Who was William Shakespeare?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet appears just as appropriate today, as it was when it came into being about 400 years ago. The play can be performed in a thousand of ways; the part of Hamlet himself can be created in a million guises. Every new production invites discussion. Sometimes the question arises: How would Shakespeare have liked this special production, this special creation of Hamlet? And behind this question another: Was the character of Prince Hamlet really created "from nothing" by a man who had never experienced the machinations around the throne, the compulsion to act, or his own inadequacy to fulfill a given task?

It is well known that William Shakespeare was the son of a burgess from Stratford-upon-Avon, an ordinary small town in Warwickshire. He was born in 1564 and died in 1616, at the age of 52. He earned his living as an actor in London, and did some real estate business. Eventually he became fairly rich. He died as a wealthy house-owner in the Stratford of his childhood.

Nothing sensational has been reported about his private life. As far as we know, he experienced neither more nor less in his life than any other man. But as the author of Hamlet he must certainly have had some fountain to scoop from. Also, how do we know that he actually did write Hamlet? After all, more ghostwriters have been imputed to him than to any other author through the ages.

How do we know, as a rule, that a certain person has written a work that bears his name? The most convincing evidence is, of course, an extant manuscript in the same handwriting as his or her private letters, etc. Unfortunately, there are only three autographed pages of a manuscript left by Shakespeare. These constitute an addition to a play of disputed authorship, called Sir Thomas More. The play is unfinished, which is probably the reason why it has survived as a manuscript rather than as printed copy. Several hands are involved in the pages of the play proper. These appear as fair copy contrary to the addition that is definitely a rough copy written and amended by the author himself. The literary style of the addition is unmistakably that of Shakespeare.

In order to prove that Shakespeare from Stratford and the author of the addition is one and the same person, we would need some private letters by the former. Unfortunately, he has left us no letters at all. All that we have are six signatures, and signatures are not comparable to common text. An additional obstacle is the disparity in time. The play Sir Thomas More was probably written in the 1590’s and all the signatures are from the years 1612-1616. They are all somewhat abortive, on top of all.

Whenever it happens to be impossible to prove authorship by comparing specimens of handwriting one has to try indirect clues. A seemingly obvious clue is the name "William Shakespeare" printed on the front page of the book containing the text of Hamlet. This name is also to be found in the parish register of Stratford-upon-Avon (albeit spelled a little bit differently). Unfortunately, the name William Shakespeare was not unique in England at the time. It was not quite as common as John Smith but common enough. In a certain group of 26 actors there were five Williams. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica the surname Shakespeare was "extremely widespread" in London at the time when the plays were published. So there could well have been several men in London bearing the name William Shakespeare. Today, if a dramatist is called Eugene O’Neill or Moss Hart, he will hardly risk any confusion with namesakes. But if he is called George Kaufman, it would be recommendable to put in an extra letter somewhere in the name, or in between, like George S. Kaufman, for instance. This would distinguish the dramatist George Kaufman from most other men called George Kaufman. (I have made use of the same device to distinguish myself from Carl Nordling, Professor of Physics at Uppsala University.)

It looks like the dramatist Shakespeare did almost the same thing. Instead of the usual spelling Shakspere, he inserted an extra e and an extra a in the name as it was printed on the front pages of the books. It became Shakespeare. This gives us reason to reserve the name Shakespeare when referring to our friend as a dramatist. Referring to the actor--whether identical or not--we shall call him Shakspere, just as his contemporaries did.

Obviously, the longer spelling was used already in the 17th century as the name of the author, a pen name so to speak (sometimes in the form Shake-speare). The ordinary, "everyday" name of this author may have been Shakspere, but it could equally well have been, let us say, Bacon or Rutland or anything. It is a fact that the name William Shakespeare appeared on the front page of e.g. the plays Sir John Oldcastle in 1600, London Prodigal in 1605 and Yorkshire Tragedy in 1608. No literary historian asserts that the author’s real name was either Shakespeare or Shakspere in these cases. Obviously, pen names were used occasionally, then as now.

Incidentally, it has been documented that even the name Shakspere (in this shorter form) was used as an alias in those days. The fact is that according to extant sources, a certain "Thomas Greene, alias Shakspere" was buried in Stratford-upon-Avon on March the 6th, 1590. Consequently, the name William Shakespeare does not prove at all that the author of Hamlet is identical with the actor from Stratford--contrary to the usual conception.

Many dramatists in the times of Shakespeare earned a little money by selling play manuscripts to theatre managers or publishers. It is rather obvious that the actor Shakspere must have moonlighted in order to become as rich as he did. One would therefore expect to find some extant notes about his receiving money for plays bearing the name William Shakespeare. A great number of authors are mentioned in the diary of theatre manager Philip Henslowe. The latter has noted the sum of money that each author got for a manuscript called so and so. Surprisingly enough, only one of Shakespeare’s plays is mentioned in the diary. This is the play Troylus and Cressida, and those who pocketed the money for it were Thomas Dekker and Henry Chettle--not Shakspere!

There is no documentary evidence at all that Shakspere, with his gift for business, ever got a fee from anyone. His name occurs only sparingly in the extant documents. Those who knew him personally have not left a word about his authorship. A distant relative of his by name Thomas Greene (related to Greene alias Shakspere) mentions the actor as "my cousin Shakspere". Fellow actor Augustine Phillips bequeaths in 1605 something to "my fellow William Shakespeare". University-trained Stratfordian Abraham Sturley mentions the actor in a letter as "our countryman Mr. Shaksper", and in a report of court proceedings we find the formulation "one Mr. Shakespere". It seems like none of these writers knew anything at all about their friend’s spare-time job as a dramatist.

There is only one rather obscure reference to a certain "Shake-scene" implying that an actor so nicknamed might also be a dramatist. The reference occurs in a posthumous lampoon by a certain Robert Greene, but there is nothing to indicate that Greene had known Shakspere personally. What Greene believed is of course no evidence for the actual facts.

Says the Encyclopædia Britannica about all this: "There is a fair number of contemporary allusions to him (i.e. Shakspere) as a writer." How many make "a fair number"? One? The statement as it stands is certainly not fair to the reader. It is downright misleading.

If there had been a number of books among the property left by Shakspere after his death, and these books had contained sources of some of Shakespeare’s plays, then this would have indicated an actor-author identity. But in the actor’s will we find not a single book mentioned.

The settings of the plays could have revealed quite a lot about the author, if the author had chosen to use places in Stratford, back-stage localities in London theaters or something similar. But in all the 37 plays we find no such settings.

Also the plot of some play could have constituted strong evidence, if only we had known something about the happenings and complications that Shakspere experienced during his life. But no other complication is known other than the fact that he at age 18 was forced to marry a pregnant girl eight years his senior. This theme is not used in any of the plays.

Shakespeare’s plays are on the whole written in the "Oxford English" of the period, i.e. the language used by university-trained writers. It is, however, quite natural that a dramatist will use a number of colloquial words that do not normally occur in print. These words often belong to geographically limited regions. Such words as bairn ’child’, keek ’peep’, loch ’lake’ and rowan ’mountain ash’ are typical examples of this phenomenon. Robert Burns can be assigned to Scotland just by means of certain words that he uses (and, indeed, emphasizes), such as auld ’old’, syne ’since’, rig ’stook’, brig ’bridge’ etc. Even the 16th century poet Edmund Spenser has left traces of the Lancashire dialect in his works, although this was only the vernacular of his parents, he himself being born in London.

In Shakespeare’s language the expected traces of a dialect typical for the Midlands and specifically for Warwickshire are almost totally lacking. Instead, I have found so many more words belonging to the dialect that looms in the poems by Spenser, i.e. the dialect spoken in the counties of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. In the following, we are going to refer to this dialect as the Northern Dialect (or Yorkish for short). I have found that two thirds of the round about 150 dialectal words in Shakespeare are such that are not used outside the three counties mentioned. Among the remaining words there is a group with a wider geographical dispersion and another group containing words that are used exclusively in Scotland and the northernmost part of England. The frequency of the dialectal words is usually between three and ten words per 10,000 running words in the plays. The striking exception is the part of Hamlet in Hamlet with no less than 30 Yorkish words in his lines of about 10,000 words.

Finally, let us suppose that we could point out that the Shakespearian plays ceased to appear simultaneously with the death of William Shakspere in 1616. That would constitute a relatively strong evidence of identity, in the absence of more conclusive proof. However, even this last chance eludes us. New plays ceased to appear years before 1616, but when the seventh edition of Richard III was published in 1623, the text was not identical with that of the sixth edition of 1622. About 2,000 minor changes had been made but twelve printer’s errors from 1622 had escaped correction. This indicates that the 1622 edition (or at least some part of it) had been used as a draft for the 1623 edition. Furthermore, the latter contains almost 200 new lines in Shakesperian style.

It seems that it is impossible to prove that William Shakspere from Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. All our attempts so far have ended in the casting of a shadow over the actor’s copyright instead of establishing it.

The identity between Shakspere and Shakespeare was introduced in 1623 with the publishing of the comprehensive volume called the First Folio. This was seven years after the death of the actor, and even his widow had died by then. Who could know at this juncture with any certainty what Shakspere had done--or perhaps not done--in the nocturnal seclusion of his chamber? Obviously, the editors and publishers of the 1623 edition could not guarantee that Shakspere had written the content. Therefore the First Folio is no real proof. It just marks the beginning of the identification that has come to be one of the postulates of Shakespearian studies.

This means that the notion of the actor’s authorship has ever since been a starting point for the research, not something that might eventually be the result of thorough study. Such postulates (or axioms) are not uncommon in various disciplines. Five hundred years ago the thesis claiming the earth as the solid center of the universe was a matter of course. It was not to be proven or called into question. The cosmology of to day similarly postulates the Big Bang as the origin of everything--again without any real proof. In order to be maintained the postulates need consensus, which can be achieved either by a superior authority or by group pressure. A Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) or a Hannes Alfvén (1908-1994) who questions cosmological dogmas gets house arrest or is reduced to silence.

The same practice applies to literary history as well. In order to sustain the "Stratford postulate" it was necessary to hush up the books by the distinguished French literary historian Abel Lefranc (1863-1952). In four volumes published 1918, 1945 and 1950 he produced evidence indicating a person other than Shakspere as the author of the world-famous dramas. To this day, none of his books have been translated into English. In an other essay we will deal more with the old theory of Professor Lefranc.

(To learn more, read A description of Shakespeare’s person.)


Anon., The Book of Sir Thomas More, London 1911.

Chambers, E.K., William Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems, Oxford 1930.

Shakespeare, William, The First Folio of Shakespeare, New York, 1968.

Henslowe, Philip, The Diary of Philip Henslowe from 1592 to 1609, London 1845.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A., The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, New York 1927.


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