Tag Archives: Shakespeare a pun

Did Shakspere write Shakespeare?

One of the ongoing word battles between authorship scholars and academics turns on the spelling of the name Shakespeare. It’s a rather odd name, actually, when compared with most English names from that period. Attempts to link it to medieval nicknames like Breakspear or Longspear have mostly failed to catch on with either side (perhaps merely shaking a spear just doesn’t seem sufficiently impressive to rate a cognomen). Then why when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided, finally, to put the Stratford playwright’s name on the plays, was it not spelled like it was in his “hometown” of Stratford?

It may be that no one pays much attention to the spelling issue since English spelling in William’s time was all over the place, particularly when it came to proper names. So the fact that it’s been spelled in as many as 83 different ways in Warwickshire, according to E.K. Chambers (Facts and Problems: 2.371-4), hasn’t raised many eyebrows. Still, even in Renaissance England 83 different spellings might suggest a particular uniqueness about this name and its origin. And since Warwickshire is centrally located within the geographic area known as “the Norman diaspora,” it’s more likely than not that the name originated in northern France, from whence it came over with the Norman Conquest along with William’s ancestor, a laborer named Jacques-Pierre (a frequent given name for French Catholics since both James and Peter invoke the apostolic founder of the Roman Church). This would explain why, in Warwickshire, before the 1590s, the name was invariably spelled so that it would be pronounced with a short a, Shaks-peer or Shax-pyeer, or Shagspyeer.

In a recent article in the online authorship journal Brief Chronicles, journalist and independent scholar Richard Whalen, editor of a series of Shakespeare plays richly annotated with Oxfordian data, examines the question of why generations of Stratford scribes spelled William’s surname Shakspere when it was spelled Shakespeare on the title pages of the plays, an issue that academics generally deal with, as they do with so much else, by simply ignoring it. Those who have dealt with it assume that the two spellings are variations of the same name, meaning that both represent the same individual and therefore the illiterate William of Stratford and the genius who wrote Hamlet must, ipso facto, be one and the same.

One Stratfordian who has given the spelling issue his attention is David Kathman, a securities analyst cum Shakespeare scholar, who explains how he arrived at this conclusion on his website: The Shakespeare Authorship Question (which he “dedicates” to the delicate sarcasm that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare”). Whalen finds, not surprisingly, that Kathman’s methodology is skewed. While sounding impressive, it seems that it’s yet another case of we used to call GIGO, Garbage In­­––Garbage Out. Data itself is neutral; if a question is asked in the right way, it provides an appropriate answer, solid, reliable; like the house of the third little pig, it’s made of bricks. Like that of the first little pig, Kathman’s house is made of straw, and Whalen goes far to blow it away. Readers interested in following Whalen’s arguments (and Kathman’s) in full can read them online where they present them better than I can here.

Why Shakespeare, not Shakspere?

For purposes of comparison, Kathman chooses to separate the various spellings of the name into two groups defined by whether or not the letter k is followed by an e. This is an obvious division since the spelling used by the London printers on the plays of Shakespeare, always includes an e after the k, while in all the earlier Stratford spellings there is no e in the first syllable. While Kathman terms those with the e “literary” and those without the e, “non-literary,” a more precise designation would be those derived from London (with e) and those from Stratford (without e); this because the London spelling has been exactly the same ever 1598 when it first appeared on the title pages of the second editions of Richard III and Richard II, while every version found in the Stratford archives up to that point, however extravagant the spelling, shows the s (or x or g) followed immediately by the k.  These variations, suggest that the Warwickshire scribes may have been attempting to reflect how the name was spoken. Here we have another aspect of the spelling issue, one not discussed by either Kathman or Whalen.

The cloud of misunderstanding that surrounds the crazy spelling of that early period does offer today’s scholars a bit of silver lining: it can help to ascertain how words were pronounced. Spelling tends to follow pronunciation––where it doesn’t, which is often the case with English, it’s usually because some bit of an earlier pronunciation has remained stuck in it, like flies in amber. For instance, we can be certain that the Earl of Oxford and his friends did not pronounce his name Veer, as it’s pronounced today, but Vayer, as it was spelled in 1590 by Sir Thomas Stanhope in a letter to Lord Burghley (Akrigg Southampton 32). As a homonym of Vair, the way the French pronounced the name, and as they also pronounce vert, meaning green, (the French don’t pronounce a final consonant unless it’s followed by a word that begins with a vowel), it’s a name that would carry meaning to all speakers of French and also Latin, for the Latin root word ver, meaning truth, virtue, and the springtime of the year, is also pronounced vair.

Why did the London printers add the e?

Like all vowels, e has a great deal to do with how a word is pronounced, and since the process known as “the great vowel shift,” was almost finished by the time in question, it seems that our present rule was already observed, that is, that an e at the end of a syllable means that the preceding vowel is pronounced long rather than short; thus establishing whether a writer means to say mat or mate (met or mete, mit or mite, mut or mute). Attempts to ascertain the meaning of a word can be confusing where a 16th-century writer has forgotten (or scribbled) the e, leaving the pronunciation to context. But scribes would certainly have known how the terminal e on a syllable affected an earlier vowel, as would the compositors who set the type for the Shakespeare plays, and as, without the slightest doubt, would the actors and patrons of the Company whose decision was, finally, after four years of publishing the plays anonymously, to add William Shakespeare to the title pages of Richard III in a form that required that it be pronounced with a long a, not the short a of Shakspere. In fact, perhaps to make it as clear as possible that this was the desired pronunciation, someone decided that the first time it appeared in print, the e would be separated from the s with a hyphen!

Why then did it matter to the actors, their patrons, and the playwright himself, that as it was published in 1598 on the plays––and in the Meres Palladis Tamia that was published at about the same time––the name be pronounced with a long a?  Why must it be pronounced Shake instead of Shak?  The only possible reason for the change in spelling, and for the otherwise inexplicable hyphen, is that it turns the otherwise sober name of a real individual into a pun: “William Shake-spear,” like “Doll Tear-sheet.” What then could be the reason why the actors who owned the play, and who we must suppose first saw it into print in October 1597, turned William of Stratford’s name into a pun that so perfectly describes the true author as one who shakes a spear (his pen) at fools and villains, and who fills the stage with the great warriors of the English past.

A more obvious pun name in a Shakespeare play generally denotes a clown or a fool.  Of the two servants in Two Gents, Launce is given to pointless responses while Speed is slow; in Henry IV, while Mistress Quickly describes how, as proprietress of the Inn, she is required to address the needs of Falstaff and his pals, the name of her associate, Doll Tear-sheet, suggests how differently she addresses their needs.  Malvolio can be read as “ill will to E.O.” with Benvolio suggesting the opposite.  Even Fall-staff, derived from the medieval general Sir John Fastolfe, can be read as a pun rich with implications for the middle-aged Oxford and his Lord Great Chamberlain’s staff of office.

By tweaking William’s surname so that from the anglicized Jacques-Pierre of his hometown it can be read as a pun on Spear-shaker, they are replacing what would otherwise have been taken for granted as the real name of a real person––which it was, of course, but one that also suggests that the author is nothing but a provincial clown, a mere “spear-carrier,” the timeless theatrical term for one who has no lines and who appears onstage only to give the appearance of a crowd, as William of Stratford is listed with the Court payments office as an actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later a share-holder, when in fact his true role was only to provide the Company with a name for the published plays.  With the kind of equivocation that was so richly distributed throughout the works of both Shakespeare and his editor, Ben Jonson––who termed this sort of meaningful wordplay in his own plays “glancings”––the Company was able to launch the authorial name that within a few months would be the key to their astonishing financial success under James I.

Punishing Shakespeare

“So it’s a pun, so what?”  So everything!  That the name that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men chose to put on these plays is a pun should be a factor of major importance to those interested in advancing the truth about the authorship!

Unfortunately, that Shakespeare is a pun is something that, for Oxfordians as well as academics, tends to be ignored as a rather silly distraction, a foolish fetish of the otherwise pure-souled and high-minded Grand Master of English Literature. Shakespeare’s penchant for puns and other wordplay is ignored, or treated as a side issue, not only by the buttoned-up bean-counters, but also by the authorship advocates, partly because they continue to be so locked in combat with the academics that they can’t see beyond the walls of their bunkers, but also perhaps because puns have been objects of scorn for so long that to attribute importance to any pun, even to this one, crucial though it may be, is to invite yet more disdain than the poor questioner is willing to bear.

This might be more easily understood were English literary history to be considered. Following the grim and humorless decades of Puritan dominance of the English culture during the middle decades of the 17th century, as Shakespeare’s beloved theaters were shuttered and torn down and a scorched earth policy directed towards every threatened outbreak of old-fashioned “merry-making,” the English seem to have lost any desire for Shakespeare’s (and Chaucer’s and Skelton’s) enthusiastic wordplay.  As the 18th-century “Augustans” sneered at Shakespeare for his bawdry, most famously, in the Introduction to his edition of the plays, the venerable Samuel Johnson took aim at Shakespeare’s addiction to what he called quibbles:

A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller, he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

Society has never returned to the level of appreciation that Shakespeare and his fellows had for puns, relegated today to tabloid headlines (and Cole Porter lyrics), but then society may never again have had so many pressing reasons for resorting to the frisky thrusts of Shakespearean wordplay.  Since Oxford was largely acceptable to both the Court and the public in his role as theater patron, a traditional role for men of his class, he and his actors and patrons managed to keep hidden the fact that much of what they performed was not the work of his secretaries––Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Anthony Munday––whose names ended up on the published versions, but their Master’s creations.

The worm turns

His enemies, of course, were not fooled by this, so when, as time went by, and their efforts to rid themselves (and the world) of his precious London Stage came dangerously close to success in the mid-’90s, Oxford turned, like a cornered animal––a wild boar?––lashing out with the venomous play that succeeded in winning them their right to perform, but that also forced the Company to put a name on the plays.

With the production of Richard III during the Queen’s ninth Parliament in 1597-’98, Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tarred and feathered in effigy their bitterest and most dangerous enemy, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law.  As portrayed by the 30-year-old Richard Burbage, dressed in the garb and affecting Cecil’s manner of speech and body language, the news that the Crown’s own company had dared to portray the most powerful official in England as history’s most wicked king silently swept the nation as the MPs returned to their constituencies with the play in their pockets and their fingers on their lips.  Apparently young Burbage had given a stellar performance; for the rest of his life it would be known as his most famous role.

Following their attack on Robert Cecil, there must have arisen a great popular demand, lost to history but certainly not lost to common sense, that the name of the play’s author be revealed. Forced to respond, doubtless out of fear that the truth would escape before they had time to counter it, the Company yielded to necessity. Using the name that their manager had had ready and waiting for a good two years, the Company quickly brought out a second edition with the name William Shake-speare on the title page. Those blind to the pun continued to regard the author as someone unknown previously but obviously worthy of respect, while those who did see the pun understood that the name of the true author was not something that was going to be revealed anytime soon.

Thus, what may have been rushed into print as a quick fix to the furore aroused by Richard III, the author’s pen name was cast in stone, never to be altered for the duration of either Oxford’s or William’s life, or the life of the Company that continued to flourish for decades after their deaths, or in fact, for the following four centuries until the early 20th century when the Academy took up its defense out of some sort of misplaced knee-jerk professionalism, which today they mostly leave to outsiders, to the hirelings of the Birthplace Trust, and the trolls who beset cyberspace.

The Company’s production of Richard III was something from which Cecil, whose reputation, never very rosy with those who knew him at firsthand, never recovered. The Queen, who undoubtedly had been imperfectly acquainted (by Cecil) with the situation before it erupted during Parliament, was the only one at that time who could have put a stop to this contest between her playwright and her Secretary of State.  She was not about to see her Secretary of State further demeaned, but neither was she about to give up her holiday “solace.”

Exactly how she did this may not be possible to cite, but it’s not impossible to guess, for Cecil, who once in total power under James became so adept at destroying those who caused him grief seems to have left Oxford, and his company, alone from that point on. And while it’s unlikely that they continued to perform Richard III until after Cecil’s death in 1612, the published play would continue to appear in one edition after another every few years, whenever Master Secretary got another title or high office.

By the time of his death, Cecil held all the major offices of State, more than ever had been held or ever would be held at one time by any other official in English history.  And, as Secretary of State with total control over the State records, he had plenty of time and opportunity to eliminate all references to Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, as creator of the London Stage and English periodical press, and in fact as anything but the ungrateful son-in-law of the great Lord Burghley.