Who was Shakespeare?
If we anti-Stratfordians are ever successful at raising the issue, the question will someday be opened where it belongs, in the Halls of Academe; academe, a word that the true author took from Greek, knowledge of which he had acquired in childhood from his tutor, the man who put Homeric Greek on the curriculum at Cambridge university in the 1540s.
Meanwhile we can work to unravel the Gordian knot that prevents so much discourse from taking place, that the author’s protectors so cleverly left in the way of discovery. Because the name means different things to different people, we never get past the first confusion. To me and others who have realized that William of Stratford simply could not possibly have written the works of Shakespeare, the name Shakespeare has come to mean the author of the works, so we are agreed that the name does not mean the man who was born with it, it refers to the man who made it famous, whoever he turns out to be.
“I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare is, and always has been, less a person than a body of work. We refer to Shakespeare as we refer to Mark Twain or Lewis Carroll. When we speak of Lewis Carroll, we don’t mean Charles Lutwidge Dodson, the stammering Oxford math professor, or to Mark Twain as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the quondam steamship tyro and printer’s apprentice, or Ellery Queen as the Brooklyn cousins who made up the name for their author cum fictional detective; we mean their works, their books, their stories. Just so, when most of us speak of Shakespeare we don’t mean either William of Stratford, deer poacher, butcher’s apprentice, or Edward de Vere, rascally Earl of Oxford––we mean the plays and the poems that continue to delight us.
It’s the name Shakespeare that brings on the confusion over the authorship, so if we’re to understand each other, if we’re to sort out the confusion caused by the name, we need to define what we mean by it. When I began writing about Shakespeare I stuck the name Hopkins (that of a revered ancestor) in between my given and my family name for this very reason, to distinguish me from the 13 other women named Stephanie Hughes I found when I googled my name. (By now there would probably be 113!)
We need names in order to communicate with each other. And, although, as the Bard himself put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; conversely, to call a daisy a rose would cause confusion. Just so, when it comes to dissecting the authorship problem, since it is his name that has been the primary cause of confusion, it is to eliminate that confusion that I refer to William Shakespeare of Stratford as William of Stratford––as English a name as ever was.
Where there is cause to write his family name, I spell it Shakspere, one of the more common spellings used by the clerks in his home town and before the world followed the version used by the London acting company on the various title pages and documents that ever since have constituted the paper trail meant to demonstrate authorship. Since we would never have known or cared anything about William of Stratford had it not been for the great writer who used his surname, I believe it’s the writer who made the name famous who deserves it, not the man who traded it for a big house, a coat of arms, a monument in his local church, and the right to call himself “Gent.” William’s defenders should be satisfied by this decision, for clearly the man was well-paid for its use, and so far as we know, he never complained.
In any case, it’s far from clear that the name as we know it from the title pages and legal documents was the same name, either as spelled or as pronounced, by William and his family and their Stratford neighbors. Spelling, of course, was all over the map in those days, and Shakspere was a rather unusual name. Although there were other Shakespeares in England at the time, they were not numerous, and most of them lived in Warwickshire where it was spelled in almost as many different ways as there were clerks and scriveners to inscribe it in the town record books, where the variety of spellings reflects their interpretations of how they heard it. We have no spelling of the name by any of the Shakspere family, since none of them could write their names, including, obviously, William himself.
Some of these spellings strongly suggest that the name was not pronounced as we pronounce it today. Spellings that begin with “Shaks,” “Shacks,” “Shax,” or “Shags” suggest that, for William’s family and neighbors, the first syllable ended, not after the e, giving the a a long sound (as in bake or rake), but after the s, giving it a short sound (as in axe or sacks). In addition, the occasional spelling of the second syllable as “pyere” or “pyeer” suggests that this part of the name was similar to the French pronunciation of the name Pierre.
In our view, the most likely derivation of the name was an anglicization of the French given name, Jacques-Pierre, which was, and still is, pronounced “Shax-pyair,” or, “Shak-es-pyair.” (The French pronunciation has some soft g in it, but is really closer to sh.) As French for James Peter, Jacques-Pierre was a favorite with French Catholics, as it combines the names of two of the Galilean apostles, James and (Simon) Peter.
The French have always liked double names; there are a handful of Jacques Pierres on google.com. (I’m particularly taken with the California vintner: Jacques Pierre Schlumberger.) Since we can finally accept the evidence that the Shakspere family were Catholics, it’s a good bet that, on his father’s side, William was descended from a French workman or bond servant (of the sort often known only by their given names) who imigrated to England at some point during the Norman diaspora that followed the Conquest in 1066.
Among scores of other possible spellings that have been accumulated by scholars from the scrolls and ledgers that constitute what remains of Stratford town records, the modern spelling, S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e, does occur, but it was not the predominant spelling until the 17th century when the title pages of his plays and published references derived from them had made the long a spelling famous. As for the pronunciation, surely it was pronounced as we do today by those who bought the published plays in London, while in Stratford the pronunciation continued as it had always been. Thus over time, as the fame of the canon spread, the pronunciation changed from from the Stratford “Shax-pyair” (accent on the second syllable), to today’s “Shake-spear” (accent on the first). Why the change? Because the second spelling and the pronunciation it evokes, creates a pun.
The name’s the game
I believe that William Shakespeare was chosen as stand-in or proxy for the nation’s leading playwright primarily because of his name. He had other virtues, for instance that he was located far enough away that London gossip would not reach his community of wool dealers and ale brewers anytime soon. That he was illiterate was also a boon, because he would not try, as did Anthony Munday, to palm off his own work on printers as that of his famous boss. As a member of a well-known Catholic family, in that cruelly prejudiced time, he knew how to keep a low profile, and as a man with a large family to care for and no great skills of his own, the money was most welcome.
But his real selling point was none of these, for these could be found in hundreds of Williams throughout the land. It was the addition of his wonderful surname that won him the great windfall, because although spelled William Shakespeare, a name that could be proven to be the real name of a real person, it also holds a magnificent anagram, one that could not possibly be an accident: Will I am shake spear. “I am Will” who “will shake [a] spear!”
This punning anagram, sailing past the heads of the hoi polloi (and today’s academics) signaled to the inner circles of his audience––those with an ear for puns––that the author himself was a fictional being like his own Doll Tear-sheet. If they were among that elite minority who could read the Greek philosophers and dramatists in their own language and liked to refer to themselves as Athenians, they would catch the reference to Athena, patron goddess of Athens, always portrayed with a spear in one hand and a helmet of invisibility on her head. And should anyone tried to publish their own stuff under that name, or otherwise cause the hidden author grief, he would shake his spear at them. Though but a little spear, the kind one dips into an inkwell, it drew blood all right, so much so that to stay alive and keep on writing, the Athenian who shook it on the London Stage had to keep his helmet of invisibility on at all times.
I believe that it was in this manner that an anglicized French name that had no connection with shaking a spear became, through a slight modification in spelling and pronunciation, the pen name of England’s greatest and most famous writer. And it was also in this manner that William, son of John, husband of Anne, father of three, acquired the biggest house in Stratford, and was able to give his wool-dealer father the social elevation he craved, providing him with a family coat-of-arms and a monument in the local church, himself acquiring enough money to invest locally in land and in buildings in London, hoard grain in time of famine, and take his Warwickshire neighbors to court over a handful of silver.
Anti-Stratfordians should never sneer or laugh at William, for it’s largely due to his ability to keep his mouth shut over two long decades that “the grand possessors” were finally able to get the First Folio published. One scholar’s term for William, “prudent,” seems particularly apt, and though his great silence was no doubt based on self-interest (and perhaps a bit on his suspicion of neighbors out to bring grief to recusant Catholics), it has worked worked well for us, for the true author and his actors, and for the wider worlds of the Theater and English letters.