complex process, since Chaucer was the poet’s real name, while Shakespeare wasn’t. Although Chaucer was equally guilty of writing about the love lives of the nobility, with the same technique of telling it as a tale from myth or history, because his works were written only for the Court of the Black Prince, during whose life the poems were published only in manuscript, to be passed by his master only to those he thought worthy to read them, there was no need for Chaucer to hide his identity, as there was for the Earl of Oxford when his acting company found it necessary to publish his plays for public consumption.
If it weren’t that Chaucer’s son Thomas, seeing an opportunity to cash in on his dad’s talents, had, after his death, several copies of his most notable poems elegantly copied for sizable sums, much of Chaucer’s work would be lost to the ages. The most notable of the manuscripts made by Thomas Chaucer is the one known today as the Ellesmere Chaucer, which appears to have been created as a gift for the 13th Earl of Oxford, paid for by some admirer then in confinement.
Nor was this kind of transformation from French anything unusual in the names of the time. The fact that most members of the upper tiers of the English nobility were descended from the French who came over with William the Conqueror is reflected in their Anglicized names. With some the spelling changed while retaining the original pronunciation, as with Devereux, the family name of the Earls of Essex descended from Robert (pron. Robair) d’Evreux, who came over with the Conqueror. In others, surnames continued to be written the French way, as with St. Leger or Ferrers, while the pronunciation changed to Sellinger and Ferris. With others both spelling and pronunciation changed, as with the family name of the Duke of Somerset, Seymour, originally St. Maur. We see the same thing in America where names like de la Warr became Delaware, and de la Noue became Delano, the D in FDR.
In place names the original French spelling remained while the pronunciation changed, as with Beauchamp Tower, pronounced Beecham Tower, Beaulieu Palace, pronounced Bewley Palace, Belvoir Castle, pronounced Beaver Castle. Other place names altered the spelling along with the pronunciation, as the area north of London that had once belonged to Sir John de Soerdiche, lord of the manor in the time of Edward II, became Shoreditch.
How did Jacques-Pierre turn into Shakespeare?
By 1593 when the Earl of Oxford was looking for a name to put on the title page of Venus and Adonis, the name Jacques-Pierre had long since migrated from a first or given name to a surname––as we see today with names like William Peters and Peter Williams. By then it had also been transformed into something easier to say in English––exactly what we can’t know for certain, yet from the varied spellings left us by the various clerks and scribes of Stratford we can get a pretty good idea of how it was pronounced before Oxford and Company got hold of it.
First, we can be almost totally certain that the a in the first syllable was pronounced short, that is, like the a in back, and not, as it’s pronounced today, like the a in bake, otherwise we would not see so many Shax, Shags, Shacks and Shaks in the ledgers of the clerks of Stratford and surrounding towns. Although the length of vowels is not a dependable indication of pronunciation, as these have changed considerably since the 16th century, the OED shows pretty clearly in its treatment of the two words, back and bake, both going back to Old English, that the difference was clearly indicated, if not exactly as we do it today, enough that we can tell the difference. By Shakespeare’s time the difference was (usually, pace the OED) indicated as we do today, by using ack for back and ake for bake (never ack for bake or ake for back). What then do we make of the e that we find after k in several of the spellings, which today would indicate the long a of Shake?
The answer may lie with the 16th-century’s propensity to finish with an e many single syllable words that today we end with a consonant. In Chaucer’s time these terminal e’s indicated an extra syllable, a sort of uh that acted to separate the word from its successor and that lent a singing quality to texts that were more often meant to be read aloud than silently to oneself, as we do today. Thus Chaucer’s: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of Marche hath percéd to the roote . . . .” where we would say root, Chaucer said root-uh. Note in particular the word shoures, meaning showers, which we pronounce shawerz, they pronounced shower-es.
In Shakespeare’s time this terminal e was no longer pronounced, but words continued to be spelled with it. So if the e after the k in some of the spellings of Shakespeare did not indicate a long a, as it would for us today, but the extra uh syllable from an earlier time, spellings where the first syllable ended with ke rather than just k may have meant that it was meant to be pronounced Shak-uh-speer, or, like the Chaucerian shoures, Shak-es-peer. If the y sometimes added after the sp meant that the final syllable was meant to be pronounced spyeer, then––recalling that the English were inclined to change the soft J of Jacques to either the much softer Sh or the much harder J (Shake or Jake), we have Shak-es-pyeer, which sounds way too much like the French Jacques-Pierre to waste time with nonsense about some ancestral spear-shaker, which was never the way the English formed family names anyway.
If we’re right about this, then William’s ancestor, the one whose surname he bore in an Anglicized version, would have been a member of the peasant class, for only such were known by first name alone. Those with pretensions to any class at all had names that connected them with either a location or a respected family. Jacques also has a connection to the English nickname Jack, which entered the language at the same time as the French nobility took over England. Jacques was a common French slang term for a peasant. Certainly that’s what it meant by 1358, when gangs of angry peasants known as the Jacquerie took arms against the nobility in the Oise, an area north of Paris, creating a nom du guerre that resurfaced in subsequent uprisings, including the infamous 18th-century reign of Terror known as the French Revolution.
Information from the Dictionary of Etymology suggests that many of the other uses to which the word jack has been put have to do with replacing the peasant, that “jack of all trades,” with a machine or tool of some sort; thus there’s the jack that raises the car off the ground, or the power tool known as a jack-hammer, or the bootjack that makes it possible to remove one’s boots without the help of a servant. Jack was a common name for any sailor below the mast while the game played with groups of three small nails, lashed together with thead, provided them with the game of jacks, played with an airborn leather ball to while away down time at sea. Among the three face cards in the playing deck recently imported from either Spain or the Middle East, the Jack is the lowest in number value and represents the lowest level of humanity, below both the King and Queen (or Vizier in the Eastern deck) and the Knight in the Tarot deck.
Dr. Ewan Johnson, research associate at Lancaster University in Lancashire, whose area of study includes the Norman diaspora, has affirmed (via email) that Warwickshire was well within the area settled by the Normans in and after 1066. He also states that: “large numbers of servants and tradespeople accompanied the Normans, [and that, not surprisingly] their ‘assimilation’ is a matter of yet unresolved debate.”
So how did Shak-es-pyeer turn into Shakespeare?
I believe that Oxford was in close contact with the printer Richard Field from 1586-87, while Field was involved in publishing the second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, through the early 1590s, when he was preparing North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives (a major source for the same plays). Thus, when Oxford felt the need to publish Venus and Adonis, it was natural that he turn to Field. Having disposed of his decades-long cover Robert Greene a few months earlier, and so stuck for a name to use on the title page, he was tipped off by Field to the existence of one William Shaxpyeer in Field’s hometown, two days ride north of London on the road that led through Oxford. A little coin from Oxford to Field and from Field to a grateful William, and the deal was done.
What made the name so attractive to Oxford?
A poet who dealt on a daily basis for years with words in five languages, with their meanings and sounds, one addicted to puns, would have seen immediately the uses to which such a name could be put. Spell it a certain way on the title page of V&A, and it would be pronounced by Londoners the way they read it, not the way William’s neighbors heard it in far off Stratford. Shakespeare shows by the spelling used for other words ending in ack and ake throughout his plays, that he and his compositor, and probably his reading audience, were used to reading ake words, as we do today, with a long a. Spell the second half of the word spear, or less obviously, speare, and the natural reading would be Shakespeare, as we have pronounced it ever since. If a hyphen were used between the syllables, perhaps just once, it would signal that it was a pseudonym, which was in fact how it was spelled in 1597 on the first published play to bear the name, Richard III. Thus, for those pun addicts eager to dissect title pages, the author was Will Shake-spear, clearly someone who wished to hide his identity; more important, someone who had a reason to hide his identity, which must mean that there was material in the work, “darkly figured forth,” that the author did not wish to share with the common run of playgoers.
If someone’s got a better explanation, I’d be happy to hear it.