Diana Price reviews

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)


Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy is a collection of essays that purports to put an end to the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question, once and for all. Its editors, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, recruited 20 contributors, most of whom also contributed to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s “60 Minutes with Shakespeare,” a project that provided 60 seconds each to 60 scholars addressing various topics, most with significance for the authorship question.

The essay collection was prompted in part by the release of Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film Anonymous (a box office flop dramatizing a fringe version of a “royal birth” theory positing the earl of Oxford as the real Shakespeare) and the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” (now signed by over 2,700 individuals) published on the website DoubtAboutWill. The substance of the Declaration is, in some measure, based on the research in my own book, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of An Authorship Problem. It was the first book challenging the traditional biography to be published by a mainstream publisher in a peer-reviewed series (Greenwood Press, 2001, “Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies” no. 94; now revised and published in paperback by shakespeare-authorship.com, 2012). A major argument in the book is based on a comparative analysis of documentary evidence left behind by Shakespeare and two dozen writers active during his lifetime. The results of that analysis demonstrate that Shakespeare is the only alleged writer of consequence from the time period who left behind no evidence that he wrote for a living, or even as a vocation.

At the April 2013 launch of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt in Stratford-on-Avon, Ros Barber (author of the prize-winning The Marlowe Papers, a fictionalized case for Marlowe’s authorship) criticized the editors of the essay collection for failing to contend with their peer-reviewed opposition. In this review essay, I focus on particular contributors who defend the traditional biography, with the hope that my critique will move the debate forward.

As a general comment, it is unfortunate that a decision on nomenclature was made in this collection to re-label authorship skeptics as “anti-Shakespeareans,” rather than the more accurately descriptive “anti-Stratfordians. “Anti-Shakespearean” is unnecessarily pejorative (and it was a relief to read James Shapiro’s reversion to the term “anti-Stratfordian” in his Afterword). Also, in several places, some contributors assert that the authorship question first emerged, not during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in 1856-57, when Delia Bacon published her unreadable tome (2, 87, 246). But Miss Bacon was not the first to ask questions about Shakespeare’s authorship. She was the first to formalize the question. Expressions of confusion about Shakespeare’s authorship were recorded during Shakespeare’s lifetime by Thomas Edwards, the Parnassus authors, Gabriel Harvey, and John Davies of Hereford, among others.

Now to particulars.


Andrew Hadfield is the author of the recent and well-received biography of Edmund Spenser. Spenser left behind good evidence of his literary interests and activities, the evidence that I call personal literary paper trails. These include books exchanged with his friend, Gabriel Harvey, his handwritten transcription of a Latin poem, and records of his education. Despite such evidence for Spenser, in his essay “Theorizing Shakespeare’s authorship,” Hadfield attempts to lower his reader’s expectations for evidence surviving for writers from the time period, essentially excusing the absence of literary paper trails for Shakespeare:

Even a superficial trawl through the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography will reveal how little we know about many important figures, making the gaps in the biographical records of Shakespeare seem typical rather than unusual and therefore in no need of explanation. . . What are left are scraps, fragments, and clues in parish registers, court records, and probate offices” (65, 66).

To which list I would add personal literary paper trails.

Hadfield admits that “there are virtually no literary remains left behind by Shakespeare” (66), but he also claims that in that sense, Shakespeare is no different than other writers, such as Henry Chettle, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, Anthony Munday, and Thomas Nashe, among others (66). While the canons of these writers, like Shakespeare’s, present various attribution or authenticity problems, unlike Shakespeare, these writers left behind solid records of their activities as writers. To take one example (chosen here because Hadfield singled out Nashe in his 60 seconds contribution to the SBT program), among the personal literary paper trails for Nashe are an autograph poem from his days at Cambridge; a record of how much he was rewarded for writing by one of his patrons, as specified in a letter from Sir George Carey to his wife (the dedicatee of the pamphlet in question); and a letter to Carey’s servant describing his difficulties “writing for the stage and for the press.” Despite the survival of that letter, Hadfield claims that “personal letters did not survive in an age when paper was scarce and expensive” (64). Yet additional autograph letters DO survive for, among others, George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and Michael Drayton, and all of them contain reference to literary topics (Price, Unorthodox, 314-18). There are no comparable records for Shakespeare, so Hadfield’s claims do not hold up. The deficiency of personal literary paper trails for a writer from the time period is not an expected or common phenomenon; the deficiency is unique to Shakespeare.


David Kathman’s essay “Shakespeare and Warwickshire” attempts to situate Shakespeare in the intellectual and literary communities in Stratford-on-Avon, investing him with intellectual credentials in a sort of literacy-by-association. Yet his sections on Shakespeare’s Stratford associates do nothing to establish Shakespeare as a man interested in literary matters. Identifying neighbors, such as Richard Quiney or Abraham Sturley, who read books or wrote letters, sometimes in Latin, is not evidence that Shakespeare read books or wrote letters. Indeed, the reason Kathman can state categorically that Quiney or Sturley read books or wrote letters is because letters survive to support those statements (124-27). No comparable evidence survives for Shakespeare.

Kathman claims that the plays “include numerous offhand references to people and places from the area around Stratford” (129). But those “numerous” Warwickshire characters and locations appear in only two plays, Henry IV (2) and The Taming of the Shrew. He further claims that the plays “are peppered with dialect words from Warwickshire and the West Midlands” (129). He cites three sources in his endnote, primarily C.T. Onions, and also R.C. Churchill (actually Ivor Brown’s introduction) and Hilda M. Hulme. Not only do these sources fail to verify all his claims, he omits other resources that would compromise or invalidate several of them. After consulting Joseph Wright’s still valuable six-volume The English Dialect Dictionary, James Orchard Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic Words, James Appleton Morgan’s Warwickshire Glossary, and the OED, I would propose that at least five of the nine words Kathman mentions don’t belong on his list.

For example, Kathman defines a “ballowas a ‘cudgel,’ which Onions locates in the north Midlands (12). But the texts of King Lear (IV.vi.238) read, variously, “battero” (Qq), “bat” (Q1 and Q2), and “ballow” (F), so there is not even a secure basis for accepting “ballow” as the intended word. The OED elaborates:

Only in the Shakes. Folio of 1623, and subseq. editions, in loc. cit., where the Quartos have battero, and bat (stick, rough walking-stick); besides which, batton, battoun, ‘stick, cudgel’ obs. f. baton n. (q.v.) is a probable emendation. Bailey (1742) has ‘Ballow, a pole, a long stick, quarter-staff, etc. Shakesp.’ (quoted by Halliwell as ‘Northern’): but no such word seems to exist, or to have any etymological justification.

The Arden 2 editor goes with “ballow” and cites Wright’s entry (1:145) for the word as common to Nottinghamshire (Muir, 173; Wright also specifies the word as in use in the shire of Kent). The Arden 3 editor goes with “baton,” rejecting the Folio reading of “ballow” since he could find “no convincing parallels” (Foakes, 346).

According to Onions, “potch,” meaning to thrust, “survives in Warwickshire” (165). Wright lists the word “potch” as a variant form of “poach” (4:562), defines “poach” (and its variant spellings) as “to poke, esp. with the fingers; to thrust, push suddenly,” etc., and locates the variant “potch” not only in Warwickshire, but also in Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Gloucestershire. The Arden 2 editor of Coriolanus glosses potch as “jab, poke” but is silent on the matter of dialect (Brockbank, 149), as are the editors of recent Oxford and Cambridge editions, as well as Halliwell. Morgan’s Glossary contains neither “poach” nor “potch.”

The word “batlet,” meaning ‘club (for washing)’ is described by Onions as “current recently in Yorks[hire] and Warwick[shire] (13). “Batler” is in the OED with reference to the modified word “batlet” in modern editions of As You Like It, but no dialect is mentioned. The word in the Arden 2 edition of As You Like It (II.iv.46) reads “batler.” Halliwell lists “batler” but does not assign a shire of origin or use (149). The New Variorum editor (Knowles, 93) cites [John R.] Wise’s list of Warwickshire words, but also cites Wright, who specifies Yorkshire and Warwickshire (per Wise’s list) and adds a disclaimer: “not known to our correspondents in Warwickshire” (1:186). Morgan’s glossary contains only “batten,” defined as “a stick used in washing clothes” (76), but provides no examples in the Shakespeare canon.

At least two other words in Kathman’s list, “pash” and “tarre,” fare no better. Of the nine dialect words cited by Kathman, only four may withstand scrutiny. Kathman acknowledges that while the dialect words that he cites “don’t prove anything,” they are “consistent” with the Stratford man’s authorship (129). But they are not. In order to make that case, he would need to show  (1) that Warwickshire and West Midlands dialect words are particular to, or better yet, usually exclusive to, those shires, and  (2) that the Shakespeare canon contains disproportionately higher numbers of dialect words from those regions. When a word such as “batlet” is found in Yorkshire as well as (possibly) Warwickshire, Kathman’s argument is weakened. It is further diluted as the known use of a word is discovered in additional shires or regions. It is difficult to give credence to words that he claims as Warwickshire dialect, even those found in Onions’s Glossary, when there is no further support or corroboration from Halliwell, Morgan, the OED, various critical editions, or especially Wright.

It is puzzling that Kathman cites Hulme’s research in his endnote. Her examples of Warwickshire or Midlands dialects are either qualified or introduced as speculative. She also shares the skeptical opinion that future research will likely “establish as more widely current such elements of apparently ‘Stratford’ language as occur in his text” and cites G.D. Willcock’s opinion that the Shakespeare corpus “shows no sign of surviving local patriotism” (316, 315). Hulme cites some idiosyncratic Shakespearean spellings consistent with, if not unique to, Warwickshire spellings (316, 318), but some of her citations depend upon the unfounded assumption that the printing house’s orthography faithfully followed the author’s manuscript (the hypothetical ‘foul papers’), when spellings are more likely scribal, compositorial, or editorial.

The last section in Kathman’s chapter is about “Shakespeare and Stratford after 1616,” in which he claims that “a wealth of evidence from the decade after Shakespeare’s death illustrates Stratford’s fame” (130). That “wealth of evidence” is, by definition, posthumous. The first testimony in the historic record explicitly identifying Shakespeare of Stratford as the dramatist appeared in the 1623 First Folio, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Kathman failed to establish any significant connection between the author of Shakespeare’s canon and Warwickshire during Shakespeare’s lifetime.


Addressing Shakespeare’s alleged education, Carol Chillington Rutter has briefly covered some of the same territory as T.W. Baldwin in his two-volume Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke, a 1944 survey of educational institutions, curricula, etc. in Elizabethan England, including the varying educational capabilities of provincial schoolrooms, such as the one in Stratford. And like Baldwin, Rutter is unable to cite one document to support the statement that Shakespeare attended school, or expressed gratitude to a mentor, or attended university or one of the Inns of Court, or owned a book, or wrote a word of dialogue, a line of poetry, or even a letter concerning his business affairs.  Shakespeare remains a man of no recorded education. The best that can be said is that if Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays, then he must have attended the Stratford Grammar School. His assumed education is therefore the result of circular reasoning. Further, Rutter’s essay fails to take into account the playwright’s familiarity with Italian, French, and Spanish, languages not taught at the grammar school.


In recent decades, and using increasingly sophisticated methods to identify stylometric features and patterns, scholars have been able to identify more co-authors in plays such as Titus Andronicus (with George Peele), 1 Henry VI (with Thomas Nashe), and Timon of Athens (with Thomas Middleton). In “Shakespeare as collaborator,” John Jowett attempts to identify Shakespeare, the theatrical shareholder, with Shakespeare, the dramatist. There is ample evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford was a shareholding member of theatre companies, but when Jowett claims that “Shakespeare [the playwright] was evidently participating as a member of the theatre company” (99), he is assuming that which has yet to be proved.

MacDonald P. Jackson specializes in the “evidence of stylometrics,” developing tests and using data to map out sections of texts by particular authors. However, when Jackson asserts that Shakespeare and Fletcher “clearly planned their collaborative plays as a joint enterprise” (106), he is stating more than we know. Jowett claims that “careful scrutiny of the Shakespeare collaborations shows him both writing a draft for someone else to complete (as is clearly seen only in Timon of Athens) and (as is more common with Shakespeare) completing a play begun by another dramatist” (98-99). In her edition of Two Noble Kinsmen, Potter advances her theory of collaboration: “the two dramatists began writing concurrently, but . . . Fletcher constructed the final draft. In [certain scenes], he seems to have been working on, or in the light of, Shakespearean material; nothing suggests that Shakespeare was ever working on Fletcher’s” (32). These competing theories do not exhaust the possible dynamics of collaboration, but since we do not have anything for Shakespeare’s plays comparable to the evidence of collaborations in Henslowe’s papers (Henslowe’s, 125; Stern 23-24, 25), thus far, the nature of Shakespeare’s collaborations remains a matter of speculation, and no consensus has emerged.

Whether Shakespeare, the author, whoever he was, actively collaborated with other dramatists is certainly a matter of interest. Obviously Jowett, Jackson, and others prefer to envision Shakespeare as all-around man of the theatre, steeped in playhouse practices, and immersed in all aspects of the theatre company activities. It is tempting to extend this characterization to include the role of company dramatist, both solo and in collaboration. But such a conception of Shakespeare, however attractive it may be, still lacks any evidence that could prove that Shakespeare of Stratford was a writer. In addition, there are reasons to question the nature of Shakespeare’s commitments to the acting and theatre companies, and one of them concerns schedule conflicts. Although most biographers separate conflicting evidence into different chapters, when examined chronologically, the documentation shows that Shakespeare, the actor-shareholder was absent from London in 1597-98, during the all-important Christmas holiday season when the company performed at court, and again in 1604, after the theatres re-opened (Price, Unorthodox, 32-35). Any such absences during busy performance seasons raise questions about just what Shakespeare’s responsibilities were with those companies, making it more difficult to build on the traditional biographical narrative.


Jowett’s essay is one of two in the collection to introduce the Hand D manuscript additions to the play Sir Thomas More as not only composed by Shakespeare but also in the handwriting of Shakespeare of Stratford. He claims that D’s handwriting can be positively identified as Shakespeare’s by comparison with the six extant signatures (93). In their essay “What does textual evidence reveal about the author?,” James Mardock and Eric Rasmussen also accept the Hand D additions as in Shakespeare’s handwriting (113). The argument cannot be made on the available evidence. Even if the Hand D additions fall close to, or within the Shakespeare universe from a stylometric standpoint, the absence of an adequate control sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting with which to make a comparison constitutes an insurmountable obstacle (Hays, esp. 241, 248-49).

None of the contributors claiming the Hand D additions as evidence for the man from Stratford cites Michael L. Hays’s important paleographical examination or Paul Werstine’s research. (In addition to Werstine’s 1999 article, his recent Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and The Editing of Shakespeare exhaustively retraces the search for authorial ‘foul paper’ and devotes a section to the Sir Thomas More manuscript, including the Hand D additions. Even though Shakespeare Beyond Doubt probably went to press before Werstine published in January 2013, among those who are named in the acknowledgements are John Jowett and Eric Rasmussen, so they were undoubtedly aware of his research.) Jowett is understandably persistent in his acceptance of Hand D as Shakespeare; his 2011 critical edition of Sir Thomas More appears in the Arden Shakespeare series, which itself gives the argument the appearance of legitimacy. Yet Werstine criticizes Jowett’s “summary of scholarship on the Shakespeare attribution [as] bent on marginalizing what it demonstrates to be widespread recent skepticism about his authorship of the Hand-D pages” (Early, 345, n 29).

In addition, the Hand D pages contain instances of eyeskip, a characteristic consistent with scribal transcription (Downs, “Book,” 5-15). So there can be no certainty that the Hand D additions are authorial; they could as easily be scribal copy (Werstine, Early, 252). Jowett’s “greater confidence” in the Hand D additions as Shakespeare’s (93) would seem to be as yet unwarranted.


Jowett’s “man of the theatre” argument linking Shakespeare of Stratford with the playwright is also advanced by Mardock & Rasmussen, even though they cannot cite any evidence to prove that the actor was also a playwright, either. However, they identify names of actors such as Will Kemp, Richard Cowley, and John Sincklo, that appear in a few printed texts (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado, and 3 Henry VI) in some of the speech prefixes, in place of character names. They cite these actor names to argue that Shakespeare, the actor-playwright “often seems to have had specific members of his company in mind” for various roles he wrote (115), even though the majority of such roles are bit parts. But the dramatist, whoever he was, is not the only possible source for such speech prefixes. Indeed, those speech prefixes are more likely scribal, of playhouse origin, or the result of a memorial report. As co-editor with John D. Cox of the Arden 3 edition of King Henry VI (3), Rasmussen himself cites those who argue the cases for non-authorial origins of such speech prefixes (169-73; see also Werstine, Early, 118). Cox and Rasmussen begin their section on character names:

The theory that the Folio text of 3 Henry VI was set into type from an authorial manuscript rests largely upon the appearance in that text of three names — Gabriel, Sinklo and Humfrey — thought to refer to specific Elizabethan actors. (166-67)

The theory that compositors who set type had before them an “authorial manuscript” — the so-called ‘foul papers’ — still enjoys considerable currency, even though no ‘foul papers’ have ever been found, so the features they may have contained, such as speech prefixes that specify actors instead of characters, remain unknown. As H.R. Woudhuysen dryly put it: “The argument is a circular one: ‘foul-paper’ texts can be identified by the presence of those features which are characteristic of ‘foul-paper’ texts” (320). Quite recently, Werstine expanded on the subject, not only dissecting W.W. Greg’s unsuccessful attempts to identify characteristics in the hypothetical ‘foul papers’ by comparing extant theatrical manuscripts to printed texts, but also demonstrating that such imagined characteristics, as enumerated by Greg and others, are not unique to the imagined ‘foul papers,’ or, in the words of Barbara A. Mowat:

The very stigmata used by bibliographers to demonstrate that a play was printed from Shakespeare’s autograph can be found in scribal and theatrical manuscripts as well. (133)

Which brings us back to the texts in which speech prefixes name players rather than characters. According to Andrew Gurr, “The naming of players in playscripts is a vexed question that depends heavily on what sort of manuscript is identified as the source for the printed text, and when the names were inserted in the manuscript” (72n); “the source” could be an authorial manuscript, but it also could be a scribal transcript, edited copy, a reported text, a playhouse script, or some other descendent copy. However, since no ‘foul papers’ by Shakespeare or anyone else have ever been discovered, the arguments proposing that Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ served as printer’s copy for this or that printed text are sheer speculation. The related argument that Shakespeare, as author, wrote those actor names instead of speech prefixes, is also speculation.

It would have saved Greg years of frustration if he had succeeded in discovering any ‘foul papers’ from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Several additions in the Sir Thomas More manuscript, such as those by Thomas Dekker and possibly Thomas Heywood, are autograph, and therefore would seem to be good candidates for ‘foul papers’ categorization, yet Greg had difficulty reconciling them with characteristics that he considered essential to his definition of ‘foul papers,’ such as illegible handwriting. The main part of the Sir Thomas More manuscript is in the hand of Anthony Munday, who is also identified as the principal author of the play. However, Werstine explains that “it is impossible to know whether Munday authors the play in whole or part, or simply transcribes it, there being no plays of his undisputed authorship to use for comparison.” Munday could even have been copying his own composition. There is similar uncertainty as to whether the Hand D additions are authorial (whether in the act of composition or as copyist), or scribal. Despite the problematic evidence and the absence of consensus of opinion about most aspects of the Sir Thomas More manuscript (Werstine, Early, 251-52, 255), the Hand D theory, as confidently advanced by Jowett, Mardock, and Rasmussen, seems to be taking on a new life of its own.


In 2011 and 2012, Brian Vickers furthered the argument that the 1602 additions to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy can be attributed to Shakespeare. In August 2013, The New York Times (Schuessler) announced a forthcoming paper proposing that Shakespeare’s handwriting can explain textual problems in those additions, as printed in 1602. That case rests entirely on accepting the Hand D additions as authorial and in Shakespeare’s handwriting, essentially promoting the Hand D additions to the status of ‘foul papers,’ the first ever discovered. Such wishful thinking is reminiscent of Greg’s search for ‘foul papers’ containing features that could explain problems found in many of the “good” Shakespearean texts. All the ‘foul papers’ that he thought he had identified turned out instead to be, for example, scribal transcripts or fair copies. Now Douglas Bruster is going down much the same path, adopting the Hand D additions as a control sample of Shakespeare’s handwriting and compositional habits that can be used, as Greg had hoped, to solve problems in a printed text by inferring how letter formations, spelling patterns, and other authorial idiosyncrasies may explain mistakes or confusions in the printing house.

Bruster is proposing that in 1602, those printers had before them Shakespeare’s handwritten manuscript additions to The Spanish Tragedy. Bruster is careful to qualify his thesis by allowing for the “possibility that an author’s unpunctuated foul papers served as copy-text, at however close a remove” [emphasis added], but if ‘foul papers’ served as printer’s copy, then the copy-text was not at one remove from those ‘foul papers.’ A manuscript once or more removed from those ‘foul papers’ — such as a fair copy of the ‘foul papers’ — is obviously less reliable as an indicator of an author’s preferences or idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, Bruster builds his case on the assumption that features in the Hand D additions also would have been present in the printer’s copy for the 1602 additions. In other words, like Jowett, Mardock, and Rasmussen in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, Bruster accepts the Hand D additions as Shakespeare’s authorial manuscript, even though the Hand D additions are written in an unknown hand and could be scribal copy.


Stanley Wells surveys the Shakespearean allusions from 1592 to 1616 (the year of Shakespeare’s death) and on to 1642 (the closing of the theatres and the start of the Civil War). He challenges anti-Shakespeareans (or, as I would say, anti-Stratfordians) at the outset: In order to “suggest alternative nominees for the authorship” a skeptic would need “to disprove everything that goes to show that they were written” by William Shakespeare of Stratford (73). On the contrary, one does not need to disprove everything about Shakespeare of Stratford; rather, a skeptic needs to re-evaluate everything about Shakespeare of Stratford to determine if he and Shakespeare the writer were one and the same. Reconsidering the evidentiary value of testimony is not the same thing as denying that testimony, and that distinction is often ignored in favor of accusing anti-Stratfordians of being wholesale deniers of evidence.

As mentioned earlier, the first testimony in the historic record explicitly identifying Shakespeare of Stratford as the dramatist appeared in the 1623 First Folio, seven years after Shakespeare’ death. Wells admits that “despite the mass of evidence that the works were written by a man named William Shakespeare, there is none [i.e., allusions recorded up to 1616] that explicitly and incontrovertibly identifies him with Stratford-upon-Avon” (81). If, by that, Wells means that none of the Shakespearean literary allusions or evidence can be directly and personally linked to the actor-shareholder from Stratford, then Wells has identified the problem. He tries to get around the problem by uncritically accepting posthumous allusions as equal in weight and reliability with contemporaneous testimony. Thus, in a tribute to Shakespeare in 1638 (twenty-two years after Shakespeare died), William Davenant refers to “The banks of Avon.” Wells claims that this, like the First Folio tribute to the “swan of Avon,” “again associates the poet with the River Avon” (85), thereby reinforcing the identification of Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon as the poet. But Wells misses the more likely explanation: Davenant’s association of Shakespeare with the river “Avon” is derivative of the 1623 First Folio front matter. Surely, Wells would not stretch this reasoning to claim that the preface to the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher folio, referencing “the then expired sweet Swan of Avon Shakespeare” was reliable primary testimony, rather than derivative.

Does Wells have a cut-off date to differentiate contemporaneous and/or firsthand testimony from posthumous hearsay, legend, or derivation? He asserts that “to refuse to credit the considerable amount of posthumously derived evidence linking the writer with the Stratford man is totally illogical. To put it at its most basic level, if we refused to accept posthumous evidence we should have to refuse the evidence that anyone has ever died” (81). These objections are incorrect on several levels. One, Shakespeare is the only alleged writer from the time period for whom one must rely on posthumous evidence to make the authorship case. As I have said elsewhere and repeatedly, the absence of contemporary personal literary paper trails for Shakespeare’s biography is a unique deficiency. Two, and again to repeat, questioning the evidentiary value of testimony, both contemporaneous and posthumous, is not the same thing as “refusing to accept” that testimony. And three, Wells claims that on the basis of this criterion, we should “have to refuse the evidence that anyone ever died.” So, Wells would “refuse” all the affirmative evidence of death routinely cited in biographies (burial registers, epitaphs, eulogies, correspondence, diary entries, probated wills, litigation, deeds and other legal documents, etc.). Such records demand scrutiny, of course, but despite whatever license or whitewashing may be present in, e.g., eulogies, tributes, or litigation, such records are generally useful in documenting a death.

Regrettably, Wells does not put the allusions under the microscope. Each reference to Shakespeare, or to a Shakespeare play, poem, character, or quotation, presents an opportunity to interrogate the allusion, for example, to attempt to determine if its author demonstrates personal knowledge of Shakespeare, as distinct from familiarity merely with the printed page or performed dialogue. Such distinctions are important, since the contemporaneous literary allusions to Shakespeare that Wells cites are either “cryptic” and “obscure” (79), or they are essentially book or theatre reviews, necessitating no firsthand knowledge of the author. Anyone can write a review, or cite a Shakespearean line, without personally knowing the author.

An epigram by John Davies of Hereford illustrates the importance of such interrogation. Wells introduces the epigram as “explicitly addressed to Shakespeare” (79). While Wells describes the epigram as “somewhat obscure,” he does not examine Davies’s choices of words and possible intended meaning(s). Instead, he asserts that the title (“our English Terence”) “compares [Shake-speare] to one of the greatest of Roman playwrights.” But Terence was also well-known to Elizabethans and Jacobeans as freed slave who took credit for plays written by the aristocrats Scipio and Laelius, and other language in the epigram suggests deliberate ambiguity. In 1995, Wells supposed that the sobriquet Terence “seems to imply that Davies thinks of [Shake-speare] primarily as a comic playwright, but goes on to speak of him in cryptic terms as an actor.” After quoting the first four lines, Wells concluded that the verse is “too vague to be helpful” (Drama, 26). Yet in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, he is content merely to identify “our English Terence” as “one of the greatest of Roman playwrights,” without further analysis. Should an analysis of Davies’s poem be limited to the title, or should the vagueness of the poem prompt questions? Is the epigram straightforward or ambiguous? Is it a literary allusion or a theatrical allusion or both? Is it personal or impersonal testimony? It is easy enough to cite an epigram, but it should be incumbent on anyone attempting to defend — or challenge — the traditional biography to re-examine the testimony to determine what may or may not be concluded (see Price, Unorthodox, 60-63).


When Wells belatedly read my book in response to Ros Barber’s criticism, he shared his comments on Blogging Shakespeare, a website for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  But he failed to address the single most important argument I make in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: that Shakespeare is the only alleged writer of consequence from the time period who left behind no evidence during his lifetime to support the statement that he was a writer. And I pointed that out in the Comments section.

To my surprise, Professor Wells responded:

My reason for not commenting on this impressively researched section is that I find it irrelevant to the discussion of the case that Shakespeare’s works were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Even allowing that Prof. Wells disagrees with my conclusion, it is unsettling that he considers a comparative analysis of evidence “irrelevant to the discussion.” Because evidence and criteria are relevant; they do matter to historians and biographers. In my book, and more extensively on my website, I quote various historians and scholars on the subject of criteria, including distinctions they make between contemporaneous and posthumous evidence. Now theoretically, Wells could have argued that the absence of contemporaneous literary paper trails is “irrelevant” — if Shakespeare had left behind perhaps only 3 or 4 documents during his lifetime. In that case, Wells could have stretched the odds to argue that too few records survive to expect any of them to document his alleged literary activities. But Shakespeare left behind over 70 records. As I point out elsewhere, all of Shakspere’s undisputed personal records are nonliterary, and that is not only unusual. It is bizarre. Statistically, it is also a virtual impossibility:

As far as I have investigated the biographies of Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries, the deficiency of contemporaneous evidence for Shakespeare’s career as a writer is unique. Yet his life is, comparatively speaking, quite well-documented. He left behind over seventy records. Even the most poorly documented writers, those with less than a dozen records in total, still left behind a couple of personal literary paper trails. Based on the average proportions, I would conservatively have expected perhaps a third of Shakespeare’s records, or about two dozen, to shed light on his professional activities. In fact, over half of them, forty-five to be precise, are personal professional paper trails, but they are all evidence of non-literary professions: those of actor, theatrical shareholder, financier, real estate investor, grain-trader, money-lender, and entrepreneur. It is the absence of contemporary personal literary paper trails that forces Shakespeare’s biographers to rely — to an unprecedented degree — on posthumous evidence. (Price, “Evidence,” 146-47)

Acknowledging the priority of contemporaneous evidence is not a deviant anti-Stratfordian obsession. A few years ago, in the Journal of American History, Michael F. Holt commented on Matthew Pinsker’s essay “Lincoln Theme 2.0”:

I heartily agree with Pinsker’s assessment that one of the most important developments in Lincoln scholarship since the appearance of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln in 1995 has been the willingness of Lincoln scholars to give credence to oral and written testimony about Lincoln given after, and often long after, Lincoln’s assassination. I studied as a graduate student with Donald a quarter of a century before Pinsker did, but at that time we were trained to regard such post hoc testimony as toxic.

. . .

In this regard, however, I am puzzled by Pinsker’s assertion that Michael Burlingame’s massive new two-volume biography . . . “will force scholars to confront their increasing reliance on recollected material in ways that might alter the ongoing reinterpretation of Lincoln’s private life.” Burlingame does reject some recollections as spurious, but as I read him, . . . his modus operandi is not to reject recollected evidence but rather to pile quotation upon quotation from these posthumous witnesses. The implicit rule of evidence implied here, as I see it, is that if eight or ten “witnesses,” as opposed to only two or three, recall essentially the same thing, then it must qualify as historical fact. [emphasis added]

Holt is pointing out some of the hazards of treating contemporaneous, posthumous, and derivative testimony as equally reliable.

Wells includes “Publication Evidence” at the end of his essay to prove the Stratford man’s authorship. It is a list of plays and poems published with title-page attribution prior to the 1623 First Folio. The title-page attributions constitute excellent circumstantial evidence for the man from Stratford. They do not necessarily constitute reliable evidence of authorship (consider Pericles, Lover’s Complaint, Passionate Pilgrim, A London Prodigal, and A Yorkshire Tragedy, as well as plays now known to contain sections by co-authors, such as Titus, Timon, or 1 Henry VI), nor can they be used to demonstrate that which has yet to be proved: that the man from Stratford wrote the works so attributed.


Hardy M. Cook prepared “A selected reading list” as an appendix, and I am sorry to note that he included Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography in a paragraph listing books arguing the case for the earl of Oxford (247). I do not argue for or against any alternative candidate. I do not know how he became aware of my book, but Cook cannot possibly have glanced at it or my website, or checked the Amazon listing, or consulted Hope and Holston’s history and bibliography of anti-Stratfordian studies. Unfortunately, contributors to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt likewise were either unaware of my research or made a decision to ignore it. Either way, Dr. Barber was right to call them out on it.


To conclude, the evidence and arguments that I have considered, as presented by some of the contributors to Shakespeare Beyond Doubt fail to put an end to the authorship question, and indeed, too many of the claims prove to be vulnerable or untenable. Wells’s opinion that the unique deficiency of personal literary paper trails for Shakespeare is “irrelevant” to the debate suggests to me that the orthodox biography is more in doubt than ever.


Select Bibliography of Works Consulted or Cited

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