Is there really a hidden meaning behind Shakespeare’s poems?

Author’s bio: Eveline Heston is a freelance writer who loves literature with all her heart. She dedicated a lot of her time to researching myths about William Shakespeare, which, among modern American literature, is her biggest passion.

The anterior mention of Shakespeare’s sonnets refers to 1598, when a Cambridge master, Francis Meres, published a critical work named “Wits’ Treasury”. While giving Shakespeare’s work a very high appreciation, Meres mentions alongside plays and poems “his sweet sonnets spread in the closest friends’ circles”.

The following year, the publisher William Jaggard released a small poetic collection “The Passionate Pilgrim”, belonging to him. However, only five or three excerpts from the twenty poems can be taken up as indisputably Shakespeare’s. Anyway, there is an abuse of the author’s name and at the same time a clear testimony that his name was well known to lovers of poetry and could provide any book with success.

Analyzing the text of the sonnets, it was evident that most of them were devoted to an unnamed young man. Later, talking of him in the literature about Shakespearean sonnets, he was labeled “a Friend.” The smaller part of Shakespearean sonnets was devoted to a woman, also unknown. Her mysterious figure has a name of “Swarthy (Dark) Lady”.


A hidden code of the mysterious W. Н.

The most experienced researchers from PapersOwl literally believe that the Friend is the main character of the most of the sonnets. In many occasions, he is identified with Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. (The initials of the name Henry Wriothesley, when rearranged, form the necessary combination of W. H.). By the way, Southampton was a great fan of the public theater, where Shakespeare was a scriptwriter.

Another candidate is William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, the nephew of the famous aristocrat Philip Sidney, who later became Lord Chancellor at the court of James I. Pembroke was also related to the sonnets writer: the so-called The Great folio – the posthumous edition in 1623 of thirty-six Shakespearean plays – contained dedication to him and his brother Philip, where it was said that they showed “benevolence to the Author.”

There is also a third, less well-known version, according to which the word “begetter” should be understood not as an “inspirer”, but as “the one who owes their appearance”. The sonnets’ appearance, of course. The difference is pretty small, but it may not be about the addressee of the sonnets, but about the man who handed the manuscript to Thorpe. According to Shakespeare experts, they were William Harvey, the third husband of Southampton’s mother, who was not much older than her son. Harvey’s candidacy allows one to explain the fact that many sonnets are not dedicated to a Friend (who, therefore, could not, strictly speaking, be the “sole inspirer”), but the Swarthy Lady. But how then to explain the mention of “the eternity promised by our immortal poet”? And this is the answer: in 1609, Harvey has already married again and his wife was expecting a child; speech, therefore, is about eternity embodied in children (a cross-cutting theme of the seventeen sonnets in the beginning). Supporters of this version figure out that when addressing to Southampton or Pembroke, Thorpe could not use the word “Mrr”; in relation to Harvey, who had the title of Sir, it was possible. The proponents of more common versions argue that the inappropriate “Mr.” was used by Thorpe for the sake of mystification.

The most dramatic pages of the poet’s relationship with his Friend, as they are represented in sonnets, are associated with the appearance of a certain poet-rival.


A hidden code of offense

A Shakespearean naming “Swarthy (Dark) Lady” is due to the fact that his beloved woman, as already mentioned, had dark hair and swarthy skin. This circumstance is important because, as Shakespeare himself explains, only blondes recognized the modern ideal of beauty, and black was treated ugly and, moreover, it was an attribute of evil (which allowed Shakespeare to call his beloved “colored evil” and “dark as hell”). However, she appears in his sonnets not as a felon of hell, but as an earthly woman, to whom the poet gives ruthless characteristics without a shadow of delicacy and, even admitting love, retains a familiar tone. A sonnet 130 is particularly interesting in this respect. It is based on the same idea as the sonnet 21 devoted to the Friend, on the denial of lush metaphors (metaphors, quite complex, Shakespeare’s sonnets abound, but almost always they are bright and original, while banal decorating the poet rejects). If the sonnet 21 does not undermine the romantic “image of the Friend, then in Sonnet 130 is given an emphatically mundane image of the Swarthy Lady, although it elevates her.


A hidden code of the poet-rival

Oscar Wilde believed that such kind of a contender for Shakespeare was Christopher Marlowe, and the drama took place because of the transfer of Hughes to another troupe, with which Marlo collaborated.

The word “begetter” comes from the word “beget” (conceive, be a father) and also can have a meaning of “author.” Such a concept has given grounds for a witty version that under the initials of W. H. the author is referring to himself, “William Himself”. Truthfully, this does not include the words about “our immortal poet” from the same dedication, and in general, from the text, it is clear that we are talking about different people.


The Shakespeare authorship question

The main mystery is still connected to the personality of the author himself – William Shakespeare. The son of a well-to-do artisan from Stratford, who has early got a family, then moved to London, where he became a playwright, actor, and shareholder of the theatrical company – that’s practically all that is known about Shakespeare, the rest is mostly legends and speculation.

The lack of detailed information about the Shakespeare’s life – his education, the circle of communication and literary pursuits – as well as the inconsistency of the few documents that biographers have available gave rise to the so-called “Shakespearean question”. For more than a century and a half, there has been a debate about whether Shakespeare was really the author of plays known to the whole world or, feasibly under his name, was hiding an educated aristocrat of the Elizabethan age.

There are a lot of applicants for the role of Shakespeare. But, nevertheless, it should be emphasized that in sonnets, as mentioned above, the diminutive name of the author (Will, which also means “will, desire”) is played several times; Therefore, if it is not a conscious hoax, only two people can claim the role of the author of the sonnets: Shakespeare himself or William Stanley, Earl of Derby (his initials, WS, by the way, completely coincide with Shakespeare’s initials, namely, Shakespeare’s plays).

How Did Shakespeare Get Started As A Playwright?

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Shakespeare – A Wounded Genius

Scholars, critics and other writers have been commenting on Shakespeare’s plays for four hundred years and, it seems, there is still something to say. Every generation invents Shakespeare in its own image and so the commentaries will never end. Sometimes, though, there are commentators who seem determined to ‘catch’ Shakespeare out, to jeer, and suggest that he is less of a genius than he is generally taken to be. Some, as we all know, are even Shakespeare deniers, insisting that the plays were written by someone else.

Recently there were some newspaper reports of an Australian Shakespeare expert who has done some research into Shakespeare’s language and found that some of the ‘original’ phrases attributed to Shakespeare predate their appearances in his work. Among those newspaper reports is one by the British newspaper, The Telegraph, that uses a mocking heading for its report, misrepresenting both the Bard and the Australian professor with the headline:  “Stop saying Shakespeare invented so many phrases – he cribbed most of them, Australian academic claims.”. No doubt the Australian academic, Professor McInnes,  would not go along with the mocking tone of The Telegraph’s article.

Of this I will only say that, of course, there is almost nothing new to be found anywhere, including in the use of language. And as Professor David McInnis himself points out, in the cases he cites, it is Shakespeare who has made those idiomatic phrases – such as ‘it’s Greek to me’ and ‘wild goose chase’ – universal by using them. Other phrases that have been adapted from previous writers have been recast by Shakespeare, with the words or their order changed to fit into a passage of verse, such as ‘the better part of valour is discretion.’ Shakespeare’s reworked versions are more memorable than those of the writers who first used them, and have thus become the idiom.

I would like in this connection to demonstrate something about Shakespeare’s method in his choice of words and phrases. It is not so much the raw words – words that are available to all of us – as the way Shakespeare uses words – that makes him the genius he is. He often virtually copies passages – even long passages – from other works and they end up being some of his most memorable and brilliant chunks of verse. Shakespeare’s main source for his Roman plays was Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. In North’s version there is a description of Cleopatra in her barge:

‘She disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of her selfe: she was layed under a pavillion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddesse Venus, commonly drawen in picture: and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretie faire boyes apparelled as painters doe set forth god Cupide, with litle fannes in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her Ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphes Nereides (which are the mermaides of the waters) and like the Graces, some stearing the helme, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderfull passing sweete savor of perfumes, that perfumed the wharfes side.’

In Antony and Cleopatra Antony’s general, Enobarbus, visiting Rome, describes the woman Antony has fallen in love with. This is what he says:
‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ th’ eyes,
And made their bends adornings. At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.’

One may say that Shakespeare copied it, which he did, of course. And with North’s passage in front of him he reworked it, not only into one of the most miraculous pieces of poetry, but something that fitted into his idea of what the play was, for him, about. One could write a whole book about this passage but I will just make a few points.

Very briefly, then, the first thing to notice is that while North’s is a prose passage Shakespeare’s is verse: he has manipulated some of North’s words into his scheme of iambic pentameter, beautifully constructed to sound like everyday speech but with great depths of meaning produced by the poetic techniques he uses.

Antony and Cleopatra is a miraculous play. It’s a great story for a start (not invented by Shakespeare but taken from history and adapted for his purposes) but the language is a major part of its meaning and its effect. Throughout the play both Antony and Cleopatra are seen as being out of their depth, resulting, when looked at superficially, in failure. But they are drawn in terms of the elements – earth, water, air and fire and the structure of their use in the text tells a different story. Antony is a soldier but chooses to fight Caesar on the sea. He is defeated, but spiritually, he has moved up an element, from earth to water. Cleopatra’s basic element is water but during the play we see her moving up through air and fire. The language of the text plays with those elements. As she dies she says: ‘I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life.’ It is a spiritual journey they are both engaged in, a journey that, through their love, takes them beyond mortal life to eternity. Their worldly failure is inconsequential in the face of the eternal life they have found in love. It is a Christian idea.

And so, we see in Shakespeare’s passage, images of fire – miraculous fire, burning on water – air in the form of flutes and wind from the boys’ fans. Shakespeare retains the image of a mermaid, a creature of both the elements of water and of air, and draws special attention to it by repeating it. The text has repeated images of creatures of two elements, dolphins, birds, etc., creatures operating in two elements simultaneously.

There is a great deal more that can be said about this passage that would reveal Shakespeare’s synthesising genius, his invention of sublime poetic phrases and his adaptation of other writers’ language to his purpose.

It is all very well for a journalist writing in a second rate British newspaper to misrepresent a scholar’s work and sneer at Shakespeare for being a diminished writer because he used material from the works of other writers, but he has wholly missed the point. Shakespeare used appropriate material wherever he found it. We can only shrug and wish the journalist good luck in earning his living by writing such nonsense.

How Did Shakespeare Write?

We think of Shakespeare as one of the greatest modern Western writers, and perhaps the greatest playwright ever. We imagine him sitting alone at his desk, writing the plays by candlelight, his quill pen scratching in the silent night. We probably think about him in the way we do about a modern novelist, whose stories evolve from her individual imagination, and which she develops through her fingertips as she types in a lonely room. Something like this:

The reality is somewhat different. The Elizabethan theatre was more like Hollywood – big corporate business where scriptwriters and teams of scriptwriters are hired to work under difficult and stressful conditions to supply a very lucrative, very competitive, market. Market research provides information about what the public wants (and that changes continuously) and the writers are expected to get on with writing for that audience as fast as possible and adapt to the changing taste: the pressure on the writers is immense. New talented young writers are brought in by film companies to work with more experienced writers and learn the trade from them. The writers make friends among each other, learn which ones they like working with, gauge which ones can be useful, and form writing partnerships. It’s a tight, exclusive, community where everyone knows everyone else and what each one is capable of.

Some actors and directors become involved in the script writing. Occasionally a writer’s name will become well known to the public and audiences will seek out films written by them.

Providing plays for the Elizabethan theatre was just like that. Before William Shakespeare, an actor, became involved in the first play he was involved in he had to be shown what to do, in the way that any apprentice has to be trained in the craft. It is unrealistic to think about this amazing talent, the young inexperienced William Shakespeare, suddenly producing a play that could be presented to the paying public. That could never have happened.

We now know that Shakespeare almost never worked alone. Even some of the most famous of the great plays attributed to him show evidence of the hand of others, and quite often, identifiable others. For example, one of the witches scenes and some general revisions in Macbeth were done by Thomas Middleton. George Wilkins made a substantial contribution to Pericles; Timon of Athens was written jointly by Shakespeare and Middleton, and Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare and George Peel. Such collaborations have been confirmed by modern analytical techniques, including lexical, metrical and stylistic tests as well as the close examination of content and tone, comparing them with texts known to have been written by various authors.

There are some famous partnerships between Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, often with both names on the texts. That was often because they were close friends, or perhaps even lovers. Thomas Middleton and William Rowley wrote one of the still most-performed Jacobean plays, The Changeling, together as well as lesser-known plays. John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont always wrote their plays together. They lived together and neither ever married. They even shared their clothes. They are buried in adjacent graves in Southwark Cathedral.

Friendship was only one reason for collaboration: the main reason was commercial – the demand for plays in a competitive industry. Writers generally specialised in, or were best at, writing a particular kind of scene. Some were best at comic scenes and others at more serious or tragic scenes and so, together, could produce a well balanced play. Some were good at spectacle or special effects, and that is probably why Middleton, brilliant at that, was approached to supply one of the witches scenes in Macbeth. He had, in fact, written a play, The Witch, and he inserted some of that into the play Shakespeare was working on.

It is difficult to know how the writers actually worked. Perhaps Beaumont and Fletcher sat down after dinner, or during the day, and talked about the play they were working on – where they were going with it – or what idea they should work on next, and other writing matters like that. Then, perhaps, each one would get on with the bit that he had agreed to write. In Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling the two styles are very clearly discernable, so they obviously wrote their agreed scenes individually then constructed the play together.

Generally, the playwriting community was tight. The writers lived and worked in a small area of London so saw a great deal of each other. It was probably a matter of one writer asking another for help on a particular aspect of a text and working a scene by another writer into the play he was responsible for.

For centuries we knew little about collaborations, apart from the most obvious, like The Changeling, but textual analysis has become very sophisticated, with experts working in the field, so now we can tell, not only that other people wrote bits of ‘Shakespeare,’ but also that Shakespeare wrote bits of other people’s plays.

As for Shakespeare himself, while he was performing on the stage he would have been watching the techniques of other actors, getting ideas from that: he would have been watching the audience response to see how they could best be pleased and all the time he would have been chatting to his colleagues and asking some of them to work with him. And sometimes one of them would in turn ask for his help.

Shakespeare The Collaborator

Shakespeare and his collaborators

Shakespeare and his collaborators

Three years after his marriage to Ann Hathaway William Shakespeare went to London. He went there specifically to get a job as a player in one of the theatres. The grammar school he had attended had a tradition of putting on plays on the last day of term, and he had also seen plays performed by touring players who had visited Stratford during his childhood. It’s evident that as he was growing up young William had substantial exposure to the theatre, and perhaps the desire to be a part of it had played on him and eventually become irresistible.

Once in London he was taken on by one of the foremost acting companies, The Chamberlain’s Men, and over the years he worked his way up from bit-part actor to main playwright and part owner of the company, making himself a very wealthy man.

Today he is known exclusively as a playwright. In spite of his various talents that’s how he is remembered, and always will be. Not only that, but perhaps as the greatest writer in the history of English letters.

We have had an idea of Shakespeare for a long time as the writer of the greatest plays in our culture, but as time has passed evidence has emerged that the Elizabethan and Jacobean writing scene was not quite as we have envisioned it: it was far more collaborative, with the writing of plays being corporate projects, much like the production of Hollywood movies, where a team of writers work together to produce a script.

In four centuries from now those who succeed us may look back on the 20th and 21st centuries as the golden age of films, just as we look on the 16th and 17th centuries as the golden age of theatre. They will see the names of the great script writers in the credits but be unaware of the rest of the team with whom he or she was working, unless we are able to read the fast-moving credits at the end of the film.

And so it was with the Elizabethans and Jacobeans: the top playwrights worked together, and modern scholarship, with the help of computer programs, has endorsed that.

We think, now, that Shakespeare, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young man, obviously intelligent, and committed to the theatre, was the right young man at the right time. A playwright, in a tight corner, with a deadline looming, spotted him and roped him in to help him get a play out in time. Perhaps it was Marlowe. We know that Shakespeare knew him and some scholars think that he was the one who got Shakespeare into writing plays.

Young William Shakespeare was obviously a fast learner and soon he was going solo. Perhaps he worked with a few others before gaining enough confidence to attempt his own plays, but eventually he was working on big projects of his own – the plays we all know and love. We know now, though, that even then, other writers were involved in the production of those texts. And we also know that, even while he was writing his great plays he was working on the projects of his contemporaries. And, even after his retirement to Stratford, he still worked with younger up-and-coming dramatists on their plays. So any talk of The Tempest being his last play, and his farewell, and that Prospero is, in fact, a self portrait, is nonsense, as he continued to work on texts with other writers until his death.

If Shakespeare were to come back today, and find himself sitting on the couch of an interviewer on a cultural television programme, he would probably laugh at the idea that he was the greatest writer in history. He would tell you that he never came up with an original story, and everything was copied from history books and old tales and, indeed, other playwrights – everything to be done as quickly as possible to pull in the audiences. He would say that he invented new words with abandon, thoroughly disrespecting the English language.  And he would tell you, moreover, that he passed his manuscripts around among his writing friends, and that they made comments and changes, and finally, among them all, they came up with something that would bring the crowds into the theatre. And he would tell you that he did the same for them. And he would probably add that he had laughed all the way to the bank.

Shakespeare Myths… Exposed & Debunked!

As perhaps the most famous English writer, but one who’s personal life is relativity little known about, it’s not surprising that a number of myths have arisen about Shakespeare. As time goes by we discover more and more about Shakespeare and so, although some of these myths persist, they are being busted one by one.  So, here are the top Shakespeare myths, exposed and debunked:

Shakespeare Myth 1: We don’t really know what Shakespeare looked like


There are several portraits of Shakespeare that come with claims of authenticity. They’re very broadly similar – a high forehead and fairly long hair – and easily caricatured. But what Shakespeare really looked like is obvious: a few years after his death Anne Hathaway, his widow, commissioned a bust of Shakespeare to be placed above his tomb. She would have known what he looked like, as did the maker of the bust, who had known him. If we believe the sculptor Shakespeare was slightly chubby with a well-rounded face and a thick neck, a dark complexion, bald on top with fairly long, curled, hair at the sides, a goatee and a well manicured and twirled moustache.


Shakespeare Myth 2: Someone else wrote the Shakespeare plays

Perhaps the greatest myth about Shakespeare is that none of his works were written by him. There is an ongoing ‘authorship debate’ with some people thinking that a man with Shakespeare’s background could not have written the plays. However, there are a number of pointers…

only a man with a Warwickshire country background could have, because deep in the fabric of the language of the texts are the plants, insects, animals, customs and weather of Warwickshire. No high-born man, educated in the way gentlemen were educated, could have used the language of nature so effectively, with such detailed knowledge of the nature of a particular place. None of the candidates put forward as the author of the plays could possibly have written them. The people who deny Shakespeare cannot imagine that genius can come from such a background but in music and art, as well as writing, we see examples of just that if we look back in our culture. Very few Shakespeare scholars would now say that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays.


Shakespeare Myth 3: Shakespeare was gay


 The thought that Shakespeare was gay tends to be based on the sonnets he wrote to a beautiful young man. These days straight men don’t address these sorts of poems to other men, but Elizabethan men had no such inhibitions: it was very common to refer to a man’s beauty, to praise his eyes and his skin etc. This was particularly so when the poet felt the need to flatter his patron, and it would not have been taken as sexual. And so it was with Shakespeare. Moreover, the strict line we draw between male and female is a relatively modern development in our culture. In ancient times and also Elizabethan times men were allowed to be attracted to other men without being thought of as deviant. A man could be completely heterosexual (an unknown concept to Elizabethans) but also allow himself to be attracted to a man. Shakespeare’s plays are full of such ambiguous sexuality, even among the most masculine of male characters.


Shakespeare Myth 4: We don’t know very much about Shakespeare, the man


 In fact we know a great deal about Shakespeare. Scholars have been unable to to find any personal or business writing by him, and his dramatic writing has come to us in roundabout ways, but a great deal of work has been done – particularly in the last century –  to find him, both in London and in Stratford, and it is surprising how much we do know. We know where he lived in both places, who he lived with and the things he did in both places. We know who his family members were and who his colleagues were. We have discovered several documents in which he is mentioned, including reports from people who knew him.


Shakespeare Myth 5: Shakespeare was uneducated


 Shakespeare attended his local grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. Not everyone went to school and he was able to attend because his father was an alderman of the town and therefore privileged. The curriculum was rigorous and boys were taught Latin and Greek – and not only the mechanics of the language, they also studied the writers of those cultures. They were taught mathematics, logic and music as well. The standard of education grammar school boys would have reached was no different from that of aristocratic boys. As an adult Shakespeare read widely and acquired a knowledge of Greek and mediaeval drama, philosophical ideas and so on. He knew the latest thinking on scientific matters, and what was known about geography. And, he was, of course, extremely well read in history.


Shakesoeare Myth 6: Shakespeare was unhappily married


 Of course we don’t know how Shakespeare and Anne got on from day to day but they produced three children. Their son, Hamnet, died aged eleven but they raised their two daughters to adulthood together. Shakespeare worked in London and went home regularly, where he conducted some business matters and enjoyed a family life. He also retired to Stratford and lived quietly with Anne. When he died she continued to live in the family home until her death. The myth may have arisen because he left her his second best bed in his will, though this was actually a gesture of affection. The best bed was customarily reserved for guests – the second best bed was where a man and wife slept together throughout their life together, and where their children were born. In his will he made sure that that bed would become indisputably her possession.




Shakespeare Myth 7: Playwriting was Shakespeare’s profession


Unlike most other writers for the theatre Shakespeare was not a professional writer. He wrote part-time, very fast, to satisfy the needs of the theatre of which he was a director. It’s improbable that he was ever paid directly for a play. He was paid as an actor, and if anyone had asked his profession he would probably have said that he was an actor. He never became a famous actor like his friend Richard Burbage and it is assumed that he played only minor roles. Scholars think that he appeared in some of Ben Jonson’s plays and there is also evidence that he played the ghost in his own Hamlet. Shakespeare was multi-talented and seemed to have excelled at everything he did except, perhaps, in his profession of actor. He became rich in his position as one of the directors of the Globe Theatre. He also had business interests in Stratford.


Shakespeare Myth 8: Shakespeare knew Queen Elizabeth personally


Although Shakespeare’s acting company – The Kings Men – played before the queen on more than one occasion there is no evidence that there was a personal meeting between Shakespeare and Elizabeth. Even if he had wanted that she would probably have considered herself so high above him that it could never have happened. He was an actor and there was a common perception in the Elizabethan era that actors were the lowest forms of life.


Shakespeare Myth 9: Shakespeare was the most popular writer of his time amazon-best-selling-author

During Shakespeare’s time plays were disposable, discarded after a few performances at the most. Theatre was big business and there were hundreds of playwrights working in London during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. The theatres were in fierce competition with each other, all desperate to bring audiences in, so they had to have new plays all the time. People went to the theatres regardless of who had written the play they were going to see. There were no ‘bad’ playwrights and if one looks at the surviving plays one sees a very high quality. They basically wrote to a formula, as did Shakespeare, and it is really only looking back that one sees how creatively Shakespeare worked within that formula, and how he subverted and stretched it. A theatregoer might like a particular writer’s plays although he would not necessarily know whether he was going to see one of them or not. Master Shakespeare was popular, as was Master Jonson and Master Kyd – and many others. Shakespeare did not become rich because he was a particularly good or popular writer but because he had shares in The Globe – one of London’s most popular theatres at the time.


Shakespeare Myth 10: Shakespeare worked alone


It has been known for centuries that Shakespeare collaborated widely, both in plays that are credited to him and in some credited to other playwrights. In recent years scholars have been able to  use computers to analyse literary texts, and they have discovered a surprising amount of collaboration among the playwright community of London at that time.

Henry VIII was written with a large input from John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen was written mainly by Fletcher with a small input from Shakespeare. Studies have recently discovered that Philip Massinger was also involved in both of those plays. Fletcher worked with Shakespeare on the lost play, The History of Cardenio. There is evidence that Goerge Wilkins worked with Shakespeare onPericles and Timon of Athens.

Other writers who have been identified as collaborators with Shakespeare are Christopher Marlowe, George Peele (Henry VI Part 1 and Titus Andronicus), Thomas Middleton (Timon of Athensand Macbeth) and Robert Greene(Titus Andronicusand Henry VI, Parts 1 & 2, and also contributing toThe Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

There is also evidence that Shakespeare worked with many other playwrights on plays credited to those playwrights.


Shakespeare Myth 11: Shakespeare was an Elizabethan playwright


Shakespeare’s writing life straddled the reign of two monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. His early plays were Elizabethan and are prime examples of Elizabethan literature and drama. Subsequently, during James’s reign new young writers were appearing, catering to the public taste for violence and intrigue. Shakespeare embraced those newcomers, befriended them and collaborated with them both on their plays and his. He learned from those Jacobean writers to develop his own writing for the theatre and included the elements demanded by the popular taste, and so became a Jacobean playwright. Iago in Othello, for example, is a typical Jacobean character, with his high intelligence, his manipulative way of dealing with people, his plotting and his cruelty, amounting to physical violence when necessary.


What do you think about these Shakespeare myths? Any we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments below.

Does Shakespeare’s Criminality Take Away From His Works?

Mary Lamb (1764 –1847) is a well known female English writer, famous for one book – Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare – a collaboration with her brother, Charles Lamb. Many writers have produced books that attempt to present Shakespeare’s plays for children during the past two centuries, but none has become as famous as their Lambs’ Tales from Shakespeare. It is old-fashioned in style, and there are far better introductions to Shakespeare than Lambs’ Tales, but it has never been dislodged as the top book of its kind and it is still a big seller.

Mary Lamb, a portrait

Mary Lamb, author of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare

In September 1796 Mary Lamb stabbed her mother to death. That has not affected the reception of her book and, in fact, not many of its readers know about her crime. That raises the question of whether the work of a writer or artist or composer can be affected by criminal acts that he or she may have committed.

Italian painter Michelangelo, considered one of the greatest of the old masters, was an out and out ruffian who seemed to care nothing about stealing, assaulting people – including law officers – and even killing. He was sentenced to death by Pope Paul V in 1606 after committing murder. One can see his paintings in the top galleries though, and marvel at their sensitive execution and their beauty.

So when a group of academics claim to have discovered documents that show William Shakespeare to be a ‘ruthless businessman who exploited famine and faced jail for cheating revenue’, or even that Shakespeare was once arrested for poaching deer, these may be so but does it make any difference? French philosopher Althusser’s thoughts about ideology are no less valid for his having strangled his wife; Carlo Gesualdo’s madrigals and sacred music are no less sweet for his having killed his wife and her lover as they languished in bed. We never think about Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality when we are enjoying The Importance of Being Ernest. We could do worse than bake Martha Steward’s cookies in spite of her incarceration for insider trading and we can still swoon to Beethoven’s music in spite of his arrest for vagrancy, including his rowdy behaviour when they thought he was mad as he shouted ‘I am Beethoven!’ and locked him up.

The point of the article about Shakespeare’s alleged tax dodging is to point to what appears to be hypocrisy in that the attitudes expressed in his plays seem to contradict his alleged criminality. But, as we all know, it is impossible to gauge his attitudes as the plays have their own lives. And as is evident from considering Caravaggio and Gesualdo, geniuses don’t have to be virtuous. Their art speaks for itself.

Royal Family Split Over Shakespeare Authorship Debate!

charles-phillipIf you have ever wondered what Prince Phillip Duke of Edinburgh and his son Charles Prince of Wales talk about we now have an insight…

Is it about great affairs of state? Is it about imperial history, about their great ancestors? No, apart from horses and shooting on their country estates and what to wear under their kilts, it’s the Shakespeare authorship debate.

The Duke of Edinburgh has weighed in on the debate. He is of the view that Shakespeare did not write the plays. Against all the evidence he insists on that. His candidate for the authorship is Henry Neville, a diplomat who was imprisoned in the Tower for his part in the 1601 rebellion.

Fathers often embarrass their sons and that goes all the way into the Palace, to the heart of British society. How embarrassed must Prince Charles, the President of the Royal Shakespeare Company be then, when his father displays such ignorance on this particular subject?

And so, the two princes have debated this issue. Charles cheated though, and possibly thinking he was on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, he phoned a friend. He asked Stanley Wells, leading Shakespeare expert and champion of Shakespeare in the authorship issue, to present him with a set of arguments with which to confront his father.

Better still, Wells actually spoke to the great nonagenarian in person. He said: ‘I crossed swords with Prince Phillip.’ Prince Phillip was not impressed with Welles and his arguments. Wells asked him whether he was a heretic on the subject and Phillip responded in his usual gruff I-don’t-suffer-fools-gladly tone: ‘All the more so after reading your book!’

We don’t know what Her Majesty thinks about it. It would be nice to have a two out of three verdict to settle the matter once and for all.

Shakespeare…A Woman?

sweet-swan-avonMary Meriam writes in her blog in the women’s magazine, Ms Magazine “I find it extremely inspiring to think of a woman as the true author of Shakespeare, turning patriarchal literary history on its head and forever, completely and entirely, justifying the value of women writers.” She is referring to Robin P Williams’ book ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ and she quotes Katherine’s feminist speech at the end of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Why, sir, I trust I may have leave to speak;
And speak I will; I am no child, no babe:
Your betters have endured me say my mind,
And if you cannot, best you stop your ears.
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart,
Or else my heart concealing it will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words.

As discussed in this piece on potential candidates for Shakespeare’s plays, one of the  serious contenders for the authorship is Mary Sidney – the subject of Williams’ book. And I agree…not. Here is more evidence supporting the notion that ‘Shakespeare’ was a woman, in the form of various quotes of hers/his:

“frailty, thy name is woman!”

“A woman, naturally born to fears”

“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!”

“unconstant womankind!”

“Relent! ’tis cowardly and womanish.”

Whilst Robin P Williams puts forward some interesting ideas on the Shakespeare authorship debate, these lines alone are pretty convincing evidence to me that the writer of Shakespeare’s plays was a man!

Reasons We Know Shakespeare Wrote His Plays

“Daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white”

The distinguished Shakespearean actor, Dame Janet Suzman has just  published a book entitled Not Hamlet,  about the treatment of women in theatre. One of the chapters addresses the Shakespeare conspiracy theory/authorship debate.  She takes the traditional scholarly view that it was one Master William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon who wrote the plays.

In her book Dame Janet has attacked two other distinguished Shakespearean actors, Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacoby for, as she puts it, ‘giving succour’ to conspiracy theories that someone else wrote the Shakespeare plays. Rylance has suggested that de Vere was the author because of his intimate knowledge of Italy, a country where several of the plays are set. Jacobi was more forthright, positively identifying de Vere as the author. The film, Anonymous, in which both Rylance and Jacobi appeared, presents the case for de Vere being the author. Dame Janet accuses the film’s producers of wasting their money in making it and calls the production ‘a far-fetched film …. with no facts to back it up.’

All this shows how fiercely the debate still rages.

We at NoSweatShakespeare agree with Dame Janet. Quite simply I accept all the arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship and reject those opposing it (and the people put forward as writing Shakespeare’s plays). Two reasons, in addition to those arguments, convince me.

The first is somewhat oblique – not a reason for Shakespeare having written those incredible plays, but a reason why it’s not improbable. The argument has been made that Shakespeare came from an illiterate family, had an inadequate formal education, and that Stratford-upon-Avon was a cultural backwater, unable to germinate such wonderful literature. My reply is that genius is something we don’t understand: it’s something we just see from time to time and it springs up in unexpected places. Yes, Beethoven’s father was a musician, allowing his son to grow up in a musical environment, but he was small time, mediocre and never sober. But the genius of his son, Ludwig, is seriously unbelievable. Monet’s family had contempt for art – his father was a businessman, artistically illiterate – and he actually disowned his son because of his lack of interest in the world of business and his unsuitable marriage to a woman considered to be beneath him. Where did Monet’s artistic genius come from? We will never know.

One could cite geniuses forever but it wouldn’t help us to understand what genius is or where it comes from. One doesn’t usually find that the artists or writers or scientists who stand out in history as giants in their field come from fathers or mothers distinguished in the areas where their child becomes immortal. Moreover, it’s very rare for one of the giants’ children to become renowned as a genius. Geniuses of the Mozart, Michelangelo, Shakespeare kind are rare, unusual and inexplicable. That’s my first reason for dismissing the arguments against the Shakespeare authorship.

My second reason is more specific and, to my way of thinking, utterly convincing. To me it’s inconceivable that the plays could have been written by anyone growing up in an aristocratic environment, surrounded by tutors and classical books. It’s also inconceivable that they could have been written by anyone growing up in an urban environment. They could have been written only by someone who was surrounded by countryside and knew it intimately. And, more specifically, the Warwickshire countryside, where Shakespeare grew up.

Let us return to the subject of genius for a moment. There are two English geniuses who stand out above most of the others. They are William Shakespeare and Charles Darwin.

The two men have one distinctive mental quality in common. Darwin used his unusual powers of observation to tell us how life itself works: Shakespeare used those same powers of observation to create some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the English language. As he was growing up the young William wandered around the Warwickshire countryside, taking note of plants, animals and insects, observing them closely, taking a detailed interest in  the way bushes, trees, fruit and flowers developed and grew, what they looked like and how human beings interacted with them. Like Darwin was to do, he observed birds and insects closely – how they flew and crawled, their colours and their behaviour.

Shakespeare’s sonnets, plays and, indeed, all his other poems, are full of poetry made from those observations. Notice the detail in such a passage as this one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.”

The Bard seems to have particularly loved violets – Warwickshire is covered with them.  He drew on his love of the flower again and again throughout his work: “Daisies pied and violets blue and lady-smocks all silver-white;” “Like the sweet sound, that breathes upon a bank of violets;” “Welcome my son: who are the violets now that strew the green lap of the new come spring?” and “From her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!” are just a few examples of the violets that infuse his verse.

He also encountered some of the less pleasant things that lived in the Warwickshire countryside.

“You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blindworms, do no wrong,
Come not near our fairy Queen.”

The author of the plays was familiar with country sports:

“As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye, Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort, rising and cawing at the gun’s report, sever themselves and madly sweep the sky”

The insects that inhabit Warwickshire fill the poetry:  Such things as “the shard-born beetle with his drowsy hums” and the famous insult, “Thou art a saucy beetle-headed boar-pig!” are everywhere in Shakespeare’s poetry. And what would we do without the phrase “beetle-browed?”

Country people, too, fill Shakespeare’s pages, from the rural constabulary, gravediggers and ploughmen to the harvesters – “sun-burnt sicklemen and sedge-crowned nymphs.”

Not one of the other contenders for the authorship of the Shakespeare plays grew up in Warwickshire: they were all men who had enjoyed the more sophisticated pleasures of the educated and wealthy than the simple country wanderings of the boy who eventually grew up to write the plays.

So rather than go into the arguments for and against the Shakespeare authorship I ask you just one question – the author of the Shakespeare plays was someone who grew up in a village in the heart of Warwickshire. And which of the contenders was that?

Who Wrote Shakespeare? The Authorship Candidates

The conspirary that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays exists in some circles, which leads to the question who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets? We address the William Shakespeare authorship controversy here, but thought we’d take a closer look at the candidates who may have written Shakespeare’s plays according to the conspiracy theorists.


Sir Francis Bacon

Authorship Candidate 1: Sir Francis Bacon 1561-1626 

Sir Francis Bacon – the  essayist, scientist and writer of New Atlantis – was the first alternative candidate proposed as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays in 1856. There is little evidence to suggest this, though what ‘evidence’ there is takes the form of some similarities in Shakespeare’s plays to his own, and the circumstantial ‘fact’ that Bacon’s Grand Tour took him to the location of several of Shakespeare’s plays. Baconians have also argued that Shakespeare’s works show a detailed scientific knowledge that, they claim, only Sir Francis Bacon would have possessed.

The idea that the two writers have similar styles was dismissed by Scott McCrea who writes, “there is no answer for Bacon’s different renderings of the same word—’politiques’ instead of ‘politicians’, or ‘submiss’ instead of the Author’s ‘submissive’, or ‘militar’ instead of the Poet’s ‘military’. These are two different writers.”


Edward de Vere

Authorship Candidate 2: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, 1550-1604
Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford was a courtier poet. There is little strong evidence that suggests he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but some believe there are references in both the plays and sonnets to de Vere’s life, as well as a series of codes in the writing that implicate the Earl as the author to those in the know. These theories as to who wrote Shakespeare were given weight (to some) by the film Anonymous, released in 2012.

Mainstream scholars have described the methods  of Oxfordians over the years as devoid of any evidential value and subjective, suggesting double standards are used to consistently distort and misrepresent the historical record – sometimes even outright fabrication. Perhaps the ultimate evidential objection to the Oxfordian theory is de Vere’s death in 1604, after which a number of Shakespeare’s plays were written!


Christopher Marlowe

Authorship Candidate 3: Christopher Marlowe, 1564 -1593

The playwright Christopher Marlowe was writing at the same time as Shakespeare and it’s highly likely that the two had met each other. The Marlowvian theory – first presented by Wilbur Zeigler in 1895 – states that reports of Marlowe’s death in a drunken brawl on 30 May 1593 were falsified to protect him from going to prison for being an atheist. Marlovians base their theory on both some anomalies surrounding Marlowe’s reported death and on the  influence which Marlowe’s works had on those of Shakespeare.

The argument against this is that Marlowe’s death was accepted as genuine by sixteen jurors at an inquest held after his death and that there is a total lack of direct evidence supporting his survival beyond 1593, and his style, imagery and vocabulary are too different to Shakespeare’s to be compatible with Marlow writing the plays.


William Stanley

Authorship Candidate 4: William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, 1561-1642
Derby’s candidacy was first proposed in 1891 by the archivist James H. Greenstreet,who identified a pair of 1599 letters which reported that Derby was unlikely to advance the Catholic cause as he was “busy penning plays for the common players.” Greenstreet further argued that the comic scenes in Love’s Labour’s Lost were influenced by a pageant of the Nine Worthies only ever performed in Derby’s home town of Chester.

With the initials W.S. and his habit of signing himself off as “Will” it’s easy to imagine that there’s a link between William Stanley and Shakespeare. But does this evidence alone point to William Stanley being the greatest play-write in history?


Roger Manners

Authorship Candidate 5: Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland, 1576-1612

In the early 20th century, Roger Manners  the 5th Earl of Rutland was proposed as a candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays by Karl Bleibtreu, a German literary critic – later supported by a number of other authors. Manners married the daughter of the poet Philip Sydney and it is thought that the two of them together wrote the plays.

However, the biggest hole in this theory of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays is that the Earl would have been only 16 when the first of Shakespeare’s works was published in 1593 – surely too inexperienced a writer?


Mary Sydney Herbert

Authorship Candidate 6: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, 1561-1621
On account of her literary talents and strong family connections to Shakespeare, Mary Sidney Herbert is one of the writers who have been linked to the Shakespeare authorship debate/conspiracy. The First Folio is dedicated to Mary Sidney’s two sons, the “incomparable brethren,” neither of whom had otherwise been connected to Shakespeare previously.

Mary Sidney Herbert had connections to the source materials of the plays – indeed, it is thought Shakespeare may have used one of her plays (The Tragedy of Antonie) as source material for  Antony & Cleopatra), and because she was a woman, she was not allowed to write plays for the public theater.


Authorship Candidate 7: Various authors

The most popular author conspiracy theory of earlier times held that Shakespeare’s works were written by a group of collaborators. In 1848 the American Joseph C Hart wrote a book putting forward the argument that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a number of different authors which was back up by Delia Bacon’s article of 1856 which attributed authorship to a group of writers led by Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh. As with all the above candidates, there’s no real evidence that a group of writers were responsible for Shakespeare’s works.


So, that’s an overview of the main candidates presented by the non-believers of Shakespeare. What’s your take on it – who do you think wrote Shakespeare’s plays?