The Future of History

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Shakespeare's (god)son


I've just agreed with The History Press to write a biography of Sir William Davenant, the godson (and probably natural son) of William Shakespeare.

The provisional publication date will be February 2016 - just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.  And it looks like it'll be published in paperback, which is good.

I really enjoyed researching and writing about Davenant for Who Killed William Shakespeare?  He's a sadly neglected and unjustly maligned character.  In short, I like him.

And I have a plan to approach this biography in a rather unusual way.  So keep tuned to this channel, readers - I'll be posting updates every now and then.

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Shakespeare Deniers

I was recently sent an electronic document - quite a large one, in fact.  The author had deconstructed the entire sequence of Shakespeare's Sonnets (in reverse order!) with the determined intention of proving that they were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (pictured).

Oxford is not the sole candidate for the enviable role of the "real" William Shakespeare, but he is certainly the front runner.  The point, though, is why should we even consider the possibility that a man who died in 1604 - twelve years before the death of Shakespeare - was the true author of the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare?

Let me first of all state that I have some sympathy with the conspiracy theorists who propose that Oxford (or one of fifty-or-so other candidates) actually did all the hard work, for which William Shakespeare took the credit.

I have some sympathy because the standard biography of Shakespeare is so woefully inadequate.  There does seem to be a disconnect between the picture of William Shakespeare presented by so many of his biographers and the genius behind the Complete Works.

However, it's one thing to suspect that the Shakespeare of countless biographies might not have been up to the task of creating some of the world's finest works of literature.  It's another thing altogether to leap to the conclusion that somebody else must have written them.  Such a wild leap in the dark overlooks a far more obvious, and more realistic, interpretation - that the standard biography of Shakespeare is grossly misleading.

Or, in other words, Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare.  But the Shakespeare we're told about wasn't who Shakespeare really was.

The history of Shakespeare denial is long and far from honourable.  We can trace it back to Rev. James Wilmot, who left London and moved to Barton-on-the-Heath, near Stratford, in the late 18th century.  He began to have concerns about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, wondering (in 1785) how the humbly-born Shakespeare of Stratford could have mingled so freely with the great and the good.  Clearly, it was impossible - and so somebody else must have been the real Shakespeare.

English society had changed a great deal between Shakespeare's and Wilmot's day.  The aristocracy had distanced itself from the peasantry, and to Rev. Wilmot the very idea that a middle-class lad could become friends with lords and ladies was unthinkable.

But let's consider this: Ben Jonson was more humbly-born than Shakespeare.  He went to Westminster School, but did not finish his education.  He became a bricklayer instead (although he hated it, and it haunted him for the rest of his days).  He attended neither of the universities.  And yet, Jonson freely mixed with the aristocracy, had various aristocratic patrons, lodged with a cousin of the king and became Britain's first (unofficial) Poet Laureate.

Going by Rev. Wilmot's logic, none of that was possible, and so Ben Jonson cannot have been Ben Jonson.  Somebody else must have written the plays, poems and court masques, for which Jonson took all the credit.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever made that suggestion about Ben Jonson.  We don't seem to mind the fact that he - an overweight, alcoholic bully - could have made the journey from obscurity to celebrity and enjoyed the patronage of lords and ladies.  So why do we assume that Shakespeare could not have done so?

In fact, Shakespeare's dealings with the aristocracy were fairly limited, in comparison with Jonson's.  The only patron we know of, where Shakespeare is concerned, was the teenage Earl of Southampton, who came from a Catholic family.  Shakespeare dedicated two long poems to him (in 1593 and 1594) and appears to have written a number of sonnets to the young earl.  But it was not a notably long association, and it does not seem to have survived Southampton's coming-of-age.

So the theory that Shakespeare couldn't have been Shakespeare because he lacked the appropriate social standing is utter nonsense.  Poets had aristocratic patrons; they hung around noble households.  What seems surprising about Shakespeare is that he kept his contacts with the nobility to a minimum.

The real issue, when it comes to the various "Alternative Authorship" theories, is something else.  It starts from a desire to make Shakespeare - the best writer we've ever had - into something that he wasn't: an aristocrat.  Behind this lies a very strange assumption - that only those of noble birth are capable of marvellous things.  Realistically, we know that to be untrue.  But not everybody has reconciled themselves to democracy, and there are still plenty of people out there who harbour the delusions of an earlier age.  And, if you believe that blue blood is inherently better than any other kind, it will follow that you want to claim Shakespeare for the ruling elite.

So the denialists start out with a fundamental belief (the aristocracy are universally brilliant; everyone else is an idiot) which they then seek to prove.  We call this sort of thing "confirmation bias".  You start out with a theory and then bend the evidence to suit it.

Sir Derek Jacobi - one of the more consistent anti-Stratfordian voices - once claimed that there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  Well, you can make that claim if you decide to exclude every bit of evidence that he did.  But you have to ignore the testimonies of Robert Greene (1592), Richard Field (1593/4), Francis Meres (1598), William Jaggard (1599), the students at Cambridge University (1601) and a host of others, including John Fletcher, Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.  Or, rather, you have to conjure up a conspiracy of epic proportions, so that the churchman Francis Meres could praise both Oxford and Shakespeare in his Palladis Tamia without realising that they were (allegedly) one and the same, and Ben Jonson could collude in a ridiculous plot without giving the game away (this is probably the best argument against all the Alternative Authorship theories: Ben Jonson wouldn't not have been able to keep the secret).

Basically, everybody at the time knew that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  It wasn't until more than 150 years after Shakespeare's death that anybody began to imagine that he didn't.  And the basis for that imaginary claim was groundless - it grew out of the refusal to acknowledge the social realities of Shakespeare's time.

But here's the problem.  The Shakespeare denialists are very much like climate sceptics (or "contrarians", as they're sometimes called) or Creationists.  They've started out with a fixed idea based on a kind of blind faith, and nothing will shake their conviction.  No amount of evidence will force them to rethink.  They'll just adapt their theory, regardless of how far from reason and reality they have to travel to accommodate the inconvenient facts.

You can't argue with them, because they made up their minds before they started.  Everything becomes some strange kind of "proof" that they are right (and, consequently, anyone who points to the facts is engaged in the original conspiracy - the reasoning becomes decidedly circular).

It's all incredibly frustrating, because the denialists can lose the argument one hundred times but will still come back claiming that they've won.  Just as with climate sceptics, who get very creative with the facts, they won't give in.  Why should they, you might ask.  Well, for the simple reason that they're absolutely wrong!

There is no evidence - none at all, not a shred - that somebody else wrote Shakespeare's plays.  They were written by William Shakespeare, gent, of Stratford-upon-Avon (although others had a hand in a few of them).  There is no argument about this, and it is facile to pretend that there is.

But the big worry is that the obsessives who want to believe that Shakespeare simply wasn't posh enough to be Shakespeare will keep misleading the public.  If we're honest, there isn't a debate.  There are a few loud voices continually trying to shout down the experts.  There is, as it were, a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

These people are trying to drag us back to a past which we ought to have got rid of.  No one in their right minds believes that only aristocrats can write well.  So let's be honest: nobody in their right minds believes that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays of Shakespeare (including those plays which were written after Oxford's death).  It is a kind of madness to imagine that he did, and it's a madness we could all do without.

Please, devote your energies to researching who William Shakespeare really was, because that's where the Stratfordians have let us all down.  But don't take the lunatic view that Shakespeare was "illiterate".  That simply shows that you left your reason at the door when you blundered into the debate.

And stop trying to mislead people.  In my book, that's an unforgivable sin.  Whether it's climate change or who was William Shakespeare - there is no excuse for trying to force people into believing things that are not true.

Keep your madness to yourself, and stop trying to take Shakespeare from us.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shakespeare "Not a Very Tall Man"

Between delivering your manuscript and seeing your book in print, there's a gap.  In the case of Who Killed William Shakespeare? that gap was about ten months.

It's a tricky period because, mentally, you're still writing your book.  Is there something you've missed, something you need to put in, something that could be better expressed? 

One of the little things I fussed about and mulled over endlessly, while waiting for the proofs of my book to arrive, was whether to address the issue of Shakespeare's height.  Not a common problem, perhaps; it doesn't seem to have bothered many of his biographers.  But it bothered me.  Because I had this sneaking feeling that Shakespeare was probably quite short.

The idea that Will was not exactly a giant had grown, slowly, fed by the odd hint here and there.  It also came from the fact that the skull in the Sheldon family crypt at Beoley church (which as regular readers, or those blessed souls who have read Who Killed William Shakespeare? will know, was probably Shakespeare's skull) was described in the 19th century as "undersized".  More recently, a former churchwarden of Beoley, who has both seen and photographed the skull, told me that it was "small" - as if it were a woman's skull, or the skull of a child.

Of course, if you've read the book you'll know that parts of the skull are missing.  But it still seems to have struck observers as being small.  Rev. Charles Jones Langston, writing his account of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found in 1884, made the point twice.  And yet he was convinced that the skull was Shakespeare's.

I ummed and ahhed about mentioning Shakespeare's height in the book because I had picked up on a few hints, a few references, which could be interpreted as indicating that Will was a little on the short side.  In Sonnet 80, he compared himself unfavourably with Sir Walter Raleigh, who was about six feet tall; Raleigh, the "Rival Poet", was "of tall building and of goodly pride", and Will's "saucy barque" was "inferior far to his".

Other hints came in Ben Jonson's An Execration Upon Vulcan.  Jonson's library had just gone up in smoke, a mere month before the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works.  Ben Jonson thought back to the burning of the Globe theatre, ten years earlier, and I suspect that just as he appears to have blamed Shakespeare for the fire at the Globe, so he saw Shakespeare's influence behind his own catastrophic fire (even though Shakespeare had been dead for more than seven years when Ben's study went up in flames).

The traditional story of the Globe fire holds that it was caused by the firing of two cannons.  Ben Jonson suggested otherwise:

Nay, sigh’d, ah Sister ’twas the Nun, Kate ArdenGifford's edition reads; 'Nay, sighed a sister,  Venus' nun, Kate Arden,'
Kindled the Fire! But, then did one return,
No Fool would his own harvest spoil, or burn!
If that were so, thou rather would’st advance
The Place, that was thy Wives Inheritance.

In this strange passage, the "Nun", Kate Arden, magically transforms into a "Fool" who wouldn't - surely he wouldn't! - wreck his own nest egg.  The Arden surname points at Shakespeare.  The word "kate" or "cate" could be interpreted in two ways: either as a "picklock", a tool for breaking into a locked building, or as something "small" and "dainty".

I held back, however, on tentatively advancing my notion that Shakespeare might have been of modest stature.  But maybe I was right.

Two portraits of Shakespeare have recently been unveiled by Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel.  These portraits are reproduced above (images courtesy of Discovery News).  Neither is an original.  Rather, the one is a photo of a portrait that went missing during the Second World War, the other being an engraving published in 1824.

However, the engraving - or "Boaden" portrait - would appear to have been modelled on an original portrait, now lost.  Those facial features (wonky left eye, damaged or drooping left eyebrow, depressions high up in forehead) which I have come to see as authentically Shakespearean are present and correct.  It is based, then, on a genuine likeness of Shakespeare.

But here's the really exciting bit: the "Boaden" portrait is unique in showing Shakespeare's whole body.  And as Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel was moved to remark about the "Boaden" - "We can see he wasn't a very tall man."

So maybe I was right: maybe Shakespeare was small and dainty (a "cate"), and "undersized", as is the skull at Beoley.

(There's something else about the "Boaden" portrait - anyone who's read my recent article on the Historical Honey website will know that another, and I believe more interesting, portrait has an unusual detail in the form of a dragonfly-shaped knot or bow poking through the doublet; that detail is so unusual that a professional period costume expert admitted she'd never seen a bow poking through a doublet like that before.  Take a look at the detail from the "Boaden" portrait, above; there's another bow.)

Anyway, I think we can begin to think of Shakespeare as being rather delicately formed.  He "wasn't a very tall man", which only adds extra weight to the possibility that the skull at Beoley church is his.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Shakespeare's First Love

Ladies and gentlemen ...

I've had another article published online in the past few days.  Following hot on the heels of my piece about a "new" Shakespeare portrait, which appeared on the excellent Historical Honey website (, the following article was published on the equally wonderful History Vault site.  Please click on the link below:

Shakespeare's Lovers Part One: The White Lady

Part Two will be published on 15 March.

And I'll be back soon with a proper blogpost!

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Face to Face with Shakespeare

Lots of news in the world of Shakespeare portraiture.

Here's my contribution - Shakespeare and the Dragonfly - with huge thanks to Historical Honey.

I'll blog about the Shakespeare images recently unveiled by Professor Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel very soon.  For now, good people, please enjoy my very brief introduction to the "Wadlow" portrait by clicking the link above.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Reviews, News, Interviews

Today, we're playing catch up.  Or archiving, if you prefer.

First, some news.  I have a couple of talks booked for the near future.

The first will take place at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 20 March and is entitled The Faces of Shakespeare: Revealing Shakespeare's Life and Death Through Portraits and Other Objects - should be an interesting one, as I expect to unveil a "new" portrait of William Shakespeare, and it's free to attend!  So, if you're in the area ...

After that, I have an appearance at Stratford Literary Festival on 29 April.  Not free to attend, that one, but for a mere £8 you get me talking about Who Killed William Shakespeare?, plus tea and cake!  It'll be just days after the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

I've also had a couple of interviews published online lately: one with the lovely Stephanie Moore Hopkins for her Layered Pages blog, the other for Paula Lofting, tireless mastermind of the Review Group blog (Simon Stirling Discusses the Mysteries of Shakespeare).

But that's not all!  I've also been indulging in a bit of book reviewing myself.  So, for your information and/or delectation:

My review of Keane's Company by Iain Gale for the fantastic Historical Honey website can be found here.

My review of Nancy Jardine's The Beltane Choice for the Review Group can be found here.

And finally, my affectionate tribute to Richard Findlater's lovely old theatrical biography of Grimaldi, King of Clowns can be read here.

Plenty more of that sort of thing to come, folks, and I'll do my damnedest to keep you posted about it all.  Meanwhile, in other news, I'm now on Twitter - @WhoKilledWill.

Onwards and upwards ...

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Mysteries of Shakespeare

More plugging and boasting from yours truly (don't lose heart, though - I'll return to real blogging before too long!).

This was posted on that lovely Review blog today:

Me, Discussing the Mysteries of Shakespeare

Hope you like it!