Ben Jonson’s clue
Shortly after getting in trouble in 1597 over his play for Pembroke’s Men, The Isle of Dogs, the young, upcoming playwright Ben Jonson was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By the following year he had a play ready for them, the first of many “citizen comedies” that would draw their appeal from the life that surrounded the City theaters, rather than the distant past or Greek Romance. This play, Every Man in His Humour, affirmed Jonson as a writer of popular plays. In his second, Every Man Out of his Humour, produced in 1599, he increased the element of satire, focusing more closely on the characters of his own world, that of the theater. One of the characters in this play, Sogliardo, has provided us with a clue to how William was seen by the actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
“No. Without right”
This bit of satire turns on William’s acquisition of the coat-of-arms that his father had tried and failed to get back in 1576. Sam Schoenbaum tells the most complete version of the incident:
[William’s] father had made a preliminary approach to the Heralds’s office at some time after he became bailiff of Stratford in 1568, but then, as troubles closed in on him, let the matter drop. The heralds demanded heavy fees when the Shakespeares, beset by creditors, could ill afford them. Then, in 1596, John Shakspeare renewed his application––or, more likely, his son did so in his father’s name. (A Life 166-67)
Dated 20 October, 1596, there still exist two drafts (labeled “Shakespere”) of a grant for a coat-of-arms for the Shakspere family. A note at the foot of one describes “This John” as having presented a “pattern” on paper twenty years earlier, shortly before the downturn in the family fortunes. “Pattern” referred to the design for the crest. There is no sign of an earlier design, but the ink drawing in the upper left corner of the 1596 grant shows a drawing of a bird (referred to as “a falcon” in the text) holding an upright spear. Although the coat of arms was granted by the herald, it was never referred to in any later document, so it appears that it was not something that was actually of much use to the Shakspere family. It did, however, enable William to require that clerks add the term “Gent.” to his name.
Stratford advocates are inclined to see the spear as a pen, or a combination of the two, a visual pun if you will. This is unlikely. Most pens in use by clerks, poets, and other writers in the sixteenth century were quills cut from the sturdy pin feathers of birds. Steel pens shaped somewhat like the spear in the design had been in use since the middle ages, but only by draftsmen for purposes of drawing straight lines with a ruler. Silver pens of a similar shape were used by artists, but these could draw only a very fine, faint silver gray line as they used no ink. The strongest argument against the spear as pen, however, is the fact that the crest was granted for John Shakspere, William’s father, who was a wool dealer, not a writer. Obviously, the item was meant to be a spear. Like many such images, it was simply a play on the name Shakespear.
“Not without right”
In fact, the coat-of-arms incident is more than just a footnote to the authorship controvery. If interpreted in the light of common sense and some solid hints from other contemporary documents, it illuminates as little else can the nature of the true relationship between William and the literary community who had need of his name, but not his person. In the upper left hand corner, above the drawing of the bird and pen, is the legend in upper and lower case: “Non, sanz Droict.”––Law French for “No, without Right.” Just below this is written the same legend, comma and all, but with a line drawn through it as if to mark it out. Next to these two, in much larger capital letters, is written: “NON SANZ DROICT” – this time sanz comma.
Schoenbaum interprets this to mean that the same clerk wrote all three lines, that he didn’t like the first version (with the comma after “non”), so marked it out. Then he repeated it, comma and all, above the first attempt, but didn’t mark it out this time, even though, when he repeated it in big capitals, he altered the meaning by leaving out the comma. In typical academic style, Schoenbaum deals with the questions this raises by shifting into profspeak: “Could the phrase conceivably signify heraldic endorsement?” “Probably not,” he answers himself, “more likely it represents a motto” which was brought to the herald by “the bearer”––i.e. William.
Whoever heard of such a motto?
Reverting to common sense we can see how the clerk, writing up the grant for the second time in 1596, copies the first line from the original “pattern” along with the drawing. Then, perhaps under instruction from the herald, who was unlikely to ink his own fingers with scribbling, he wrote it again. This time he was further instructed by the herald to rewrite it without the comma. By striking through the second version and writing it in large capitals, as the herald required, minus the damning comma, the original rejection was converted into “a motto.”
The obvious interpretation of the original text is that it was a rejection of claims by John Shakspere in 1576 (that he had married into the Arden family; that he was a respectable Stratford burgess, etc.) on grounds that these were not sufficient to give him the right to a coat-of-arms. We know that the original suit was rejected. What else could “No, without right,” possibly mean? Who ever heard of anyone, however devoid of basic intelligence, offering as their family motto such a patently absurd double negative?
That this is the case is strengthened by the plain nature of the shield, on which there are no “quarterings” of the arms of related families, as normally found on coats of arms. Schoenbaum attributes the arms of those who did have the right to bear them to “fussiness and over-elaboration,” while Shakspere’s shows a “classic simplicity” (167). This is nonsense. The images on coats of arms have nothing to do with art; they are heraldic symbols of the families to whom the individual seeking the coat of arms is related. That there is nothing on Shakspere’s original but a spear only corroborates the original decision as shown in the first line at the top of the page, i.e. that he had “no right” to a coat-of-arms because he lacked the primary requirement, upscale family connections.
“A boar without a head, rampant”
Although Jonson wrote for a number of acting companies over the years, his connection with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and with the Court would continue until his death. In Every Man Out, written in 1599, the character Sogliardo is represented as a ridiculous hanger-on whose only business in coming to London is to see puppet shows.
In Act II, Scene 1, The knight Puntarvolo enters in company with Carlo Buffone and Sogliardo, who, according to Jonson, is “an essential clown . . . so enamoured of the name of a gentleman, that he will have it, though he buys it.” Sogliardo complains of his treatment by the College of Heralds. Keeping in mind that Oxford’s heraldic symbol is a boar, and that the word rampant in heraldry refers to the upreared posture of the animals that support either side of the shield on a coat of arms, note that Sogliardo is most impressed by how many colors are involved, displaying ignorance similar to Schoenbaum’s four hundred years later.
Generations of orthodox scholars have been at a loss to explain this, so a bit of story-telling might be in order:
At some point in 1595 William begins making regular trips to London to see what more he can do for himself. (Jonson describes Sogliardo as coming up “every term to learn to take tobacco, and see new motions,” i.e., plays.) Someone in the company, most likely John Hemmings, who’s in charge of such matters, finds him places to stay, a room in St. Helen’s parish. When the tax collectors get too nosy, he arranges for him to stay in the home of some wigmakers who live not far from him near the Guildhall.
William, of course, is aware that he must not refer in any way to anyone, including the actors, about his arrangement with the Company. To do so would be to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs with which he’s just purchased New Place in Stratford. And the actors too know that they must be careful with him, show him a good time, and keep him out of sight of anyone who might be inclined to look too closely into who he is and what exactly he’s doing in London.
In writing Every Man Out for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1599, Jonson can’t resist using the story behind William’s crest to amuse the actors and anyone else in the know. Images of beasts were a commonplace on crests, while on the shield, they often appeared as just a head, but certainly never as a headless body. Shall we push the metaphor to its logical conclusion? The body without a head represents the body of Shakespeare’s work minus his head, that is, minus his identity. That Sogliardo/William was feasting off the headless boar, served up as a roast, rounds out the metaphor. The final zinger, satirizing the motto “Not without right “into “not without mustard,” must have sent the actors into hysterics.
“tremble and depart!”
It seems clear that William of Stratford continued to visit London off and on, well into the 17th century. Following the death of his father in 1601, his business in Stratford would have become more pressing, but he was certainly in London, for how long it’s impossible to tell, at moments in 1604 and perhaps (per Davenant) in 1605. Whatever he was up to, it was enough to prompt Oxford to address him, and, it would seem, his claims of authorship, in one of the scenes he added, probably in 1603, to As You Like It, in which Touchstore advises Audrey’s suitor, William, to “be covered,” with dire threats of what he’ll do to him if he doesn’t leave her alone; Audrey meaning the public audience (audire: Latin for to hear).
Evidently William was becoming something of a nuisance while in London.