Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The True Will Shakespeare

by Linda Fetterly Root

A comparison of the three earliest portraits, compiled by Stratford Brice
from Public Domain Art- Wikimedia

The faces of William Shakespeare

The three earliest portraits of Will Shakespeare are compared above. The first two were likely painted while he lived and the third was used when his first Folio was published. All three portraits are ante-dated by the sculpted image at Shakespeare's burial site in Trinity Church, shown below.

A Man of Natural Talent or a Ghostwriter?

I realize there are otherwise credible people who deny the Holocaust, the moon landing, the existence of the historical Jesus, and the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald. Most of them are motivated by a political point-of-view compatible with their belief structure. I find no such justification for questioning the contribution to world literature by a guy named William Shakespeare. This does not mean other writers might not have contributed to his works. But does anyone claim Jim Henson did not create the Muppets simply because a second inventive genius named Frank Oz was involved? In treating the question, it would be disingenuous of me to claim the insight of the many distinguished thinkers who have raised the point: Freud, Samuel Clemons, and Helen Keller, to name a few, but their acknowledge genius does not make them right. Some of the disclaimers are based on mathematical analysis of word use and structure, others on principles of linguistics or the viewpoints expressed in the plays. Mine is simplistic and based on what we do know about Shakespeare, and what I know about the nature of writers. 

Shakespeare was real

Those disclaiming Shakespeare’s authorship of his many plays do not go so far as to claim there was no such person as William Shakespeare, the young man from Stratford-on-Avon. There is no question a merchant named John Shakespeare and his wealthy wife Mary Arden gave birth to a son named William, who was baptized by that name on April 26, 1564, at Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. The custom of the times would suggest the ceremony occurred approximately three days after birth, which is why April 23rd is accepted as Shakespeare's birthday. Below is the record of John Shakespeare's son William's baptism.

While some doubters stress the paucity of information about Shakespeare’s early years to question the authenticity of his achievements, that is not the case when one factors in the profile of his father. John Shakespeare was politically active at the rural level, with ties to Midland England's aristocratic families including the Catesbys and probably the Treshams and Vauxes. At one time he was the Bailiff of Stratford—in modern terms, its mayor, a position unlikely to have been awarded to a highly visible recusant.

The restored family home on Henley Street, Stratford-on-Avon
At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, his father was probably what was called a closet Catholic—those who gave the outward appearance of embracing Anglicanism, but embraced the auld religion in the privacy of the home. His wife Mary Arden was Protestant and came from a wealthy family. She gave birth to eight children, five of whom survived into adulthood.

William Shakespeare probably attended the parish school in Stratford, which kept no surviving records. Some writers presume he was home schooled, but that is unlikely. While there was no compulsory education in early modern England, there were penalties imposed for homeschooling to avoid the curricula of parish churches, and until 1762, it was against the law for Catholics to teach. In addition, the prevailing evidence indicates both of his parents were illiterate. That single fact has been used to attack Shakespeare’s authorship of the large body of literature published in his name, but it confuses literacy with intellect.

Literate or not, Shakespeare's father was a civic leader. Snitterfield, the village where John Shakespeare grew to adulthood, had no parish school, but Stratford did. In all accounts, John Shakespeare was a successful designer/fabricator of leather gloves and headgear, with more than an average dose of entrepreneurship. He did, however, suffer an economic set-back possibly associated with his association with his Catholic leanings, or because his real estate investments were lucrative, but his other money lending was not, and at one point he had been charged and fined for usury. He became reclusive and ceased attending counsel meetings. Some writers state he was rehabilitated before his death, but by that time, his son William had acquired considerable wealth and influence, and may have been responsible for his father being granted a Coat of Arms which Shakespeare himself later used.

Sketch of the Schoolhouse at Stratford (PD Art)

Shakespeare was influenced by historical and religious events, consistent with themes expressed in his poetry and plays

John Shakespeare and William Catesby, father of the leader of the Gunpowder conspirators, were both dignitaries in their separate Midland communities and were friends. On one occasion, both appeared on the same list of those who had been fined by the Protestant church hierarchy for missing mandatory services. Both families had ties to the nascent Jesuit mission to England launched by the priests Edmund Campion and his Jesuit superior, Fr. Robert Persons.

Shortly after their arrival, the priests traveled to the Midlands, a hotbed of recusancy and Counter-Reformation sentiment. Father Campion likely stayed in the Catesby home, a mere 18 miles from Stratford-on-Avon. Persons is believed to have stayed with the Shakespeares.[1] There is evidence the two Jesuits distributed copies of a document to the recusants who harbored them. It was designed to be used as a model Spiritual Will and constituted a declaration of its testator’s abiding Catholic Faith. A handwritten copy signed by John Shakespeare and believed to be, for the most part, genuine was found in the rafters of one of William Shakespeare’s houses in 1757, although the first two provisions were likely forged by the man named Jordan who discovered them. Unfortunately, the entire document was later lost. Only it’s translation survives.[2]

Some historians use the materials concerning John Shakespeare as proof his famous son William knew the later martyred and Canonized Edmund Campion personally, but while it is possible, it is speculative. Shakespeare would have been a child at the time. What is apparent is Shakespeare’s youthful exposure to the English Catholic cause and thought which surely shaped his works. During his career, Shakespeare demonstrated the ability to treat issues in a provocative manner nevertheless inoffensive to his sovereign.

The lack of record does not mean Shakespeare was uneducated

One argument against Shakespeare as the likely author of his plays is a lack of education, a highly Charlatan point of view fed by its companion argument raising the lack of historical record of his youth. Each argument feeds the other, and neither considers what I consider to be a highly salient fact: in Shakespeare’s day, a Catholic education was illegal. It is likely that a child born of a recusant family might be overlooked in a rural schoolhouse, but those who advanced to England's few universities were vetted and culled. This does not mean there were no highly educated Elizabethan Catholics, but those who were had been educated abroad. The prime mover of the Gunpowder plot, Robert Catesby, attended nearby Oxford but dropped out rather than sign the Oath of Supremacy demanded of university graduates. Had Shakespeare been sent to Oxford, he would have faced the same obstacle.

As stated above, homeschooling was a criminal offense. Also, Shakespeare’s parents did not have the expertise to teach, but once the Jesuits appeared in the Midlands during Shakespeare’s early adolescence, it would not have been that difficult to place an educated priest or layman tutor in the home under the guise of a footman or a stablemaster. Before his father’s financial problems arose, the Shakespeare household could have afforded one. Other Midlanders such as the female recusant Eliza Roper, the Dowager Lady Vaux, held her own when interrogated by men like Lord Robert Cecil and his henchman Coke when suspected of harboring the much-sought-after Hunted Priest [3]John Gerard, and survived to establish a clandestine Jesuit boys’ school at the family estate at Great Harrowden .There is evidence the Wizard Earl of Northumberland intended to establish a similar school in the courtyard at Warkworth Castle. We cannot eliminate Will Shakespeare and the author of plays like Lear simply because he did not make his way to Oxford.

Nor would he have been ignorant of the dramatic form. Not only were plays written in Latin, a part of the grammar school curriculum at parish schools like the one in Stratford, but during Shakespeare's youth, aldermen issued licenses to more than twenty traveling theatrical companies [4] . And while It is tempting to confuse the terms educated and smart, even in modern times, such assumptions invite mistake. Think of John Steinbeck packing his duffel and leaving Stanford. Ben Franklin was homeschooled, and Ben Affleck dropped out of both the University of Vermont and Occidental College. Ever hear of a guy named Bill Gates? Frank Lloyd Wright? No one accuses self-taught Abraham Lincoln of having hired a ghostwriter to draft the Gettysburg address[5]. Look at your own life and think about gifted people you have encountered and ask yourself how many of them did not acquire their genius in a classroom.

What about William Shakespeare's early history? 

From the china cabinet of Linda Root, photo by the author
To illustrate the weakness of the argument of those who find insufficient evidence of Shakespeare’s potential because of the lack of documents from his youth, I entered the name of the most famous of my grammar school classmates into several search engines, and did not find enough information to distinguish him from others of the same name, although he has served as head of a federal financial entity. Next, I tried the same with the most successful graduate of my high school class and was overwhelmed by posting and videos, but none which dated back to his youth and early successes and failures. Why should we demand more of William Shakespeare than we do of Ron Rosenfeld or Dan Spinazzola? With Shakespeare, images of his birthplace, the site of his christening, and the houses of his mother, Mary Arden and his wife, Anne Hathaway can be found in the dinnerware in my credenza. We know William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway and they raised three children in Stratford-on-Avon, where his family remained when he moved to London. Details as to how he amassed his moderate fortune are sketchy, but hardly to the point to justify labeling his life as a husband and father living in rural England as ‘Lost Years.’

While there are several plausible stories as to what might have lured Shakespeare into the theater, and thus, to London, all of them are speculative. The fact, however, is he went, and by the time he arrived, he already had a reputation as an actor and fledgling playwright sufficiently widespread for a presumably jealous colleague, successful and prolific author Robert Greene, to call him an ‘upstart crow'.[6] ,[7] What Greene did not call him was a plagiarizer.

Robert Greene was not a fan of his youthful rival. He wrote his contemporary dramatists and begged them to put the upstart in his place. He may have thought Shakespeare's early works borrowed heavily on extant histories, but he never accused Shakespeare of putting his name to works penned by colleagues. The informative book, The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol 13, ed. Alfred Bates, London, Historical Publishing Company, 1906, pp. 104-107 makes a compelling case for Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays by referring to Robert Greene’s acerbic criticism, written shortly before Greene’s death in 1592 in critiques approaching the polemic. In The Drama, Bates make the following point concerning Shakespeare's productivity during the years prior to the bard's arrival in London only a year before his detractor's death:
‘Even in his wrath, however, Greene bears eloquent witness to Shakespeare’s diligence, ability and success, both as actor and playwright. Of Shakespeare’s amazing industry, and also of his success, there is ample evidence. Within six or seven years he not only produced the brilliant, reflective and descriptive poems of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece but at least fifteen of his dramas, including tragedies, comedies and historical plays’.
In conclusion, an argument I find compelling is based on my experience as a writer and a former prosecutor: Shakespeare's contemporaries most often propounded as the true authors of his plays never raised their claim. Those of us who write or perform are a prideful lot. We also have acquired the gift of access to a public audience: in essence, we have Voice. Would Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe, all of whom have been nominated as the true Will Shakespeare have remained silent when their colleague from Stratford-on -Avon claimed their masterworks? Never.

Christopher Marloew
Sir Francis Bacon
Ben Johnson

The Stratford Bust, possibly taken from a death mask.


[1] Pearce, Joseph, The Quest for Shakespeare, Ignatius Press, 2008.
[2] Roth, Steve, Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country, Open House, 2 edition (December 23, 2013)3. [3]Gerard, John. S.J., The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest (Translated from the Latin by Philip Caraman, S.J., Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1952
[4] Wikipedia, ‘Shakespeare’s Life: The Lost Years’
[5] See https://despicablewonderfulyou.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/brilliant-minds-and-great-people-not-necessarily-with-a-college-degree/
[6] Robert Greene, Wikimedia, Shakespeare’s Life: The Lord years, and ` http://www.theatrehistory.com
The Drama; Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization: British drama – Alfred Bates, James Penny Boyd, John Porter Lamberton
[7] Bates, et al, Ibid.

Linda Fetterly Root is a writer of historical fiction set in Marie Stuart's Scotland and Early Modern Britain. She is a retired major crimes prosecutor living in the Morongo Basin area of the Southern California hi-desert, on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. She is a member of the Marie Stuart Society, the Historical Novel Society, and the Bars of California and the United States Supreme Court. William Shakespeare appears briefly in her current work-in-progress, The Deliverance of the Lamb, based upon the escape from England of flamboyant Jesuit John Gerard.


  1. The late A.L Rowse was a great historian but he was the most vocal promulgator of the silly notion that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. His views on Shakepeare were those of a crank, but he was listened to because of his scholarship in other areas. Rowse had a problem with Shakepeare's lack of a university degree and thought only someone like Marlowe or Kyd could have written such magnificent works because they had one. He completely missed the idea that genius as an agenda all its own. So yes! Shakepeare did write his own plays.

  2. It amazes me to find there are still doubters. Unfortunately, intellectual snobbery seems to be a chronic disease.

  3. A well argued and informative post. Writers & storytellers through the ages have come from various backgrounds and types of education.

  4. We all know the real claim to fame of Sir Francis Bacon was for the invention of the sandwich that bears his name. With acknowledgments of course to Sir William Lettuce and Lord John Tomato.

  5. Ridiculous! Everyone knows Shakespeare was the inventor of the ballpoint pen! (See Edmund Blackadder for details) ;-)

    Look What I've Got! Some SF Classics

  6. Very interesting post, but I do take issue with the notion that the first of the three portraits (the Cobb Portrait) at the top of the page is of Shakespeare. Surely it's Sir Thomas Overbury? It certainly looks exactly like the known portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery, and not very much like either of the two contemporary portraits of Shakespeare, or the Holy Trinity bust. The Cobb Portrait shows a long narrow face, a lobed left ear, and widow's peak, and the nose is much finer and longer than that of the other two portraits; similarly the lips are quite thin and fine, while the other two portraits show very full lips with a deep cleft between upper lip and nose, which the Cobb portrait doesn't have. I'd love to think the Cobb Portrait was Shakespeare, but sadly I think all the visual evidence is against it!

  7. There are too many conspiracy theorists around these days, including those with nothing better to do than argue anybody but Shakespeare wrote his plays. Frankly, I can't see Marlowe writing them. His plays are so very different in style.

    Anyone ever read Edward Eager's children's novel The Time Garden? A time travelling boy meets Sir Francis Bacon and says, "I heard you wrote Shakespeare?" and Bacon says indignantly,"I never - " The boy decides that that answers his question.


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