Where’s William in the records?

Where does the name “William Shakespeare” actually appear in the records?

Do you think that William’s name must be all over the place?  Apart from title pages and a few legal documents related solely to property, all but one in Stratford, it appears only ten times in connection, sometimes at second or third hand, with the world of literature, and of those seven times, only three times is it connected in any close way with the world of the London theater.

1-1592: NOT the first use on a literary document:  We’re told that the first appearance is in Robert Greene’s 1592 farewell pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte, where (so they claim) Shakespeare is referred to as “Shake-scene.”  This is demonstrably not a reference to either William or the playwright, but to the popular actor and theater manager, Edward Alleyn.

2-1593: the first use on a literary document:  his name first appears in what’s regarded as his first published work, Venus and Adonis, where, for some reason, it does not appear on the title page––which is where, by long tradition, the author’s name should appear––but on the following page under the dedication to the Earl of Southampton.  Orthodoxy has no explanation for this anomaly, so the good professors simply ignore it.

3-1594: NOT the first use on a theatrical document:  had William actually been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s men at its formation in 1594 as is so often claimed, his name would be on some warrant listing the original members of the Company.  A Crown company, they must have had a legal document drawn up that listed the names of all the sharers, but if such a document ever existed, it’s no longer extant, nor is there any reference to it in any other document.  In fact we don’t know for certain who all the actors were who were actually members of the original LCMen because the first extant list is from 1598, and that wasn’t actually published until 1616 (Gurr Playing Companies, 280).  In the weeks before the formation of the Company, early versions of several Shakespeare plays were registered, and published anonymously.  The lack of a warrant plus the lack of a name on the published plays allows us to propose that the decision to use William’s name came some time after the company was formed.

4- 1595: first use in a theater-related document: in a Court record of March 1595 “Willm Shakespeare” is listed as one of three members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as payees for a December performance at Court (Schoenbaum 136).  The name, along with that of Richard Burbage, is in small letters while “Willm Kempe” is written large, Kempe being a well-known actor while Burbage was just starting his career.  Although this is no guarantee that William was actually present, there is evidence that in 1595, rooms in the St. Helen’s theater district were rented in his name (see #6 below).

5-1598: second use on a theater-related document:  in Frances Meres’s Wit’s Treasury, the name Shakespeare is set apart from the other writers mentioned by the length of his notice, and a list of 12 titles of his plays.  This publication also works to distinguish him from the Earl of Oxford, who is tagged “best for comedy” in a list in which many of the writers are dead.  1598 is also when his plays begin to be published with versions of his name on the title pages, though variously spelled, but always with the e after Shak, thus requiring the London pronunciation:  Shake––with a long a––spear.

6-1596-7: not directly related to the Theater: The name appears on tax rolls as having failed to pay tax on some property in the St. Helen’s parish in East London, where William must have been rooming.  This is often amplified into him owning a house in London, but the small amount of the tax suggests that it was for some other kind of property, a room rental would make sense.  His failure to pay such a small amount suggests that he did not spend much time in London.  Having decamped without paying his share of the municipal taxes, it’s obvious he had no commitment to the community where he spent so little time.  The only connection this has with the London Stage is that the St. Helen’s parish contains two of the city theater inns.

7-1603: third use on a Theater document: During King James’s progress through the nation he now ruled, he signed the warrant that made him the leading patron of the King’s Men, formerly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Following the first name on the list, one Laurence Fletcher, a Scottish actor whose name never appears again, comes William Shakespeare, followed by the rest of the company.  As a Company document, this warrant can easily be seen as necessary to maintain the legal fiction that William was an actor-sharer, similar to the listing of the never heard of again Laurence Fletcher.

8-1605: not directly related to the Theater:  I include the possibility that William fathered the playwright William Davenant, born in late February, 1606, to the wife of the proprietor of the Crown Inn in Oxford, halfway point on the two-day journey from Stratford to London.  It seems Davenant bragged that he was the illegitimate son of Shakespeare, which could well have been the stimulus for his theater career, which included among many other things, following Ben Jonson as Poet Laurette.

9-1612: not directly related to the Theater:  The name plus one of the six signatures appears in a deposition filed with regard to a lawsuit known as the Mountjoy-Bellot suit.  The Mountjoys were hairdressers and wig-makers with whom William roomed while in London at some point in 1604.  Having been present during a particular family situation, he was later asked for a deposition to support one side of the argument, which he obviously avoided doing.  When asked for a second depostion he failed to appear (Schoenbaum 210).  I include this simply because it shows he had business in London, although there is no obvious connection to the theatrical or publishing communities, unless, possibly, that the Mountjoys supplied wigs to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  But why would the playwright who was making the Company one of the most lucrative corporations in London be rooming with a wigmaker before returning to Stratford during the period of his plays greatest success, when other successful members of the acting community were investing in property and leaving their names in documents related to community activities in London?

10-1613: not directly related to the Theater: the name and another of the six signatures are on the Blackfriars’ Gatehouse deed. This is a very weak connection, since the only thing that connects this to the London Stage is the fact that one of the trustees (those who will continue to benefit after William is dead) is John Hemmings, business manager of the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company.  Otherwise neither the gatehouse nor either of the other investors have any known connection with the Stage.  The Liberty of Blackfriars where the gatehouse was located contained dozens of residents and businesses unconnected with the theater.  As the business manager of the LCMen, Hemmings would have been the person to deal with the real author’s proxy, arrange for places for him to stay when in London, arrange for payment of his stipend, etc.

After 400 plus years of digging through archives, these are the only records of William Shakspere of Stratford’s presence in London during the period that the plays with his name on them were making millions for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, other references being to the author of the plays.  Considering the popularity of those plays, it’s simply not enough.

We know a great deal about Ben Jonson whose plays were much less popular, and at something about Christopher Marlowe, although his career was so short.  Why do we know nothing about the man who supposedly wrote the most popular plays of all?  Orthodoxy has no explanation for this.


10 responses to “Where’s William in the records?

  1. Thank you for providing this useful summary. We need such reality checks periodically, as an antidote to the insidious assumptions, speculations, inferences, and innuendos that form the shaky foundation of the case for the legendary author.

    I assume “William Shakespeare” was also de Vere’s stage name. That would explain why “Shakespeare” was never listed as acting after 1603.

  2. I seriously doubt that Oxford or the LC-King’s Men ever made use of the name Shakespeare for anything but getting the plays published. As for Oxford himself acting, although he was probably a witty and antic performer, it would surely have been only for his private circle. If he ever did perform for a wider audience it could only have been as a courtier amateur for small Court audiences or for the Inns of Court law students at Blackfriars.

    However, once he began writing for Walsingham and the Queen’s Men in the ’80s he would have moved too deeply into into what was to all purposes a genuine professional writing career to endanger his anonymity by performing in public. This was all long before a cover name was needed since that only happened later in the ’90s when it became necessary to publish the plays.

    There are two sources for Shakespeare as an actor and both come from the LC-King’s Men. As I show elsewhere, the only way the Company could incorporate William as a genuine part of the theater operation was to portray him as an actor, since playwrights were free agents then, selling their wares to whatever company would buy. There would be nonacting sharers many years later when the King’s Men’s shares had become extremely valuable, but this was certainly not the case when they began their career in the mid-’90s.

    The second source comes from Ben Jonson’s published plays where his lists of the actors in two of his plays include “William Shakespeare.” But by the time he published these, Jonson was closely allied with the King’s Men and their patron, William Pembroke, who had everything to do with the later phase of the authorship cover-up.

  3. Thank you for your reply, Stephanie. I’m still left puzzled as to why there is no record of Shakespeare acting after 1603. James Shapiro said a couple of years ago that the consensus is that he stopped acting about 1604. Would it not have better served the purpose of a cover-up to have “Shakespeare” continue to act after the year of de Vere’s death? Further, we have the intriguing anecdote reported by Schoenbaum, about the two lines of iambic pentameter “Shakespeare” improvised in the middle of a performance after Queen Elizabeth deliberately dropped her glove in front of him. As you know, Schoenbaum’s reasons for dismissing the story as false is that “Shakespeare” addressed the Queen too familiarly, as “cousin.” More consistent with de Vere, no?

    • Let’s be clear about the anecdote of the glove. It apparently was first published in 1825. It imagines Elizabeth viewing Shakespeare’s plays in the public playhouse, like the ending of Shakespeare in Love — but viewing the performance from the stage. She allegedly walked across the stage in mid-performance but Shakespeare, then playing a king, refused to stop the performance, and only did so when she dropped her glove. His use of the familiar “cousin” apparently shows that he cleverly maintained his royal character even while returning the Queen’s glove. pp. 204-5 of Compact Documentary Life.

      Honestly — does this ridiculous anecdote make more sense if we imagine the Earl of Oxford playing onstage before the common masses at the Globe? Access to the Queen was carefully controlled — she would hardly be out in an open theater. For one thing, it would be far too dangerous — the Queen was under threat of assassination and her security was of paramount concern. If she wanted to see a play, she could easily command it. In any case, the Queen’s presence onstage would have been a nightmare — when she rose, everyone would be obliged to rise.

      I think we can safely say that there’s no reason to credit this anecdote. It was made up by someone in the early 19th century about William Shakespeare (nobody at that time had imagined Oxford as the author).

  4. There is no trustworthy record of Shakespeare acting, period! Shapiro’s cockamamie reasoning is so faulty in every respect that it’s hardly worth the trouble to unravel it. There was no need to “have” William actually ever appear onstage. Where would he have learned to act? Acting is not one of those things that just anyone can do. The term “spear-holder,” traditional for someone who simply appears onstage in costume to “swell a scene or two,” makes the distinction. If he ever performed at this level there’s certainly no way to prove it now. Basically there is simply no evidence that he ever put a foot on any stage. Just calling him an actor did not make him one.

    It’s this kind of thing that has me arguing that authorship scholars should simply forget the orthodox story, return to the basic facts, and start over. Reading Shapiro, or any of his ilk, is like listening to someone argue that the holocaust never happened or that the world is run by extraterrestrials. It’s like looking at an Escher etching where close in things make sense, but move back and the picture goes totally surreal. You can’t argue with Shapiro. He lives and thinks in a different dimension. Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare: A Life, is the best orthodox scholar on William. He at least has some honesty when it comes to reporting the documented facts.

    T.W. Baldwin’s essays on the myths of Shakespeare as poacher of deer or rabbits is another refreshing bit of honesty that shows how stories like Shakespeare improvising before the Queen get born. There’s no evidence that William was even ever at Court. True, Oxford probably entertained her during his early years, but he would never have been so crass as to call her “cousin” in front of a room full of courtiers, even had they been related, which they were not. Yes, people did call each other “cousin” then as a mark of familiarity and friendly feeling, but she was the monarch!

    Stories like these need solid documentation. Without it we should simply ignore them.

  5. My documentation is the 1616 Folio of Ben Jonson’s Works.

  6. Could you quote chapter and verse? I want to be sure I’m responding to the text you have in mind.

  7. Certainly. It’s been a few years since I looked at it in the Folger, but “William Shakespeare” is listed as one of the principal actors at the first performance of some three of Ben Jonson’s plays. The final one was 1603, even though Shaksper of Stratford lived another 13 years. I asked the director of research at the Folger for other documentary evidence of Shakespeare having acted. She was not aware of any.

  8. She was right. There isn’t any. Nor does anything by Jonson qualify as 3rd party evidence.

    By the time Jonson began writing for the King’s Men the cover-up was well in place. How better to establish William as Shakespeare than by putting his name on a list of actors in a book that came out years later? Who would remember who was in a play that long ago? William was dead by the time Jonson’s book came out, so there was no concern that he might give it away, and of course Stratford wasn’t mentioned, so WS could have come from anywhere.

    As proof of William’s career in the theater it’s necessary to provide 3rd party evidence, that is, evidence that stems from a source totally unconnected with the LC-King’s Men. This excludes anything that Jonson ever said, wrote, or published about Shakespeare as by 1598 he was one of their established playwrights, bound in duty to keep company secrets. If not the editor of the First Folio he is certainly the source of the ambiguous front material that points both to and away from Stratford on Avon. Jonson would remain a client of the Earl of Pembroke, patron of the King’s Men, publisher of the First Folio, until Pembroke’s death in 1630.

  9. There’s a small fly in the ointment that William was not a small time actor in the company . (Well two) The first is the Surrities of peace restraint on Shakespeare along with Langley of the Swan??? against William Wayte. So he is near the theater crowd but somehow engaged in perhaps inappropriate activity.

    Second is the annotation in Camden’s “annuals” that lists by some unknown Stratford person Shakespeare as “Our Rocius”. This would seem to indicate that there was some knowledge of his activity as an actor in London (unless he lied.) What is more interesting to me is once again, where there is opportunity to link him to writing (“Our Ovid, perhaps), it does jot appear. The author of Venus and Adonis is not recognized as a writer? Once again the dog does not bark.

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