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 himself 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 no fresh evidence base. There is an inverse relationship between the limited results of research into alternatives and the exponential growth of possible candidates. This now numbers 77 on Wikipedia, up from 50 only two years ago (2).

It is doubtful that this growth represents a growth of understanding. There is arguably less  insight into Authorship in the Early Modern Period now than a century ago, despite research having discovered much about cultural production in the period. 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 recent 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 meet Denial by rejecting the attempt to tackle the issues  than responding to the challenge. The current attempts of the Shakespeare  Birthplace Trust to counter the film ANONYMOUS, due this autumn, 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”. What is meant by ‘true Shakespearians’ is obscure. There undoubtedly is a debate, and it is foolish to argue there are no issues. Why, for example, are the seven years 1585-1592 shrouded in total darkness? How did a man with no obvious cultural standing 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 is manifest, attracting 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 in 1983, 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 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 current revisionism.

 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. Unsurprisingly the Authorship question expands to encompass other forms of historical revisionism.

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 double thrust 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, and this needs to be brought into focus. The traditional view of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen is being challenged, in part as a function of 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 controvesy but within the wider context. 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. (8)  But it is more controversial  to raid the sonnets for evidence, or any indeed any of the literary work; the corpus of Shakespearian writing is the world of the imagination.

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 facts are used to prove contrary propositions, how can judgements be made?

Such questions underpin the Authorship debate and are epistemological questions. It is essential to acknowledge connections 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. In this area elements of circular argument are clear – 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 narrow the scope of investigation while allowing focus beyond the parameters of the Shakespeare Authorship debate, a variety of prisms* for focussing the new Tudor revisionism will be needed.  It will be necessary to focus on the specific problems in view while addressing the wider issues of which they are a part. For this paper the prisms 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 children for the Queen, 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 both by Baconians and Oxfordians. There are two variants.

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. Children are fostered on several aristocratic families by Royal diktat and assume the identities of the families behind a wall of silence. In the Prince Tudor 2 theory, allegedly used by ANONYMOUS, she had a child in adolescence by Thomas Seymour, and this child – the Earl of Oxford – then fathered Henry Wriothesley with the Queen, the child born in 1574 but named the 3rd Earl of Oxford after fostering 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 (Southampton) would on some versions of this theory be patronising his own father, and possibly being the Fair Young Man of the sonnets.

 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, which is odd. The picture has been drawn into controversies which are specifically English. However it is really the dress which he regards as Persian).

The picture is of a 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 its critics would accept without demur. Firstly, it is painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561/2- 1636) sometime in the 1590s. Strong argues, after Frances Yates, that the dress is drawn from Boissard’s Virgo Persica, thus giving him the Persian connection. He 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 Walsingham, the wife of Essex, at the time of or after the rebellion which led to her husband’s execution.

 While the dating and identification 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. The stag is held to be a reference to Actaeon, before being killed. The woman is not however Diana, for she is not naked, 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, as is the case with Titian’s two paintings, Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) and The Death of Actaeon (1559-75). It is being used allusively.

Reference to the legend is strengthened by two factors. Firstly, the myth was well known in the 1590s and was alluded to in the controversial 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 believing the picture to be of Arbella 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 on 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 authorities take 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 demands comment. The argument that attribution to Elizabeth has been concealed ignores the known difficulties of provenance affecting Tudor portraits without a firm and continuous line of authenticity – the alleged Marlowe Portrait at Corpus Christi College Cambridge and the putative Shakespeare/Marlowe identifications of the Grafton Portrait at John Rylands Library Manchester are examples of the same problem. With assertions of  a conspiracy to conceal Elizabeth’s sexuality, it is puzzling that the name should be given to the painting for some two hundred years and then withdrawn in the twentieth century. What changed in the twentieth century?

Viewing this as an image of an allegedly pregnant woman, makes the Prince Tudor argument that this is a portrait of Elizabeth 1 while pregnant 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 is thought necessary to suppress the name in the twentieth century, are fascinating questions. But they are certainly not historical questions.

However the claim by the American Prince Tudor theorist Paul Altrocchi that the painting has been altered does require 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…” (15) 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”. (16)

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.

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 the Essex tragedy, Essex having surprised Elizabeth unclothed in his  notorious unauthorised return from Ireland, which began 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.  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, who was as doomed as Actaeon had been when he saw Diana naked. The reasons for its commision remain obscure, but the context provides a logical explanation for its content.

Strong argues that the close links between Sir Henry Lee and Geerhardts – Lee being a patron of Geerhardts, though Essex also used him as portraitist, both links suggesting the painter could produce the  picture as a plea by Essex/s wife, Frances Walsingham to the Queen to recognise her plight as her husband’s treason trial drew to a close. There is no documentary evidence to support this case, but it fits the known facts. (17) 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.

 c) The sonnets

It is however less easy 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.

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” (18). 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 126”, 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). (19) More generally, we have no evidence at all on how the sonnets were put into the published order, 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 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 are, and this has always been obvious.

 It is however part of the way that the Shakespeare myth 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, which too leads to further speculation as to identity, tied in with the issue of the patronage of Shakespeare’s poetry in general by the Earl of Southampton, sometimes seen as the Prince Tudor, and sometimes as the Fair Youth of the sonnets.

The poems are not overtly homeoerotic – male homosexuality had been criminal since the Henrican statute of 1533. 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 certainly 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), shortly after 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.  This is far from a Laura  idealisation. 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.

 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, ie the woman, but we have made 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.

It is not proposed here to consider this question. What is imperative is however a confrontation with the poems as evidence. The problems relating to their creation, appearance and reception have too often been glossed. They are 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, printed along with others by WS (William Jaggard does not use the name William Shakespeare – the edition may have been pirated) they are clearly 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” (20) indicate writing 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, 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” (21). But it would appear that he 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.

It does appear clear, however, that the quarto was ill received, falling into a well of silence. Duncan-Jones comments that there is no reprint, unlike Venus and Adonis, which went through at least 16 editions before Shakespeare died. The surviving 13 copies are in good condition, suggesting no close reading compared to copies of other works which were used till worn out. The printed original of Troilus and Cressida (1609)  survives in only 4 copies and though a play script may be used more heavily than a poem, the sonnets were not widely read. (22) The history of the quarto is outside the scope of this paper. However it is relevant to speculate on why the poems were thought to be a commercial proposition, given their subject matter, and why they sank into oblivion. They stood outside the mainstream as they were not classically referenced works but intensely personal poems whose central thrust was not likely to be popular given public attitudes. It is not entirely suprising that there was no second edition till 1640 despite the immense prestige of the name Shakespeare. Why was the quarto produced?

The lack of evidence about the sonnets origins and publishing history has never deterred speculation. That there is no evidence on such key aspects as why there were written and for who, when they were produced and for what reason they circulated and were then published. Great efforts of analysis have been devoted to the title page, and the identification of the Mr W H to whom the poems are dedicated – if somewhat ambiguously – has generated levels of speculation almost as great as the identity of the principals.

Yet 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.

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, and this at least 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 however more than purely epistemological.

These two examples are historical, while questions relating to the sonnets are also biographical, and literary. At the heart of these 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 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 personality 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 cultural productions of late Tudor England, a pressing historiographical question. Fundamental problems in using the sonnets for evidence have often been overlooked. This cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

These questions are unavoidably linked to wider issues. This paper has aimed to explore some of these, 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 very 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, that of the conspiracy theory. If this becomes the touchstone of analysis, objectivity must suffer. Historical revisionism is perfectly acceptable, but it must be governed by rules of objective rigour which all must play by. In the last two decades, something like a Rorschach Ink Blot approach has developed: history is what commentators can see 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 engaged on?

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 19th 2011       

* The word ‘prisms’ is chosen rather than ‘case study’ as the process I am using is not a closed and  final examination of the subject, but a refraction allowing certain elements to be analysed more closely as in prismatic examination of light.


(1) JS 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 April 2011 Wikipedia noted 77 names who had attracted support. This is not a sound source of information, but the growth is undeniable. NOTE by September 2013 the site showed 83 candidates. This number must surely expand.

(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

 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

Roper’s reputation was badly damaged by his public humiliation after endorsing the forged diaries, a story told in Selling Hitler, Robert Harris, Faber and Faber 1986. As far as serious historians are concerned, Trevor Roper’s failure to produce a major pathbreaking book is now seen as more important in the decline of his reputation than endorsing the forgery.

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 (as Stratfordian) as Catholic writer, Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay, Public Affairs New York, 2005, strains credulity by using the plays as evidence of catholicism. Her treatment raises the question of how far imaginative literature can be used as historical evidence. Asquith’s sub title “The Hidden Beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare” raises the added question, hinted at by other Stratfordians and embraced by many advocates of Alternative candidates, whether the work is simply literature or code for something else which the average playgoer had no chance of understanding. This theme is common now in both Stratfordian and ani-Stratfordian literature.

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 also alleges 6 babies for Elizabeth.

10)  Trevor Fisher, Enter the Tudor Prince, The Historian, Historical Association London Summer 2011.

(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)  Or not. 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. The poem does contain the first positive reference to Shakespeare in the line “And Shakespeare paints poor Lucrece’s rape”, both poems being published in 1594. Hotson argues for a Henry Willoughby as author and friend of Shakespeare, eleven years older. Avisa was registered at Stationer’s Hall on September 3rd 1594. 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) 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.

16)        op cit pp9-11 

(17) 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.

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

19)   Quotes from p16. It is notable she regards sonnet 71,with its dark meditation on death, as being located there after 70 because ‘threescore and ten sonnets having been now accomplished’, a reference to the 70 years of the biblical view of human longevity.

This is too literal to accept.

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

(21) Duncan-Jones op cit p3.

22)        Duncan-Jones op cit pp7-8


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