Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography by Diana Price
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Diana Price reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt
Evidence for a literary biography
A Fresh Look at the
Tudor Rose Theory
Henslowe's "ne"
"mr" William Shakespeare
and the Stationers

Literacy in Shakspere's family

Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography has been criticized on an internet news group (humanities.lit.authorship.shakespeare) for unfairly characterizing Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna as “functionally illiterate.” While most on the group are familiar with Shakspere's six signatures, they can be at a disadvantage if they have not had an opportunity to examine other evidence concerning literacy amongst members of his family.

The statements in question are:

  • Shakspere’s daughter Judith grew up illiterate; she signed with her mark. His eldest daughter, Susanna, made a “painfully formed signature, which was probably the most that she was capable of doing with the pen” (Thompson, 1:294), and she was unable to recognize her own husband’s handwriting. (p. 237)
  • Shakspere’s closest distaff relatives are, without exception, functionally illiterate. (p. 237)
  • Shakspere’s own children grew up functionally illiterate. (p. 270)

The evidence for these statements has been available for years, but many of the books are out-of-print or require a trip to an academic or reference library. This page is to set forth evidence concerning the literacy of Shakspere and members of his family.


Judith Shakspere's mark

Shakspere's younger daughter signed with a mark. The pigtail shape in the middle of the image is the "mark." A scribe or attorney wrote the name Judith "Shakespeare."

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Susanna Hall's signature

Shakspere's elder daughter was able to sign her name. One example survives. This is the image given in Halliwell-Phillipps's Outlines. Paleographer E. Maunde Thompson describes this as a “painfully formed signature, which was probably the most that she was capable of doing with the pen.”

Note how the letter u is out of place compared to the following letters. The three a's are all different, as are the two n's and the two final l's.

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John Hall's medical case-book

Susanna Shakspere married John Hall, a respected physician. Dr. James Cooke translated Hall's casebook from Latin into English and published it. In his introduction, Cooke gives an account of his interview with Susanna and describes how he obtained the manuscript: see the Books left by Mr. Hall. After a view of them, she told me she had some Books left, by one that professed Physick, with her Husband, for some mony. I told her, if I liked them, I would give her the mony again; she brought them forth, amongst which there was this with another of the Authors, both intended for the Presse. I being acquainted with Mr. Hall's hand, told her that one or two of them were her Husband's and shewed them her; she denyed, I affirmed, till I perceived she begun to be offended. At last I returned her the mony.

From an edition of Hall's case-book, we read:

"As the notes were in abbreviated Latin, Cooke sent them to London to 'an able doctor' to obtain an opinion about publishing them. The opinion offered was that the abbreviated Latin would cause the translator some difficulty. Cooke, however, had some 'spare hours' and a conviction of their worth for he set about translating Hall's condensed Latin. This he accomplished with the help of Hall's apothecary, Richard Court, and in 1657 one of the notebooks appeared in print" (Harriet Joseph, Shakespeare's Son-in-Law, [1964], 31).

One can conclude from the first account that Susanna did not recognize her own husband's handwriting. Various excuses have been offered, including the suggestion that all the notes were in abbreviated Latin, which Susanna would not have been able to decipher.

The sample page of Hall's journal here shows that such an excuse is without foundation. Readers can clearly make out names ("Hall" on the top line, "Mrs Herbert" at the line marked by the marginal no. "20", "Maria Wilsune" in the first line of the final paragraph), and ailments (such as "colica" in the second and final lines of Susanna's paragraph).

Peter Farey kindly pointed out that the first line reads: "Generosa Hall uxor mea" (Gentlewoman Hall, my wife).

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John Hall's signature

His signature is what one would expect from a man who wrote in a clear Italian hand. Would that his father-in-law's signatures had had such clarity and consistency.

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Shakspere's six signatures

Shakspere's six surviving signatures demonstrate that he could write. They are all affixed to legal documents dating from the last four years of his life.

Jane Cox of the Public Records Office raises the possibility that some of the signatures may have been prepared by scribes. In my book (p. 125), I accept all the signatures as authentic, noting Cox's reservation.

My colleague Gerald E. Downs has pointed out that the words "by me William" in the last signature appear to be written by a scribe.

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