The actors, of course
So far as I can see, all the important bits of evidence that connect the Shakespeare canon with the name William Shakespeare derive from the company of actors known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men––later the King’s Men. They would not have been able to do it had not the author been so careful to keep his identity hidden during his lifetime, but they were responsible for what we call “the cover-up” (and the orthodox call “the conspiracy”), that is, the calculated prolonging of the authorship secret past the Oxford’s death. This was engineered by some or all of a group of about six actor-sharers, who, along with their patrons, constituted the core of the King’s Men. It was continued by them––with a few later additions when some died or retired––until long after the death of both the author and his stand-in, and finally set in stone––by them––with their publication of the First Folio.
Why the cover-up?
First: to protect their playwright’s privacy; second: to provide themselves with the best plays (which did in fact result in several modest fortunes), and finally: to get his works into print while protecting the privacy of his family and various other persons and situations he portrayed that, it was feared, could easily be identified if his role as author became widely known.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, inaugurated in or shortly before June of 1594, was one of the most successful repertory companies of all time. All the sharers got rich. Following a few rocky stretches under Elizabeth after which they were put by King James under his personal protection, the value of the shares began a steady increase which continued over the years until the original sharers made fortunes. House shares were valuable property that, by 1623, they were able to divide among members of their families or sell for a substantial profit. In The Shakespearian Playing Companies, Andrew Gurr outlines their financial arrrangements, how the shares were determined, there being two kinds, sharing the take and sharing the house (296-7). The first brought the holders good incomes, the second brought real wealth.
Was William in fact a real “sharer”
So far as I can see, William of Stratford, though listed as a “sharer” on several legal documents, did not have the same kind of a deal as the other sharers. Why? Because he neither left shares to his family nor did he sell theater shares at any time, for if he had, it would have been mentioned in his will or one of the 17th-century lawsuits that detailed the history of these shares. Documents exist that show how the actors did leave shares to their families and/or sell them––but not William.
It’s obvious from the raising of status of his family in Stratford, his sudden ability, following 1595, to invest in land, purchase a coat-of-arms, and have a monument made for his father, that he reaped some sort of reward for his contribution to the success of the Company, but it was not, it could not have been, in the form that his supposed legal status as an actor-sharer would have us believe. Had he been a real sharer we would have a record of bequeathals or sales. So if he wasn’t a sharer, was he an actor?
Was William in fact an actor
Despite guesswork that he might have played Adam in As You Like It or the ghost in Hamlet, or that he became an actor by running off with one of the companies that played in Stratford, and so on and so forth, there is no evidence to support the claims, whether by spokesmen for the Company then or literary critics today, that he was ever an actor for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men or any other company. While the real actor-sharers with the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, John Hemmings, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and William Kempe, all have solid early histories with other companies, and some even have verifiable anecdotes regarding specific roles they were known to have played (Chambers 2.297 et seq), William’s record as an actor before joining the Company in 1594-5 is a blank. The only contemporary support for him as an actor is the fact that his name is prominent on the lists of actors in two plays written, and published, by Ben Jonson in 1616. However, since by that time Jonson had long been chief playwright and spokesman for the Company, nothing he ever said about Shakespeare can be taken as third-party support.
When all the evidence is assembled with regard to William’s lack of credentials as someone who was actually capable of writing something, we can only conclude that his role in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men lay solely in the use of his name as a cover for their Company playwright. The Company rented his name from 1594 (more likely 1595) until his death in 1616, masking the true nature of their connection by describing him as an actor-sharer. It seems that he hung around at times, perhaps to gain some understanding of how his money was being generated, perhaps, as has been suggested, to see if he could put his famous name to some more direct use to himself, perhaps only to enjoy himself. If Ben Jonson’s clown, Sogliardo, in Every Man Out of His Humour, is, as many believe, based largely on William, he may have made something of a nuisance of himself to the actors. (See Not Without Mustard).
Whatever William’s price, it was something the sharers were willing to pay to get Oxford as company playwright in their initial push to take over the London Stage. Why? Simply because his plays were the most popular, i.e., the best. Their patrons could impress actors, but they could not force a fellow peer to write for them. Hiring William for the use of his name was the price they were forced to pay to ensure Oxford’s privacy and their access to his skills as an entertainer.
The cover-up begins
Oxford was not the only one who wanted there to be a buffer between himself and the playgoing world. This hiring of a stand-in would have been an acceptible deal all around. The Queen did not want it publicized that one of her top earls was the author of popular plays; Oxford’s in-laws didn’t want it; his new wife and her family would not have wanted it. His rivals certainly didn’t want him to get any more publicity than necessary. His actors didn’t want anything that might put a stop to their supply of quality plays. The only ones who would have wanted the truth made known were his enemies, so they could use it to damage him and his friends and families. As for the public, if they thought at all about it, they figured this was just one more thing that it was best to ignore.
Note: it was not the Lord Chamberlain’s Men who first used William’s name, but the author himself. A year before the formation of the Company, Oxford had a poem he simply had to get published, and being without a cover at the moment (having gotten rid of Robert Greene 9 months earlier), he used the name of a hometown neighbor of his printer, a man with a punnable name and a large needy family who were down on their luck. A year later, when William had shown his stuff by keeping his mouth shut about that first windfall, this new opportunity appeared, one he was sworn to keep secret.
How did the cover-up work?
The details were probably handled from first to last by John Hemmings, whose business acumen must be credited for much of the Company’s long-term success. Originally an actor with the Lord Strange’s Men, he came over to the Lord Chamberlain’s when it formed in 1594. Twenty-eight years old at the time, he soon took on the role of business manager, although it’s likely he was always ready to jump into costume if some actor was sick or in jail. Hemmings’s hometown was Droitwich in Worcestershire, thirty miles northwest of Stratford, directly on his route home from London. It would have been easy for Hemmings to stop off in Stratford on his way north to Droitwich.
Evidence for this theory
Would you believe that in fact there are only 21 instances in which contemporary documents connect the name Shakespeare with the London Stage? Considering its importance, the many years when Shakespeare’s plays were bringing in audiences and enriching the coffers of the Company and considering the great number of connections that can be drawn between the names of most of the leading actors of the day and their acting companies, patrons, managers, etc., that there are only 21 that connect the name William Shakespeare with the London Stage is significant in itself.
I don’t include the appearances of the name in Stratford records as none of these (including the bust in Trinity Church) show any connection to London or the London Stage. As Ramon Jiménez makes as clear as proving a negative ever can, it appears that not a soul in Stratford had any idea that their fellow townsman was involved in any way with the London Stage. There are also contemporary lists of Company actors that do not include the name William Shakespeare where he should have been included had he been what they claimed, but that’s proof of a different point. The point I’m making here is that every bit of evidence we have that connects William with the London Stage or acting comes from the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men! Apart from his name on various title pages, it is these and these alone that support the Stratford biography.
There are almost as many anecdotes that connect William to the Stage as there are genuine references, but we’ll deal with those separately. As T.W. Baldwin has shown in his brilliantly detailed deconstruction of the two (mutually exclusive) origin myths, Will the deer-slayer vs. Will the rabbit poacher (Small Latin, Appendix I), anecdotes like these were created––probably by spontaneous combustion––to fill the vacuum that surrounded the author from the very beginning. Even so, there’s a kind of truth to some of them that’s useful, if not in ways that the orthodox might wish (for instance, both the deer-slayer and the rabbit poacher stories that emanated from Stratford suggest the kind of life William had been leading before his name became so valuable to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men). There are also any number of false scents that some academics still trail after in hopes of coming up with something that connects William to the Stage, but we haven’t the time or energy to chase after any more wild Stratfordian geese.