Shakespeare authorship

Musings on what we can know …

Shakespeare authorship and the esoteric


by Dr Barry R. Clarke

There are many examples in the history of the Shakespeare authorship question of theories relating to the supernatural. They usually run in close association with the ideas of codes, ciphers, and secret sects, but although unfamiliar to common experience, is an esoteric theory necessarily a false theory?

First of all, the distinction between the scientific and the non-scientific is not the same as that between the rational and the non-rational. Certain mystical views can be perfectly coherent in that their conspiracy of ideas remain free from contradiction (and I know some highly intelligent people who hold such ideas). I think a more accurate distinction, and it is one that was pointed out by Karl Popper in Logik der Forschung (1935) [1], is that between what is testable and what is not. In other words, in order to corroborate a theory, there needs to be a way of singling it out from the rest. It seems to me to be a characteristic of an esoteric theory that its consequences cannot easily be subjected to a critical test. However, this does not mean that its ideas are necessarily false because it is always possible that some fact might later appear in support of the view. (For example, the idea that at some time in the future the earth might be visited by aliens always remains an open possibility.)

A further point worth advertising is that both scientific and mystical views are conjectural in character. There is no such thing as inductive reasoning from experience. Although the sense data that are given to us arise from a place external to our minds, in the process of it passing through our sensory apparatus and then our understanding, it is continually subjected by the imagination to possible ways of making sense of it. In other words, as far as our sense data are concerned, the process of organisation is an iterative process of posit and test, not an extraction of information. We keep trying different ideas until we find one that works. General relativity is a good example of the conjectural nature of scientific theory because until it found corroboration (in the advance of the perihelion of Mercury and the displacement of star positions as light bent around the Sun) the idea of ‘curved space’ certainly seemed mystical. So not only can esoteric ideas be rational, but scientific theorising begins with the intuitive and non-rational!

So for me, it is perfectly rational to hold esoteric or non-scientific views. However, in matters concerning the Shakespeare authorship question, I have elected to follow the more painful path of trying to establish what is scientific and testable, if only because any knowledge that anyone obtains in this way is something we can (hopefully) all agree on!

[1] Karl Popper, Logik der Forschung (1935), translated as The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge, 2002). See in particular ‘Falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation’, pp.17-18 .

A scientific standard of evidence

by Dr Barry R. Clarke

Having been engaged in the Shakespeare authorship question for many years, and having witnessed various arguments that have been put forward for various contestants, I have to say that I have grown to become less interested in the answer to the question ‘Who contributed to this particular Shakespeare work?’ than in how the answer is to be established beyond reasonable doubt. In other words, how effective are our methods for establishing the degree of truth of this or that fact?

For example, did a group of contributors write the Sonnets or only one person? My response to this question is: How are we going to decide? My best current answer is: By means of a rare phrase test using the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database. This method, to which I devoted considerable thought and time during my PhD work at Brunel University 2010-13, I call Rare Collocation Profiling (RCP). Although still in need of much development, I cannot see a more convincing method available. After all, the rarer a phrase the more it points to a single mind, and the procedure gives thousands of contemporary authors the opportunity to appear or not appear in the search results for rare correspondences. Crucially, it offers the chance to eliminate contestants, an important characteristic of the scientific method, and in my view, it is far more reliable than traditional academic methods such as a stylometric word count of a document, which rests on the dubious assumption that a text is uniform in a single contributor.

The difficulty with a stylometric method is that it relies on an extended body of text to perform a count. To be informative, this text must have only one contributor to which is associated a set of numbers associated with the word characteristics that are being counted (e.g. one characteristic could be words ending in ‘-ish’). Now, it is by no means certain that a text in an author’s corpus has not been revised by a different hand and if it has then this set of numbers would be an inaccurate representation of this author. However, there is a larger objection. A target text with more than one contributor has little prospect of its several hands being suggested by the method. The assumption is usually made that multiple contributors would be allocated different scenes of a play text, and would therefore be separated in their contribution. However, it is easily possible that a scene has been revised at a later time by a different contributor. This impasse, which I call here the ‘problem of uniformity’, is the chief difficulty with stylometric methods and can easily result in misattribution. What is needed is a more forensic procedure that does not rely on an uncorrupted text, and which through the meaningfulness and rarity of the elements being processed (i.e. phrases and collocations) is more likely to point to particular personalities. The RCP method satisfies this criterion.

So far I have applied RCP to A Funerall Elegye by W.S. (identified matches: John Ford, Shakespeare canon), the Gesta Grayorum (identified matches: Francis Bacon), A Comedy of Errors (identified matches: Thomas Nashe, Thomas Heywood, Francis Bacon), Love’s Labour’s Lost (identified matches: Thomas Nashe, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, Francis Bacon), The Tempest (identified matches: Francis Bacon), and Twelfth Night (identified matches: Thomas Heywood, George Chapman, Francis Bacon). The Tempest is strong in rare correspondences that Bacon shares, and although it may come as a surprise that he appears in these lists, he was heavily involved in the 1594-5 Gray’s Inn Christmas revels where The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost were intended for performance (see PhD thesis) and he was a prominent member of the Virginia Company which has strong connections to The Tempest (see peer-reviewed publication ‘The Virginia Company’s role in The Tempest). Also, the method’s identification of John Ford as the major contributor to A Funerall Elegye has assisted in settling a long-standing debate as to whether or not ‘W.S.’ was referring to William Shakespeare. It seems not, at least not unless Ford’s name was in need of concealment in the dangerous circumstance of a murder having been committed.

However, what if the RCP test is applied to the Sonnets and the result is inconclusive, that is, no contestant turns out to have a particularly strong return? There are several reasons why this might be so, for example, the supposed sole Sonnets contributor has no corpus of letters and prose work in the EEBO database. In that case, he won’t be identified and I say we cannot then challenge Shakespeare’s default claim to the Sonnets (which is justified by his name, or a similar one, appearing on the work). In fact, this is precisely how one would conduct a statistical hypothesis test. First, set up the null hypothesis ‘Mr Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets alone’, then establish the alternative hypothesis ‘There are one or more different contributors’, and finally test it using the available data in EEBO.  Of course, Mr Shakespeare could not participate in such a test himself as there are no independent letters or prose works of his to test the Sonnets against. So since he has no opportunity to fail the test, the conclusion has to be that he cannot be scientifically eliminated from contributing to the Sonnets.

There are those who might recoil at the suggestion that a current attribution method they are employing is unsound. For example, someone might object that they have spent a lifetime researching Joe Soap and have found dozens, no … hundreds, of biographical correspondences between his life and the Sonnets. The trouble is, so have other researchers … for Fred Bloggs, Egbert Nobacon, Sid Snipe … What does this imply? It implies that this type of evidence can be collected for several candidates and for this reason it establishes nothing. The notion that biographical connections are informative is an illusion and they have no place in the science of authorship attribution. Their only use is to reinforce the views of those who have already decided on their favourite candidate, who only collect information relating to that person, and who reject any opportunity to test whether or not he/she was actually involved. This is certainly not a scientific attitude yet the Shakespeare authorship question is heavily populated with such investigators who have no intention of modifying their hypotheses as new evidence arises!

I can hear others objecting that there are some very odd things going on, like no one came out at the time and said Mr Shakespeare wrote the Sonnets, and I would agree that it is not what might reasonably be expected for a man whose name is on a collection of first-rate poetry. In fact, there are books devoted to lists of doubts which range from the non-existence of manuscripts to the absence of eulogies on Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Nevertheless, however well researched these works are, suspicion is not evidence. There must be some kind of scientific test that gives every contestant a reasonable chance of being either eliminated or suggested, and if there isn’t one, or if it is inconclusive, then I say we must be ready to admit that a scientific challenge to Shakespeare’s claim to this or that work is not possible. Fortunately, it seems that the RCP test shows promise despite being limited only to those with several works in the EEBO database.

I have often thought it unfortunate that the Shakespeare authorship question has attracted so many who trade with abandon their favourite candidate’s biographical connections to the Shakespeare work. The attraction seems to lie in the thought that since little is known with any degree of certainty, then one is free to fantasize whatever one likes, free from critical analysis. After all, if no one knows very much then one can be secure in the knowledge that there is no compelling evidence to deliver the pain of contradiction. As a  trained scientist this thought depresses me greatly, because there is no easy route through the vast and intricate maze of connections that is the Shakespeare authorship question, and the construction of a convincing scientific argument takes considerable (and I mean considerable) research, care, and judgment.

So what I would like people to do is to think more carefully about the standard of evidence of a proposed method, and to consider ways in which a proposed scheme might allow the ruling in or out of other contestants. To me, any attribution method that does not have this characteristic is defective and biased. I also believe we should be more ready to declare that such and such a question has insufficient data to answer it, rather than succumb to the temptation to over-interpret circumstantial evidence. It’s a pleasurable game but it is unscientific.

I hope that these conclusions don’t extinguish anyone’s enthusiasm for investigation in any way. All I ask for is more thought devoted to the standard of evidence and how far it eliminates other contestants.

Techniques of Shakespeare authorship attribution


by Dr Barry R. Clarke

It is currently a popular practice to seek out biographical connections between a particular candidate and a Shakespeare play. However, the fact that this can be carried out for several personalities is sufficient to undermine the method as an authorial determinant. The only secure way is to examine verbal correspondences between a candidate’s canon and a target text but, as we shall see, this too has its difficulties.

Statistical stylometry is one such method, and works on the basis of obtaining samples of textual data from several candidates for a test against a target text. Certain attributes of this data are kept constant across all candidates and target text, for example, sample size (equal size texts), genre (for a comedy play under test all samples are taken from comedy material), and chronology (all samples and the target are from the same period). A count of certain linguistic items is then performed for each sample, each item serving as an authorial marker. For example, the proportion of words ending in ‘-ish’ or those beginning with ‘dis-’ might be taken as separate linguistic items. This count is carried out for many different items and are then combined in a correlation calculation for each candidate against the target text to see how closely their counts match.

The flaw in this statistical method when carried out on a Shakespeare play is the dubious assumption that it is the work of only one hand. If a scribe, editor, compositor, or a dramatist has made any alterations to the word spellings of the original text then this assumption falls. In this case, there might be several contributors to a Shakespeare play and what one is actually counting up in the target text is the average effect of several unidentifiable hands. Clearly, a count of this kind, which relies on the entire sample of a Shakespeare text, could easily be a corrupt endeavour.

A more reliable method is to compare phrases and collocations. Being more complex than words, they are less vulnerable to editorial intervention. However, it is not enough to find parallels that only a certain candidate and the Shakespeare play share. Again, this type of success can be obtained for several candidates. Ideally, phrases and collocations in the target text are checked for rarity against a contemporary database of searchable texts, such as Early English Book Online (EEBO). A record is then made of which candidates used them. This kind of rarity actually eliminates candidates. To argue that a candidate contributed to a play, there needs to be a sufficient number of such rare matches from the candidate’s canon both before and after the assumed date of the play. This suggests mutual borrowing, which is so unusual that the argument can then be made that the candidate contributed these particular rare phrases or collocations. Of course, the more accurate the assessment of the target text date, the more assured is the claim for contribution.

Here, there is a clear difference in emphasis between statistical stylometry and the rare collocation method. The former performs a count on an entire sample, which if it is a Shakespeare play might contain several unidentifiable hands. However, the latter method only makes claims about particular phrases and collocations. It surgically separates these elements from the rest of the play, and the only assertion made is that a particular candidate contributed those particular elements.

Needless to say, if a candidate to be tested has insufficient words in EEBO then there can be no test and I suggest no assertion about this person’s contribution to a Shakespeare play can ever be made.

For more information on the new method of Rare Collocation Profiling (RCP) see Barry R. Clarke, ‘A linguistic analysis of Francis Bacon’s contribution to three Shakespeare plays,’ PhD thesis, Brunel University, UK, 2013, which can be found online.

A summary of this work ‘Developments in the Shakespeare authorship question’ is also available online.

A Country Controversy

by Dr Barry R. Clarke

Last week, the editors of Country Life magazine (20 May 2015) boldly trumpeted historian Dr Mark Griffiths’ claim to have found a new Shakespeare portrait in a sixteenth century book on gardening. The case rested mainly on the interpretation of the rebus on the plinth below the figure alleged to be Shakespeare, a puzzle that has since been given a more economical treatment as a printer’s mark (see ‘Alleged Shakespeare Portrait’). Not only did they judge incorrectly that this idea would float, but the boat has now been launched into even deeper water with Dr Griffiths’ further ‘discovery’ of a new Shakespeare playlet. This is presented under the rather appropriate title ‘A Country Controversy’ (see extract from Gardener’s Speech below from Cecil Papers). GardenerSpeechHatfieldThe piece in question is an entertainment delivered before Queen Elizabeth on 10 May 1591 at Theobald’s, Lord Burghley’s residence. It features a gardener and a molecatcher who find themselves locked in conflict about their respective claims to a jewel box found during the construction of Robert Cecils’ garden. Part of the playlet seems to represent a petition to the queen that when Lord Burghley retires from public office his second son Robert Cecil might take over his duties [1]. Flattery of the queen is used to assist the suit, so that when the Gardener declares of ‘Eglantine’ [the queen’s flower] “the deeper it is rooted in the ground, the sweeter it smelleth in the flower, making it ever so green that the sun of Spain at the hottest cannot parch it”, it could not have escaped her notice that her victory over the Spanish Armada was only three years behind them. Robert Cecil would eventually become Principal Secretary.

As Dr Griffiths informs us, “I attribute it to Shakespeare on the basis of stylistic evidence and in the light of the association that I’ve discovered between him, Burghley [Lord Treasurer], and Gerard [the author of ‘The Herball’, the afore-mentioned gardening book]”. Unfortunately, these associations have since been placed in so much doubt that the weight now rests almost entirely on the ‘stylistic evidence’. As we shall see, the boat has insufficient buoyancy to support the cargo. A further speech is also attributed to Shakespeare, namely The Hermit’s Speech “the verse address that greeted the Queen and her courtiers on their arrival at Theobald’s”. The evidence for both of these claims chiefly consists of a list of word and phrase parallels between the playlet and Shakespeare’s accepted canon. An additional claim that Shakespeare acted in this device is pure speculation.

There are three points that will be addressed here about the argument given in Country Life. The first relates to the exclusivity of the phrase matches, the second to Shakespeare’s unlikely access to a classified letter, and the third to more plausible candidates than Shakespeare.

The history of the playlet

There has been some doubt as to the authenticity of the documents due to the fact that it was the notorious forger John Payne Collier who first introduced them. First, he printed the blank verse poem delivered by the Hermit to the queen on her arrival at Theobald’s [2]. He then sent the Gardener’s speech, the Molecatcher’s speech, and the six-line verse concerning the jewel box to the literary historian Alexander Dyce who declared that Collier had informed him that not only were they in the hand of George Peele, but they were also marked with a ‘G.P.’ signature [3]. This was subsequently disputed by Walter Greg who noted that the ‘G.P.’ signature could not be found and that the Hermit’s speech was in a different hand from the rest [4]. Support came from Peele scholar Thorleif Larsen who compared their handwriting against Peele’s autograph manuscript of Anglorum Feriae and thought it not in Peele’s style [5]. The original manuscripts are written in a secretary script and now reside in the British Library under the title ‘A Speeche made before the Queen at Tybolles’ [6]. Although undated, their content clearly alludes to the 1591 entertainments. Fortunately for history, a copy of the Gardener’s speech (see extract above) also exists in the Cecil papers at Hatfield House [7], again undated and in secretarial script. It seems to be a grammatically better version than the British Library manuscript [8].

Exclusivity of phrase matches

Dr Griffiths provides several words and phrases that appear in both the Gardener-Molecatcher playlet and the Shakespeare canon. For example, ‘onions’ (Hamlet, V.ii.218-9), ‘pate’ (The Taming of the Shrew, I.ii.12), ‘paradise’ (The Comedy of Errors, IV.iii.16), ‘cunning’ (Hamlet, II.ii.432), ‘intending’ (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV.iii.43-4), ‘heave’ (The Rape of Lucrece, II.412-3), and ‘gird’ [noun] (1 Henry VI, III.1.132). I have taken the trouble to run these through Chadwyck-Healey’s Early English Books Online (EEBO) database to find the percentage of searchable documents in which these appear before 1591, the assumed date of the playlet. With 3397 such documents available the results are as follows: ‘onions’ (5.3%), ‘pate’ (7.4%), ‘paradise’ (27.4%), ‘cunning’ (28.7%), ‘intending’ (15.4%), ‘heave’ (27.5%), and ‘gird’ [noun] (0.62%). A more complex word string ‘lord of the soil’ (2 Henry VI, IV.x.24) results in a 0.7% return. Rarer is the Latin ‘animis caelestibus irae‘ (2 Henry VI, II.1.24) which has only 2/3397 (0.09%) returns before 1591: John Harvey has one of its uses in A discoursiue probleme (1588) [9]. A similar rarity is afforded by ‘light of hearing’ (King Lear, III.iv.90; as ‘light of ear’) which appears in only 3/3397 (0.09%) of searchable documents in EEBO.

The locution ‘like a lapwing’ (Much Ado About Nothing, III.ii.24) and ‘twitteth’ (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, IV.i.8; as ‘She twits me’) have no returns before 1591. Both are used later by the dramatist George Chapman, the former in Sir Gyles Goosecappe Knight (1606) [10] and the latter in his translation of Homer’s Odysses (1615) [11]. The use of ‘lapwing’ as a simile also appears in works by John Lyly: “wherein you resemble the Lapwing” in Campaspe (1584) [12], and “lapwing-like flying far from the place where I nestle” in Mother Bombie (1594) [13]. Even Thomas Nash found a use for it “to withdraw men (lapwing like) from his nest” in Haue with you to Saffron-walden (1596) [14].

Around 1597-8, Francis Bacon gave a Reading at Gray’s Inn “Upon the Statute of Vses” in which the following occurs “which time they began to heave at uses” (27.5%) [15]. Having been used in the sense ‘to intellectually pressurize’, this resembles ‘that all those that be heavers at your State’ from the Theobald’s playlet. Virgil’s rare Latin ‘Tantaene animis celestibus irae?’ [‘Is there such wrath in heavenly minds?’, Aenid, i.15] which appears in the Gardener’s speech as ‘[sunt] animis caelestibus irae‘ (0.09%) can be found in Bacon’s then unpublished private wastebook The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies (1592-4) [16] in the form Virgil had set it down.

It is fair to say that those locutions marked at greater than 1% of the EEBO searchable documents were in common use by the time they were inserted in the Shakespeare canon and are insufficiently rare to assert concordance. Unfortunately, it is a common defect of works that compare parallel words, phrases, and collocations that no attempt is made to estimate the rarity of their use in the contemporary literature. A second issue lies in works under the Shakespeare name that have a number of contributors, for then the division of attribution becomes problematic. Neither of these issues have been addressed by Dr Griffiths.

The rare word

In a passage from the Molecatcher’s speech, we find “Now, for that this Gardener twitteth me with my vocation: I could prove it a mystery not mechanical, and tell the tale of the giant’s daughter which was turned to a mole because she would eat fairer bread than is made of wheat […] and how good clerks told me that moles in fields were ill subjects in commonwealths, which are always turning up in places in which they are bred”. According to Dr Griffiths, “The giant’s daughter too was an actual monarch – Mary, Queen of Scots”. The word ‘twitteth’ does not appear in the searchable database before 1591 and so is rare. Its origin is not given in the Country Life article but curiously the earliest return from EEBO is actually William Camden’s The historie of the life and death of Mary Stuart Queene of Scotland (1624) [17].


It records that in 1561, Mary Queen of Scots refused to ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh in which she was required to relinquish her claim to certain titles. This so angered Queen Elizabeth that when Mary requested safe passage from France to Scotland, the Queen of England refused. Mary’s reaction is recorded by the ambassador Throgmorton in his letters (see above) to whom she reportedly said of Elizabeth “Shee twitteth me, and saith, that I haue small experience” (see below) [18]. Camden did not begin his Annals, or Historie of Queen Elizabeth until 1608, work that served as a basis for The historie (1624). Given the rarity of this word and its specific context, I would suggest that the author of the Molecatcher’s speech must have had access to the ambassador’s letter. In that case, one wonders how an unknown actor such as Shakespeare could have seen it.


More plausible candidates

The point is, there are more realistic alternatives than Shakespeare, ones who from our vantage point in time had a history of writing entertainments for the queen.


From 1594, Robert Cecil (above) is credited with a ‘Hermit’s Oration’ for the queen’s next visit to Theobald’s. Two manuscript copies survive and both have ‘penned by Sir Robert Cecill’ recorded on them [19]. The Hermit in this speech identifies himself as the one who petitioned the queen at Theobald’s in 1591. Furthermore, the 1591 speech refers to Cecil’s garden at Pymmes four miles away which was “overgrown with thistles and turned up by moles”. However, Curtis Breight has disputed Cecil’s claim concluding that “there is no real evidence” that he wrote them [20]. Nevertheless, unless Cecil delegated the writing to another and reserved the credit for himself, he seems to be a prime candidate.

Several commentators have claimed John Lyly to be the speech writer. R. W. Bond thought that the box inscription was similar to some of Lyly’s nonsense verses [21] and by comparing elements of style, Leslie Hotson has attributed other queen’s entertainments to Lyly: one at Mitcham in 1598, and another at Chiswick in 1602 [22]. However, G. K. Hunter declared there to be neither internal nor external evidence for Lyly’s intervention [23].


On 17 November 1592, just 18 months after the Theobald’s entertainment, the Earl of Essex, who had been present at Lord Burghley’s residence, presented a device before the queen. It consisted of four speeches: ‘The Praise of the worthiest virtue’, ‘The Praise of the worthiest affection, Love’, ‘The Praise of the worthiest power, Knowledge’, and ‘The Praise of the worthiest person, Queen Elizabeth’. Two of these were published by Robert Stephens in 1734 [24] and all four appeared in the Northumberland Manuscripts collection [25]. All had been written by Francis Bacon (above), Robert Cecil’s cousin. Three years later, Bacon composed another device for Essex to present to the queen. This time the speeches featured an old Hermit, a Secretary of State, a Soldier, and an Esquire [26]. The first three attempt to persuade Erophilus not to love the queen by presenting an argument to his Squire, the whole skit being an obvious reference to Essex’s wooing of Elizabeth.  The evidence for Bacon’s authorship lies in an unfinished draft of a similar device in Lambeth Palace Library [27] written in Bacon’s hand which states that there were to be four characters with “one dressed like an Heremite of Philosopher, representing Contemplation”. The actual speeches appear in another volume of the same collection [28] with no heading, date, or docket. Five days after this event, Rowland Whyte sent a letter to his friend Sir Robert Sydney identifying the person who played the Esquire as Bacon’s close friend Toby Matthew [29]. It is clear from this that if Bacon was writing a speech for a Hermit in 1595 for presentation to the queen, then he is a good candidate for having done so in 1591.

In summary, the stylistic evidence that the playlet is a Shakespeare work is not specific enough. The word ‘twitteth’ in the context of Mary Queen of Scots points to a state letter which Shakespeare as an unknown actor would have had difficulty accessing. The fact is, there were other candidates who had a stronger claim. One also wonders how a man from the lower classes with no published reputation could have found his way into Lord Burghley’s favour. It was difficult enough for courtiers, so it seems unrealistic to expect Shakespeare to have achieved it. It would have been easier to choose a man of noble blood from one of the Inns of Court who had assisted in writing one of their revels plays. The evidence for Shakespeare as author of this playlet simply does not float.


(1) Curtis C. Breight, ‘Entertainments of Elizabeth at Theobald’s in the early 1590s’, REED Newsletter, 12.2 (1987), p.3.
(2) John Payne Collier, The History of Dramatic Poetry to the Time of Shakespeare, I (1831), pp.284-8.
(3) A. Dyce, The Works of George Peele, III (1828-39), pp.159-69.
(4) W. W. Greg, ‘A Collier mystification’, Review of English Studies, 1 (1925), pp.452-4.
(5) T. Larsen, ‘The canon of Peele’s works’, Modern Philology, 26 (1928-9), pp.191-9.
(6) British Library, Egerton MS 2623.
(7) Cecil Papers, Hatfield House, vol. No. 140, 94.
(8) Marion Colethorpe, ‘The Theobalds’s entertainment for Queen Elizabeth I in 1591’, REED Newsletter, 12.1 (1987), p.4.
(9) STC: 12908.
(10) STC: 12050.
(11) STC: 13637.
(12) STC: 17048a.
(13) STC: 17084.
(14) STC: 18369.
(15) Francis Bacon, The learned readings (1642), Wing: B301.
(16) British Library, Harley 7017, f.90v; Mrs Henry Pott, The Promus (1883), p.190.
(17) STC: 24509a.
(18) Camden, The historie, p.5, STC:24509a.
(19) Lambeth Palace Library, MS 2858, f.188; Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS D692, f.106.
(20) Curtis C. Breight, ‘Entertainments of Elizabeth at Theobald’s in the early 1590s’, REED Newsletter, 12.2 (1987), p.1.
(21) R. W. Bond, The Complete Works of John Lyly, I, pp.517-20.
(22) Marion Colethorpe, ‘The Theobalds’s entertainment for Queen Elizabeth I in 1591’, REED Newsletter, 12.1 (1987), p.4.
(23) Reported in Breight, ‘Entertainments’, p.2.
(24) James Spedding, A Conference of Pleasure (1870), pp.v-vi.
(25) Frank Burgoyne, Northumberland Manuscripts (1902).
(26) John Nichols, The Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth (1823), p.371.
(27) Lambeth Palace Library, Gibson Papers, vol. viii, No. 274.
(28) Lambeth Palace Library, Gibson Papers, vol. v, No. 18.
(29) John Nichols, Progresses of Elizabeth, III (1823), p.371.

Alleged Shakespeare portrait

by Dr Barry R. Clarke
On 20 May 2015, Country Life magazine published an article claiming that historian Dr Mark Griffiths had discovered a portrait of William Shakespeare (see above) in the 1597 edition of ‘The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes’ by John Gerard. On the title page are four figures, the fourth of which stands on a plinth dressed in Roman toga. Below him, engraved on the plinth is a rebus puzzle which has hitherto been taken to be John Norton’s printer’s mark who receives credit on the same page. The meaning of the symbols in this mark have so far remained obscure but Dr Griffiths claims that it is no printers mark but instead conceals a coded reference to William Shakespeare who he identifies as the fourth figure.
The difficulties I have with Dr Griffith’s rebus explanation are several (see figure below). First, its non-direct (even strained) use of Latin to try to make it work: the ‘4’ as ‘quattuor’ which needs to be abbreviated to ‘quat.’. Adding the ‘E’ then makes ‘quate’ which is ‘shake’. The need for abbreviation when other possibilities accrue (e.g. not abbreviating) immediately removes the advantage of directness from this solution. Also, to me, there is a very clear ‘N’ in this rebus. Why has it been omitted from consideration? Why do the ‘O’ and ‘R’ not play a direct part in this solution? The vertical rule through the ‘4’ makes, to Dr Griffith’s mind, a spear even though the triangular top is asymmetrical and the bottom of the ‘spear’ is curiously bent to the right. I would love to see this spear fly! The 4-with-vertical-rule appears in another mark such as that by William Middleton (Typographical Antiquities, 1749) albeit without the right oblique line descending from the top of the ‘4’, and presumably not as part of a spear. Even if Dr Griffith’s explanation as ‘shake’ and ‘spear’ were the intended one, an alternative interpretation is still possible, that the rebus refers to Pallas Athena the spear shaker, Goddess of Wisdom. The generic figure on the plinth could simply be ‘wise’.
I now suggest an alternative solution, one which demonstrates a greater theoretical economy. Since the ‘4’-with-vertical-rule had previous use in printers’ marks (e.g. Julian Notary, William Middleton) then the most likely solution is that it IS a printers mark (this is not a new idea). It is certainly a credible solution since the 1597 edition of ‘The herball’ credits the printer as ‘John Norton’ (see below). We now make full use of the ‘N’, ‘O’, ‘R’ and the three ‘XXX’ in the rebus which, in keeping with the Roman theme, are ‘tens’ to make ‘NORtens’ (this IS a new idea).
William and John Norton had previously used a mark where the letters ‘nor’ were set on a barrel ‘tun’ to make ‘nortun’ (see figure below). The present case also splits off the letters ‘NOR’ from the rest of the name so there is consistency of design.
Dr Griffiths has suggested (Country Life blog) that no printer could change his mark (although the Nortons had used several previous variations), and any symbol (e.g. ‘XXX’) that had been used by other printers had to retain its previous meaning. These are not necessary rules of rebus design. Some explanation is required for the broken ‘E’. I suggest that John Norton, who was (or was at least promoting himself as) the Queen’s printer, was inserting a reference to Elizabeth, and I suggest that part of the function of the oblique line descending to the right from the top of the ‘4’ is to direct attention to that (see figure below, from Henry Lemoine, ed., Typographical Antiquities, London, S. Fisher, (1797), p.75).
 I judge that this explanation is far less strained than that given by Dr Griffiths, makes better use of all the letters, and avoids the assumption that a then relatively unknown Shakespeare, who in 1597 was still waiting to see his name on a play quarto, was being afforded Roman God status on a plinth in a book on gardening!

Am I really this alone?

by Dr Barry R. Clarke

On 23 November 2014, I attended the Shakespeare Authorship Trust conference at the Globe Theater. Wonderful Shakespearean actors, a day of informative talks on Shakespeare and France, and then came the endgame: a round of five-minute speeches about the claims of different authorship candidates to have originated the entire Shakespeare work.

Two thoughts occurred to me during these expositions. The first was that the speakers all seemed to share an equal conviction that there was a single concealed author and that their man/woman was he/she. This was no superficial conviction either. It was a powerful one, based on years of gathering snippets of evidence in support of their chosen candidate. However, pause to consider that if any of them were correct, it could only be one of them, and in that case the rest must be labouring under a grave misapprehension. In other words, four of the five speakers must have been talking nonsense! … Forgive me! I’m over-simplifying it slightly … well, a lot actually … because I happen to know that one or two of the speakers actually believe that a group of authors were conspiring under the name of Shakespeare. So perhaps they could all have been right. Well, this brings me to my second thought, and this struck me with far greater force than the first. How could they possibly know that their candidate was involved? Connections to the Earls of Montgomery and Pembroke who were dedicatees for Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), autobiographical references in the plays and sonnets, known visits to France for the background to certain plays, all interesting circumstantial evidence, but the trouble is that a case of this kind can be put together for several candidates and it has been. Clearly this is not the type of evidence that excludes other possible suspects.

So it strikes me that there’s a problem with the standard of evidence and here’s my suggestion. Unless one can show that a candidate’s personal literary idiosyncrasies occur in the Shakespeare work, elements that reveal a uniqueness of thought, then there isn’t much of a case. The suspect needs to have letters and prose works containing rare phrases and collocations that can be compared against the Shakespeare work for correspondence. Ideally, these would be unique matches between the candidate’s canon and the Shakespeare work under investigation. This is a crucial point, because it is the nature of scientific evidence that it strictly narrows the range of possibilities. That is, there needs to be a unique correspondence of some kind.

Of course, we could entertain the hope that the original Shakespeare manuscripts turn up written in a hand that is undeniably that of our favored hero. Surely no one could be deluded enough to believe that this could happen. Think again. There is one investigator who has invested vast resources trying to prove that the manuscripts are buried down a water-logged mine shaft on a remote Canadian island. Oh, dear! Have we really sunk this low?

As access to proper academic resources and techniques gradually reveals more about what actually happened four hundred years ago, then some of these gratuitous ideas will slowly vanish into history, at least, that is my hope.

So, the evidence needs to be more scientific, but who will raise a [middle] finger to help in my quest as I say ‘UFO’ to the religiously entwined … I mean, is there anybody out there?! … Am I really this alone?! …

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑