The six signatures

We have six examples of William Shakspere’s handwriting.  All six are signatures on legal documents where some sort of mark had to be made to make the document legal.  Here are the six signatures:

Six signatures
a)  From the 1612 Mountjoy suit deposition:  Willm Shackper
b)  From the 1612 Blackfriars Gatehouse deed:  (William) Shakspear
c)  From the 1612 Blackfriars mortgage:  Wm Shakspea
d)  From the 1615 will, page 1:  William Shackspere
e)  From the will, page 2:  Wllm. Shakspere
f)  From the will, page 3:  (by me William) Shakspear

The spellings on all six differ.  On a) and c) he didn’t complete the word, as though perhaps, he couldn’t recall how it ended.  Note that in b) the clerk has written the “William,” and that in the final signature on page 3 of his will, the first three words, “By me William,” were also written by the clerk.  Also note that despite spelling his own name six different ways, not once does he spell it as it was spelled on play titles and elsewhere in London, the way we spell it today.

On similar documents William’s father showed that he was illiterate by using his “mark,” a drawing of a glover’s tool, instead of a signature.  William’s daughter also used a mark, showing that she too was illiterate.

23 thoughts on “The six signatures

  1. Were signatures in Shakespeare’s time written as we do today, often just a unique scrawl originally based on the name? They do not have to represent every letter of a name. And usually they change over time and on occasion are written differently, but with the same general characteristics.
    Shakespeares examples above seem to follow this model. Writing instruments of the time would also have had a marked effect on the quality of the signature. To me they seem to be by the same man.

    1. Because all six signatures occur on legal documents, there’s no argument that all (the surnames that is) were written by William himself since a person’s signature (or mark, if illiterate) was required to make documents legally binding. No one has ever questioned whether or not he wrote these versions of his surname himself. Certainly no lettered person would have made such a bad job of it.

      As for the nature of his signatures, yes, idiosyncratic scrawls were used then as now, but where these are obviously signatures, William’s suggest the kind of labored effort shown by the signature of a six-year-old, a drawn image, taught by his parents, that as yet has no meaning for him in terms of a sequence of known letters. Although this copy can’t reproduce the shades of ink that give greater clarity to the signatures, there’s no doubt that the man who wrote these versions of Shakspeare did not know how to write anything but his last name, and that not well. He seems to have remembered it up to the k, at which point his memory would fail him. In (e) and possibly (d) it seems he actually attempted the William. Orthodox scholars tend to agree that the other Williams were written by the scribe who penned the rest of the document.

    2. No, the kind of scrawls we see today did not exist then. More modest versions can be seen on letters, but the kind of signatures we see on important papers were relatively elaborate and very distinctive. The only reason we have these six scrawls are because William had to sign his name on legal documents. You can find the signatures of important people from that time online.

  2. With spelling, have you taken into account that there was no standardised spelling until the 1700’s, and that even Katherine Howard spelled her name a couple different ways? I believe others of the time period did, as well.

    1. As with all of the evidence against William as author, how he spelled his name is only one small item. If that’s all there was there would be no argument. It’s when it’s added to the fact that his name is less a signature than a scrawl, that no letters from him to anyone else have ever turned up, that no one has ever been able successfully to tie these scrawls to the handwriting on any manuscript (such as Hand D on “The Play of Sir Thomas More,” that no one in his hometown including his educated son-in-law, Dr. Hall,showed awareness of his status as the author of the most popular plays of the time, and so forth, that it becomes evidence.

  3. Actually, even the surnames as written by William are called into question. I roomed with Robert Detobel at Concordia one year and helped him present the extremely intriguing “stay” on MOV and a ban on any printing by any other printer stipulated by “order of the Lord Chamberlain”. This was close to a smoking gun because only the author at the time had rights to put in such a stipulation.

    We argued for months on HLAS about the signatures. Robert’s argument that they are fully scribal is here

    IMO his case is very strong. I suggest anyone interested in the signatures read it. The sophistication of the argument is galaxies beyond spelling variations.

    Plus, Diana Price, in her book “Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography” provides evidence of several signatures of prominent writers of the time. In each case, the signature is fluid, full, and highly literate.

    As with all things Shakespeare in terms of trying to connect him with personal contemporary evidence and professional writing, as Holmes said, “The dog NEVER barks when it should”.

  4. Robert Detobel wrote a compelling argument for Oxford as the Lord Chamberlain of the Stationers’ registration of Merchant of Venice in two parts for The Oxfordian, “Authorial Rights in Shakespeare’s Time”: Part I for Vol IV 2001; Part II for Vol V, 2002.

  5. It’s perfectly obvious that Shaksper was either illiterate and didn’t write ‘Shakespeare’s’ works for the many reasons alluded to above or he was very ill in 1612 – 15 (dementia?) as has been suggested before and therefore unable to write properly or even remember his name. The story goes that on occasion ‘when asked to, (eg attend an event) writ he could not’ – also written as ‘when asked to writ, he could not’. Note the different sense the comma in the second version makes of the answer altho it has to be said that commas weren’t in use in those days or at least not in that sentence to help clarify the sense! Having read a great deal of literature about ‘did he?’ didn’t he?’ I’m convinced it had to be a nobleman close to the throne to have all that kingly knowledge that;s in the plays to have written them and not a hick from a backwoods village – and that’s not snobbery, just common sense.

  6. These are NOT signatures. They are merely the result of someone writing Shakespeare’s name on documents. On the deposition in Bellott vs. Montjoy, Shakespeare’s name was written by the person transcribing the testimony to identify it as Shakespeare’s. Deponents did NOT sign their testimony in order to validate it. On the Blackfriars deed, his name was written on the tabs attached to the buyer’s and seller’s copies by the law clerks involved in order to identify his seal. The name was written by two different people (i.e., the two law clerks involved), which is why they are so dissimilar, despite being written on the same day at the same time. If the signature had been used to attest the document, it would have been signed in the body of the document, not on the tabs holding the seals. The first two “signatures” on his will were undoubtedly written by the person drawing up the will, again in order to identify it as Shakespeare’s. Why would Shakespeare sign on the first two pages. Only the final signature on the third page belongs to Shakespeare, and even here it is obvious that the words “by me, William” are written in a different hand than the “Shakespeare.” So we do not have six signatures; we have half a signature. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with the handwriting in any of these; they were just written quickly and carelessly by the law clerks involved. This also accounts for the various spelllings of the surname.

    1. David, Anyone who has ever signed a contract drawn up by a lawyer knows that you sign every sheet and initial every change, otherwise the contract isn’t legal. Because I have only my own experience of this in today’s world, I forwarded your response to an expert in the handwriting on 16th-century documents, Alan H. Nelson, professor of English from UCal Berkeley, a paleographer by training. This is his response:

      “The comment is entirely wrong. It was very common to sign every sheet of a will; many wills even say “signed on every sheet”. I looked once at about 1000 original wills in the Public Record Office, now The National Archives, and most are signed on every sheet.

      There is a “villain” in this story. Jane Cox of the Public Record Office wrote that lawyers often signed documents for their clients. She is simply wrong. Signatures had the same role then that they have now. They signify that the person who signed his own name or mark had read and approved the text. Wills written on many sheets of paper are signed on every sheet to prevent someone substituting an unauthorized sheet.”

      He cites Playhouse Wills, 1558-1642, An Edition of Wills by Shakespeare and his Contemporaries in the London Theatre, ed. E.A.J. Honigman and Susan Brock, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp 77-79. Of course the same would be true for all legally documented agreements then as now, which is what the Playhouse document is.

    2. Comprehensible to me. The Clerks of the day were dutifully fulfilling their “filing” responsibilities, and perhaps, albeit not legally might I add, but circumstantially were performing what would be a akin to a Notaries duty today? Who, as we should remember, are and were compensated for their “service” (filing, notarizing) which they dutifully perform? Too elementary p’raps? Methinks a probability nonetheless.

  7. Again I refer to Detobel on this.

    Detobel notices scribal annotations on many of the signatures and the fact they were on the tab as “sealed” but not signed on the papers.

    Either Shakspear could not write and scribes had to write for him, or his signatures were a mess, barely literate from supposedly the greatest writer of his day.

    Detobel says Shaksper never met a legal document he was not loathe to sign.

  8. Professor Nelson may be an expert on handwriting; he is certainly not an expert on legal documents. How do you explain the words “by me, William” written in an obviously different hand on the final page of the will, if it was not to differentiate that partial signature from the name written on the first two pages?

  9. Has anyone included in a learned paper about this subject that the poor dude may have by this stage developed arthritis in his hand due to all that writing ? Great page btw

    1. Yes. There are various theories of illness. The larger questions is where are there ANY signatures or examples of personal writing in his entire life? He wasn’t a nobody, supposedly. He was at the center of the London literary scene for 20 years, the celebrated author of one of the most wildly successful epic poems of the period, a CEO in his acting company, and according to various theories, a tutor or teacher and a law clerk (“Lost Years”) How could the man not leave a trace of his existence beyond a few legal documents? That is always the incongruity and the mystery.

  10. Odd that “Shakespeare” – the “playwright” who had a grasp of Latin, French, and Italian – couldn’t spell his own name the same way twice in a row. Odd that this paragon of English literature left no works written in his own hand, nor books, bequeathed to his children. Odd that not one of his contemporary writers and authors mentioned his death at the time of his passing. Strange that all legal documents pertaining to him describe him as a wool or grain merchant, not as a playwright, and strange too that his funerary monument in his parish church first depicted him holding – a bag of grain. At a later date, the bag was replaced with quill and parchment. An odd fellow, that Will. Or was it Wil? Wyll? 🙂

  11. Question: We have 6 (remarkably poorly written/spelled) signatures belonging to the Stradford man, signed:
    Willm Shackper (1612)
    Shakspear (1612)
    Wm Shakspea (1612)
    William Shackspere (1615)
    Wllm. Shakspere (1615)
    by me William Shakspear (1615)
    In every version, the name starts with SHACK or SHAK … never Shake

    Do we have any instance of actual plays signed that way?

    1. No. Some of the published plays have a hyphen between the two syllables, but none are missing the first e. There may be instances of a reference to the author that I don’t know about that leave off the e, but not on any published play nor anything that comes from the record or the papers of the Lord Chamberlain’s or King’s Men.

      1. The hyphen between the two syllables in the name “Shake-speare” indicated it was a pseudonym. Thorpe’s first edition of the sonnets used the hyphen: Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

  12. As to the hyphen between the two syllables on some of the published plays, a hyphen in a name back then often denoted it was a pseudonym (Mar-prelate, Curry-knave, etc,), and Thorpe’s first edition of the Shake-speare Sonnets had the name with a hyphen in it,

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