Where Shakespeare is referred to as “Gent” or “Master,” who is meant? – Howard Schumann

Schumann: Below is a list that contains contemporary references to William Shakespeare, Gent.; do these refer to William of Stratford, who had received a coat of arms, or could they refer to Oxford instead? – Howard Schumann
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Hughes: Technically they refer to neither.  They certainly don’t refer to Oxford, since the use of the Shakespeare name was arranged on purpose to hide his identity as author.  Nor do they refer to William Shakespeare of Stratford, wool factor, landsman, grain hoarder, and utterly unknown as a playwright in either Warwickshire or London, at least not until after the publication of the First Folio in 1623.  Before then they refer to a fictional author, one created out of the name of William Shaxpyeer of Stratford, whose name, spelled Shake-spear, has been transformed through the alchemy of spelling into a pun, a sign to a certain literary elite that it’s a pseudonym.  Numerous instances of this sort of trick have been provided by John Mullan in his 2008 book Anonymity.
x
The supreme cleverness of this ruse is that it cannot be proven to be a pseudonym since there is such a person as William Shakespeare, Gent. (based as you say on the fact that his father has been given a coat of arms), who, for most of the time that his name was associated with the commercial Stage, lived two days journey from London, and whose inability to produce written material could be ascribed simply to his having “a sore hand.”
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Once it becomes clear that the Shakespeare conspiracy, call it what you will, was a ruse created and maintained by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at some point in the mid-1590s to protect their playwright and their own continued success, it’s easy to see how William Shakespeare, complete with “Gent.,” was a red herring of the sort used by hidden authors from time immemorial.  Naturally it was the actors Privy Council patron who saw to it that William of Stratford got the “Gent.” after his name, thus raising the image of the fictional author to an appropriate level, neither too low, nor too high.
x
After a time it became a sort of catch-all name used by any unscrupulous printer or publisher to add a cachet to his publication.  Since the King’s Men cared for the name only as a cover for the true author, they did not concern themselves with chasing down every publisher who appropriated it––or perhaps they did; we simply don’t know.
x
See below: while Oxford was alive, the name appears only on the title pages of works that he wrote: #s 1. through 4.  After 1608, it occasionally appears on works that he could not have written: #s 6 and 7, and what I assume are in-text references to the author of the canon (Davies, Freeman, and Howe).  The use of the name by John Webster in 1612 (more likely 1614) may have been a sign by the author, Mary Sidney, Pembroke’s mother, to the same literary coterie, that, like William Shakespeare, John Webster was a pseudonym.
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1.) 1599: From The Returne from Parnassus, Part I; MS in Bodleian Library: “Mr. Shakspeare” (more than once); 2.) 1600: Stationer’s Register entry for Henry the Fourth, Part Two and Much Ado About Nothing; August 23: “master Shakespere”;
3.) 1607: Stationer’s Register entry for King Lear; November 26: “Master William Shakespeare”; 4.) 1608: Q1 of King Lear: “M. William Shak-speare” (title page) “M. William Shak-speare” (head title); 5.) 1610: From The Scourge of Folly by John Davies of Hereford; registered October 8: “Mr. Will: Shake-speare”; 6.) 1612: From “Epistle” to The White Devil by John Webster: “M. Shake-speare”; 7.) 1614: From Runne and a Great Cast by Thomas Freeman: “Master W. Shakespeare”; 8.) 1615: From continuation to 1614 in ed. 5 of John Stow’s Annales, by Edmund Howes: “M. Willi. Shakespeare gentleman”; 9.) 1616: Q6 Lucrece: “Mr. William Shakespeare” (title page); 10.) 1619: Title page, Q3 (Pavier quarto) of Henry VI Parts 2 & 3: “William Shakespeare, Gent.”; 11.) 1619: Title page, Q2 of King Lear, falsely dated 1608: “M. William Shake-speare”; 12.) 1619: Head title of Q2 of King Lear: “M. William Shake-speare.”

One response to “Where Shakespeare is referred to as “Gent” or “Master,” who is meant? – Howard Schumann

  1. Thanks Stephanie for shedding light on this subject.

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