Part II: The Serial Authorship Alternative

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Shakespeare Authorship

Assessing the evidence for some of the more prominent candidates that have been proposed, along with a theory of “serial authorship”, which suggests that different people took on the mantle, at different times.

Originally published 2006

In Part I of this series, I summarized the case against the man from Stratford. It is conclusive, in my view. Stratford could not possibly have written the works. To be blunt, he had no education and could not even write his own name. A lawyer might defend his case because that’s what the lawyer is paid for, and it’s what justice requires. For anyone else to do so reveals a complete absence of logic, rationality, and common sense.

But if Stratford could not possibly have been William Shakespeare, the next obvious question is, ” Who was?” This section will examine several noteworthy possibilities. I suspect that the answer will lie somewhere in a combination of those possibilities. (But I reserve the right to revise my conclusions as new evidence comes to light!)

As ill be seen, literary analysis provides the initial clues in these cases, as well. But in these cases, the analyis is from the works themselves — a great deal of it, in fact. And there is much corroborating evidence, as well. And although the matter has yet to be decided, the questions are least intelligent — and intriguing, to say the least. (For the Stratford candidate, there are few interpretations drawn from the works, and no evidence at all. So the contrast is striking.)

A Sizable Body of Pretenders

Before examining individual cases, it is worth noting that a plethora of authorship candidates have been put forward to date. Who Wrote Shakespeare? lists 24 principal (or sole) authors that  have been proposed (p. 37) and 39 potential collaborators (p. 38), for a total of 63. And more recently, brand new candidates have surfaced, including Fulke Greville, William Nugent, and Amelia Lanier (Contested Will, p. 2).

In this section of the article, I examine only a few of the most noted candidates: William Stanley, Edward de Vere, Christofer Marlowe, and the likihood that there were multiple authors. At a later date, I plan to examine the case for others, including the Mary Syndey Herbert (the Countess of Pembroke) and the Earl of Rutland. But the kind of analysis I propose in the Part II of the article should be applied to all of candidates (nearly 70 of them). It could be that many of the arguments for a proposed candidate will be easy to dismiss. But in each case, there could well be some arguments that hold water, for at least some parts of the works — an act, for example, or a scene. The arguments will be made for each of them will be strongert, to exactly the degree that they do not hold for the others.

William Stanley, Earl of Derby
This site makes a rather strong case for Derby as one of the authors of the Shakespeare plays. (The site considers him the only author, but the size of the vocabulary displayed in the works argues against it — some 20,000 words, when the next closest genius — Milton, the author of Paradise Lost — displays a vocabulary of 10,000 words, and the 3rd largest is some 8,000, according to at least one analysis. (Details later.)

The Evidence

There are some very nice arguments on the Stanley pages

  • William Stanley went by the name “Will” (The author was often called “Will Shakespeare”.)
  • His initials are “W.S.” (an early manuscript has those initials for the author — and only those initials)
  • He grew up in an acting family that was also nobility (he was a potential heir to the throne)
  • He and his family was known for their genius
  • He’s the only candidate to be born earlier than, and die later than, the Stratfordian candidate (Shaksper),
    so he’s the only one for whom the timeline fits naturally.
  • He did indeed study at Gray’s Inn. (That links him with others that are an important part of the picture.)
  • He traveled abroad as part of his early studies (especially significant for the early plays, set in Italy)
  • The Apocrypha page, in particular mentions two handwriting samples that deserve deeper examination.
    (The penmanship is clearly Derby’s, but the site claims they could be presented as being from Shakespeare.)
  • The inscription on the monument belonging to Derby’s uncle (also displayed in the Apocrypha), reads in part:
    Not monumental stone preserves our fame,
    Nor skye-aspiring pyramids our name;
    The memory of him for whom this stands
    Shall outlive marble and defacer’s hands…
    –Emphasis added to show that Derby’s uncle might need to be considered as a potentail author or co-author.

The Need for Anonymity

The major question for any author candidate, of course, is “Why did he have to hide his name?” Here, the Stanley pages are right on the button:

Regarding the subject matter, the plays of Shakespeare served as effective propaganda for the powers that were. Such propaganda would naturally be more effective if the audience thought it had been written by “one of them”, rather than by someone with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.


Regarding a noble playwright, any written works would be necessarily private affairs, not intended for, and even prohibited from, public display, at least in their author’s name. The prohibition was from the aristocracy itself, which could not tolerate such a “common” labor from one of its own.

So while the nobility could and did put on plays for themselves (in court), putting them on in public required distancing themselves from their works. And that is one argument for the notion of propaganda — otherwise, why the need to have them performed in public?

On the other hand, it is also possible that money was a motive. Both de Vere and Stanley were strapped for cash, with expensive lifestyles to maintain.

Open Questions

One weakness in the Stanley pages is the lack of a “skills accounting” — a list of things he knew enough to write about, and when he learned them. Shakespeare was so used to subjects like falconry and sailing that he used them as analogies for other activities — something that only happens as a result of deep familiarity with a subject.

Stanley’s legal knowledge would come from Gray’s Inn, and we can take falconry as a given, since it was such a popular sport among the nobility. But it’s not clear when he spent enough time at sea to pick up his knowledge of sailing. (He did as a child, but he writes with an adult’s mastery of the techniques and terminology of the sea.)

It could be that the relevant information is simply omitted from the summary presented at that site. Or it could be that we have to look elsewhere for at least some of the skills displayed in the plays — a factor which argues for the multiple-author theory, discussed below.

The Stanley pages place the publication of the first folio at a time when the authors are in danger of being reduced to anonymity by a Catholic king. But the dedications read like an homage to the recently deceased. So either the author(s) were mourning the loss of their previous lifestyle and activities (somewhat hard to imagine), or else the real author died about that time.

It’s a subject that the Stanley pages do not adequately address, but the Wikipedia page devoted to him puts his death in 1642 — quite a bit later than the 1623 appearance of the First Folio tribute to Shakespeare’s passing. But while the folio publication was likely not a tribute to him, the arguments that he wrote at least some of the plays still hold water.

Even with the strong evidence for Stanley, there are three other possibilities that need further examination: Edward de Vere,
multiple authors, and Marlowe.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (poems, at least one play)

There is very good evidence that de Vere authored the poems (Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford: The Real Shakespeare by William Kent). But this book, at least, has to strain a bit to make an argument for the plays.

Other books, like Shakespeare By Another Name, by Mark Anderson, focus primarily on the plays. In The Real Shakespeare, Marilyn Gray shows that Hamlet contains the English equivalents for all 300 words that start with “Ver” from a French dictionary of the period — a good indication that he was signaling himself as the author of that play, at least. (And that he knew a fair amount of French — or at least had access to a French dictionary.)

Four Essays on the Authorship Question, meanwhile, does a great job of summarizing de Vere’s biography and making good arguments for at least some of the plays: Alls Well that Ends Well (p. 85), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (p. 86), Troilus and Cressida (p.103), Twelfth Night (p. 94), Hamlet (pp. 94, 100-102) and King Lear (p 103). It also claims authorship for Venus and Adonis (thought by some to be Bacon’s), and it provides solid arguments for the initial secrecy surrounding his authorship, and for the perceived need to maintain that secrecy after his death — namely that, as one of royal blood, any investigation into what he actually meant would have threatened the succession (pp. 108, 118).

But even if de Vere never wrote any of the plays, it is rather suggestive that he ran two acting troupes — one in 1580-1584 that toured the provinces and one he began in 1591 (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 162). Meanwhile, the name “Shakespeare” appears prominently on the list of players for two acting troupes (The Case for Shakespeare, p. 7 ). Could they be same groups? It’s worth investigating. The name de Vere is never mentioned. So it is possible that de Vere was at the very least a ringleader who had plays written, if not the author himself.

One of the strongest arguments for de Vere as author of the poems is the way he encoded his name in the “byline” of the poems:

Our _Ever_-Living Poet (Ever = E. Ver)

That sort of thing happens frequently enough in de Vere’s writings to give Oxfordian arguments a lot of backing.

For example, the title of the dedication to second quarto (edition) of Troilus and Cressida contains the lines

A Never Writer,
to an Ever reader.

As mentioned in this Shakespeare Adventure page, Edward de Vere often signed his name E. Ver. So the lines can be read as “An E.Ver writer, to an E.Ver reader”, where “News” is the clue to be creative in the reading—in other words, see each of the lines in a new way. Hence, “Newes”. (Note, too, that this kind of word-play was de rigeur among the nobility in general, in Elizabethan times, and that De Vere was particularly adept at it.)

Another example can be found in Sonnet 76, which has the line “Every word doth almost tell my name”. If the author is the person named on the title page of the book, why could that line possibly mean? And why include it at all, if not to encode the writer’s name in some way? So the very existence of that line is a clue that says, “the real answer to the authorship question is here”. Read literally, of course, you start looking at all of the words in the poem. That quickly leads nowhere. But maybe there is another way to read that line.

John Michell shows how “Every word” can be re-arranged to spell “Eyword Ver” (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 183). That’s close. But I think there is an even stronger interpretation using the same kind of analysis, based on the Cryptic Crossword clues that I am so fond of::

  • The keywords are “Every word doth”.
  • “Almost” is a key that says the letters are present, but the letters need to be rearranged.
  • Rearranged, those letters are an anagram of “O, thy Edword Ver”
    (Ver is a common spelling of his name. “Almost” is a double clue saying that “Edword” is a sound-alike for “Edward”.)
  • Since the sonnet is a love poem, a signature like “Thy (name)” is equivalent to “Yours truly”, or “I’m yours”.

Other arguments for de Vere include the following:

  • Indications are that he was of royal blood, potentially in line for the succession, and that was mentioned in the First Folio.
    Four Essays notes that at age 21, he began signing his name with coronet (crown) above, adding a line with seven slashes below — a signature that indicated his status as Prince Edward the 7th (p. 115), and that he stopped using it when Elizabeth died (pp. 75). That style of signature could quite easily have placed him in the tower of London, were it not accurate.

    Four Essays displays four samples of the signature on p. 71. (One of them can be seen online, in this article.) The crown and stylized slashes are prominent. Interestingly, those signatures are written as “E. Oxenford”, or “Edward Oxenford”. At some point, then, he changed from “E. Ver” to “Oxenford”. (It is possible that at age 21, he was told of his true heritage, and began signing as, in effect, “Edward from Oxenford”, rather than using a surname he knew was not really his.

John Davies’ epigram, meanwhile, contains the lines “Hadst thou not played some Kingly parts in sport (played the parts in jest perhaps, or in a play), thou hadst been a companion for a King; And (could have) been a king of the meaner sort (mortals)”. In other words, he played the part of a king in a play, or could have been a king in real life. No other candidate can make a claim quite that strong.

(On the other hand, On Three Shakespeare-Related Poems makes a plausible interpretation of these lines as a tribute to Stanley: “Shakespeare is presented as alive through Davies’s use of the present tense … this suggests Shakespeare was alive in 1610 or 1611, when the poem was published. That’s six or seven years after Oxford died. The poem, of course, was written before 1610, but had to have been written after 1603, when Shakespeare began acting “King’s roles”–as a member of the King’s Men.” However, in the line that says he (Stanley) could have been a companion to a king, the king in question could easily have been de Vere.)

  • Sonnet #125 indicates de Vere’s very high (probably royal) status.
    It starts, “Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy”, is typically taken as an argument for de Vere, since he was one of the four noblemen holding the poles that kept the canopy aloft over Elizabeth’s head, on at least one state occasion. Even if a noble by birth, that is a rare honor. There is no word “aught” in the 1963 edition of the Shakespeare Glossary, but “ought” has the meaning “owed” (p. 154). So one of the readings “As it was my duty”, or “Since it was up to me”. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary, on the other hand, says that “aught” means anything or all/everything. So the line could be read, “It was everything to me that I bore the canopy” or, read as a question, it could be, “Did it mean anything to me that I bore the canopy?) In either case, De Vere is noted to have done so. That is not something that can be said for the other candidates. (It is tempting to read “Were’t” as a conditional: “If it were up to me”. But if taken that way, the next words would have had to be, “I would have borne the canopy”, or words to that effect.)To have such a high honor, de Vere must have been Elizabeth’s son. Or lover. (Or both. In those days, royals incest was more or less expected of royals, “to keep the bloodline pure”. So royalty engaged in it. It was frowned upon for commoners, but (for royals) it had nothing like the stigma we attach to it today, given our knowledge of recessive genes and the perils of inbreeding. (On the other hand, given the heavy hand of the church, their condemnation of the practice could well have been a major factor in keeping such relationships secret in days when the inquisition was a common instrument of religious persuasion.)
  • The need to avoid questions about the line of succession could account for the secrecy — both during his life and after his death.
    If he were known as the author, questions could be asked about what he meant in Hamlet, King Lear, and other works. Once the allusions were clear, the “divine right” to rule by King James (who ascended to the throne after Elizabeth) could be questioned. So while William Cecil maintained secrecy during most of Elizabeth’s reight, his son Robert Cecil maintained that secrecy during the remainder of her reign and that of King James.
  • Due to his royal status, de Vere was “untouchable”, which could account for the reference to the “Swan of Avon”.
    There are no less than 10 incidents in de Vere’s life that could easily have landed him in serious trouble with the authorities. Yet he emerged virtually unscathed, each time. Not the least of those incidents was the time that, as a youth, he literally got away with murder. (It was determined that a servant he killed “committed suicide by running onto the end of de Vere’s sword”.) And there were several cases of serious disrepect to the Queen that would have landed lesser men in the tower — including a case of deriliction of duty in time of war. (Four Essays, pp. 73-75)

Swans at the time were untouchable, as well. Literally. They could be touched only by the Royal Swan Keepers (Four Essays, p. 91). Given that de Vere had a mansion on the river (called an “avon” in olde England), the fact that he got away with so much could account for the reference to “the Swan of Avon” in Ben Johnson’s poem in the First Folio.

The “Swan of Avon” could also be applied to Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 77). That’s the problem with literary analysis — it can point in any of several directions, depending on the interpretation. But that is probably what makes the mystery so exciting. Like any good Who Done It? novel, there are many suspects to choose from. The problem is to eliminate the red herrings and identify the true culprit!

Multiple Authors

But while all of the books that argue de Vere’s case, can make great arguments for some of the plays, they cannot make strong arguments for all of them. And the sheer size of the vocabularly suggests that it makes sense to consider at least two authors, at a minimum — one for the sonnets, possibly another for the epic poems, and at least one other for many of the plays.

If we are to believe that the man from Stratford wrote Shakespeare’s works, then we have to believe that he, alone in all of history, amassed the greatest vocabulary that the world has ever seen — dwarfing his closest rival by miles — and at the same time doing so without leaving the slightest shred of evidence that he ever read or studied anything. To say it strains credulity is putting it mildly. It is, quite simply, absurd.

So exactly how big is the vocabulary displayed in the works? Estimates vary. One expert reported it as 15,000 words, while Milton’s was 8,000. Another estimate went as high as 21,000, while Milton was accorded 7,000 (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, pp. 10-20). That is significant, because other than Shakespeare’s canon, Milton’s works display the largest vocabulary known to man. To have a vocabulary that is 2 or 3 times as large as the only known and biographically documented genius in history is remarkable, to say the least.)

In Words Invented by Dickens, Alexander Atkins puts the Shakespearan vocabulary at 31,534 words. (The source of that number is not recorded, but the precision of the number suggests that is was done by a computer.)

It is likely that the different estimates result from using different methodologies. (Are different conjugations of a verb counted as different words? Is a posessive variation like “swan” and “swan’s” count as two words, or one?) For that reason, I’ve chosen a middle ground and use “20,000 words” as an estimated vocabulary size. In any case, it is the relative size that matters, rather than an absolute number.

Once upon a time, I saw a comparison-table once that looked something like the one below. (If I ever find it again, I’ll record the reference.)

Vocabulary Size
(3rd place author)
average person

Of course, there are arguments against those estimates. But an examination of those arguments reveals them to be as specious as most other Stratfordian arguments. For example, the abstract of Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality by Hugh Craig contains the following statements in the abstract: “Play for play, Shakespeare’s dramatic works fit well with the pattern of others in the number of different words used.” (Really? If I read that right, it’s saying that every play — when considered by itself—has the same number of words as most other plays of the period. But that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that, taken together, the plays and poems reveal an inordinately large vocabulary.)

One thing that hasn’t been done, to my knowledge, is to remove the specialized vocabularies from the analysis. The Shakespeare plays use highly specialized terms from botany, the law, navigation, sailing, and a dozen other specialities—more than any one person has time to master in such depth. I suspect that removing those terms from the analysis would produce something much closer to Milton’s 10,000-word vocabulary—or something just slightly larger, which would still account for multiple authors.

The abstract then goes on to say that “the extent to which a playwright’s rate of use of individual words deviates from the average—Shakespeare is remarkable for the closeness of his practice to that of his peers”. (Again. Really? Can someone actually make such a claim with a straight face? It’s saying Shakespeare’s words are used with approximately the same frequency as those used by other playwrights. (So if you know about plumbing, carpentry, auto mechanics, fencing, landscaping, electricity, and roofing, and all I know about is basket weaving, but we tend to use our words with the same frequencywhen we write something, then our vocabularies are the same size? I don’t think so! Clearly, your technical vocabulary will dwarf mine.) Again, it’s a specious argument that totally misses the point of the question. One has to wonder how such things get published.)

Another article, meanwhile, explains the size of the vocabulary as being due to the fact that, “he wrote about so great a variety of subjects…that he needed this number of words in his writing”. But that, after all, is the point, isn’t it? His writings display knowledge of such a vast array of subjects that he used more words than anyone else in history to talk about them: more than twice as many as any other writer in history — and three times as many, by some estimates.

But if sonnets and plays are not considered as one body of work, then the inexplicably large vocabulary (especially given the astonishing lack of evidence for an education!) should be divisible into segments of rational size, each of which might then be matched to the various candidates. So there is a strong possibility — even a probability — of multiple authors. (It is even possible that differences in stylistic phrasing could be used to identify the of authors who wrote the different works, or contributed to them.)

But if the size of vocabulary suggests multiple authors, the convincing arguments given for other authors for different sets of works seems to demonstrate it.

De Vere and others were friends who studied law together at Gray’s Inn. In the later years, especially, the writing may well have been orchestrated by the head of the clandestine services — Walsingham, perhaps, who Marlowe worked for, or possibly Bacon. They could simply have been taking advantage of the nom de plume created by de Vere when he published the poems.

The idea that at least some of the historical plays were created for propaganda purposes fits right into the multiple-author theme. Once you take that step, its a natural next step to envision a clever ringmaster who wields the “hand unseen”–a phrase that Walsingham was famous for, and a pattern that Machiavelli (his role model) was known for.

The William Stanley site provides further evidence of close ties:

“In 1595, he married Elizabeth de Vere, daughter of Edward de Vere”

So William Stanley could easily have been privy to de Vere’s secret, and could even have assumed the mantle of authorship with his blessing. (However, since Edward de Vere died in 1604, he is not the person honored by the first folio publication, either.)

That site also puts forth the hypothesis that he may have worked over plays originally written by others. It’s a credible hypothesis, but one that most certainly counts as “multiple authorship” every bit as much as some sort of organized collaboration, which would have been harder to arrange.

Also, like every other argument for a particular candidate, the Stanley pages give stupendously deep arguments for some of the plays — while being suspiciously silent about the rest.

Every candidate, it seems, has an undeniable claim to some of the works. The only possible conclusion — the one that remains after all other possibilities have been eliminated — is that there were multiple authors.

It was Conan Doyle’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes, who said:
“When you’ve eliminated every other hypothesis, whichever remains — no matter how unlikely –must be the truth.

And although the Stanley site tries to derisively dismiss the multiple-author theory, it adds yet another indication of it’s truth: He writes about a play based in Denmark that was revised and corrected after one of the major candidates returned from that country — a clear indication that folks were talking and sharing information, possibly editing each others’ works, but clearly having input into them.

The existence of multiple authors could even account for the use of the term “our Shakespeare”, in Leonard Digges’ poem, in the First Folio:

Be sure, our Shakespeare, thou canst never die,
But crowned with laurel, live eternally.

True, the phrase “our Shakespeare” could have been a simple possessive, indicating the person that we, as a group, are so proud of. But it could also mean the person that we, as a group, invented! And the phrase that says Shakespeare can never die could mean that his works will be remembered forever — but it could also mean that Shakespeare was never a living person to begin with!

It could even be that the three dedications in the First Folio each point to a different person, or that the number of dedications indicates the number of people who held that name– de Vere, Stanley, and Marlowe, for example. (We’ll look at Marlowe next.)

Christopher Marlowe

When I took at look at some of Marlowe’s known works, the writing style seemed to me to be much plainer than Shakespeare’s, without the embellishments and clever turns of phrase. So I don’t take him seriously as the final author — although he may well have been a contributing editor and copyist. (In The Murder of the Man Who was “Shakespeare”, Calvin Hoffman finds turns of phrase that makes him take Marlowe seriously as the author of the poems. But in the segment of his book reproduced at the page on the PBS Frontline special, but in the final footnote he mentions that Gilbert Slater thought he was “employed by the others to merely supply the technique of play construction”–an argument that seems more plausible, to me.)

But there is a mystery surrounding Marlowe’s death. That mystery doesn’t have a great impact on the question of Marlowe’s authorship, but it has major implications on the theory that the works were authored by others.

Then there is inscription Shakespeare’s monument, and the four lines of verse on the tombstone. The kind of thing you would expect to find is “Here lies Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616”. That’s the kind of thing you see on Stanley family tombstones, for example, as recorded in the Apocrypha page at the Stanley site:

When all to Time’s consumption shall be given,
Stanley, for whom this stands shall stand in heaven.

–part of the inscription on Sir Thomas Stanely’s monument (William Stanley’s uncle)

To say a STANLEY lyes here, that alone
Were Epitaph enough …
–part of the inscription on Sir Robert Stanley’s monument (William Stanley’s son)

But for Shakespeare, we have something else entirely. And from the splendid analysis at this site, it’s pretty clear that the text of the monument and the tombstone contain a cryptic references to Christofer Marlowe.

The straightforward inscriptions reproduced at the Stanley site contrast nicely with the cryptic inscription on Shakespeare’s monument—one that literally challenges you to solve it:

Here is the text:

QVICK (quick) NATVRE (nature) DIDE (died): WHOSE NAME, DOTH DECK YS (this/his) TOMBE,

It starts by saying, “Stay passenger, why go so fast…” (take your time, in other words. Consider what’s written here at leisure). It then goes to say “Read, if you can, who is within this monument”. In other words, it seems to say that you’re going to need to be clever enough to read between the lines. And if the deceased is buried in his tomb, who or what is “within” the monument?

Some authors have claimed that some sort of huge “matrix cryptogram” underlies this inscription, as well as other tributes in the First Folio. To my way of thinking, that sort of analysis is so much fanciful thinking, reminiscent of the Baconian cryptograms that people were so fond of finding, in an earlier day. The fact is, it would take forever to come up with any kind of useful text using that sort of cryptographic technique — much too long to be worth the effort, given the miniscule chance that anyone will figure out what you were up to.

No. Remember that Elizabethan nobility was extremely fond of wordplay. But wordplay isn’t any fun unless it’s “in your face”. The clues had to be right there in front of your nose! Otherwise, there is no jest. A similar form of entertainment lies in the “Silly Sally” game, where you torment your listener with contrarian clues, like “Silly Sally likes doors, but she doesn’t like entryways. She likes walls, but not windows. She likes feet, but not toes”, and so on, until someone figures out how it works. They can then join in the torment of everyone else, who have yet to figure out the rules of the game. (Silly Sally likes anything that has doubled letters.)

That sort of wordplay is right out in front, in your face. When you know the rules, you can figure out what the clues mean. But until then, the mystery passes right in front of your nose. And therein lies the jest.

The answer is that the name is in the monument — or in the monument’s inscription, to be exact. It is in the last line, where it says “”Far More (“Mor”, “Mar”) than cost (“lay”), which leads to the splendid conclusion that the person buried there is Marlowe, because “Morlay” is a sound-alike for the name that both Marlowe and as father signed as “Morley”.

The inscription also says, “Shakespeare, whose name doth deck this tomb”. In other words, “whose name is on the tomb”. And when you examine the tombstone, it contains a 4-line bit of doggerel that starts, “For Jesus‘ sake forbeare…”, after which there is no other name! It then goes on to say, “Don’t dig into the dust here. Blessed is he who spares these stones, and cursed is he who moves my bones”. (See what I mean? Doggerel.) But the first line is intriguing, because the more common way to say such a thing, would be “For Christ’s sake, forbear…”–which gives us “Christ+for”, or “Christofer”..

To understand that interpretation, it helps to be familar with a type of puzzlet that I am particularly found of — the Cryptic Crossword. In that kind of crossword, each clue is a word-puzzle of its own that contains the answer embedded in the clue. (The Nation magazine always has one at the end. I used to subscribe to it, just for those puzzles. The Guardian is said to carry them, as well.) It’s the kind of thing that was gathering a head of steam in Elizabethean society, along with ciphers and other forms of cryptic communications. The challenge on the monument and suggest that the doggerel on the tomb provides just that sort of cryptic clue. (Remember, this is a time when news of the day was encoded in Nursery Rhymes, often to protect the traveling performers who carried the news from the hangman’s noose.)

Here, for example, is the way that kind of clue would be interpreted, were it placed in a contemporary cryptic crossword:

  • Jesus’s sake = Jesus’ namesake => “Christ”
  • For (Christ) forbeare = bear the last name to the “fore”. In other words, reverse them => Christ+for
  • Or, alternatively, (Christ) … Far ==> Christ+far
  • More (sounds like) => “Mor”
  • (Mor) than cost = “Mor” then cost. In other words, add cost (“lay”) => Mor+lay

All of which adds up to “Christ(o)fer Morley”–which is how he signed his own name, as shown in Who Wrote Shakespeare? , where  a picture of his signature is shown (p. 239).

The article goes on to say that “SIEH ALL” is a rebus ( word picture — a type of puzzle that became popular in 1582, according to Mark Bryant in Dictionary of Riddles, p.40) that means “He is returned, withal” (“SIEH” = “He is”, backwards/returned with the word “all”)–meaning that Marlowe had returned, the main clue being that there was no known of word the time that was spelled like, or sounded like, “Sieh”. (Spellings were done phoentically, so different words were spelled in different ways, by different people.) All of that is possible, of course. But even if read differently, it does not contradict the clever logic that leads to the discovery of Christofer Marlowe “within” the monument.

As a further insight, it’s worth noting that the inscriptions share a common trait with the introduction to the First Folio — it is the first and last lines that are significant. This seems to be a hallmark of Ben Jonson’s cryptograms: The first and last lines contain the clues, and everything in between is filler. In this case, it’s doubly significant. The last lines of the monument’s inscription contains Marlowe’s last name, while the first line on the tombstone contains his first name. But by being so widely separated, it becomes that much more difficult to put the pieces together — unless you’re in on the secret.

Now then: If that reading of the inscriptions is true, it must also be true that “Shakespeare” was a nom de plume, rather than a real person — which is pretty much beyond question, at this point. But it also implies that Marlowe must have been still alive, instead of being deceased as originally reported. (A PBS special did a great job of exposing the hoax of Marlowe’s supposed “death”. This page at the Marlowe site gives a good summary of the evidence:

I therefore surmise that when he died, his friends buried him as the popular author he was, encoding his name in the marker to protect themselves from questions.

As for motive, there are some plausible reasons for that choice of burial:

  1. Marlowe had been cheated out of his fame by his need to avoid the Star Chamber,
    so burying him as a famous author was his due.
  2. If there was only one author who wrote the plays, that author was dead or retired,
    and the time to retire the pseudonym was long overdue.
  3. Or, if a cadre of writers was responsible for the plays, Marlowe was the last
    and the only one in need of a name to be buried under, so he got it.

However, even if Marlowe is not a likely candidate as the primary author of the plays, it’s pretty clear that he played a part in writing them — or at the very least editing them, and that he is buried under Shakespeare’s name — yet another indication that “Shakespeare” was not a real person.

Note, though, there are still a couple of questions that could use an answer:

  • Clearly, Christofer Marlowe’s name is embedded in the monument. But was his body interred in the tomb?
    If so, where was Shaksper buried? If not, where was Marlowe buried?
  • The inscription makes sense for a monument that shows a writer. But by all accounts, the initial versions of
    the monument showed a man holding a sack of grain. Do the inscriptions still make sense, in that context?
    (Shakespeare’s funerary monument, shows pictures of the monument made in 1656 and 1709, where the
    figure in the monument is shown holding a sack of grain. (It was “restored” in 1748-9, after which it showed
    a writer with quill and paper.)

To my mind, answers would be of great interest. But the arguments hold, in my view, even in the absence of answers.

In 1608, “Shakespeare” is also named as one of seven people having a share in the Blackfriar’s theare partnership.
That, too, could be Marlowe — since he could hardly use his own name. (Shaksper had already moved back to
London in 1604, when de Vere died, so it couldn’t have been him. It is possible, then, that Marlowe began
using the name about that time.
King’s Men (playing company)

A Great Conspiracy?

Like most other viable candidates of the time, de Vere studied at Gray’s Inn. In fact, he was sent there by William Cecil (Who was Edward de Vere?). Other members of the distinguished body of law included Francis Bacon, William Cecil, Lord Southhampton.

In fact, “Cecil and Bacon in particular took pains to find the most promising young men and get them to join the Inn.” Even Queen Elizabeth herself was a patron of the Inn, which was known for it’s many masked balls and plays (Gray’s Inn, Elizabethan golden age).

We know that Stanley “went St. John’s College, Oxford (known for its drama). He would later study at the London Law schools—first Gray’s Inn and then Lincoln’s Inn.” (William Stanley as Poet and Playwright, A Brief Life of “William Stanley”)

We know that Stanley was related to de Vere by marriage, and we know that de Vere was close to the Earl of Southhampton, and that all three were members of Gray’s Inn.

In addition, during “the Golden Age” when Queen Elizabeth was the Inn’s Patron Lady, “Lord Burleigh, the Queen’s First Minister, …, and Sir Francis Walsingham, the Chief Secretary who founded the Queen’s secret service, were all members of Gray’s Inn.” (The Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, The Inns of Court)

Meanwhile, this site dedicated to Gray’s Inn, Inn of Court, says, “In the Shakespearean period the four (Inn) locations were sometimes referred to as ‘the third university’ after Oxford and Cambridge, since the young men who studied to qualify in the law – often wealthy and socially well-connected – occupied these elite spaces. Such student lawyers lived and worked as ‘members’ at an inn of court, and often frequented the nearby indoor theatres, including the Blackfriars, Whitefriars, Cockpit and Salisbury Court.” It also shows Ben Jonson’s dedication to the Inns of Court from his Every Man Out of His Humor, in which he claims to have many friends there. (According to The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson (p.4), Francis Bacon was one of them.)

It also suggestive that Shaksper moved back to in Stratford in 1604 — the very year that de Vere died (Four Essays, p. 118).

Were you a detective, these are the kinds connections you would be documenting. The tapestry that results from the intertwining network of connections produces a picture that fairly easy to discern. Walsingham, Bacon, Cecil, and Elizabeth all had motive for creating certain of the plays. (Not all certainly, but some.) They had a collection of the brightest minds, shared digs, and opportunities for collusion and collaboration — all at a time before mass media, when nobles were constantly entertaining each other with their plays, poetry, and music, as well as sharing London’s nightlife and frequenting it’s many playhourses.

The final deduction is all but impossible to avoid. It’s probable that multiple authors were involved, at various times, and that several of that collaborated on at least some of the works. Marlowe and/or Ben Jonson (both commoners who acquired status through their affilations with others) could have provided advice on play structure. They may also have done the editing, or even “copy-editing”–literally copying the works, so they were written in another hand. (I have been told that there are several original manuscripts in existence, scattered around the globe — all of which were copied by hand, and with slight variations introduced in the process. An analysis of the handwriting in those manuscripts would be both fascinating and illuminating.)

There is, of course, no mention of Shakespeare in the Gray’s Inn Registry (the link goes to an online Google book that can be searched). There is someone with the right name — but he was admitted in 1491 — 70 years before the man from Stratford was born.

A Dubious Money Trail

All good investigators like to follow the money trail. So let’s take a quick look at one that may or may not be significant.

At first glance, the trail seems to be suggestive. But then it turns into something of a dead end.
I’ve included it because it contains some interesting facts that might become even more pertinent, at some point.

In 1586, Edward DeVere was awarded a yearly stipend of £1,000 (a 1,000 pounds sterling) for life, with no strings attached (Edward de Vere as William Shakespeare)–“at a time when a well-paid schoolmaster made £10 a year” (Frontline: The Shakespeare Mystery). That sum is equivalent to as much as £70,800,000 (70 million) in 2014, or as “little” as £213,000 per year, depending on how inflation is calculated, according to the Measuring Worth website. A similar calculation is done in Four Essays where it is reported that £60,000 in 1550 was worth $2.4 million in 2009 (p. 82.),  By that calculation, £1,000 would be worth $400,000 — not bad for a yearly allowance!

Whichever value is correct, that kind of stipend was unheard of in Elizabeth’s money-tight reign, where every expenditure had to be accounted for. In general, then, receipts had to be provided and justifications given. Then one might get the money one desired. But de Vere was a special case. He simply got the money, no questions asked.

It may be that the Queen took pity on his poverty, and gave him the money because he was her son. Or perhaps it was an award for finding some profitable business ventures for the Queen to engage in. But it is also possible that the money was intended to be used for arranging the publication of political plays, to achieve the crown’s ends. In support of that view, Hank Whitmore’s Shakespeare blogreports, “Queen Elizabeth signed a warrant granting Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford an extraordinary allowance of a thousand pounds per year.  The grant was to be paid to him by the Exchequer, according to the same formula used for payments to Secretary Francis Walsingham and his wartime secret service, that is, to be made in quarterly installments with no accounting required.” The warrant also explicity stated that “the Exchequer was not to call upon Oxford to render any account of its expenditure”, as in the case of secret service money. (The similarity is not conclusive, but it is suggestive. One wonders how many other arrangements like it were made.)

Meanwhile, Shaksper of Stratford was said to have spent at the rate of £1,000 a year, using money given to him “for furnishing two plays a year” (John Ward’s diary, in which he recounts that Shakespeare died of “a fever brought on by drinking” with a man named Drayton and Ben Jonson).

Note the wording. It does not say “for writing two plays a year”. It says, “for furnishing” those plays. In any case, that’s a rather astonishing sum of money. It’s as a much as a man of nobility was given to live on! For two plays? No known actor or playwright of that time made that kind of money, certainly, and there are no records to account for that level of income from his business pursuits. (On the other hand, this evidence too is “hearsay”, and does not account for much on its own. But it points in an interesting direction to look. If corroborating evidence of the expenditures can be found, the item is significant.)

Shaksper is recorded as having spent close to £1,000 the year he returned to Stratford. He spent £60 to buy one of the finest homes in the area, and put £760 into two of his several investments (Ogburn, p. 79). But there is no record of expenditures having continued at that level. It is possible then, that common knowledge of time (“he had £1,000”) became exagerrated to “he got £1,000 a year”, in the re-telling of the story. (That’s the problem with hearsay evidence. It’s like a fish story. The fish gets longer every time the story is told!)

No direct connection between de Vere and Shaksper has been found to date, but if you assume that Shaksper was being paid for his silence while brokering the plays, things could begin to make sense. It could also explain why he could not be found by the tax authorities, given that he “had friends in high places”, at the time.

Of course, that line of investigation may all come to nothing, as the tax owed was a paltry 13 shillings and 4 pence (13s 4d). It doesn’t make sense that a man making a thousand pounds a year fails to pay a 13 shilling tax. But the dates are interesting, because the tax records show the sum as delinguent in 1599, and still owing 2 years later. Margin notes in the tax record meanwhile, suggest that as far as the taxman was concerned, he was a resident of Southwar (the place where the Globe theatre was built, at the very time it was being built)–although he is not in any of the parish listings of residents (William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, pp. 222-223).

Also in 1599, several members of the Lord Chamberlain’s theatre company acquired a 31-year lease on a plot of land in Southwark where the Globe theatre was built. So the timing is suggestive. And “Shakespeare” is said to be one of the members who acquired the lease (Shakespeare in Borough).

Personally, I find it unlikely that somone making £1,000 a year would be in arrears for 13 shillings. So a more likely set of explanations, to my mind, is the following:

  • John Ward was having his leg pulled on his visit to Stratford, or he was encoding the information he gathered,
    by saying that “Shakespeare” (de Vere, in actually) was spending that extraordinary amount.
  • It was “Shakespeare” (the pseudonym) that was killed off by Drayton and Jonson after a bout of drink and discussion.
  • Shaksper could have been staying with his friends in high places in Southwark — which is why he wasn’t on any resident roles, and the tax man couldn’t find him.
  • The “Shakespeare” listed on the land lease might have been De Vere. Or it could have been any other member of the inner circle from Gray’s Inn. (If it was Shaksper, it’s possible he sold his interest in the place when he retired. That could account for the £1,000 he spent when he returned to Stratford, and why he never mentioned such a valuable asset in his will.)

The Case for Serial Authorship

To my mind (subject to revision in the light of tangible evidence), the most plausible explanation for the known facts is this:

  • Edward de Vere wrote the sonnets, and published them under the name “Shake-speare”.
  • William Stanley wrote plays, and used the same nom de plume, with de Vere’s approval.
  • At some point, the name became “Shakespeare”–possibly to distinguish the second author from the first.
  • Using the ready-at-hand name for cover, Bacon (or Walsingham, or Cecil, or Elizabeth, or all of the above) commissioned
    poltically-motivated historical plays that were used, for example, to help incline the populace towards war.
  • To do so, they used the skills of the playwrights and writers they had banded together at Gray’s Inn.
  • Having faked his death earlier, and having worked for Walsingham, Christopher Marlowe was interred in Shakespeare’s tomb.
  • The First Folio was published as a tribute to “Shakespeare”–the pseudonym for a composite of many good authors (some of whom may have been women)..
  • Ben Jonson, the master of creative ambiguity, wrote the book’s cryptic introduction, the inscription on the monument, and the epitaph on the tomb.

Each of the candidates has extremely well-argued and well-researched arguments for some of the works. But at the same time, none of them can make viable claims for the all of the works. The entire canon, meanwhile, shows an impossibly large vocabulary. (20,000 words, when the next closest genius — Miltion — displayed “only” 10,000 — and he was already a far-flung outlier on the population curve, given that the average person has a 4,000 word vocabulary, in total.)

Taken together with the arguments for each of the potential authors, the huge vocabulary leads inescapably to the conclusion that the works of multiple authors must be represented in the canon.

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