The Guardian newspaper recently published an article about new manuscript discoveries concerning the life of William Shakespeare. These discoveries, made by Heather Wolfe, are described as a decisive blow to the belief that Shakespeare was a front man for someone else—a smoking gun that disproves the claims for other candidates such as Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Queen Elizabeth.
But we don’t believe additional smoking guns are necessary when it comes to the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. We know that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him, and that some of these reflect the collaborative working process inherent in writing for performance. But the anniversary celebrations of 2016 provided an opportunity to consider afresh what we know about Shakespeare’s life and reputation using contemporary documents. As part of the Folger’s yearlong celebrations, Wolfe curated the exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon and its digital complement, Shakespeare Documented, which gathers over 400 documents making reference to Shakespeare, his works, and his family in and around his lifetime.
In the course of developing both projects, Wolfe discovered previously unstudied depictions of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and new manuscript evidence of the well-known controversy surrounding the grant of arms to Shakespeare’s father, a controversy that touches on William Shakespeare directly in the early 1600s. That evidence, outlined below, gives us a fuller picture of how two heralds in the College of Arms, William Dethick and Ralph Brooke, argued over the legitimacy of the grant of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and of 22 other recent grants.
The Beginnings of a Thought Experiment
In late 2015, shortly after her initial discoveries, Wolfe and Folger Director Michael Witmore began to talk about how the exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon would address the anti-Shakespeare viewpoint. While a non-starter for scholars, the anti-Shakespeare movement is a good starting point for understanding how literary historians interpret documents, and this is certainly something worth sharing with the public. Indeed, an understanding of the anti-Shakespeare position informed the writing of the labels and resulted in a prominently displayed panel in the exhibition, “Who wrote the plays?” It also led Wolfe and Witmore to explore the “proofs” for Shakespeare’s authorship from the standpoint of those demanding a very specific kind of documentary evidence. Wolfe had a sense that she might be able to connect a particular thread in the story she was uncovering about Shakespeare’s gentility—manifested by his right to bear a coat of arms—to a novel way of addressing the anti-Shakespearian requirements.
Anti-Shakespearians argue that William Shakespeare was standing in for someone else who could not take credit for the plays. Given that assumption, they argue, we cannot say Shakespeare was Shakespeare until we find documentary evidence produced during Shakespeare’s lifetime that unambiguously links the actor and shareholder to the famous playwright and poet. “Written by William Shakespeare” on the title pages of his plays in his lifetime is not enough. William Basse’s elegy to William Shakespeare written between 1618-20, which refers to his monument at Holy Trinity Church (“Vnder this carued marble of thine owne / Sleepe rare Tragoedian Shakespeare, sleep alone”) and alluded to by Ben Jonson in the First Folio of 1623 is not enough. Ben Jonson’s reference to Shakespeare as the “Sweet Swan of Avon” on those same pages is not enough. The evidence needs to be provided by a witness prior to Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616. This witness must have direct knowledge of William Shakespeare, and needs to declare that William Shakespeare, the actor and gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon, is also the exalted poet.
We began a thought experiment, which led us to an edition of Stow’s Chronicles printed in 1615. In this book, the chronicler Edmund Howes refers to “Master W. Shakespeare” as both a “gentleman” and one of “our moderne, and present excellent poets.”
Like many commentators before him, Howes places Shakespeare in a list that includes Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, and Ben Jonson, among others. Curiously, Howes claims his impressive list of great Elizabethan poets as being both “in my owne knowledge” and “according to their priorities.” While the Howes reference does not seem particularly note-worthy, it does corroborate—in one place, in his own lifetime, in the eyes of someone who claims personal knowledge and arranges the names according to precedence in rank—the fact that Shakespeare the well-known writer is a gentleman. What it doesn’t say is that this gentleman is from Stratford-upon-Avon. Our thought experiment had stalled.
Wolfe began to think more about how her new manuscript discoveries might be brought to bear on the skeptics’ demands. One category of newly uncovered manuscript describes the Shakespeare coat of arms as being granted to William Shakespeare (rather than John) by William Dethick, Garter King of Arms.
This depiction, which Wolfe discovered at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, appears in an autograph manuscript armorial created by the herald William Smith. It was begun, according to the title page, on May 28, 1602.
Smith’s armorial had to have been completed by his death in 1618, and was probably finished closer to 1615, since that is the latest date in the manuscript. However, all of the arms that share a page with Shakespeare are from 1568-1600. The similarity in ink and nib on these pages and previous pages, many of which bear additional information by Smith in a darker ink (including the addition of an individual’s death in 1603), indicate that the Shakespeare entry was included as part of the initial drafting of the volume; that is, in 1602. For the purpose of anti-Shakespeare claims, then, the manuscript provides us with a clear reference (ca. 1602) to William Shakespeare as a bearer of a coat of arms, and thus, a gentleman, in a manuscript from his own lifetime.
The manuscript was created by someone who worked closely with William Dethick, the granter of the coat of arms to John Shakespeare in 1596, and with William Camden, who co-granted, with Dethick, an exemplification of arms to John Shakespeare in 1599. In fact, in this manuscript, Smith notes that he himself designed some of the arms ultimately granted by Dethick and Camden. And both Dethick and Camden knew Shakespeare.
Shakespeare the Player
The armorial depiction above points back to a moment just around the death of Shakespeare’s father in 1601 when the heralds began referring to William, rather than John, as the original applicant for the arms. This slippage may have been prompted by a derogatory reference to “Shakespeare the player” by Ralph Brooke, the herald who initiated the attack on the grant of arms to Shakespeare in 1601. John Shakespeare was both alderman and bailiff in Stratford, respectable attainments for a man in his position. Brooke chose, however, to direct his attack on the son, whom he referred to as an actor or “player.” It was this substitution of son for father that may have led Smith to record the original grant above as being to William.
Prior to 2014, Brooke’s reference to “Shakespeare the player”—seen in all four manuscript images above—was known only through a circa 1700 copy by the herald Peter Le Neve (image 1). But in 2014, Richmond Herald Clive Cheesman published a 17th-century example in an essay in Nigel Ramsay, ed., Heralds and Heraldry in Shakespeare’s England (image 2). And in 2015-2016, Wolfe located two other 17th-century versions, one at the Bodleian, the other at the Folger (images 3 and 4).
These three additional references place manuscript witnesses to the arms controversy earlier than was previously known, raising the possibility that the feud among the heralds may have spilled into the public during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Were that the case, it is possible that William Shakespeare was himself forced to defend (or advocate for) his claim to gentle status in the public eye as the controversy ballooned. Surviving papers of Dethick and Brooke, still bound in the College of Arms volumes from which the original draft grants of arms were removed in 1933, reveal outrage and consternation by some of the families of other individuals named in Brooke’s attack on Dethick. In other words, their dispute over the granting of this group of arms wasn’t secret.
Brooke’s sneering reference to the “player” was intentional. He wanted to delegitimize Dethick’s earlier grants of arms to John and 22 other individuals whom Brooke felt were “base and mechanical,” and/or already dead, and/or whose arms too closely resembled those of ancient families. Brooke refers in this vein to William Sanderson, a “fishmonger” who was, in fact, a member of one of the most ancient London guilds, the Fishmongers Company, and who had financed the printing of the first English maps for globes. He also refers to William Norton as a “bookbinder” when in fact he was Master of the Stationers’ Company. Other individuals are described as tradesmen rather than being referred to according to their societal rank or pedigree. In this context, Shakespeare’s identification as a “player” becomes of a piece with the others; it gestures at his actually being something more than, not merely, an actor.
One Thing Leads to Another
Our internal discussions about how to handle anti-Shakespeare skeptics was having an interesting side effect. Wolfe was diving further into the coat of arms records and turning up new references to Shakespeare. But she was also thinking about how this fuller picture of Shakespeare’s claim to gentle status connects with other evidence of his role as poet and playwright. Certain things came more sharply into focus: the timeline and perhaps even cause for the switch in references to the original grantee of arms; the possibility of an even wider knowledge of the arms controversy, as evidenced in newly discovered references to “Shakespeare the player”; and the significance of Howes’s contemporary reference to William as a “gentleman” and claim to direct knowledge of that fact. All of this tells us more about Shakespeare’s life. But it also tells us how a single man, an actor, gentleman, and poet, wrote the works that bear his name.
Here is how the evidence goes together.
Almost anyone who is described by others as a gentleman has a coat of arms. We know that Shakespeare’s coat of arms derives from the grant of arms to his father, John Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1596. On the one hand, then, we have William Shakespeare + coat of arms in multiple manuscripts, but in particular, in one that was begun by a herald on May 28, 1602 and appears to be completed well before the herald’s death in 1618, since the latest arms to appear in it were granted in 1615. On the other hand, we have William Shakespeare + gentleman + poet in a printed book in 1615. Unless there is more than one William Shakespeare who has a coat of arms and is referred to as a gentleman in the early 1600s, the poet and the Stratford gentleman actor are one and the same man.
An additional context for this evidence was supplied when Wolfe tried to interpret evidence of Brooke’s attack on Dethick, as it appears in existing and newly discovered seventeenth century manuscripts. When Brooke refers ca. 1601/2 to Shakespeare derogatorily as a “player” alongside many other overly dismissive designations—bookbinder, fishmonger, draper, mercer, etc.—we have further, if indirect, evidence that William was something more than a player. This too is interesting, and shows how multiple lines of inquiry can be drawn together by a common question.
Others have already found ways of making the case for Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and poems, and so we see this line of reasoning as more of a curiosity than anything else. But the twists and turns required to satisfy our imaginary skeptic have taught us something interesting about what we do with documentary evidence and how we find more of it. While it is possible to argue the case against Shakespeare’s authorship by assuming that the man who wrote or co-authored these famous works was actually someone else, this approach forces us to reject a huge body of evidence that unambiguously identifies William Shakespeare (of Stratford-upon-Avon, gentleman) as player, playwright, and theater shareholder. To our minds, the ideal explanation of documentary evidence is the one that explains more by assuming less.
It turned out, then, that this hypothesis about Shakespeare as a “front man” did have some practical value. Because we had to go through the thought exercise of considering the views of skeptics—an exercise we couldn’t avoid in the quatercentenary commemoration of Shakespeare’s death in 2016—we ended up learning more and seeing new things. It is perhaps no accident that these discoveries were made by a curator working in a research library that presents and interprets its materials to the public. Those are good conditions under which to ask questions; good pressures to respond to, and in this case, the world ends up learning something new about Shakespeare.
It won’t be the last time.