How did William spell his name?
The short answer is, he didn’t, because he couldn’t spell. We know that because of the six signatures that have to be his (his last name that is) to make official the legal documents on which they appear (deposition, bill of sale, will), in which he spelled his name differently every time. Apparently he never got a clear idea of what came after sp.
But others did spell his name, mostly clerks in Stratford and a few in London, who were obviously spelling it according to how they heard it, or in the case of clerks in London, how they saw it had been spelled by some other clerk. Sam Schoenbaum’s book, A Documentary Life, includes facsimiles of many of the documents on which William’s biography is based, and provides many samples of the name’s various spellings (which he termed of an “exotic variety”). Though I imagine there are quite a few others that he didn’t list (readers can see what Stratfordian Dave Kathman has to say), these must be the most important for the record. I am a novice at reading Secretary hand, so I can’t claim that this data does anything more than suggest a trend, but I am fairly familiar with the way the name looks in that hand, and, since the trend seems to be going in the same direction as the rest of the scenario so far, it’s worth reporting.
The spellings come primarily from Stratford and its environs and from London, with a few from a wider area of Warwickshire. A few appear to be members of other families with the same name. Most of the Stratford spellings come from documents involving William’s father, John Shakspere (who signed after the clerk wrote his name with an X or the mark of a glover) and who was an important man in Stratford for a time. Of the spellings by the Stratford clerk of John’s name, the most often seen is Shakspere––10. For others than John there were four more with that spelling.
The following are the various spellings from records in and around Stratford previous to the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594: Sakspere––1, Shakspere––14, Shakespere ––3, Shakespeer ––1, Shakspeare ––3, Shakesper––1, Shakyspere––1, Shakspeyr––3, Shakspayr––1, Shackspyer––1, Shaxpyere––1, Shakysper––1), Shaxpere ––3, Shaxpeare––1, Shacksper––1, Shackspeare––1, Shackespere––1, Sackspere––1, Shakspear––1, Shagspere––1. The following are from Stratford after 1594: Shaxper––1, Shaxpere––1, Shakspere––1, Shakespere––1, Shackespere––1.
The following are the spellings from the London records, most referring to William, some to his father, one to his younger brother Edmund (who apparently tried to cash in on his brother’s name as an actor) and one to Edmund’s son Edward: Shackspeere––1, Shakespeare––1, Shakspere––3, Shakespeare––2, Shakespere––2, and Shakespear––1. Finally there are two that refer to the author: Shaxberd––4, all on the list of plays performed for Oxford’s daughter’s wedding in 1604, and Shakspeare––1, on the registration for Lear in 1610.
As for the way it appears on his published works, the author set the style with his first use of the name on Venus and Adonis in 1593: William Shakespeare, though not completely unknown until then, by no means the most usual spelling of the name; however, certainly the one best heard as Shake-spear. And although the spelling of the name on title pages also varied, never in the way it varied in Stratford, and always in ways that allow it to be read as Shake-spear.
Finally, who knows how the descendants of the Norman diaspora in Warwickshire pronounced Jacques-Pierre, or exactly how the pronunciation had changed over time. We can only point to the probable source in French, with the possibility that the e or y that in some cases divided Shak from pere, peer, pear, peare, per or par, was pronounced by some as a third syllable.
Today there are some English whose pronunciation would be more like Shike-speeaaah.