Shakespeare authorship

Musings on what we can know …


Shakespeare Authorship Trust

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.

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?! …

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