History: Shakespeare and the Evidence Problem


Updated from 20 8 2011


Note: The terms ‘Stratfordian’ and ‘Anti-Stratfordian’ are used here to indicate the two camps, those who believe the historical figure William Shakespeare born Stratford 1564 was the Author of the works under his name, and ‘Anti-Stratfordian’ for those he believe ANOTHER wrote them. The terms are used without prejudice. Anti-Stratfordians believe in any of a number of candidates, there is no consensus.


The Shakespeare Authorship debate has become a cultural battleground in a multiplicity of senses. Most obviously, the rancorous controversy between Shakespearian othodoxy and its critics, rendered more partisan by the terms Stratfordian and anti- Stratfordian, has obscured specific and general issues of considerable intellectual significance. James Shapiro, in his pathbreaking Contested Will commented that among his orthodox academic colleagues, he was regarded as “at risk of going over to the dark side” (1) by writing a book about the phenomenon,

though he firmly believes that William Shakespeare was the Author.


Shapiro comments that the attempt by orthodox scholarship to wall off the Authorship debate and treat it as taboo has been a spectacular failure. Indeed, it has fuelled the sense among anti-Stratfordians that there is something to hide. It has to be understood very clearly that the Authorship of the Shakespearian corpus is a perfectly legitimate historical question, and the puzzles and gaps in the limited evidence linking William Shakespeare of Stratford with the Works are an acceptable topic for research.


This is the case despite there being no accepted alternative candidate. It is remarkable that the massive growth in research over the last century and a half  challenging the limited evidence linking the Stratford man with the work has not led to significant fresh evidence or solid evidence based lines of enquiry, still less a consensus around who actually wrote the works. Instead there has been an explosion of alternative candidates despite their being little fresh evidence. There is an inverse relationship between the limited results of research into alternatives and the exponential growth of possible candidates. This now numbers 80 on Wikipedia, up from 50 in 2009 (2).


It is doubtful that this growth represents a growth of understanding. Questioning the factual base of the Shakespeare claim has been largely negative, generating more speculation than hard evidence. The phenomenon of Shakespeare Denial casts Doubt – a key word – but produces no effective indication of who actually wrote the works. Rather the contrary.


However the phenomenon cannot be dismissed, either as history or a cultural formation. There are historical questions about Shakespeare and his culture which require addressing. It is a sign of the influence of Denial and the belief that texts and evidence do not speak openly but have to be decoded – a central Denial belief – that Rene Weis subtitled his Shakespeare biography Shakespeare Unbound as “Decoding a hidden life”. (3) For an orthodox Stratfordian like Weis, viewing Shakespeare’s life as hidden, and needing decoding, would have been difficult to promote until recently. Denial is growing in influence. The response by Stratfordians is alas more often to avoid tackling the issues rather  than responding to the challenge. The current attempts of the Shakespeare  Birthplace Trust to counter the film ANONYMOUS, directed by Roland Emmerich and released in late 2011, are testimony to the negative reactions of orthodoxy.


Dr Paul Edmondson, on a blog site set up by the  Birthplace Trust blog, (4) opens with the categorical assertion that “For true Shakespearians, there is no question that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare: no debate, no issue”. The meaning of ‘true Shakespearians’ is obscure. There undoubtedly is a debate, and it is foolish to argue there are no issues. For example, what happened in the seven years 1585-1592? How did a man with no obvious cultural standing in 1585 emerge  in 1592 as a writer with the skills to produce Venus and Adonis and dedicate it to the Earl of Southampton? There is a puzzling lack of evidence about Shakespeare which attracts not merely literary but some important historical writers to query the Authorship. Hugh Trevor Roper did so notably in an influential essay in 1962, and though his reputation declined catastrophically after he endorsed the fraudulent Hitler diaries, he remains a significant historian (5). There is no reason not to consider the Authorship question a genuine historical subject.


Revisionism beyond Shakespeare.


The Shakespeare Authorship controversy gains impetus from wider currents of scepticism in modern culture and can be seen as a sub set of wider historiographical and epistemological problems. However  it has its own internal dynamic, and it certainly will not go away of its own accord. For Historians it throws shadows across many long accepted views of the late Tudor period and can also be seen as part of wider revisionist currents.


Historians have always to proceed on the basis that there are no final answers in history, and research may produce fresh evidence or reinterpretations which change the accepted view. This is an invariable rule. It is particularly so where the evidence is weak, and unexplained issues remain unresolved after much research, as is the case  for the Authorship issue whether the Man from Stratford, or the alternatives are considered.


Nonetheless the underlying issues are not confined to the Shakespeare Authorship question. At a broader level, the relevant question is that posed by Helen Hackett writing about the “meeting of two myths”, (those of Shakespeare and Elizabeth 1). She wrote that the Shakespeare Authorship question “exemplifies the fact that the question ‘who wrote Shakespeare’s works?’ is ultimately less intriguing and mysterious than the question ‘why is this question asked’?” (6) Indeed – the evidence for Shakespeare is weak, but that for other candidates is weaker.


The thrust of Hackett’s argument is that “anti-Stratfordian hypotheses may… be seen as early examples of the modern phenomenon of the conspiracy theory. In this case there was a double conspiracy to suppress the truth: first by Elizabeth and her ministers in her lifetime and then by the academic, literary and political establishments of later eras” (7). Thus questioning Shakespeare inevitably leads to questioning the historiography of the period. How has the truth been concealed – if indeed it has been concealed? What do we know about the later Tudors – and how do we know it?


Hackett’s views point toward a sea change in Tudor historiography– a sustained attempt to revise views regarding both the celebrity figures of late Tudor England, Shakespeare and Elizabeth, the evolution of whose reputations is the focus of her book.  Revisionism of the Tudor Period itself is not a major element of her study, but increasingly has come to the fore. The traditional view of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen is being challenged, parrallel with the Shakespeare controversy but also as part of a wider perspective on Elizabeth as a sexual being.


The Shakespeare Authorship controversy is only part of wider revisionism of later Tudor history which raise deeper questions of the role of evidence – epistemology. This paper will focus on issues relating to the controversy where they relate to the epistemological questions. It is entirely relevant that within the Stratfordian camp there is growing assertion that Shakespeare may have had Catholic sympathies, a plausible perspective and a controversy which may prove productive for research, but it does not raise deep historiographical questions. (8)  But the tendency to raid the sonnets for evidence, or any indeed any of the literary work, poses such questions and is part of the focus of the paper.


More research does not necessarily produce more understanding. In what ways do the various and expanding theories about late Tudor politics and culture operate, and what counts as valid evidence? Can literary works provide valid material? Does a lack of evidence prove state suppression? And if the same facts are used to prove contrary propositions, how can judgements be made?


Such questions underpin the Authorship debate and are epistemological questions. There is a common interface with revisionism in other areas of late Tudor history, notably the growing popularity of the view that Elizabeth 1 was not the Virgin Queen but was sexually active and bore several children (9) These revisionist theories raise issue of conspiracy theory in the late Tudor period, notably the growing belief that a sexually active Elizabeth 1 was well understood by contemporary observers, the information suppressed by an allegedly (but anachronistically) totalitarian police state. This feeds into the Authorship debate, concealment of identity becoming another state secret. In this area elements of circular argument are common – evidence cannot be discovered because it has been suppressed, thus the absence of evidence is taken as proof of the conspiracy, moving the questions beyond epistemology to whether deductions can be made in any valid historical sense.


To keep a manageable scope for investigation while allowing focus to move beyond the parameters of the Shakespeare Authorship debate, a variety of case studies for focusing the new Tudor revisionism will be needed.  It will be necessary to focus on specific problems while addressing the wider issues of which they are a part. For this paper the case studies will be (a) The Prince Tudor Theory (b) the Portrait of an Unknown Woman, #87 in the Royal collection (c) the sonnets as evidence in the authorship debate.


Prisms for analysis of late Tudor revisionism


(a) the Prince Tudor theory. This combines elements of  the Authorship debate with those of the revisionist views of Elizabeth’s sexuality. It alleges the Queen bore children, with her sons said to be Tudor Princes and able to inherit the throne. Proponents seem barely aware of the law of primogeniture, with its requirement of legitimacy. Elizabeth never married. The theory is used most prominently both by Baconians and Oxfordians. There are two variants, with a blend underpinning the film ANONYMOUS.


In the Prince Tudor 1 theory, the Queen had children by at least two lovers in her maturity- Baconians championing Robert Dudley, Oxfordians Edward de Vere. For the Oxfordians, the child is born in 1574, for Baconians the child is born in 1561, some Baconians believing she bore two children by Dudley. Children are fostered on several aristocratic families by Royal diktat and assume the identities of the families behind a wall of silence. The Oxfordian child is the 3rd Earl of Southampton, fostered on the Southampton family, the Baconian child Sir Francis Bacon, fostered with the Bacon family. In the Prince Tudor 2 theory, a variant of which is used in the film ANONYMOUS, she had a child in adolescence by Thomas Seymour, fostered on the Oxford family, and this child as the 17th  Earl of Oxford  then fathered Henry Wriothesley with the Queen, the child born in 1574.  This child was named the 3rd Earl of Southampton and fostered with the Southampton family. This adds incest to the mix of sexual and political intrigue which in one version (that of Paul Streitz) also adds murder. Wriothesley, well known as Shakespeare’s patron (having become the Earl of Southampton) would on some versions of this theory be patronising his own father, while possibly being the Fair Young Man of the sonnets from another viewpoint.


An extended view of the theory is given in the article Enter the Tudor Prince (10)


(b) the portrait in the Royal Collection (#87 in the catalogue under Artists Unknown, p74) entitled  Portrait of an Woman, aka Lady in a Persian Dress (Roy Strong’s designation is The Persian Lady) *. The picture is illustrated in the books by Charles Beauclerk and Hildegard Hammerschmidt Hummel discussed below. The image is of an aristocratic woman, probably in her thirties, standing under a tree in an open rural landscape with birds perched in the tree. She faces the viewer with a direct stare. Next to her stands a young stag with partly developed antlers, also facing the viewer and allegedly weeping. The woman is placing a circlet of flowers on the head of the stag. She is wearing a diaphonous dress or smock, topped with an extraordinary head dress apparently of lace, with a trail or veil which hangs down alongside a plume of long hair resting on her bosom. It is often alleged that the woman is pregnant.

On the canvas are painted three latin tags and a cartouche containing a sonnet, the key line of which is “with pensive thoughts my weepinge stagg I crowne”. Nearly every element of this painting is loaded with symbolism, justifying Roy Strong’s judgement that it is “the most extraordinary   of all Elizabethan allegorical portraits” (11): certainly no short description can possibly do justice to it. Why the woman is pensive, and why she is crowning the stag with flowers, are only the start of the mysteries which surround this picture.

There are virtually only three statements about the picture which most critics would accept without demur. Firstly, it is painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2- 1636) sometime in the 1590s- though the Royal Collection does not accept any attribution and regards the artist as unknown. Strong argues, after Frances Yates, that the dress is drawn from Boissard’s Virgo Persica, thus giving him the Persian connection.


While the dating and clothing are controversial among critics, the second generally accepted view about the painting is that the woman is pregnant. This is hard to accept, since pregnancy cannot be established by viewing, but the picture develops a powerful impetus to this conclusion among observers, though it appears unprovable. Less controversially, the third generally accepted view about the picture is that the stag refers to the Diana and Actaeon myth in classic (Roman) literature. The presence of the stag is clearly not decorative, and would point a classically trained audience to the myth.


The legend as it appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses –  a well known source for Renaissance culture – is that Actaeon while hunting, accidentally sees the Goddess Diana (Artemis in the Greek original) naked at her bath. Diana, the virgin goddess, punishes him by turning him into a stag and he is killed by his own hunting dogs, weeping as he contemplates his fate. The stag to the right of the woman can therefore be held to be a reference to Actaeon. The woman is not however Diana, for she is not naked or preparing for the bath, or portrayed as vindictive, and by crowning the stag is showing a positive emotional relationship with it. The  picture therefore is not a straight portrayal of the legend, unlike Titian’s two paintings, Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and The Death of Actaeon (1559-75). The legend is being used allusively.


Reference to the legend is strengthened by two factors. Firstly, the myth was well known in the 1590s and was featured on the title page of the contemporary poem Willoby, His Avisa, which has been seen as commenting on court life (12). The myth is referred to in a cartoon on the title page, where a male figure with a stag’s head is shown walking towards a woman in a bath, the scene being a rural landscape. The naked woman is splashing him with water, presumably to work the spell. The anonymous poem was published in 1594. (13)


Secondly, Diana as a virgin Goddess and patron of chastity was a common reference to Elizabeth, the virgin Queen. It is perhaps because of this that the picture was initially thought to be of the Queen, after its rediscovery from obscurity in the early C18th. However from 1914 following Sir Lionel Cust’s study of Gheerhaerts’ work this was abandoned. Cust believed the picture to be of Arabella Stuart. The change in attribution is seen by some Denial theorists as part of a cover up, but the Royal Collection does cite the possibility that the picture is of Elizabeth 1 but argues it is unlikely to be so if the woman is pregnant, which is far from certain. The official view is that the costume is of the type worn for a court masque, but the Royal Collection has  no view on  its subject. (14)


The conspiracy theory that the identification has been concealed in the twentieth century to preserve the idea of the Virgin Queen is strictly speaking outside the scope of this paper but links with the Prince Tudor theory and demands comment. While it is asserted  that the picture is involved in  a conspiracy to conceal Elizabeth’s sexual activity as it was painted to show a pregnant Queen then hidden away by Establishment figures who knew this for over a hundred years,  it is puzzling that the name should then be given to the painting for some two hundred years and then withdrawn in the twentieth century. What changed in the twentieth century? And why is the painting evidence today of a conspiracy when it was not evidence from its rediscovery  until around the time of the First World War?


The major theories around the painting encompass not just the view that this is a picture of a pregnant Elizabeth 1, a theory held by both Baconians and Oxfordians. The picture is featured in full as an illustration for Charles Beauclerk’s Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom and on the dustjacket of the hardback edition, with the detail of the stag used as one of three vertical images. (15) An alternative theory, developed by the German historian Hildegard Hammerschmidt Hummel, is that this is a picture of the Dark Lady of the sonnets, who she believes is Elizabeth Wriothesley, nee Vernon, the wife of the 3rd Earl of Southampton who she believes to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets. (16) It is unquestionable that her daughter was Penelope, later Penelope Spencer and the direct ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer and hence Princes Wills and Harry. The Professor however believes that her father is William Shakespeare, completing the emotional triangle of the sonnets. The picture is used to support this theory, and  Professor uses the sonnets to provide evidence. The sonnet painted on the bottom right corner of the painting is ascribed by the Professor to Shakespeare, raising questions about both portraiture and the sonnets as evidence. Only the portrait is relevant to a consideration of evidence per se. The theory that Shakespeare was the paternal ancestor of Lady Di raises wider questions which cannot be considered here.


While the picture is often viewed as an image of an allegedly pregnant woman, the Prince Tudor argument that this is a portrait of Elizabeth 1 while pregnant with the child who became Henry Wriothesley  is distinctly implausible. By the 1590s she was well past child bearing age, and a painting is hardly ever evidence in any forensic sense. A painting of a dubious event twenty or more years after it was alleged to have happened certainly cannot be evidence. Why this is held to be the case, and why it was thought necessary to suppress the name in the twentieth century, are fascinating questions which need to be addressed. But they are certainly not historiographical questions.


However the claim by the American Oxfordian theorist Paul Altrocchi that the painting has been altered certainly requires investigation. Altrocchi has argued that the 2001 Royal Collection catalogue stated that the painting has been “extensively rubbed (ie erased, extirpated or blotted out) and, especially in the background, heavily repainted…” (17) Studying colour enlargements, Altrocci asserts that painting over the “lady’s dress on her left side was presumably done to make her look less pregnant”, that elements of a landscape and buildings have been removed, and birds flying, noted in 1725, have disappeared. Most crucially he argues that the cartouche shows traces of a Royal Crown and the letters ER, which he believes stood for “Elizabetha Regina”. (17)


Altrocchi argues that these alterations can be seen in the photographs in Ernest Law’s catalogue of 1898. He asserts that three veil alterations have taken place, in the 103 years between Law’s book and his writing in 2001. These are serious allegations which need to be independently investigated. Altrocchi mentions the Diana/Actaeon myth, but fails to address the appearance of the Stag in his article. Normally this would be grounds for dismissing an analysis, but given the seriousness of the allegations that the painting has been altered while in the Royal Collection, investigation is essential. It is a sign of the weakness of Altrocchi’s case that he thinks her left side has been altered to conceal pregnancy. The figure is standing with the body angled to the right. The belly is on the right side. Altering the left side would not therefore conceal pregrnancy.


The strongest case so far for a valid identification is that of Roy Strong, who provides a coherent and logical explanation for the Stag’s relationship to the woman. He argues that the Actaeon  link places this as part of  Essex’s tragic rebellion in 1601. Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, having surprised Elizabeth unclothed in his  notorious unauthorised return from Ireland, had made the disasterous mistake which led to his doomed rebellion by excluding him finally from court influence. The desperate failure of the rebellion led to his trial for treason and execution  on February 25th 1601.


The course of the Essex tragedy certainly suggests the portrait could relate to his downfall. His arrival in London on February 28th 1599 and appearance in the Queen’s bedchamber before she had dressed destroyed his relationship with the Queen. He was imprisoned and not till December was his wife allowed to see him. Essex was released in August 1600 but had lost any prospect of returning to the court. He plotted and on 8th February 1601 tried to raise a rebellion in London. The capital did not support him and his trial and execution for treason followed. (18)


Strong argues the dress is part of a fashion for Persian costume which was in vogue 1600-1601, which dates put it in or after the Essex rebellion. He considers the woman pregnant, and that she is Frances Devereux (nee Walsingham), the wife of Essex, painted in the period of the events which led to her husband’s execution. Strong argues cogently that Frances his wife, being excluded from the Queen’s presence by events, had the picture painted by Geerhaerts, showing her pregnant state and warm relationship to her husband, shown as the stag, who was as doomed as Actaeon had been when he saw Diana naked.  Presumably this could be seen as a plea for clemency by Elizabeth. The reasons for its commision nevertheless  remain obscure, but Strong’s theory accounts for the allegorical nature of the picture, if not necessarily the sonnet or the latin tags.


Strong  suggests the  picture could have been produced as a plea by Essex’s wife, Frances, presented to the Queen to recognise her plight as her husband’s folly rebounded. There is no documentary evidence to support this case, but it fits the known facts. (19) The interpretation provides likely reasons for the portrait by fitting the internal evidence and known context, both cultural and political. Further research into the allegorical references is needed, but as an exercise in historical deduction, Strong’s case remains compelling and pathbreaking, providing a fruitful model of how to place obscure Tudor portraits in a historical context. However it has not established a consensus and the picture continues to be used by both Stratfordians and anti Stratfordians to bolster diametrically opposed cases, raising in an acute manner the historiographical and epistemological issues which this paper aims to bring to the fore


c) The sonnets


It is an even greater challenge  to place the sonnets in a historical context allowing examination of the many mysteries which envelope them. The sonnets are the most enigmatic and elusive body of lyric poetry in the English language, expressing intensely personal emotion while revealing virtually nothing of the identity of the author who wrote them or indeed how and why they were written. In this regard they are part of the wider Shakespearian problem of why there is so little evidence about the Author. However the apparently autobiographical nature of the sonnets has led to sustained raiding for evidence, a search which is highly problematic raising acute questions about the nature of literature and its use as historical source material.


The temptation to read the sonnets autobiographically has pre-empted the most fundamental of issues – do they count as evidence? Issues around this question are becoming unavoidable. The sonnets are used both by Stratfordians to produce otherwise unobtainable autobiographical information, and anti-Stratfordians to support the idea that hidden codes express equally unobtainable autobiographical information though  in an entirely different sense. But in both readings, the assumption is that the sonnets are a mine of information about the Author to be exploited. This is questionable.


The seductive belief that the sonnets could provide insights into the life and emotions of the Author outweighs concerns about the enigmatic nature of the sonnets, allowing preconceptions to shape investigation. Even on the most basic of questions, for example whether the sequence of poems is significant, the lack of any evidence does not stop firm assumptions emerging. For example, as Katherine Duncan-Jones has commented, “Whatever the order of their original composition may have been, it is highly unlikely that it bears much resemblance to the order of the sonnets as finally arranged in Q, although many scholars, strangely, have assumed that Shakespeare did begin to write at 1 and simply carried through to 154” (20). This is sound.


However Duncan-Jones also believes that the sequence as printed in 1609 has what she calls “Numerological finesses”, such as the “play on the human body in 20, on ‘(h)our minutes’ in 60, the grand climacteric in 63 and the double climacteric in 136”, which she believes “suggest either that sonnets already written were subsequently carefully located, or revised for particular positions in the sequence”. This is hard to see, especially with sonnet 20 which is the most homeoerotic of any in the Quarto (Q). (21) More generally, we have no evidence at all on how the sonnets were ordered, so speculation has no foundation.


A classic example of how  interpretation has consistently made assumptions with inadequate evidence is the identity of the Dark Lady, the pursuit of which has until relatively recently chosen to avoid clear pointers to the emotional relationships within the sonnets. For several centuries, largely till the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, this search (which continues) was driven by what may be called the Laura Deviation. This was the assumption that the emotions in the sonnets were driven by a heterosexual imperative, and could therefore be parralleled to the Laura sequence of Petrarchian sonnets, though Shakespeare’s are certainly not chaste as Petrarch’s writings about his idealised love prove to be. Comforting parrallels with Keat’s Fanny Brawn, and Yeat’s Maude Gonne, were also made (22).


It is however part of the way that Bardolatory developed that critics ignored clear evidence that there is an emotional triangle within the poems, and the bulk of the sonnets are directed at a Fair Young Man. The poems are not overtly homeoerotic – male homosexuality had been criminal since the Henrican statute of 1533. Despite the intense emotional charge of some of the poems, the Author expresses nothing which would have fallen foul of the law and contemporary prejudice.  The backlash against Marlowe following his disappearance in 1593, though aimed at his alleged aetheism, underlined the fact that this is very much an era when for gay men theirs was the love that dare not speak its name. The Author cannot have been unaware of this, and the proprieties are observed. Nevertheless – the bisexuality of the poems is clear, notably in sonnet 144


“Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,

Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still,

The better angel is a man right fair,

The worser spirit a woman coloured ill…..”


which is unambiguous. That this was printed as early as 1599 (in Jaggard’s Passionate Pilgrime), at the height of the Marlowe backlash makes its clarity more surprising. The theme of a positive attitude to the fair man and hostility to the ill coloured woman runs unavoidably through the collection. The poet’s attitude to the woman, while heterosexual, is one of sexual obsession and some self loathing for giving in to this. The poems are so far from Petrarchian idealism as to invite the idea of a conscious antithesis, but the temptation to read them otherwise has been immense. Faced with clear evidence which did not fit contemporary prejudice, critics tended to adopt a classic but disreputable technique. They ignored the evidence.


In the last fifty years acceptance of the triangular relationship has become established. Critics may now be able to accept that the poet is bisexual, and that he loses the object of his desires to his rival but there is no more progress toward identification of the three parties than when analysis focussed on two.  Both Stratfordians and Anti Stratfordians make massive efforts to identify the parties, but only produce an escalating list of candidates. Logic forces the conclusion that it is an open question whether the poems are in reality autobiographical or purely fantastical.


There is no early resolution in sight. What is imperative is a confrontation with the poems as evidence. The problems relating to their creation, appearance and reception must be confronted as the precondition to any satisfactory handling of the sonnets and the mysteries surrounding them.


Sonnet 144 is a case in point. First appearing in 1599 as one of two sonnets which later appear in the 1609 quarto, both appear to be written at the height of the sonnet movement of the 1590s. But beyond that we know nothing. The number of “The Two Loves” in the sequence has led to speculation that its place as number 144 , or 12×12, has some significance, for those who see numbers as having allegorical meaning. Yet this presumes that the order was decreed. It may have been accidental. We simply do not know. The bare facts of sonnet history are very few, and much debated. Discussion starts with the 1609 quarto. And beyond its text it is difficult to go.


We know virtually nothing about the writing of the sonnets. Francis Mere’s reference in 1598 to “hony- tongued Shakespeare… his sugar’d sonnets among his private friends” (23) indicate some were written  in the period before 1598 but which come from that period is unknown, though the reference to private friends is significant. Jaggard sailed close to the wind in using the two in what appears to be the pirated collection Passionate Pilgrim and there is debate around whether the 1609 quarto is also pirated. However the quarto edition was entered into Stationer’s Register on 20 May 1609 and Thomas Heywood – whose own Troia Brittannica  had been published by Jaggard in 1608 and thus knew both principals – wrote that “He (Shakespeare) since, to do himself right, hath published them in his own name” (24), a comment written in 1612 at a time when Jaggard had republished his 1599 collection, which may have annoyed Shakespeare who would see this as competition for the 1609 quarto. But this is speculation, and we do not know how much control Shakespeare had over the production of the quarto.


It would appear that Shakespeare  sold the mss to Thomas Thorpe, who entered the Quarto in the Stationer’s Register and oversaw production. Perhaps in a plague year when theatres were closed, selling the mss was a way to raise ready cash. Certainly the poet seems to have abandoned the poems and they do not seem to have had authorial corrections. Duncan-Jones believes some of the poems date from the early Stuart period, and co-incide with closure of theatres when companies were suspended. But in reality we have no firm evidence about composition or publication.


The lack of evidence about the sonnets origins and publishing history has never deterred speculation. There is no evidence on such key aspects as why they were written and for who, when they were produced and for what reason they circulated and were then published, but much grasping after straws. Considerable efforts of analysis have been devoted to the title page, and the identification of the Mr W H to whom the poems are dedicated  has generated levels of speculation almost as great as the identity of the principals, with much dogmatic assertion. It is now speculated that these poems are obscure because they are part of the wider conspiracy which now leads to the production of alternative Shakespeare’s. Those who claim this need to address issues such as the comments by Mere and Haywood who clearly indicate that someone called Shakespeare wrote the poems. Possibly the man from Stratford was a cipher for ANOTHER. But one hundred and fifty years of the most intense research ever devoted to one author has only produced an infinitely escalating list of alternative.


It is certainly the case that nothing can be firmly established about these poems and the characters they deal with. It is clear they are intensely personal, but they are not confessional. The Author gave nothing away about who they refer to. They may in fact be purely imaginary, but if not then no one has convincingly shown they are autobiographical, or indeed carry any degree of personal information about the writer. It is perhaps time to accept that these poems are unlikely to yield their mysteries, and consider the problems they pose historically in the wider context of the issues discussed in this paper.


Moving Forward.  


The three examples given above are but the tip of the iceberg of Tudor Revisionism. The revisionism in itself goes beyond the purely Tudor episodes to raise fundamental historiographical and epistemological issues. The Prince Tudor theory raises the wider question of whether the Queen was sexually active and bore children – challenging the accepted view of the Virgin Queen held for four and half centuries. Even a decade ago this conspiracy theory had little support but it is now advancing out of the shadows of the Baconian and more strongly Oxfordian sub culture, with Hollywood taking its share of the proceeds.


The debate on the Portrait of a Woman raises the Pregnancy issue as part of the Prince Tudor issue, but has been used as evidence for other women around the later Tudor court.. The portrait raises questions of how far pictures can be regarded as historical evidence, what forensic status they have, and whether they can be firmly located in a period without documentation or a defined context. If the picture is used to support the Prince Tudor theory, the question of whether a portrait can be used as evidence for an alleged event twenty years earlier is central, and must be answered in the negative.


This should close the matter, but the allegations by Altrocchi that the painting has been altered three times in the last hundred years puts a more solid basis to an otherwise insubstantial conspiracy theory. The alleged suppression of the identity of the Queen, which here extends to a cover up by Establishment historians from Cust onwards, can be examined forensically. Whether this would resolve the allegations would in part depend on how far ground rules on the relevant evidence can be established. The issues are more than purely epistemological. These two examples are historical, while questions relating to the sonnets are also biographical, and literary. At the heart of the problems  is the issue of whether imaginative work can be used as historical evidence.


The sonnets have long been used in this way by both Stratfordians and anti Stratfordians, sometimes with the same elements being used to support a variety of candidates. How valid can this be? There are legitimate ways Elizabethan literature can be used as historical evidence – dedications to patrons, reference to contemporary events, the playing of drama to the court and nobility, the role of dramatists in state entertainments (or not in the case of Shakespeare’s failure to celebrate the  accession of James 1: curious in a playwright noted for his veneration of monarchy), reflections on morality, behaviour, attitudes, relationships, all these and more are legitimate material for historical debate.


However when there is as little hard evidence on provenance, creation and production, and the poems are so enigmatic on character  and the personages addressed, there are grave doubts that the poems bear the weight of interpretation put upon them. Whether the sonnets are ultimately a historical source is, as with the plays and other imaginative cultural productions of late Tudor England, a pressing historiographical question. Fundamental problems in using the sonnets for evidence have often been overlooked. This is dubious.


These questions are unavoidably linked to wider issues, and it is important to understand the context in which these are developing. The powerful and largely subjective effort to see the celebrity figures of Elizabethan England, Shakespeare and Elizabeth, as characters in a curiously modern landscape must be resisted. The past can only be understood by a rigorous, evidence based attempt to understand worlds which were very different from the present.


Few of the commentators touched on in this paper would disagree, in principle with this proposition. Yet the wide discrepancies in the use of logic and evidence point to a deeper phenomenon, the substitution of speculation for evidence. If this becomes the touchstone of analysis, objectivity must suffer. Historical revisionism is perfectly acceptable, but it must be governed by rules of objective analysis which all must play by. In the last two decades, something like a Rorschach Ink Blot approach has developed: history is what commentators can detect within the blot. Is it now the case that any interpretation is now valid? What are the rules of engagement? To what extent can critics with different, and legitimate differences agree on the processes they are collectively employing?


The Shakespeare Authorship debate does not stand alone in raising these questions. But it is now unavoidably the case that on this terrain, and others in the sphere of Elizabethan revisionism, urgent questions are now pressing.


Trevor Fisher                                                August 20th 2011/ Revised 22nd February 2012 10.50


* The portrait has been in several Royal Palaces, most recently Hampton Court, but is currently off display until 2013



(1) James Shapiro Contested Will, Faber and Faber 2010, p4. On the failure of the Orthodoxy to wall off its critics, he comments “I became increasingly interested in why this subject remains virtually taboo in academic circles…. one thing is certain: the decision by professors to all but ignore the authorship question hasn’t made it disappear. If anything, more people are drawn to it than ever”. This is exactly right.


2)    Shapiro (op cit p2) noted 50 odd candidates, Bill Bryson Shakespeare the Illlustrated Edition, Harperpress 2007 had noted the same number two years or so earlier. By early 2011 the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition noted 66, but by 17th January 2012 Wikipedia noted 80 names who had attracted support. This is not a sound source of information, but the growth is undeniable. The list can be consulted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shakespeare_authorship_candidates.


(3) Rene Weis, Shakespeare Unbound, Henry Holt 2007,


4)    The Birthplace Trust seeks to respond to ANONYMOUS, justifiably though the film is not an academic treatise, and is not intellectually important, it is culturally important. And the underlying issues, which cannot be dismissed so cavalierly, remain to be discussed. The web site http://bloggingshakespeare.com/sixty-minutes-with-shakespeare

 Dr Paul Edmondson is head of Research and Knowledge at the Trust.


5)    The essay was first published in November 1962 in the English edition of Realities as What’s in a Name?”.It was republished in 2010 in the journal Brief Chronicles and may be accessed at www.briefchronicles.com


6)    Helen Hackett, Shakespeare and Elizabeth, The Meeting of Two Myths,  Princeton 2009. The book is a study of the posthumous attempts to link the two figures when the romantic glow around the Tudors made Elizabeth’s reign appear a golden age.  There is no evidence they ever met, though Hackett is rightly careful to qualify the position referring to “the lack of any evidence that they had contact”. (p3) Quotes are on page 177


(7) op cit p 172


8)    Though the most extended version of the Shakespeare (identified as the Stratfordian) having Catholic sympathies is the Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay, Public Affairs New York, 2005, she strains credulity by using the plays as evidence of catholicism. Her treatment underlines the importance of  the question of how far imaginative literature can be used as historical evidence.


9)    The sexually active  Queen thesis is set against the orthodox Virgin Queen thesis and is not confined to the Authorship debate. See Phillippa Jones, Elizabeth, Virgin Queen? New Holland 2010.  Jones has no interest in the Authorship debate. She alleges six babies, but not the same as those alleged by the Oxfordian Paul Streitz. In Oxford, Son of Elizabeth 1 Shakespeare Institute Press (ie self published) 2001 he advocates probably the initial version of the Prince Tudor 2 theory and alleges 6 babies for Elizabeth.


10) Trevor Fisher, Enter the Tudor Prince, The Historian, Historical Association London Summer 2011. Since the publication of this, a further essay has been published in the journal Brief Chronicles which is dealt with in a separate note on this site.


(11) Roy Strong, ‘My weeping Stagg I crowne’: the Persian Lady reconsidered; IN The Art of the Emblem, Ed Michael Bath, John Manning, Alan R Young, AMS press New York, 1993.


(12)                 The work is sometimes placed within the Shakespeare mythos. For example,  the poem is interpreted by Leslie Hotson as being a reference to Shakespeare as the advisor to the author Willobie, the older man having the initials WS.  Avisa was registered at Stationer’s Hall on September 31594. See I William Shakespeare, Leslie Hotson, Jonathan Cape 1937, Chapter III.


(13) The frontispiece is an illustration in Charles Beauclerk, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, Grove Press New York 2010


(14)                 private communication from Royal Collection, July 2010


(15) Beauclerk op cit. Shakespeare in this book as for all Oxfordians is the 17th Earl of Oxford, who used the name of William Shakespeare, hence becoming Anonymous, giving the film by Roland Emmerich its name.


(16)                 Hildegard Hammerschmidt Hummel,The Life and Times of William Shakespeare, Chaucer Press 2007, pp170-180, painting illustrated in full p171.


(17) Paul  Altrocchi, The Queen Elizabeth Pregnancy Portrait: Who designed it and who did the cover ups? IN Shakespeare Matters, Winter 2002, pp8- 16. The journal is published by the Shakespeare Fellowship, an Oxfordian journal. All Oxfordians regard Shakespeare as Oxford.


(18)                 For a sketch of the downfall of Essex See J B Black, The Reign of Elizabeth, Vol 8 of the Oxford History of England, 1959, pp436-441. Oxford, the Clarendon Press.


(19) Strong op cit pp9-10

(20)                 Katherine Duncan-Jones, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Arden Shakespeare 1997 p16


(21) Quotes from p16.


22) Duncan-Jones op cit p50-52, she comments on the power of ‘suggestio falsi’. For most of the last three hundred years, when the sonnets became a focus of interpretation, they were forced into a heterosexual mode underlining the ability to ignore clear evidence which is one of the lasting lessons of Shakespearian study.


(24) Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, set into the Stationer’s Register 7th September 1598, quote Duncan-Jones, p2


(25) Duncan-Jones op cit p3.

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