Or, as my original title had it, “Shakespeare as Usual”:

My op-ed in The Montreal Gazette, responding to Oxfordian Keir Cutler’s piece published last Thursday.

Here’s how it starts:

I don’t think Keir Cutler (“There is method in this madness,” Opinion, Oct. 27) and others who believe Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare are certifiably mad. They are, however, demonstrably misguided.

Let me focus on Cutler’s two central tenets: that Shakespeare’s works display “vast learning” and familiarity with “more than 200 different works, mostly untranslated;” and that Shakespeare “added more than 3,000 new words to the English language.”

Geoffrey Bullough’s eight-volume authoritative anthology of all texts the playwright may have used only identifies about 70 books as probable sources. And Shakespeare could have read all but a dozen (eight in Latin, four in Italian) of them in English. Most of his sources were popular romances – and, unsurprisingly, plays.

For the rest, go to the Gazette‘s website — and then await, with baited breath, the three or four blog posts in which I’ll be making the same arguments in excruciating detail.

16 Responses to How Shakespeare Could Write Shakespeare

  1. Simon says:

    I agree, there is quite a number of alternative explanations to this story. Still, the prostitute writing in a neat hand and the “decent” married woman just scrawling a mark is remarkable: considering their respective social status you would rather expect it to be the other way round – the securely married woman being in a much better position to acquire some erudition in life. But of course, going into this would involve too much speculating on the family background of those two women which is not proffered by the instance.

    Yet the possibility of a literate person using signature and mark interchangably is supported by the further instance of a literate person using a mark to sign while being perfectly able to write: It’s John Taylor, colleague to Shakespeares father – and an instance which sheds some doubt on the illiteracy of John Shakespeare as well. To be found in

    “Shakespeare Truth and Tradition von John Semple Smart,W. Macneile Dixon”

    Easily available on Google-Books, page 45-47


    Whatever it’s worth…

  2. Simon says:

    Dr. Syme, re your remark about “instances of actively literate people using marks”: There is an interesting instance mentioned by David Kathman on HLAS ten years ago.

    “We have documentary evidence that girls did attend school in Stratford in the late 16th century. In fact, there are only two people who lived in Stratford in the late 16th century for whom we have documentary evidence that they attended school there, and both are female. Interestingly enough, though, only one of the two signed her name, while the other one made her mark. Even more interesting, the one who signed her name (in a nice italic hand) was a prostitute…

    … the 1598 trial of Elizabeth Evans for being a prostitute. Evans testified that she had grown up in Stratford upon Avon, and she was at least roughly of William Shakespeare’s generation. By 1598 she was living in London and working as a prostitute. One of the witnesses against her was Joyce Cowden, another Stratfordian now living in London and married to John Cowden, a dyer in Seacoal Lane. Elizabeth Evans had been going under false names, and Joyce Cowden was called to identify her since they had grown up in the same town. She testified that “she doth knowe Elizabeth Evans and… she saith she [i.e. Cowden] was borne on Stratford vppon hauen and further she saith that she this ex[amina]te went to schole with the said Elizabeth Evans.” Elizabeth Evans then confirmed this: “Elizabeth Evans being present at the examinacion of the said Joice confessed the same to be true and that the said Joice did go wth her the said Elizabeth to schole togethir At Stratford vppon hauen.”

    So both of these women said that they had gone to school together in Stratford upon Avon. Yet Joyce Cowden signed her deposition with a mark, an approximation of a capital “I” or “J”, while Elizabeth Evans signed “Elis evens” in a neat italic hand, with little loops on the capital “E”. ”


    • Holger Syme says:

      I wasn’t aware of those records — thank you, Simon!

      I’d still say, though, that it’s entirely possible that Joyce Cowden couldn’t write. Evans and her may have gone to petty school together, in which case they would have learned to read (print, typically black letter), but if Cowden didn’t stay the course, she may never have learned to write. (That’s what I meant by “active” vs “passive” literacy.) Still possible, of course, that she could write and just chose to sign with her mark — but there are alternative explanations.

  3. P Clark says:

    I, too, wrote in to the Gazette in opposition to Mr. Cutler’s views, and I wanted to thank you for your piece; it was particularly well-reasoned and an appropriate response to the sweeping claims of Mr. Cutler’s. Bravo

  4. Martin says:

    Thanks for the analysis – very interesting. In my humble opinion – the key point is the fact that Shakespeare is so accessible today. In his day (as my English teacher was fond of pointing out) he surely been consider a writer of “light fare” much like TV soap writers today. Before anyone gets upset with that comparison – remember I said “in his day”.
    Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysberg address is considered one of the finest speeches nowadays, in his time – it was considered almost embarrassingly short and plain (he followed a speaker who went on for hours it seems).
    Oratory and rhetoric was valued for the length and complexity in the past – but depressingly difficult to follow these days.
    We can’t project our thinking on the past. Shakespeare seems extraordinary today – but wouldn’t have in his day.

    • Hitandrun says:

      Yet the long-winded speaker who preceded Lincoln at Gettysburg, Edward Everett, was not unimpressed, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you [Lincoln] did in two minutes.”

  5. Thank you for this calm, well-reasoned and well-supported argument. It is in complete contrast with Keir Cutler’s hollow demagogy (constructed mainly, it seems, to promote his own play!) Not satisfied with the ridicule which greeted the “theory” that WS was really Michelangelo filling in an undocumented decade or two in his cv, a Montreal author has now proposed that the plays were not written by an actor at The Globe at all, but rather…and Anglo-Italian! I suspect that this malady comes partly from reading Shakespeare in translation, plus more than a dash of condescension and wishful thinking.

  6. kj says:

    May I also be allowed a minor quibble? I don’t think the claim that Shakespeare’s “parents couldn’t write” is supportable. What with the impossibility of proving the negative and with the probably possibility that they could, a qualifier such as “Shakespeare’s parents may not have been able to write” would be more appropriate.



    • Holger Syme says:

      Fair enough. Though since we don’t have any signature of John Shakespeare’s that’s not a mark, I’m quite comfortable with the notion that he could’t, or at least didn’t, write. I’m far less certain that he could’t read!

      • kj says:

        Thanks, Dr. Syme. Not to press too hard, but the only signatures I have from my doctor indicate that he’s quite illiterate, unable to read or write! I don’t want to come off as a crank–you’ve had your fair share of those to deal with–but I’ve seen a number of marks of those who were quite capable of reading and writing but who simply signed with a mark out of a desire to save time or because the space was inadequate for a full signature (as seems to be the case with many of Will’s signatures).



        • Holger Syme says:

          Ah, but context is everything — today’s illegibly scrawled signatures (that’s the difference between writing and signing your name, isn’t it? Only one is supposed to be legible — the other is supposed to be recognizably individual) are something of a departure from how most early modern writers signed their names. There are plenty of scrawls, but many people also signed quite legibly, and in a style not especially distinguishable from their regular hand.

          My point about John Shakespeare is just that we have no evidence that he could write, but evidence that he used a mark. I’m not aware of statistically significant instances of actively literate people using marks, although I know it happened on occasion in individual cases, so I’d have to say the evidence we do have suggests that he couldn’t write. Is that an absolute? Absolutely not.

  7. Eric Johnson-DeBaufre says:

    An excellent piece, Holger–so good, in fact, that I shared it on Facebook so that it would reach some of my fellow early modernists here in the U.S. My only quibble (and it is a minor one) is with what you suggest about Bullough. I admire Bullough’s achievement and refer students to Narrative and Dramatic regularly, but I am sure you would agree that there were probably many more texts that went into the composition of the plays than are found between the covers of Bullough. They don’t quite enjoy the status of “sources” (in the strict sense of the term) but they do suggest a wider range to Shakespeare’s reading.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Of course — I’ll talk about this in a forthcoming post. Being limited to less than a thousand words forces one to cut out some nuance.

      However, I do think there’s a difference between a source and a text Shakespeare may have known (or read, or both). I’m very wary about identifying allusions, and even warier about accepting allusions as evidence for reading, let alone study. Shakespeare’s age was still a fairly oral culture, and living among actors and writers meant, I would think, living in an atmosphere rife with quotations and snatches from poems, plays, and other texts. I don’t doubt Shakespeare and his colleagues wrote tables & commonplace book in hand, but I don’t know that they wrote with a library by their side.

      I’m frankly not convinced at all that even the definite sources in Bullough are all necessarily texts Shakespeare had read. I could have written a play — if I were capable of writing plays — about Gerusalemme Liberata in college without ever reading it, because one of my Italianist friends gave me such a detailed plot summary as he was working his way through the book, and I don’t doubt that that sort of thing was commonplace in early modern London.

  8. David Basch says:

    I found your article (“How Shakespeare could write etc”) very informative and interesting. Check out my article,
    “Shakespeare versus Edward de Vere and …” at
    http://www.davidbasch.net/sha-vqq2.pdf for evidence that the poet left to tell that he was the author of his own work.
    (If you would leave an email address, communication would be easier.)

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