The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Sonnets by Shakespeare…’s spirit?

As the common saying goes, only death and taxes are certain. However, consider the uncertainties that can accompany any tax season: missing W-2s, e-file services incompatible with your browser, shifting standards, mathematical errors…

That’s enough about taxes! Let’s talk about death instead, and some of the items in the Folger collection that suggest it might involve some uncertainties as well.

If you’ve ever had reason to do a name browse search for “Shakespeare” in Hamnet, you may have noticed, sandwiched in between “Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616” (central collecting focus for the Folger) and “Shakespeare, William, -1762?” (eighteenth-century estate executor, not a central collecting focus at this time), an entry for “Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 (Spirit).”1

Yes, that is in fact the ghost of William Shakespeare, who has authored some half-dozen items in the Folger collection (with the aid of a living, corporeal medium). To distract you from the pain of Tax Day, we offer you a brief tour of some turn-of-the-century works attributed to Shakespeare’s spirit in the Folger collection. 

Shakespeare’s Revelations by Shakespeare’s Spirit (Folger PR2800 .S7) and My Proof of Immortality by Shakespeare’s Spirit (Folger BF1301 .S48)

Through the medium Sarah Taylor Shatford (herself a poet), Shakespeare produced several extensive volumes of new poetry, sonnets, hymns, exhortations to live a Christian life, and proofs of the spirit world. Shakespeare’s Revelations by Shakespeare’s Spirit, published in 1919 not long after the end of the First World War, contains a number of poems reflecting on the wartime experience and expressing a hope for peace, and encouraging readers to follow Christian teachings. Most poems are signed “W.S. In spirit (Through S.S.)”, with occasional asides from the spirit in parentheses.2

A later Shakespeare/Shatford volume from the Folger collection, My Proof of Immortality (1924), contains a greater variety of content, from sonnets to limericks to a children’s play featuring characters named after food. The last third of this volume contains the actual “proofs of immortality,” for which Shatford takes credit as an author herself, rather than a channel for Shakespeare’s spirit. Shakespeare also occasionally talks to his medium directly, instructing her about the “perils of mediumship” and commenting on the nature of the afterlife. To channel Shakespeare’s spirit, Shatford seems to have first encountered Shakespeare through the ouija board, but later received his communications through her “clairaudient” capabilities (essentially, otherworldly voice dictation). 

Dictated in the same era was Sonnets of Shakespeare’s Ghost, composed and published in 1920 through medium Gregory Thornton. In this small volume, simple but finely produced, Shakespeare’s sonnets appear to be truer to the literary forms he used during his earthly existence; however, they are preceded by a humble epigraph stating that his purpose was to “[renew] as best a shadow may that rhyme wherein he was more excellent in the living body.”

Folger Sh.Misc. 2211

Gregory Thornton was in fact a pseudonym for Australian classics and literature professor T.G. Tucker, perhaps a contributing factor in the higher quality of Shakespeare’s poetry in this volume as opposed to the verses recorded by Shatford. (“Willem Blaeu” is probably another pseudonym for Tucker, after the 17th century cartographer and publisher.) Unlike Shatford, whose aim is very clearly educational, Thornton does not discuss how he receives the guidance from Shakespeare, preferring to let the collection of ten sonnets speak for itself.

Shakespeare also continued to write full-length dramas from the spirit world. In 1916, an author named Lincoln Phifer self-published Hamlet in Heaven, a sequel to Hamlet composed by the means of automatic writing. Using this method, a medium could channel a spirit and write on their behalf while in an unconscious or semi-conscious state. In his introduction to Hamlet in Heaven, Phifer presents his story humbly, informing his readers that he has been receiving messages by automatic writing from a spirit who “purports” to be William Shakespeare, but he is not trying to convert them, merely ask them to examine the facts for themselves. He compares automatic writing to a telephone call (rather appropriately, as both methods were first used in the 1870s): “…in practical affairs we generally accept a man’s statement that his name is what he says it is, while if we are informed over the phone that Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith is talking, we believe it, even though the evidence is uncertain as it is in case of automatic writing. It seems only fair and not hazardous to believe that messages received from the other side of the Great Adventure are from the persons claiming to have given them.”3

The Folger’s copy of Hamlet in Heaven comes to us from E.H. Sothern’s collection. Phifer sent a copy of the play to Sothern, inscribing it “The ‘affable great ghost’ directs this to his beloved son in whom he is well pleased. Lincoln Phifer” on the title page, with an additional inscription “To Mr. E.H. Sothern. The Great ‘Hamlet'” on the front cover.

Folger PR2807 .P67

So, should you feel an urge to write a sonnet decrying taxation today, keep in mind that you may be channeling the spirit of Shakespeare himself!

  1. This is indeed an official name heading in the LC Name Authority File, established by yours truly. Cataloging standards make provisions for establishing name headings for spirits, legendary characters, mythological characters, pseudonyms, fictional characters, and animals. The cataloging community has gone back and forth on whether these various entities can take authorial responsibility for a book or other published item, though.
  2. Unlike Shakespeare’s earlier poetry, these verses were not terribly well received; journalist Heywood Broun commented in a review for the New York Tribune that “Three hundred years of idleness have dulled the imagination of [the] master poet,” and requested that Shatford “be kind enough to transmit to him a suggestion” and “advise him earnestly to look up Keats and take a lesson in verse forms.”
  3. Phifer, Lincoln & William Shakespeare. Hamlet in Heaven. Girard, Kansas: Lincoln Phifer, 1916, page 4.

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